Surgical overload

Did you hear that Betty died from a kidney transplant? Turns out, she had just had a hip replacement the day before and a heart transplant the day before that.

Obviously, Betty is a fictional character. No doctor would participate in such a quick succession of surgeries. The human body can’t endure such strain.

The Christian body known as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has undergone a string of surgeries in recent months (in denomination years, that’s the equivalent of about nine minutes). Now it is considering undergoing an even more radical surgery.

Of course, we’re talking about changes in policies regarding same-gender relationships. After 35 years of study and debate, the policy prohibiting the ordination of noncelibate gay and lesbian persons was lifted last July. This past February, the Board of Pensions announced plans to provide medical and retirement benefits to plan members’ same-gender partners — and, contrary to the request of the 2010 General Assembly, the Board did not offer dissenting congregations a relief-of-conscience opt-out alternative.

Soon the 2012 GA will consider approving the performance of same-sex weddings.

That’s the obvious next step. Those who have endured anti-gay injustices see popular opinion shifting in their favor, fairness overcoming persistent discrimination. They want all closed doors to open without delay.

However, if the commissioners approve any changes to the definition of marriage, many of the 2 million Presbyterians back home will file a contrary vote in narthex conversations: “We love you, Pastor. And we love this church. But this is our last Sunday here. Our family can’t be a part of a denomination that approves of those things.”

Agree or not, it is those conversations — far more than contentious pastors — that are driving hundreds of congregations from the PC(USA) (see pp. 18-19).

The GA can do better than simply drawing party lines and accumulating 51 percent of the vote to win its way — in either direction.

For one thing, the commissioners can lead us into a denomination-wide study of same-gender partnering. The institution of marriage for Christians has a theological core of meaning that transcends civil rights and partisan politics. As commissioned by the 2008 GA, the 2010 GA published a theological study of same-sex marriage that reflects points of consensus and points of disagreement. But it has seen the light of day only in isolated Sunday School rooms. Let’s send it out. Let’s study it widely. Or do a new study. We need more than one week to consider changing the course of church history on such matters.

Second, the GA can launch a national conversation on marriage as an institution. Elders at First Church, Iowa City, Iowa, started the discussion, and chose to separate church from state, letting the courts officiate marriage contracts, and asking their pastors to follow by consecrating Christian covenants (see pp. 12-13). Each entity is thereby empowered to define for itself the terms, qualifications and expectations of the respective couples. It works in Europe, why not here?

Third, the commissioners need to consider not only what we are to believe but also how we are going to promote our beliefs among Jack habererourselves and to the world around us. When we Presbyterians adopt policies on controversial matters, our publication and implementation of them often backfire. For example, when our gender equality convictions generated a policy requiring all ministers to ordain women, the unconvinced were given no choice but to leave to form a new denomination. Today its founders’ daughters live in a system that stifles their gifts for ministry. We did them no favor by driving their parents away. Moving preemptively now only promises a repeat performance.

If we will take our time, if we will do theological study together, if we will rethink the convergence of church and state, if we will map with care a path into the future, then this body will be able to endure the challenge, even of multiple surgeries.

—JHH

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