Can we Presbyterians ordain homosexuals or not? This question has been before our denomination since 1978. For 18 years, we have discussed, accused, demonstrated, debated, studied, prayed, argued, and campaigned about this issue. During all of those years, it has been our policy not to ordain "self-affirming, practicing homosexuals" to the office of elder, deacon or minister of word and sacrament. This policy, however, has not been in our constitution, called The Book of Order. Instead it has been a judicial decision. At last summer's meeting of the General Assembly, our highest governing body, commissioners from across the nation wrote an amendment to the church constitution, and sent it to the regional governing bodies, the presbyteries, for a vote. To become part of the Book of Order requires a majority vote. Many of you heard or read recently that the amendment has passed, and that with the next General Assembly meeting in June, it will become constitutional. Known as "Amendment B," it is printed on the back of the bulletin today.
As moderator of Cascades Presbytery, it has been important that I not speak about the amendment until the decision was made. Now I feel compelled to talk with you. I am fully aware that to do so is to put myself at some risk. Whether I speak or not, and whatever I say, I know that some among us will be pleased, and some troubled. That variety is part of Westminster's beauty. My problem is that I want everyone to be pleased. But I know that is not to be. Yet I'm speaking anyway, because I love you very much. And I love the Presbyterian Church very much. It is within this wonderful denomination that Jesus Christ found me. I have been nurtured, stretched, troubled, and inspired within its embrace. I also love Jesus Christ, and want my life and ministry to be a reflection of his love and justice. I speak out of deep love.
I also speak out of profound sadness like I have never felt before. In all of my years as a minister, I have never been more troubled with a denominational decision. This one makes me ask questions about what I believe, about the nature of the Christian community, and about what the future holds. Friends, those are not easy questions. In these next moments, I want to begin to share with you my sadness and hope. This is not intended to be the end of the conversation, but rather a stage along the way.
It is an invitation to dialogue, to prayer, to hope in Christ. I know that there are many in this congregation who are sincerely thankful for this constitutional change. I learned on Friday that a colleague in ministry I like very much canceled my vote with his. This is who we are as Christians in the Presbyterian family of faith. I affirm that variety.
As I begin to talk about Amendment B, I first want to tell you my understanding of who we are as sexual-spiritual beings. Made in God's image, we are wonderfully and mysteriously formed. Incredibly complex, we understand less about our sexuality than we think we do. Our sexuality has the possibility to convey the highest expressions of intimacy. It can also be cheap and dirty, degrading and destructive. What I know is that we cannot separate our sexual selves from our emotional selves, except to our own impoverishment. The evidence is overwhelming that fidelity in a committed relationship is the ideal; that infidelity nearly always disrupts that relationship, and can break it irreparably. I affirm fidelity within the covenant of marriage. I am also opposed to recreational sex, to one night stands, because I believe casual sex cheapens God's wonderful gift of intimate expression. Too often people are used and abused in the process, and that is far less than God's intention for us. If that sounds pretty traditional, so be it.
The church for too long has avoided saying anything about people as sexual beings, perhaps for fear of offending someone. We have let our society dictate our sexual values, and now reap the consequences. To follow Jesus Christ has profound implications for our whole lives, including how we express ourselves physically. In response to God's life-changing grace in Christ Jesus, we are called to live every moment of every day to God's glory, ordained or not.
Part of the background of Amendment B is an attempt to speak to this issue of the relationship of our faith to our sexuality.
Remember, Amendment B is addressed to persons who will be leaders in the church, as elders, deacons, and ministers. It suggests that they are called to a higher standard of faith and faithfulness because of their positions. In a sense, they are called to model faith for others. This is not new. Questions asked of new members concern faith in Jesus Christ, a desire to follow him, and commitment to the particular congregation. To be ordained however, the questions are more extensive and complex.
By the way, they are listed on the insert today, since we will be ordaining and installing later in the service. Amendment B seeks to define more clearly - and in new ways - parameters of that call to leadership.
Why am I troubled? First, because Amendment B has the potential to alter how we understand faith and its practice. The first line says, "Those called to office...are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church." The fourth ordination vow states our Reformed understanding of obedience and authority: "Will you fulfill your office in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and be continually guided by our confessions?"
There is a deliberate, carefully chosen descending order in this vow. In the amendment, scripture rather than our Lord becomes the test of obedience. In fact, Jesus is not mentioned. Conformity rather than guidance becomes the role of historic confessions. The last sentence of the amendment talks about "any...practice which the confessions call sin." These two sentences, the first and the last, dramatically alter our historic use of the confessions of the church. These confessions, such as the Apostles' Creed, are statements from the time of the early church to the present which set out the era's understanding of faith. I am not willing to give our confessions a kind of authority nearly parallel with Scripture. Even our Confession of 1967 states that confessions are "subordinate standards," and that "no one type of confession is exclusively valid; no one statement is irreformable" (9.03). Yet, in this amendment, they do not serve as guidance or instruction. Instead, they become nearly law.
Let me give you one rather petty example of the difficulty of this amendment. The Westminster Larger Catechism names as sin recreation on the Sabbath. Were we to take the amendment literally, as some would have us do, none who are to be leaders could engage in any form of Sunday recreation - no bike riding, tennis, playing with children or grandchildren, going to a movie - nothing recreational. We would have to repent of such sins in order to be ordained or to serve. I am deeply saddened, because our own nominating committee, and our denomination, will now have to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to figure out the implications of such a change.
