[ATLANTA, Ga] Homosexuality, the seldom-mentioned “elephant in the living room” during previous meetings of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, emerged – came out, if you will – during the group’s national conference last week.
Speakers and participants discussed homosexuality without apology and without resorting to euphemisms as they renewed their drive to remove article G-6.0106b from the section of the Book of Order that deals with ordination to the ministry.
One workshop participant pointed out that “the words gay, lesbian and homosexual did not surface” during the network’s 1998 meeting, adding: “I’m glad to hear it named and discussed publicly during this conference … because, for gays and lesbians, this kind of openness is just impossible in a presbytery setting.” Said another: “If it wasn’t so tragic, it would be amusing that we’re talking about lacking a `safe place’ in the church.” Still another: “The world is hungry for spirituality, and we are arguing about the Book of Order.”
G-6.0106b says that men and women called to hold church office “are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church,” including a requirement “to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”
The Network was founded specifically to oppose that section, added to the Book of Order after the 209th General Assembly in 1997 asked presbyteries to approve a different measure, Amendment A. When the presbyteries said no, the Covenant Network elected to continue its campaign against Amendment B.
One strand of debate last week was between members who want the Network to remain a single-purpose, ad hoc group and those who would transform it into a permanent voice and vehicle for liberal members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The conference, whose theme was “Jesus Christ and the Church,” was attended by about 400 people, two-thirds of them ministers. Guests of the group included PC(USA) Moderator Freda Gardner (“We cannot explore the truth if we only repeat what we already know”); the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the denomination’s stated clerk (“I want to thank this group for hanging in there with the church”); and the Rev. Doug Oldenburg, president of Columbia theological Seminary and moderator of the 1998 GA (“I don’t believe our disagreements are so deep and so real … that there is no solution in dialogue; God may yet provide a solution that we don’t see”).
The meeting was a “hail and farewell” occasion for the men who have been co-moderators of the Network since its founding – the Rev. John Buchanan, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, and the Rev. Robert Bohl, pastor of Village Presbyterian in Prairie Village, Kans. – and an introduction of their successors, the Rev. Laird Stuart, pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, and the Rev. Deborah Block, pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian in Milwaukee.
Buchanan attended the conference; Bohl did not.
Setting the stage for a calm and peaceful conference, the executive and national committees of the Network met in Atlanta just before the opening and adopted the following statement:
“The ultimate resolution of the divisive debate over standards for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will be dependent on the graceful action and inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit at work throughout the entire church. Therefore, we have agreed to support the 211th General Assembly’s call for a two-year study period around the theme of Unity and Diversity.” (The Network meeting included workshops on setting up Unity and Diversity events at the congregational level.)
The committees also made a gesture toward rapprochement with the Presbyterian Coalition, the conservative group that has been its principal opposition on Amendment B. They said they “welcome with enthusiasm” the Coalition’s invitation to help facilitate Unity and Diversity conferences across the church, and expressed “hope (that) it may be possible for the Coalition to hold a conference alongside ours in the fall of 2000.”
The committees reaffirmed their “commitment to a fully inclusive church built upon the gracious hospitality of our Lord Jesus Christ,” restated their goal “of the removal of G-6.0106b from the Book of Order,” and said they will bring the issue before the 213th GA in 2001.
“We intend to support presbyteries in bringing overtures to that effect,” they said, “and we hope such overtures can be offered in a spirit of unity with those with whom we disagree. … We do not want the church to divide over the question of ordination standards.”
“Whatever happens next time (at the 2001 GA), it’s probably not going to be the last time,” Buchanan pointed out to those eager to devise an “action plan” for the Network.
The Atlanta conference was marked by a distinct “spirit of unity” among allies in opposition to Amendment B. The speeches, workshops, “reflection groups” and worship services all addressed issues of sexuality in an affirmative way, with a focus on the fundamentally “inclusive” nature of the Christian faith.
There were two featured speakers – theologians Douglas John Hall of McGill University in Montreal, and Barbara Wheeler, president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. They suggested that the divisive issue of sexuality and ordination ought to be addressed in a context that is theological as well as political.
Hall’s addresses were titled “Confessing Christ in a Post-Christian Context” and “The Church: Beyond the Christian Religion.” Wheeler’s topic was “True Confession: a Presbyterian Dissenter Thinks About the Church.”
In the first address, Hall called for a recovery of the church’s “christological foundations.”
“We find ourselves surrounded by true-believing, biblicist and fundamentalist versions of our faith which out-do us in confessing Christ,” he said, “but a Christ so unbending, so dismissive of difference, and so reducible to dogma that we cannot recognize in him the One we have been taught … to honor as Redeemer.”
Hall said “the `suffering love’ of the Creator for the creation” is the “dimension that is most in need of being recovered in our present context,” and “Gospel has more to do with the humanity of God than with the divinity of Christ.”
Hall further argued that the Christian religion has “put far too much emphasis on sin, and far too little on finitude, mortality, creaturehood.”
