The General Assembly has recommended that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) change its constitution, to eliminate the requirement that those being ordained practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single. For the Covenant Network — which has been working for 11 years to remove the “fidelity and chastity” standard from the PC(USA)’s constitution — that vote by the assembly stands as a victory.
But it’s not at all clear whether or not a majority of the 173 presbyteries will support the proposed change. The first four presbyteries to vote have all recommended keeping the fidelity and chastity standard.
So the Covenant Network is looking for ways to sense that progress is being made at a time when the nation has elected its first African-American president and seems itself on the brink of change, however the vote in the presbyteries turns out. Part of the approach seems to be an emphasis on building bridges within the denomination, as the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the PC(USA) suggested, while still pushing for a revision of the ordination standards.
The 2008 General Assembly “threw the door back open” to gays and lesbians by removing old authoritative statements on homosexuality that had been in place since the late 1970s, said Tim Hart-Andersen, pastor of Westminster Church in Minneapolis, where this meeting was held. He is also a member of the Covenant Network board of directors.
But “who knows” whether the presbyteries will approve constitutional amendment to remove the “fidelity and chastity” language, said Doug Nave, a lawyer from New York who serves on the Covenant Network board. “We haven’t taken a vote in a long time,” since 2001, Nave said. The constitution “may be revised this year. It may be revised in the year 2020. We don’t know.”
During a presentation Nov. 7 on what last summer’s General Assembly achieved and on what needs to happen next in the presbyteries, Covenant Network leaders acknowledged there are differing views even among their own ranks.
Some weren’t sure this is the right time to ask the church to vote on a constitutional change, Hart-Andersen said. He noted ambivalence in the Covenant Network ranks, and said “we’ve had some dissension on our own board about the timing question.”
And “our mantra this year is that we are organizing for conversations and not combat,” said Tricia Dykers Koenig, Covenant Network’s national organizer.
What that means, she said, is encouraging presbyteries to engage in a process of conversation and discernment, rather than rushing to a quick vote on the constitutional question. Those who want the “fidelity and chastity” standard removed are being encouraged to work on building relationships with those who disagree – relationships that could endure, even if the presbyteries vote down the proposed change.
Using the election analogy of red states and blue states, Koenig said that “we blue Presbyterians need to pass our peace to the red Presbyterians, and we need to receive their peace in return.” She encouraged people to “reach out personally to someone thought to be on the other side. Build that relationship.”
But some attending a workshop on Nov. 6 on presbytery organizing said those conversations can be painful. “I am told that I don’t believe in the Bible and I shouldn’t be ordained,” because she thinks gays and lesbians should be eligible for ordination, a pastor from Tennessee said. “That’s pretty hurtful.”
But the Covenant Network leadership is calling for a discussion over gay ordination that’s less angry, more open to listening.
“We need to learn that polarization is not helpful to the country, it has not been helpful to the church,” said David Colby, a pastor from St. Paul and Covenant Network board member. It’s not a good idea, he said, for them to come out of their corners “and try to beat our opponent into a bloody pulp.”
Colby encouraged Presbyterians not to make assumptions about one another in this discussion, citing the example of his wife’s grandfather, a hunter from Idaho, “a proud Republican, proud Idahoan, and a gay rights activist,” which some might not expect.
“Let’s not assume people who disagree with us are wrong. Let’s not assume we need to share the news of Jesus Christ with them because they haven’t gotten it yet,” Colby said. “I want to challenge us not to make assumptions about each other.”
In a closing sermon on Nov. 8, John Wilkinson, pastor of Third Church in Rochester, N.Y., and a Covenant Network board member, focused on the meaning of the organization’s name. “We’ve tried to do more than simply talk to ourselves, but sought to build relationships to the left and right. … It is easier not to, of course. But it is better, better strategically, politically, certainly theologically.”
Faithful in covenant
The theme of this conference was “Covenant: God is Faithful Still.” The idea of living in covenant with God – listening, hearing, responding, following, being faithful, being loved – is both basic and complicated stuff. And those speaking at this national gathering tried to tease their own meanings out of the idea of an enduring and challenging covenant with a faithful God.