Second, I am troubled because this amendment carries the possibility of changing us from a church of grace to a church of law. God's call to leadership is a gracious one. It comes to us as individuals, and is confirmed by the community of faith that knows us best. This amendment seems to bring in a narrow moralistic judgmentalism which reflects the passions and tensions of our contemporary culture. By naming only fidelity and chastity, it implies that sexual sins are the most serious. That is not how I hear the prophets of old, who care far less about how people sleep with each other and far more about economic injustice. John Burgess says, "Sexual expression, in fact, is neither the most important thing about being human nor the most important factor in identifying us before God." (Christian Century, 3/5/97, p. 249)
This amendment does not reflect the priorities of Jesus' ministry as I see it either. Think about the people he called to be his closest followers. Consider his scathing judgment against the legalists of his day who in their efforts to be faithful, excluded the vast majority from God's love. Consider how Jesus repeatedly reached out to the outcast, to the oppressed, to the unacceptable with gracious love. Consider his oft repeated and lived out command: If you will follow me, you will love each other as I have loved you. His litmus test for those who would lead is that they would serve, even as he served and gave his life for us all.
My sadness is that this wide embrace, this non-legalistic but very demanding call of our Lord will be replaced in the denomination I love with narrow, suspicious ecclesiastical law.
Recently, the pastor of one of our influential congregations, and a leader in the pro- amendment campaign, stated, "We need a carefully designed process to enforce Amendment B." (Layman, 3-4/97, p. 5) That attitude breaks my heart. I will not be part of it. How do we enforce standards so nebulous and ill-defined as this amendment and not unravel the fragile fabric of our church? How do we instruct our own nominating committee to "enforce" this new law? What happens to God's power to call leaders when we set up a prescribed behavioral list? I cannot say that our mysterious God does not work through leaders who are now excluded by this amendment. Can you? In fact, I have received and continue to receive significant ministry from people this amendment says are unworthy of office.
Am I blind in my faithfulness? What will enforcement do to our community together? And if we ignore it, then do we perhaps weaken the constitutional basis of our denomination? With regret, I recently accepted the resignation from membership of one of our long-time but not too active members. He felt that he could no longer be part of such a denomination.
Finally, I am saddened because I see this amendment as excluding more than including. It has the possibility of cutting off dialogue rather than encouraging it. One of the hallmarks of our tradition is our breadth. It is within our trying and wonderful variety that we believe God can speak. Many are sure God has spoken finally in this amendment, and conversation is no longer necessary. If we receive the amendment in that way, we will only solidify opposing groups, and mystify those in between.
Many will feel forced to leave. Indeed, there are not only individuals but congregations discussing that possibility. With Amendment B, I fear a cessation of Biblical/theological conversation and debate. How tragic that would be for us, for God.
Can we stay together, as a denomination, as a congregation? How do we make it possible for those of us who prayed for Amendment B's passage, and those who just as strongly prayed in opposition, how do we make it possible for the gracious embrace of Christ to embrace us all? Is our love for Christ strong enough not to erase our differences, but to hold us together in spite of them? Do we have the courage to continue to talk with each other in love and respect?
As your pastor, I choose the wide embrace over the narrower one. I pledge to walk the harder road of respecting our differences, while celebrating Christ more. This is because of how I know our Lord's embrace. I need to also admit that I may be in error. I may be blind. Thus, I need you. We need each other in order to see.
Once a young man named Jerry was a loyal member of a small college football team. Although he practiced diligently, the coach never thought him good enough to play in the games. During his four years..., the coach had often seen Jerry walking arm in arm with his father around the campus, but had never...met him...
During the week before the...most important game, Jerry's father died. Jerry [was] excused from practice for a few days to be with his family...To the coach's surprise, Jerry came back to campus the night before the game and asked if he could possibly start the next day. Caught off guard by...the request, and filled with sympathy for his loss, the coach agreed.
All night long, the coach regretted his decision, but, he had given his word...The next day, the coach's heart sank as the opening kickoff came right into Jerry's arms. Running with surprising skill and agility, Jerry returned the ball to midfield. Playing a hunch, the coach left him in, and a few plays later Jerry ran the ball in for a 20-yard touchdown. So it went...Jerry led his underdog team to victory.
After the game,...the coach asked Jerry, "What happened there, son?" You can't play that well. At least you never have before."
Jerry looked up at the coach and said softly, "Coach, my father was blind. This is the first game he ever saw me play." (The Christian Ministry, 3-4/97, p. 17)
Friends in Christ, church history for nearly 2 millennia is clear: often we are blind to God's work among us. Often we cannot see the grace of Christ, sometimes because we are afraid. Often we cannot see the hard demands of Christ, sometimes because we are afraid. People of Westminster, pray for sight for our denomination in all its richness. Very difficult days lie ahead, as we live into, challenge, and test Amendment B.
More than that, commit yourself to look for the beauty we can find in each other's faith and faithfulness. With a gentle eye, see that each of us is richly made in God's image. In the midst of this deep struggle, search for the light of Christ. Even as I speak in sadness, I also have a deep hope. I know that not even our greatest blindness can prevail against the grace of God in Christ Jesus. It is because of that hope that I can commend myself, you, and our denomination to God. Amen.
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