Pastoral Reflections on Amendment A

Address given at the Convening Gathering

of the

Covenant Network of Presbyterians

September 19, 1997

by

Dr. Eugene C. Bay

Pastor, The Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church


My assignment is to speak about how Amendment A will support the peace and unity not only
of the denomination but of individual congregations and pastorates.

I will start by saying that had we been given the proposed new language to begin with, we
would not be in the mess we are in. The new language gets the matter of authority in the right
order and makes it consistent with ordination vows: Christ, Scripture, confessions. It
eliminates that awful and totally unenforceable third sentence from Amendment B.

And - what I consider to be crucial - it speaks far more powerfully than does the present Book
of Order language to concerns regarding personal morality. As I talk with those in the
congregation I serve who thought adding Amendment B to the Book of Order was a good
idea, I find that their main concern is what they perceive to be a growing immorality or
amorality within our society. With very few exceptions, they are not interested in bashing gay
and lesbian persons, or in automatically excluding from ordination those who are in a
same-sex relationship.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus both broadens and deepens Jewish morality. "You have
heard that it was said, . . . but I say unto you. . . ." He does so with regard to murder,
adultery, divorce, swearing, retaliation, and neighbor love. Amendment A does much the
same. Instead of a narrow focus on sex and marriage, it calls for fidelity and integrity - in all
relationships of life: in friendships, in business, in politics, between employers and
employees, between doctors and patients, between pastors and parishioners, and so on.

Moreover, Amendment A reminds us that sin is not just about sex, and it's not just about those
"practices which the confessions call sin." Amendment A reminds us that sin is a condition
that affects every one of us, that repentance is not just for a few, and that without God's grace
and mercy we would all be lost. But this is the point: Amendment A speaks to a concern which
many have - a very legitimate concern in my view - and does so without appearing
mean-spirited and self-righteous.

To move on, Amendment A will help our Nominating Committees. They will not fret, as
many are now doing, that they are expected to have some sort of perverse curiosity about what
goes on in people's bedrooms. They will do as, in my 35 years of pastoral experience,
Nominating Committees have always done: look carefully and compassionately at potential
deacons and elders, offer the congregation nominees who are serious about their Christian
faith and life, and refrain from nominating those whose election would be an embarrassment to
Christ and His church. I well remember a Nominating Committee which decided not to
nominate an elder for a second term because members of the committee knew that he had
abandoned his spouse and was living with another woman. They did not need the language of
Amendment B to tell them that this individual's life was not a demonstration of the gospel
With the language of Amendment A, Nominating Committees can go about their work, not
feeling that their denomination has forgotten that "it is by grace [we] have been saved through
faith, and this is not [our] own doing; it is the gift of God." It doesn't mean they will be any
less careful. It just means they will not have to become, or appear to become, pharisaic -
scrutinizing the lives of their sisters and brothers to find some reason why they may not serve.

A third benefit of Amendment A: it leaves the door open for on-going exploration of the whole
area of sexual ethics. Now, I know that some will find this a reason not to support, but to
oppose Amendment A. Those who think there is nothing to explore or think more deeply
about will find Amendment A unattractive. They are the ones who believe that, with the
passage of Amendment B, the issue is closed.

In my view, that is sheer foolishness. Amendment B not withstanding, the discussion is not
closed, and the issue is not settled - just as, years ago, General Assemblies' justification of
slavery on Biblical grounds did not end the discussion. There is a need for more exploration,
and not just about homosexuality. Changes in circumstances raise questions we need to think
about more than we have. It may well be that new occasions teach new duties. Let me cite one
example: older persons, widows and widowers, are living together without being married
because to become married would cause severe economic losses. These individuals love each
other, are committed to each other, are faithful to each other; but they are not married. To
paraphrase a question Jesus once asked, Are they worse sinners than all the other members of
our congregations? I very much doubt it; but Amendment B says they are.

Our congregations will increasingly have to deal with such matters. Amendment B - the
language that is now in the Book of Order - doesn't encourage further exploration.
Amendment A does. It permits us to become what the ethicist James Gustafson once said we
should be: a community of moral discourse where we patiently probe and explore serious
moral dilemmas.

I come now to what I view as the most important consequence of Amendment A: its positive
effect on our witness and evangelism. In a sermon that appears in the September issue of
Lectionary Homiletics, Patrick Willson asks: How many people keep their distance from the
Church and from Christian faith because they think Christians believe in a tight-lipped,
mean-spirited, whiny, itsy-bitsy little god, because the Christians they have met have been
tight-lipped, mean-spirited, whiny, itsy-bitsy little people? In my experience, a lot!

To my mind, the language of what was Amendment B conveys just such a god, and suggests
that the Presbyterian Church is that kind of church: rigid, legalistic, punitive, judgmental,
self-righteous. Not long after the passage of Amendment B, I met with a father of two gay
sons, a life-long Presbyterian who, with tears in his eyes, asked me why he should remain
Presbyterian. My own brother, who grew up in the same Presbyterian congregation I did, has
long since stopped attending worship or having anything to do with the church because that's
the sort of Christianity he encountered in the small town in which he lives. I don't know what
your experience is, but at Bryn Mawr we encounter a lot of people in our new member classes
who tell us that they withdrew from this or that church for similar reasons. They come to us -
this is what they tell us -because they are hearing a message of grace, because their freedom to
think is respected, because we have a tolerance for ambiguity, because they are treated as
adults and not as little children who have to be told all the time how to behave.

Last Spring, following the adoption of Amendment B, I preached a sermon in which I
indicated the several reasons why I had opposed the amendment and considered its passage an
instance of the denomination shooting itself in the foot big time. I said that while Amendment
B was not something I had wanted to make a big deal about, I found myself unable to
acquiesce in something I found so far from the mind and manner of Christ. I indicated that I
would work for its repeal and that I had no intention of participating in the kind of inquiry into
the private matters of church members that the amendment encourages, if not requires.

