“Coming out” always starts as a conversation with yourself. It took me many years to come out to myself as a gay man. There were years when I didn’t believe that I was really different from most people – that my attraction to men was transitory, and would fade with time and experience. Eventually I realized that that wasn’t true, that I belong to a small and rather unpopular minority – a realization that was a bit jarring to me as an economically prosperous, white male who had come to accept privilege without even thinking about it. I spent a number of years reflecting on what it meant to be gay – discovering new ways to see the world, learning the rules of this new community, and grappling with the values that help us relate to one another as gay men.
But that wasn’t the only “coming out” experience I’ve had. Shortly after I came out as a gay man, I attended a Roman Catholic service that was held mostly for GLBT people. The experience was jarring because I had simply assumed that I would fit in, and I suddenly realized that I didn’t. I didn’t know the liturgy. The leaders asked for some volunteers to help serve communion and I volunteered without thinking, only to realize – once I was up front with the rest of the group – that I didn’t have a clue what to do. At the coffee hour, I remember the look someone gave me when I told him that I was a Presbyterian, not a Catholic. Suddenly, I didn’t fit in.
This really shouldn’t have been a surprise – I knew my church history. But somehow I never connected with that history at a personal level. I never really understood that for many in the Christian family, being a Presbyterian places me somewhere at the margins of the true church. Many believe that Presbyterianism is the very embodiment of error, in its rejection of church authority, tradition, and teaching.
Having stumbled out of a closet I never realized I inhabited, I began the odd process of coming out to myself as a Presbyterian. I began to take more seriously than ever before what it means to be Presbyterian. Why are we different?
One of the things that makes us Presbyterians is a belief that God speaks to individual believers in that sacred forum we call the conscience. We were born in the Reformation protests against the rule of popes and bishops. We believe that requiring someone to disregard his or her conscience, in favor of man-made rules, is the sin of idolatry. We declare our Reformed identity in our Historic Principles of Church Order, a core part of the Constitution that remains sacrosanct in the new Form of Government. There we declare that “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” that “there are truths and forms with respect to which [people] of good characters and principles may differ,” and that in those areas, we have the “duty . . . to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.” And we do that because, at the very core of who we are, we know that we can’t be anyone else.
So let me ask you: Have you come out? Have you really accepted what it means to be Presbyterian? I ask the question because many in our community, it seems, are struggling with that today. Some seem determined to preserve a certain view of orthodoxy, to bind the consciences of a great number of Presbyterians to their own way of thinking.
We have spent the last 30-odd years arguing about sexuality – at least, that’s what we think we are arguing about. But over the years I have come to believe that the crux of the issue is not what it means to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. The crux of the issue, for us, is what it means to be Presbyterian.
Let me stop here for a moment, because I mentioned sex, and that’s always fun to talk about – I’ll come back to Presbyterians, who are much less fun, in a minute. If we are going to talk about GLBT people, it seems to me that we need to get our terms straight. We need to acknowledge that what’s really at issue here is not sex, but love. Our society is coming to understand that as never before, in our debates about same-sex marriage.
Gay and lesbian people may be denied the formal recognition of marriage in many places, but we are married nonetheless. Our relationships emerge out of the countless little, implicit promises that we make to each other, day after day, until one day we wake up and realize that in fact we are married. It’s not as much fun as parties, perhaps, but certainly as real and often more enduring. Anyone who doesn’t know that by now simply hasn’t been paying attention.
My favorite definition of the love that I share with my partner of twelve years now comes from a Broadway show, courtesy of Barbara Streisand – clichéd, I know, but true nonetheless: “His is the only music that makes me dance.” Or we can look to the assessment offered by David Nimmons, a gay activist in New York: “We are gardeners of each other’s hearts.”1 And if that doesn’t do it for us dour Presbyterians, perhaps we resonate to the views of Law & Order’s Jack McCoy: “Let ’em marry. Why shouldn’t they be as miserable as the rest of us?”
We know that there is a hard practical reality, and a deep theological truth, in McCoy’s remark. Living in committed, lifelong relationship is in fact a means of sanctification – the daily discipline of learning, in ways large and small, to find the understanding, patience, compassion, and support that can help another person to flourish. It is a life of generosity and self-denial that enables each of us to grow more fully into the people God intends us to be. When we deny marriage to any group, we deny them a powerful means of discipleship.
