Reactions to the passage of Amendment 10-A have in large part reflected the division of the vote. Many have cheered its passage, while others have bemoaned it. What is interesting and somewhat surprising is that the debate appears not to have boiled over, at least not yet. To be sure, feelings are running high, but so far both sides have acted with considerable restraint. Supporters of 10-A have spoken graciously about their hopes that those on the other side will stay, and opponents have not, at least not yet, headed for the door en masse. What should we make of this? Is it a hopeful sign of a new day or are Presbyterians simply acting pragmatically?
I want to suggest that competing visions of the church forged in the debate over ordination are now informing the prevailing restraint. In the next months these visions will be tested and perhaps transformed, and in the process they may help remake the PC(USA) and perhaps American Protestantism more broadly. The competing ecclesiastical visions are 1) the church as a community of hospitality and 2) the church as the antithesis to the world. To see the power of these visions we need first return to their interpretations of 10-A, then to the current restraint, and finally to some future possibilities.
Supporters of 10-A express several interpretations of the motion. For the sake of clarity and for purposes of space, I’ll condense these to two, the maximal and minimal. The maximal interpretation is that this is a kind of Pentecostal moment for the church, in which God transforms our vision of what is clean and unclean, similar to the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10. Through God’s grace, we have discovered that difference in sexual orientations does not preclude one from a good and faithful life.
The minimal interpretation, on the other hand, is just glad to get the church out of the bedroom. It may share aspects of the maximal interpretation, but it sees 10-A primarily as the end of an unwelcomed and intrusive authority. It is important to note that it is this minimal interpretation that the mainstream media tends to highlight, as it fits the familiar narrative of culture wars between liberal secularists and religious conservatives.
The maximal and minimal interpretations share a vision of church as a hospitable community that finds unity in diversity, and this, along with pragmatic concerns, helps explain why the winning side has, for the most part, refrained by vindictive taunts. They have won the space to serve, and they see no reason not to make space for others, even with those whom they strongly disagree. Now is not the time for anathemas. Now is the time for reconciliation.
But why haven’t opponents of 10-A left? Perhaps some share this vision of the church as community of hospitality, united in its diversity. Perhaps, but more likely it is their sense that the PC(USA) is worth fighting for. It is often suggested that liberals fight for unity, while conservatives fight for purity. From this latter perspective, both the maximal and minimal positions are deeply problematic. Homosexuality, opponents argue, is an abomination in God’s sight. To deny this is to supplant the authority of Scripture with that of the world. Opponents see this as a Barmen kind of moment. To leave now would be cowardice. Now is the time to form theological alliances or fellowships that will renounce idolatry, not leave the denomination. This moment calls for a continued and reinvigorated strategy of resistance.
Many opponents of 10-A see this debate in more nuanced terms, embracing the idea of unity in essentials and liberty in non-essentials. Still, from the perspective of church versus world, the supporters of 10-A seem to be fighting for the freedom to err about not one, but three essentials, the authority of Scripture, the institution of the family and the calling to ministry. Opponents of 10-A may end up growing weary, but the procedural nature of the supporters’ argument makes them believe they have a corrective to offer, if only they have the courage to stand firm.
We are caught up then in a struggle between those who view the church as a community of hospitality and those who see the church as the antithesis to the world. These ecclesiologies shape their interpretations of and responses to 10-A.
Because our perspectives are relatively slow to change, the struggle may continue for some time – if, that is, the supporters of 10-A understood the church’s hospitality simply as freeing. But most supporters have a deeper, more biblical sense of hospitality. Recall that the maximal position discerns God at work providentially, in a way similar to Pentecost. According to supporters of 10-A, it turns out that God is more creative in the area of sexuality than we had long believed. Accordingly, we have made room for congregations to welcome, equip and call persons of all sexual orientations.
Notice the logic or dynamics of this community. It’s about formation, growth and sanctification. Supporters of 10-A, by and large, do not want to offer sexual license; they want to offer guidance for a sanctified life. That is, to act on the conviction that God is sovereign over all of life, even the bedroom.
In doing so, they, like other Presbyterians before them, are likely to return to the notion of covenant. Traditionally, we Protestants have not claimed that marriage is a sacrament, nor is it primarily for the purpose of procreation. Instead, we have believed that marriage is fundamentally a covenantal relationship between the closest of companions.
Opponents and supporters share the belief that not all relationships are moral or faithful, and that part of the church’s mission is to encourage and bless faithful expressions of covenantal union. Some supporters will argue for going slow, but it is hard to see them denying those who simply want to live their lives in covenant. How can the church that ordains gays and lesbians refuse to bless their covenants?
The tougher question is how opponents of 10-A will respond to the blessing of civil unions and marriages. Will this be the final straw? The shift from a minimal procedural argument to the maximal embrace of covenant, whether straight or gay, may well be too much for conservative Presbyterians. We don’t know yet whether the debate over gay covenants will mark the beginning of their self-imposed withdrawal from the larger culture or make for a rethinking of the church.
The latter possibility may be expecting too much, but then again, we are famous for underestimating God’s providence. Thirty years ago who would have predicted that it would be LGBT persons who got the church talking about sexual morality again? Might it be that God has a similar surprise in store with conservatives and evangelicals? Who can say? And this in itself is reason to give thanks and remain open to where God is leading us.
David True is an associate professor of religion at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa.