Some were angry after the vote on what has been abbreviated through so many renderings simply as “Amendment B.” Many were civil over lunch with one another and drove home feeling okay. Some were confused, as is normally the case since we’ve voted on some version of this change to the Book of Order so many times that some of us have grown addled over what we’re voting on. Some didn’t care one way or the other. A few didn’t vote. Most did wonder why we were at this again so soon after the approval of the PUP Report, which seems to be working pretty well in a number of presbyteries and church Sessions. I expect most folks were just plain tired of the continuing debate when there are so many other pressing concerns in our world that the church might be addressing through mission.
I think the best “argument” I heard was from a lay woman who asked politely, “What’s this really all about?” She went on to answer her rhetorical question that it is about anxiety, fear, the unknown, and a lot of mistrust. She also asked how soon would we be voting on this again.
A good guess is 2011 based on my observation of people who continue to write overtures to the General Assembly asking that we replace the language that presently exists. I, too, find that language offensive, demeaning, biased, and ill founded, but the excellent work of the Peace, Purity, and Unity Task Force illustrates firsthand how we can learn to move beyond our differences, develop trustful working relationships, and form a consensus on even the most difficult matters. So there are many asking that we give PUP a chance.
But what do I know? I was a young pastor in the Presbyterian Church in the United States who was ordained on the 19th day of October in 1969. We Southerners seemed somewhat general with our phrasing about ordination. I still have my last copy of the old Book of Church Order printed just before reunion. A copy cost $1.00 back then and seemed to work just fine as a basic set of sound guidelines on most matters related to the prudent polity of the church, including ordination.
If you will forgive the sexist language, the pertinent paragraph in Chapter 9, paragraph 10-2 read as follows: [He] that fills this office should be sound in faith, apt to teach, and should possess a competency of human learning. [He] should exhibit sobriety and holiness of life becoming the Gospel. [He] should be a [man] of wisdom and discretion. [He] should rule his own house well. [He] should have a good report of them that are outside the church.
Though the language now seems stilted and out of date, the intentions of the guidance offered as regards the character and qualities of those who are ordained still seem reasonable to me.
Some will surmise that times have forced us to change. But does change have to mean adding more rules and killing more pine trees for the sake of Christ and “saving” the church from itself? Our current “book” is well over three times as thick as either of its predecessors in the old Northern and Southern branches of the church. We seem well down the path of out-phariseeing the Pharisees.
There was nothing much different with our voting this time around other than some presbyteries swapping positions from prior votes. We heard the same tired, tried and true arguments, for and against the recently defeated amendment. I was left wondering again about the correlation between reported membership loss figures from 2008 because of our position on gay and lesbian ordination. Implied in that statement was the argument that it is our “liberalism” that is driving people away. I couldn’t help but ask myself how many of those who disappeared from our rolls died, or were simply removed as Inactive Members. I also have to wonder where the mathematical evidence resides to make such a claim. My best guess is that some of the people leaving are actually gays and lesbians who can’t stand being Presbyterian anymore. An even better bet is that people continue to leave because of our irrelevance and lack of mission energy. Hang! I’d rather sit home a lot of Sundays sleeping in, reading the newspaper, having a third cup of coffee on my back deck listening to the birds, and smelling the roses. Boredom, apathy, and plain old inertia seem better determiners of why people leave our congregations.
We also heard the arguments about scientific research that being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, transgendered, etc., are genetic conditions and not lifestyle choices. I agree since the American Psychiatric Association removed its criteria that being homosexual is a psychological disorder back in 1973 and continues to send its opinion to remove the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to the Pentagon at its annual meeting each year. Yes, I know my agreeing leads me down what some consider the slippery slope of sin, but one’s genetic make-up and behavior are two separate things. After all, we heterosexuals sure don’t hold any records for good behavior. Believing in human sinfulness will certainly make a Calvinist out of you, especially in this 500th year of old John’s birth. It’s a worn cliché that there’s no “original sin” left. We’ve used them all up, I imagine, but Paul Tillich did write a lot about the “human predicament” and our greatest problem as human creatures being our inability to “accept our acceptance.” Grace is easy to come by, it would seem, but hard to trust in a “there’s no free lunch” mentality world.
Of course, there were all of the other well-tested arguments about how our position on changing our position on ordaining gays and lesbians will “irreparably damage” our relationships with mission partners abroad. On the other end of the scale were the justice advocates who don’t much care about our mission partners as a primary concern. This is our fight, not theirs.
And so as I sat and listened once more, eagerly waiting for someone who would call the question, I was reminded of my grandfather’s mule. Florence was peculiar as mules go. She was a tame, sweet-spirited beast, and not the least bit stubborn. Florence was prone to wander, however, so when plowing rows was required, on went the blinders. Otherwise the rows would wiggle all over the field. She did a good job as long as she only looked in one direction and went one way. I didn’t enjoy Florence as a plow mule though, but for riding her bare backed down to the creek exploring the weeded paths and woodlands. I would release the reins and let her go where she wanted to. She always had a good sense of where a twelve-year-old boy would want to wander onto an adventure.
In time my grandfather bought a tractor. It made farm life easier and he didn’t have to worry about putting the blinders on Florence. She was put out to pasture and cared for very well. I got to ride her more after the tractor came along. I think her greater gift was saved for her “retirement” when she could roam free and carry me to places I had never been. It never crossed my mind that she and I might get lost. She instinctively knew her way home. In that I could faithfully trust.
It makes me wonder if maybe we should take off our blinders as a denomination and leave our tunnel vision behind. Maybe its time to let the Spirit lead us instead of depending on ourselves and our strongly held convictions so much. Maybe we would find a new world filled with interesting places full to overflowing with interesting people if we would wander a little more and plow a little less. Maybe we need to trust the Spirit to carry us home.
Phil Leftwich is executive presbyter, Presbytery of Middle Tennessee in Franklin, Tenn.