Afterwards I received about 50 letters. Two scolded me. One didn't scold, but expressed
disapproval. The rest expressed varying degrees of admiration, respect, affirmation, and
support. This from a congregation that I would not describe as liberal or left-wing! But it is a
congregation that is thoughtful and does understand how denominational actions and
pronouncements reflect on the Christ we claim to represent.

With one or two exceptions, the letters were not from gay and lesbian people or the relatives of
gay and lesbian people. They were not from people who sleep around or don't care about
moral matters. Let me share just a few of them. A married woman and mother of three wrote,
"Your commitment to fight Amendment B is one that I support and I take great pride in being
part of a church that wants to do the right thing." A young married man and recent new
member wrote, "Your sermon on Sunday proved beyond a doubt what I already knew in my
heart: Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church was the right choice for myself and my family. I
always believed that Christianity was about inclusion and tolerance. Amendment B is
short-sighted, small-minded and wrong!" Another married woman and mother wrote, "I am
angry and disillusioned at the recent vote the Presbyterian Churches took on Amendment B. I
do not appreciate the church, which has meant so much to me and is the core of my life, being
driven by factions which are, I believe, off base and entirely wrong in their thinking. I find it
thoroughly distasteful that those same churches voted to make a sudden turn to the right and
march hell-bent to crucify all those who they see as 'different' and who do not think or act
exactly as they believe the scriptures should be interpreted." Another member wrote, "I
perceive this Amendment to be, at its root, a mean-spirited, duplicitous, superiority-driven
indictment against gay/lesbian/bisexual Presbyterians and Christians, and a corruption of what
ordination is meant to be. I also perceive it as a witch-hunt against those of us, hetero- and
not, who don't agree with them." One more to illustrate the point made earlier: "I am shocked
that so many members of a Church I sought out as welcoming and enlightened could
consciously choose to say that there are some people unworthy of love and unfit to be servants
of other believers. (Frankly, if I had wanted to be part of a Church with that kind of restrictive
mind-set, I would have stayed a member of the __________ Church.)"

The point in sharing these expressions is not to say that they are necessarily accurate in their
facts or interpretations of the motivations of those who promoted Amendment B. The point is
to suggest that the language of Amendment B does the opposite of what some think. The
witness it bears to Christ is negative, not positive. Amendment A changes that. While clearly
saying that morality matters, it does so in a far less judgmental tone and without a hint of
self-righteousness. It will not make us hypocritical in bearing witness to a Christ who was a
friend of sinners and sat at table with social outcasts.

In contrast to the language now in the Book of Order, Amendment A speaks to the many
people who think that religion is restrictive and forbidding, who are under the impression that
Jesus came to scowl and scold. It enables us to bear witness to the One who said he came to
bring life, abundant life. Moreover, Amendment A suggests that Presbyterians may, after all,
be people who are concerned to take the beam out of their own eyes before trying to remove a
speck from the eyes of others.

Our denomination is suffering an infectious case of self-seriousness. We appear as
preoccupied and uptight about sex as the Puritans at their worst. Where is the poise and joy
that is supposed to go hand in hand with the gospel? Where is the modesty, humility, and
peace that befits those who know that only God is God? Where is the confidence in the
sovereignty of God that befits the spiritual and theological descendants of John Calvin, the
belief in God's transcendence that saves us from either an arrogant certainty or a paralyzing
despair?

Edmund Steimle once preached a sermon entitled, "Getting God Off Your Back." He poked
fun at how ridiculous we look sometimes - all solemn and pious- as if God won't make it
without our protection. "Maybe," he said, "it's because we feel so threatened these days; we
conclude that God must be threatened too. And so everything connected with God becomes
deadly serious business." That's what we Presbyterians have been engaged in these last years:
deadly serious business. And we look like it. And our witness is suffering as a result.
Amendment A can provide some relief from all that. It will enhance our witness.

Some years ago when the Roman Catholic theologian Charles Curran was prohibited from
teaching at Catholic institutions of higher learning because of his supposedly heretical views,
Mary Sullivan, the Dean at one Catholic college wrote: "The Catholic Church rightly senses a
great responsibility to uphold what it perceives to be good and true. Yet it has sometimes failed
in this effort, ironically because it lacks confidence in the self-protecting power of the good
and the true." She went on: "Some in the church have often done the true and the good a
disservice by treating them as frail realities that must be protected from challenge and
discussion, as if reasoned, faithful dialogue could destroy them." She could just as easily been
writing about Amendment B. We Presbyterians also need more confidence in the
self-protecting power of the good and the true. The approval of Amendment A will be a step in
that direction.

Some of you are aware that this past spring and summer I had the good fortune to be on a
sabbatical leave in Cambridge, England. While there, I came upon an address by Archbishop
John Habgood, of the Church of England, in which he made reference to the religious and
political conflicts with which we are so familiar and which are so contrary to what we believe
God intends for humankind. Habgood said: "The Church can either be sucked into the
maelstrom of pluralisms and fanaticisms by itself becoming polarized into irreconcilable
opposites, or it can find ways of respecting differences, living with them, and celebrating
those things which unite us."

Surely the latter is the better way. It is, I believe, what the majority of Presbyterians want to
happen. The passage of Amendment A can facilitate that. It can be a bridge over the ideological
chasm that has developed in our denomination. It can facilitate the process of healing that so
desperately needs to begin. It can deliver us from our preoccupation with sex and free us to get
on with far more important areas of ministry and mission.

And won't that be a cause for rejoicing - not only among us but in heaven, too!


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