Gay and lesbian people know this. I was in New York City earlier this week and walked by St Vincent’s Hospital, a bulky brick fortress looming over a neighborhood of historic brownstones and tree-lined streets. St Vincent’s became the epicenter of daily life for many of us who lived in New York in the 1980s – the place where friends with a frightening and fatal disease went in search of care, when no one really knew what to do. All of gay life was there – the horror of men wasting away in their prime, and also countless friends who came to offer comfort and companionship, to grieve, and to love.
St Vincent’s is where Dylan Thomas, the famous Welsh poet, died some years earlier. He wrote these eloquent words that comforted many of us in that dark time:
“Though lovers be lost, love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.”
When his wife, Caitlin, was taken to the hospital where Thomas died, she was so overwrought that she had to be taken away in a straitjacket. Love often defines the heights of our hopes and the depths of our despair – the richness of life as it is given to us.
It is always jarring to me when I attend a Presbyterian gathering and find the church reducing the extraordinary richness and challenge of committed relationships to a tawdry fixation on sex. That kind of “pegs and holes” theology reminds me of the games we played with wood blocks when we were children. We outgrew those games, and the church really should too. Maturity comes in the recognition that sex is an indivisible part of that deeply human, and humanizing, experience called love.
Some of us have learned that. And some of us cling tightly to more restrictive views. And that brings us back to what it means to be Presbyterians.
Kathryn Schulz has just published a wonderful study of human error called Being Wrong – I wish every Presbyterian would read it. In it, she says: “You might never have given a thought to what I’m calling wrongology; you might be the farthest thing in the world from a wrongologist; but, like it or not, you are already a wrongitioner. We all are.” She acknowledges the comforting illusions of certainty: the sense that our world is stable, that we are safe, that we are informed, intelligent, and powerful. But despite those attractions, we are all wrongitioners, and she calls on us to “foster an intimacy with our own fallibility.”2
It is a lesson we Presbyterians need to relearn from time to time. But in fact the church has changed its views on a variety of issues over the years.
Church understandings of the natural order have changed over time. We now appreciate that the earth is not the center of the universe, but revolves around the sun – Galileo was right, and the church’s condemnation of him was wrong. We have come to increasing appreciation of how organisms grow and evolve, insights that ground many of the great medical advances of our day.
The church’s understanding of a just social order has changed over time. We no longer defend slavery, or the segregation of the races. We no longer preach hatred of the Jews. We have rejected old condemnations of capitalism and usury. We have departed from the early church’s commitment to absolute pacifism in favor of just war.
In governance of the church, we have rejected centuries of rule by bishops in favor of collective discernment by councils. We have come to appreciate the importance of history and context in understanding Scripture. We have endorsed the separation of church and state. We have repented the hostile sectarianism of the past, and embraced calls to ecumenical dialogue.
The church in many areas has reformed its understandings of gender and sexuality. In our tradition, we have embraced women’s equality with men, and women’s fitness for service as ordained leaders. We have rejected an age-old requirement that clergy be celibate. We have come to appreciate that marriage can be a means of self-giving, even sanctification, rather than simply a way to produce children. We permit the use of birth control. We have come to more compassionate understandings of divorce and remarriage. We have come to appreciate that chastity does not require the total renunciation of sexual pleasure, and that married couples can even have sex on Sunday – all those conservative marriage manuals that tout the importance of good sex don’t seem to appreciate how radically they depart from centuries of Christian teaching.
In light of such changes, over such a wide range of issues, it is remarkable that some among us bring such an entrenched sense of certitude to our historic understanding of homosexuality. In fact, we Presbyterians are almost evenly divided on this question, and perhaps we should be honest in acknowledging that there is no single, Presbyterian view on it today.
The early 1600s were a time of religious turmoil in England. This was the age of Queen Elizabeth and King James. (I have to digress, and note that the man who brought us the King James Bible is also an early figure in the history of men who loved men. Those who think the King James Version was dictated by God personally might find that a worthwhile point to ponder.) The English Parliament had outlawed the practice of Catholicism. Protestantism was the law of the land. But the population was divided, with many rejecting what they saw as “heresy” and adhering to the traditional (Catholic) faith.
One place this conflict sometimes played itself out was on the gallows. Criminals in those days were hanged in groups, by the wagonload, and Protestant clergy would try to obtain public confessions of faith from them before they were executed. Princeton historian Peter Lake writes that these efforts were not simply about vindicating justice and restoring social order. He says: “Souls were at stake and the power of true religion and God’s grace were on display, even in some sense, on trial.”3 Some confessed fidelity to the Protestant church before they were hanged. Others stoutly resisted.