“I am a Protestant,” he said. “I believe in my heart that sin is a splendid concept … when it is understood biblically, that is … as the abrogation of relationship. … But sin has rarely been understood biblically, and the press that it still has today is so moralistic, so tied to guilt of the most privatistic nature (above all, to sex), and finally so bourgeois, that it is hardly helpful in the Christian apologetics of salvation in our social context.”
He concluded: “Sex can neither be glorified and romanticized nor despised and demonized. It is an integral aspect of our creatureliness and its problematic … should elicit foremost in the disciples of Christ compassion. … What could it mean for the struggle over sexual orientation and ordination … if we began, not from some culturally inherited moral code, but from the thought-filled recognition of our discipleship of the compassionate Christ?”
In his second address, Hall said the Church needs “a greater sensitivity towards `the other’ – the racially, culturally, economically, sexually and religiously `different.”‘ Such sensitivity, he suggested, “has inserted itself into the Christian mainstream, and, as I do not have to say in this company, it has created … a backlash, which, in turn (also predictably enough) has led to polarization and exaggeration.”
Hall said his own denomination, the United Church of Canada, “one-third of it Presbyterian at its inauguration in 1925,” dealt with the issue of sexuality and ordination in 1988, whereupon that divisive issue “ceased being the tail that wagged the whole ecclesiastical dog.”
“The decision … addresses the question of ministry and sexuality in two consecutive clauses, whose division into two is crucial,” he said. “One, that all persons, regardless of their sexual orientation, who profess Jesus Christ and obedience to Him, are welcome to be or become full members of the Church; and two, (that) all members of the church are eligible to be considered for ordered ministry.”
“I do not say that every denomination should follow suit,” Hall concluded, “but I do think … such decisions … together with the consequences and experiences surrounding them, ought to be examined knowledgeably by other parts of the church.”
In her address, Wheeler began by saying, “I find myself in strong disagreement with the Church about an important matter. … The denomination has declared that homosexual acts are invariably sinful. I think that homosexual acts are morally equivalent to heterosexual ones. In some circumstances, both may be deeply sinful. Under other conditions, both may be used in God’s service.”
As a dissenter, she asked hypothetically, “How shall I conduct myself now?”
Pointing out that “God’s love is more generous than ours, never exclusive,” Wheeler concluded that her convictions “require me to observe two principles: First, tell the truth. … It is time for us, the Presbyterians who have been specializing in tact, to say what we think. … (Second), Stay put. … Separation from the body in which we have grown into Christ should be almost unthinkable. Calvin was adamant on this point.”
(One workshop participant demurred, arguing that leaving the church might be the best option. He pointed out, “Healthy people don’t stay in abusive relationships.”)
Wheeler asserted: “The theological arguments for staying … are even stronger than the pragmatic ones. … Baptism is not a chummy bonding with those with whom we would naturally gather in clubs. It is a cold shower, not a bubble-bath. … It is not an easy process, as our constant use of bland terms like `inclusiveness’ sometimes suggests. … It joins us in Christ to those with whom we have few if any interests, background characteristics, preferences or opinions in common. It breaks down the barriers that divide, making people who can’t stand each other fellow citizens and members of the household of God, because Christ died for all of them – and us.”
She added, “Our unremitting focus on issues that divide, to the exclusion of large numbers of theological convictions on which God has given us a common mind, is ungrateful. Perhaps God is judging our ingratitude by withholding further mutual understanding until we show some appreciation for the community of faith we’ve got.”
Also during the conference, the Network’s executive committee issued a press release about rulings issued in two current cases by permanent judicial commissions in the Synod of the Northeast and the Synod of Southern New England – cases that it said “appear to us to constrain the legitimate authority and responsibility of sessions and presbyteries to determine the facts, qualifications, and beliefs of the officers and churches within their jurisdiction and under their care.”
The committee added, “It would appear … that sessions are being asked to pursue a line of intrusive personal questioning of candidates’ lives that few sessions would seek to undertake.”
The committee also pointed out that the Book of Order “reminds us that `the decision as to whether a person has departed from essentials of Reformed faith and polity … ultimately becomes the responsibility of the governing body in which he or she serves.'”
During a conference workshop on those cases, the Rev. Blair Moffett, co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Stamford, Conn., said he believes such decisions should be based on “the whole constitution” and the Book of Order, which he called “a magnificent document except for this terrible paragraph.” It is not in keeping with the Reformed tradition, he said, “to define faithfulness in narrow categories,” “to define who we are by a single test,” or “to create broad categories applied to wh ole classes of people.”
Moffett argued that the Stamford church has not “thumbed its nose” at the church’s authority.
“We would like to obey the law,” he said. “… We think we are following the law.”
Moffett said he is disappointed that many Presbyterians – including the Presbyterian News Service – have treated these cases as “a matter of keeping score on the gay issue.”
He also said he was disappointed that “people I thought were my friends and colleagues stopped talking to me” when the Stamford case became public; that he “wound up being used as a fund-raising ploy by the Presbyterian Lay Committee”; and that so many people fail to understand that “there is a whole lot more to the church in Stamford than worrying about this case.”