The votes cast to date suggest that a strong majority of presbyters believe that this language represents exactly the kind of “third way” that can indeed allow people on both sides of the sexuality debate to remain together in common ministry.
Amendment 10-A has been approved by presbyteries in a wide range of states including Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, South Carolina, Kansas, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Arkansas, and Iowa, and has received more than fifty-five percent of all counted votes cast by elder and minister commissioners (through the middle of March). In comparison, President Obama received 52.8 percent of the popular vote in 2008, and when Ronald Reagan was re-elected in 1984 with 58.8 percent he carried 49 of the 50 states. In the PC(USA), 55% of presbyters and an impressive array of presbyteries do not guarantee ratification. The hunt for the 87th required presbytery will not come easily. Nor should it.
It is not in spite of the Bible that I have come to support ordination for gay and lesbian Presbyterians, but precisely because of my study of Scripture that I support Amendment 10-A. But those biblical arguments have been advanced quite ably by Rev. Dr. Arlo Duba and others in these pages. I draw our attention to a different point. In a church that is “always reforming according to the Word of God,” reformation is never easy, unanimous, or noncontroversial.
When Martin Luther saw problems in the church and pinned 95 theses for discussion to the door of the Wittenburg Cathedral, the Church did not quickly capitulate, or accede to his suggested changes. Instead, Luther and Calvin and others, for their daring insistence that the Church must reform, faced death threats and church trials.
We see a similar pattern in America when moral reforms have required legislative change. Reform does not happen without struggle and close victories. Extending voting rights to women and to African-Americans are good examples of difficult changes that divided the country and the churches, though both are now deemed uncontroversial and obvious.
In 1920, the campaign to ratify what would become the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote in the United States came down to one final state, Tennessee, and one legislator, Harry Burn. Three fourths of the states, 36, were required to ratify an amendment. 35 had voted in favor. Tennessee was the best and last chance. A motion was made in its House of Representatives to table discussion. 48 to 48. The Speaker, who was against the amendment, moved quickly to a final vote realizing those in favor were just short of the required supporters. And then one representative changed his position. With that single switch, Tennessee gave its assent, and the 19th Amendment was ratified.
I give thanks for Burn’s ability to change his mind and provide the margin of victory. I am grateful to those who had been on the losing side of previous attempts who kept the faith, and to those there at the beginning who raised the issue when it was the source of jokes and derision. And I give thanks that people will continue to change and grow, allowing people to become accepted and issues less polarizing.
Civil rights legislation advanced in the 1950s and was passed in the 1960s ensuring the right to vote for African-American citizens. But it succeeded despite determined filibusters, sneaky parliamentary maneuvers, and intense arm-twisting by skilled politicians. Despite those close margins, few would now say that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a mistake and change should have come about instead through a “third way.”
Reformation is never easy or unanimous. Anyone wishing the church would speak in a unified voice on changing ordination standards is seeking what has not happened before with similar reformations. For those wishing for full equality for GLBT Presbyterians and recognition in the church and answers to the questions posed by laws varying from state to state on legal gay marriage, Amendment 10-A will not change the church overnight. But for those who believe in the “Church reformed, always reforming according to the Word of God,” Amendment 10-A is the right thing to do now. Years from now, our children and grandchildren will wonder what all the fuss was about.
David Colby is the pastor of Central Presbyterian Church, St. Paul, Minn.