In 1610, a Roman Catholic priest, John Roberts, was sentenced to death under a law that barred priests from ministering in England. He was brought to the gallows in a wagon full of common criminals. As they waited for the hangman to put the nooses around their necks, the priest encouraged his companions to embrace the Catholic faith, and they began praying aloud together. Another group was also being prepared for execution nearby, under the care of a Protestant pastor. When the pastor heard what was going on, he organized the condemned men in his cart to start singing hymns, loudly, so the priest could not be heard.
My imagination is captured by that picture: two groups of convicts, one praying, the other singing hymns – each trying to drown the other out. If souls were at stake and God’s grace was on display – even on trial – grace and souls almost certainly were lost. Somehow I think we know they could have done better. Even if they disagreed on points that in their time were regarded as earth-shattering, they could have found some true “essentials” to rally around – faith in Jesus Christ, hope in the providence of God. They could have extended some fellowship and comfort to each other, and they certainly could have offered a more compelling witness to the gospel message of reconciliation for those who stood around watching.
And so it is now – but not for the first time.
We Presbyterians have had a number of deep divisions in our history — in 1729, 1758, 1869, and 1927, to name a few. Each time, after a period of rancor and debate, we resolved our differences through a return to the founding principles that I mentioned earlier: an acknowledgment that God alone is Lord of the conscience; that there are many things which, important as they are, are not so essential they justify a rupture in our communion; that we owe each other the duty of mutual forbearance in such matters. This should all sound very familiar, because it is the solution that the General Assembly offered to the church in our debates about sexuality, in 2006 and 2008. This solution is in our history, and in our DNA.
Some say that this solution is simply caving in to compromise – that the church can make no place for same-sex relationships so long as even a slight majority is unwilling to do so. Now, these may be very fine Christians, but they’re not very good Presbyterians, because they are ignoring the very principles that have helped to define Presbyterianism for hundreds of years. Certainty can be had in many Christian fellowships, but not in the Presbyterian Church – we trust too much in the conscience of our fellow Presbyterians, moved by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And we are too suspicious of authoritarian impulses that may achieve uniformity at the price of error. We are the church Reformed, always being Reformed – it is what makes us Presbyterians in the first place.
We sing the old hymn, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me” – but I think we have it wrong. Were we to really be honest, we would have to admit that what’s really amazing about grace, to us, is that it saved a wretch like him, and him, and him – people with whom we have nothing in common, who we wish would just go away. So how are we to be church together? Perhaps we can take our inspiration from two of Jesus’ first disciples, Matthew and Simon – the tax collector and the Zealot, right-wing conservative and leftist guerilla. Somehow they found themselves fellow travelers and, despite all their differences, formed a Christian community. Perhaps we can make them our patron saints.
Let us go out this week and remind each other what it means to be Presbyterians. We have work to do, in preserving the last two Assemblies’ affirmation of our core traditions, and still more work to do in correcting exclusionary rules that have deeply hurt GLBT people and their families. Let us hold fast to the gospel of grace and reconciliation, to conscience and mutual forbearance. When people want to point fingers at gay and lesbian people, want to debate what it means to be like them, let us bring the focus back to ourselves, and remind each other want it means to be Presbyterian. Let us believe that a sovereign God will exclude whom God wills, and that we risk grievous harm, to the church and each other, when we arrogate the task of exclusion to ourselves (surely Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares teaches us that (Matt. 13:24-30)). Let us remind each other that we see in a mirror dimly (1 Cor. 13:12), but that our brothers and sisters in the Presbyterian Church love Jesus as surely as we do, and that we owe each other mutual forbearance where we do not see eye to eye. That is not caving in to compromise, that is living together in conversation – sharing insights so that we who see dimly now may help each other to perceive the truth more clearly in years to come.
And what if we’re wrong? There we have Paul’s magnificent affirmation: “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39). And that’s for sure.
Doug Nave is an attorney working mostly in England and serves on the Executive Board of the Covenant Network.
1 David Nimmons, The Soul Beneath the Skin (New York: St. Martin’s Press 2002), p. 138.
2 Kathryn Schulz, Being Wrong ( New York: Harper Collins 2010), pp. 9-10, 23, 169.
3 Peter Lake and Michael Questier, The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat: Protestants, Papists and Players in Post-Reformation England, 215, 220 (New Haven: Yale Univ. 2002).