Before returning to New England for the second time, I served two African American Presbyterian Churches. And during that time I never thought, two decades ago, that the entire church body would change its position on LGBTQ worshippers.
But a historic yet bittersweet moment happened on October 8th in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
And the moment didn’t happened without a long and arduous struggle against the church’s ecclesiastical heterosexism.
After decades of open struggle with the church’s recalcitrant attitude and discrimination against its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) worshippers who wanted to serve as pastors, elders or deacons, the Presbyterian Church (USA), known as the more liberal and tolerant branch of the denomination, finally conducted its first openly gay ordination.
In May of this year, Amendment 10-A was passed, meaning the majority of church’s 173 presbyteries ratified an amendment to its constitution (The Book of Order) that removes a provision prohibiting the ordination of sexually active unmarried Presbyterians as church officers. Before the passing of Amendment 10-A, the constitution required church officers to be celibate or married to a member of the opposite gender.
So on that Sunday of October 8th, many of us Presbyterians celebrated Scott Anderson’s ordination. Anderson served as co-Moderator of More Light Presbyterians before moving to Madison to become the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, and he also served as Executive Director of the California Council of Churches.
Scott stands on the shoulders of so many of my clergy brothers and sisters who were either defrock or flatly denied ordination because they were either opened about their sexual orientation or their local presbytery suspected they were LGBTQ.
As a church that is borne out of a liberal Protestant Christian tradition, the Presbyterian Church’s problem with its LGBTQ worshippers is a history of how it not only broke the backs and souls of the many who wanted to serve, but also how the church recklessly discarded the gifts we bring.
While homophobia is nothing new in the hallowed halls of most churches, the Presbyterian Church – with its 2.3 million members in all 50 states and Puerto Rico that are part of the Reformed family of Protestantism, descending from the branch of the Protestant Reformation begun by John Calvin – has been an embarrassment to itself.
And as a church that proudly touts itself as “reformed and always reforming,” when it came to all things LGBTQ prior to this recent Amendment, the church was not only losing its theological ground of being one that affirms diversity without divisiveness, but it was also losing its public face of inclusion.
Wrestling with the issue of scriptural interpretation and faithfulness to the Bible, the Presbyterian Church at the 190th General Assembly in 1978 was unabashed with its homophobic renderings as it relates to LGBTQ worshippers stating, “The repentant homosexual person who finds God’s power to control his or her [sexual] desires can certainly be ordained, all other qualifications being met.”
LGBTQ worshippers had second-class status in the church, and it was maintained not only by church policy that forbid us to serve as pastors, elders or deacons, but also by overriding decisions made by local parishes in support of inclusion of us within the body of the church.
However, before the Presbyterian Church finally abolished its ban on LGBTQ ministers, elders and deacons becoming ordained, many LGBTQ worshippers and allies over the years found ways to include LGBTQ members as church officers.
For example, “More Light Presbyterians” gave LGBTQ worshippers hope. It is a coalition of congregations and individuals in the American Presbyterian Church committed to increasing the involvement of all people in the church, regardless of sexuality.
More Light churches endorse the mission statement: “Following the risen Christ, and seeking to make the Church a true community of hospitality, the mission of More Light Presbyterians is the full participation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people of faith in the life, ministry, and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA).” These are the Presbyterians who truly uphold the church’s motto of being reformed and always reforming.
Other examples were the actions taken at General Assembly. The 210th General Assembly (GA) in 1998 reaffirmed that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was committed “not to exclude anyone categorically in considering ordained service based on sexual orientation. And in 2003, the GA Permanent Judicial Commission reaffirmed that position when it said, “Sexual orientation alone is insufficient to make a person ineligible for ordination or installation.”
Why now, many ask, is the Presbyterian Church (USA) loosening its reins on LGBTQ worshippers?
Many within the Church speculate four possible factors:
• Some congregations have left the denomination ― including large congregations in some presbyteries ― thus changing the “balance” of voting in some presbyteries.
• Some Presbyterians and presbyteries “are ready to get past this argument, which has been going on since at least 1978”
• American society has become more tolerant of same-gender relationships, evidenced, for instance, by a number of states legalizing same-sex marriage.
• “The wording of Amendment 10-A is more acceptable to more Presbyterians than previous proposals.”
In an “Open Letter to the Presbyterian Church (USA) from Archbishop Desmond Tutu ” he expressed the ultimate reason the church needed to abolish its discriminatory policy: justice!
“It is incumbent upon all of God’s children to speak out against injustice. It is sometimes equally important to speak in solidarity when justice has been done. For that reason I am writing to affirm my belief that in making room in your constitution for gay and lesbian Christians to be ordained as church leaders, you have accomplished an act of justice…”