As so often happens in these situations I find myself tongue-tied, equally baffled and often offended by those with whom I agree and those with whom I disagree. Makes for a tough meeting.
This meeting had the benefit of excellent leadership by our moderator, Jerry Cannon, and the gift of two outstanding presentations by Kate Murphy and Robert Austell, two ministers who are both excellent theologians and deeply committed pastors. In addition we were all helped by one of the best sermons I have ever heard at any presbytery meeting, a word delivered by Millie Snyder, the executive pastor at Myers Park Presbyterian Church.
When it came time for presbytery members to have their say, there were microphones on the right and left and in the middle (from my perspective). Those on the right opposed the change in wording in the Book of Order dealing with the ordination issue. Those on the left were in favor of it. And if one wanted simply to make an observation or raise a procedural issue, there was the middle microphone.
I guess I have heard this debate for so long — nearly my whole ministry — that I was weary of the words and not at all convinced that I could hear anything new. And I didn’t think I had any particular wisdom to add, so I said nothing.
But if I had spoken, it probably would have been at the middle mike and I would have said something like this: Three points:
Scripture and homosexuality
I don’t buy the exegesis that argues that Scripture’s references to homosexual relations are really matters of “hospitality or lack thereof” or particularly oppressive forms of such relations or whatever. It is true and it needs to be noted that Scripture really does not have much to say on this topic, and in any case, not nearly so much as it has to say about greed, infidelity and idolatry. But what it says is what it says, I think.
Scripture says many things that I don’t like or which offend me. It’s part of the deal, and unless we choose to follow the lead of Thomas Jefferson (and other Gnostics) and pick and choose our own Scripture, there will always be plenty to offend any who pick up this book and read. Special pleading does not help. In any case, there are no references, so far as I can tell, affirming homosexual relations as reflective of God’s intent. So the folks on the right, in my judgment, can rightly claim to have Scripture on their side in this matter. Good for them.
But the folks who are hurting are on the other side, and their hurts are not nothing. In fact, a faithful reading of Scripture indicates that Jesus seems much more interested in those who are hurting than he is in those who think they have Scripture on their side. That is one of the more offensive gifts that Scripture insists on giving us.
Having Scripture on your side in the New Testament is a dangerous place to be, as the Pharisees and scribes learned in their many unhappy encounters with Jesus. He keeps saying things like, “You have heard it said of old, but I say unto you … .” Scary. It is no use saying we have Scripture on our side if he can make the very stones shout out in his praise. So, despite what our tradition has said about “sola scriptura,” Scripture is not enough.
People in pain
Neither is hurt. Hurt demands the church’s attention and cannot simply be dismissed, which is one of the reasons, I suppose, this issue has not gone away. I have never been discriminated against or bullied because of my sexual orientation. Others have. And that rightly commands the church’s attention.
Yet what keeps this from being simply a justice issue is that the call to discipleship, the ordination of ministers, is not and never has been about my self-affirmation or the relieving of my anguish or my feeling good about myself. Ministry is not about me. It is not even about “hurting” me. It is not even about discrimination against me. It is about Jesus Christ and the faithfulness which he extends to sinners, which faithfulness makes room for all manner of folk to risk the impossible venture of faithfulness to him.
Ministry and calling
So where does this leave me? You? Us? The church should ordain those whom it thinks God has called into the ministry of Jesus Christ.
Simple, though of course, it is anything but. What is interesting about folk seeking ordination is not primarily their sexual orientation, whatever that might be, but their understanding of what it means to obey the calling of Jesus Christ. That calling is not an endorsement of their sexual practices but is one which will govern those practices, and which may well discomfort and trouble them, as Christ’s calling should discomfort and trouble us in all our practices — economic, political and social.
The people on the “right” who have “Scripture on their side” know something important, something they do not always articulate or express well, and that is, that following Jesus Christ costs something. They are also right to be suspicious of the ways in which our church accommodates a culture of sexual permissiveness. They may not perceive so clearly the ways in which their use of Scripture or even attitudes toward human sexuality are also captive to the culture. We Presbyterians, even we conservative Presbyterians, divorce a lot. We have affairs. Most abuse of women and children is not instigated by homosexuals. There is precious little room for anyone to throw rocks.
And the people on the left know some important things too, namely, that Scripture is never enough, that the Word became flesh, not a disembodied principle or a moral ideal but flesh, and the church is not finally a debating society or the collection of the righteous but the dysfunctional family that Christ insists upon calling his own body. These issues are never “settled” and they have the capacity to cause deeper hurt and great bitterness.
There is no shortage these days of high talk about churches splitting or leaving or worse, “winning” or “losing.” I hate that talk more than I hate having to deal with this whole matter. There is no purer church out there. That is the great Protestant if not Presbyterian heresy, i.e., to think that we could, by separating ourselves from each other, create a more faithful church.
Our baptism has stuck us with each other, even with people who are “wrong.” It is hard work being the church. We will do almost anything to keep from having to be the church. We so much prefer the wide gate where the road is easy and populated only with folk like us. Such a way, Jesus tells us, “leads to destruction.” The narrow way is where “the road is hard that leads to life.” (Matt.7.14)
Jesus keeps messing things up, doesn’t he? He keeps giving us folk on the right who are wrong and on the left who are wrong and in the middle who can’t figure any of this out, and he calls us his own, embarrassing us with his intrusive presence. He’s not the savior any of us would have ever chosen. He’s the wrong guy, which is why he can befriend and call so many of us who are so wrong. What a fool he is. What a gift. May we figure some way to discover the obedience he intends for all of us, an obedience that will cost us something, maybe a lot, but which is the one joy in life, the one treasure hidden in the field, the one gift worth having … .
Thomas W. Currie is professor of theology and dean of Union Presbyterian Seminary at Charlotte, N.C.