Diane Givens-Moffett, pastor of St. James Church in Greensboro, N.C., preached during the evening worship Nov. 6. She used as her text a passage from the 15th chapter of Acts, in which Paul and Barnabas were involved in a church debate over the Gentiles. She pointed out that debates within the church are not necessarily bad. “When we can argue well and debate openly, a new day can dawn, a new season can emerge, a new time can spring forth and our comprehensive covenant can be strengthened.”
Walter Brueggemann, the author and theologian, who retired as a professor of Old Testament from Columbia Theological Seminary, called for a faith that embraces a “dialogical” God — a God who calls people to be in relationship with God and with each other.
“The point is to listen to the unarticulated narrative,” Brueggemann said. “The deepest, deepest yearning I have in my life is to have someone honor my narrative. … Every one wants their narrative honored.”
Get beyond the mantras, “to find out who’s over there behind that mask,” he said. “If we do that at all, we can live in the same church.”
William Stacy Johnson, a lawyer and professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, spoke twice – on the first and last days of the conference.
Some use the Bible “as an argument for keeping everything the same,” Johnson said. But “when the Protestant Reformers read the Bible, the earth shook — and it still does.” Because of God’s ongoing covenant, “we have permission to envision a new and different world than the world we see around us, and it is toward this sort of re-imagining and, yes, I did use the word — it is toward this sort of re-imagining that the church should devote its energy.”
He described God’s covenant as enduring, not something that can be frozen in one place and Scripture as dynamic and alive. “The real truth is the ongoing play of the story to the end, and the end is not yet here,” Johnson said. “I will be your God. You will be my people. The second part has not yet been fulfilled.”
Johnson also said “I think it is time for us to quit fighting over gay sexuality using the old rules, the old paradigms, the old lenses.” Presbyterians should stop debating gay ordination as a political issue, he said, and see the people behind the issue, often committed couples, some of them raising children.
“Such couples deserve to have their relationships consecrated in our religious communities,” Johnson said. “There is nothing in the Bible that directly prohibits us from doing so, and much that invites us to think afresh on the issue.”
Sweeping the table clean
While it’s not known how the presbytery voting will turn out, Covenant Network leaders made it clear that they’re pleased with what Koenig described as “the awesome 218th General Assembly.”
The assembly recommended removing the “fidelity and chastity” language, and took away authoritative interpretations in place starting in the late 1970s, which held that “unrepentant homosexual practice is inconsistent with ordained service,” Nave said.
The 2008 assembly basically “swept the table clean,” Hart-Andersen said. As Koenig put it, the assembly “wiped away the 30-year stain” of the early authoritative statements.
Gay and lesbian candidates are beginning to declare scruples, or objections based on conscience, to the “fidelity and chastity” language, and to be considered by presbyteries for ordination. According to an authoritative interpretation adopted by the assembly in 2006, local governing bodies can approve a candidate who has declared a scruple if they determine the departure from the standard would not involve an “essential” of Reformed faith or polity.
But what if the presbyteries vote down the proposed constitutional change?
Wilkinson described the Covenant Network in part as “a bridge, making friends, building relationships, in all directions, when those to the left of us have thought we’ve not moved quickly enough, nor firmly enough, when those to the right of us have articulated fundamental disagreements and insisted we’ve been just plain wrong.”
He called for a serious examination in the PC(USA) of sexual ethics, something deep and thoughtful, “something more than one prohibitive sentence in the Book of Order.”
And, as many other speakers did at this gathering, Wilkinson looked to Barack Obama’s election for signs of what could be.
Wilkinson, speaking a few days after the election, quoted from “Barack Obama’s extraordinary speech on race.” In that March 2008 speech, Obama said: “I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together — unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction. … ”
Wilkinson added: “Might a covenanting, covenantal church overhear?” what Obama said, and try to do the same?
During a question-and-answer session Nov. 7, some speakers pushed back on the idea of emphasizing conversation over combat.
“What I sense here is a feeling that we think this new Amendment B (the proposal to delete “fidelity and chastity”) is likely to fail,” one woman said. “I just sense a kind of doubt here this afternoon.”
And a man said that, as Obama has shown, “nobody wins an election without believing that they can. … I think we need to get out there and do everything that we possibly can.”
To those on both sides of the issue who say they’re tired of fighting about homosexuality, Koenig offers this: Vote now to remove the “fidelity and chastity” standard. Because “until this blight on the constitution is removed,” she said, “we’re going to have to keep working on it.”