As I mentioned last week, I want to talk with you this morning about the action taken at the General Assembly earlier this month regarding Amendment B.
Over the past year we have talked a lot here at Calvary about Amendment B. The text of it is on the insert in your bulletin. It is know as the "Fidelity and Chastity Amendment." It calls for people who are to be ordained to live in fidelity in heterosexual marriage or chastity in singleness. Amendment B was adopted by the General Assembly which met a year ago. It was then sent to the presbyteries of our denomination for their action. A majority of the presbyteries approved Amendment B. It is now part of our church law.
At the General Assembly which just adjourned, an amendment to Amendment B was approved. It is known by its supporters as "B+." Its opponents call it "B-Lite." It is known more formally as the "Fidelity and Integrity Amendment." It calls for people who are to be ordained to live in fidelity in marriage and integrity in all relationships of life. It will now be sent to the presbyteries. If it is approved it will replace Amendment B.
The first thing I want to say is that this is a tender time.
It was my privilege to serve as the Moderator of the General Assembly's Committee on the Book of Order. It was our committee's responsibility to decide if there was to be any attempt to change Amendment B by this assembly. It was our committee which proposed these changes.
After the assembly approved our proposed revision and voted to send it to the presbyteries for their vote, I returned to my place as a commissioner. There are approximately 600 commissioners to a General Assembly. They sit at tables. I returned to my seat at my table.
Within about ten minutes two General Assembly staff people came to me and said I needed to go to the news room to talk about the action just taken. I went to the news room and spoke with two reporters. They wanted to know what the action had to do with the ordination of gay and lesbian people. I told them that was part of what the action was about but there were other issues. I was trying to tell them it was a larger story than just whether or not we would be ordaining gay and lesbian people. I also wanted them to understand the nature of the struggle the denomination was having. As I tried to explain this the words which came to mind were "tender time".. It is, I told them, a tender time for the denomination.
What I meant by the expression "a tender time" is simply that our denomination is divided and disrupted. As large as our denomination is, it is still collectively a body, a community. It is diverse. It is dynamic. Right now it is disturbed. There are people who are obviously elated with the action taken at this General Assembly. The appreciation, relief, joy, and hope expressed by so many people was obvious and genuine. Yet there are also people who feel disappointed, angry, even betrayed. They argue the denomination voted in the appropriate manner to enact Amendment B and already there is an effort to suggest a major revision. Convictions are divided. Passions are strong. It is a tender time.
It is not hard to describe why these proposed changes were adopted.
It became obvious that a majority of our committee and a majority of the commissioners to the General Assembly believed Amendment B is divisive.
There were plenty of people who urged us to do nothing. They argued we needed time to see how Amendment B would work. They argued the denomination needs a break from this debate.
Many people are already convinced Amendment B is a mistake. Many people believe the debate is going to continue in part because Amendment B is so divisive. Most people at this assembly, for a variety of reasons, believed Amendment B was not a solution but was now part of the problem and tension. In other words, Amendment B was not a suture binding us together; it was a scalpel cutting us apart.
This sense that most people at this assembly wanted some change in Amendment B became obvious to our committee in our open hearing and in our discussion with each other.
Our committee met for the first time Sunday evening. We had 49 members. We spent two hours getting to know each other and reviewing our work. We spent all day Monday on a wide variety of other items. Tuesday was our day to consider various proposals relating to Amendment B.
On Tuesday morning we had an open hearing regarding Amendment B. We announced the open hearing according to the procedures of the General Assembly. When we had the hearing we did not ask people to speak from pre-established points of view. We did not try to order the speakers in any sequence for any effect. We invited people to speak in the order in which they had signed up,. We only asked each speaker to limit his or her comments to three minutes.
We heard different points of view. It was like a chorus of convictions and opinions. We heard from people who urged us to take no action on Amendment B. We heard far more people urge us to attempt some revision. There was passion from each point of view. There was eloquence for each point of view. But, again, most speakers clearly wanted a change in Amendment B.
After the hearing, we had lunch with the other commissioners. We then met as a committee. As we began our discussion about what to do relative to Amendment B, I suggested to the committee that we meet as a quasi-committee of the whole. This is a parliamentary procedure which allows committee members to talk with each other in a conversational way. Motions and parliamentary procedure are not needed. The committee accepted the suggestion. We then had an open discussion for about 45 minutes to an hour. Our meeting room became crowded. One estimate was that about 200 people came into the room to watch us and see what we would do.
During the discussion by our committee, it became obvious the committee shared a will to do something about Amendment B. A majority of our committee members wanted to see come revision because of what they had heard in the open hearing, because of the experiences with Amendment B in their own experience, in their own churches and in the presbyteries, and because of what they were hearing from each other.
It was a wonderful committee. It was a group of people who worked very well together. They listened to each other. They spoke with each other. They respected different points of view. There was no meanness or hostility toward any point of view or person.
It is true there is always political maneuvering at a General Assembly. There are advocacy groups promoting their points of view. There is no way to insulate a committee from such sources. Yet as I listened to the committee members I became convinced and I am convinced today this spirit to revise Amendment B was authentic for this committee. It was not coerced on the committee. It was not forced from some outside group. Nor was it forced on the committee by a faction within the committee.
As you well know, I have my own convictions about Amendment B. I have expressed them openly. Yet I was determined to be the moderator of this committee. I did not want my own convictions to jeopardize the integrity of the committee's process.
The committee discussed the revisions it wanted to make in Amendment B for almost an hour after its open discussion. Eventually it voted 39 - 9 to recommend changes. Six members of the committee decided to file a minority report, expressing to the assembly their disagreement with the majority.
I presented our proposed amendment to the General Assembly on Friday afternoon. The minority report was also presented. After almost two hours of debate, the assembly adopted our recommendation by a vote of 60% in favor to 40% opposed.
It now goes to the presbyteries for their votes.
It is fair to ask just what does this mean, especially if a majority of presbyteries support these revisions.
First the wording of the revisions is significant.
Amendment B called us to acknowledge authorities for our life together. Its first sentence reads: "Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church." The first sentence of our proposal reads: "Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture and instructed by the historical confessional standards of the church." Our wording honors the primary role of Christ as an authority for our life. It places the other sources of authority for our life in proper sequence. It correctly refers to the role of such authorities in our life. We are called to live in obedience to Jesus Christ. We are called to live under the authority of Scripture. We are called to be instructed by the historic confessional standards of our church. These are not new or strange views. The first sentence of our proposal duplicates the language of one of the ordination vows we have been using for years.
Secondly, Amendment B called us to responsibility in our relationships. Its second sentence reads: "Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness."
Our proposal also honors the need to be responsible in relationships. Our second sentence reads: "Among those standards is the requirement to demonstrate fidelity and integrity in marriage or singleness, and in all relationships of life." Obviously these are the changes which will be most hotly debated in the coming months. By removing references to heterosexual marriage and chastity in singleness it will be argued we have opened the door to irresponsible behavior and dismantled standards which are needed in a time of moral confusion. Yet it was precisely the language of this second sentence which disturbed so many people. Furthermore, the call for fidelity and integrity is clearly a call to high standards of responsibility in relationships.
Thirdly, Amendment B called us to practice repentance. Its third sentence reads, "Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledge practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament." This was the most vulnerable part of Amendment B. There are approximately 670 sins listed in our confessions. Some of them come from centuries ago and are not considered to be sins today, such as charging interest or having pictures of Jesus.
Our third sentence reads, "Candidates for ordained office shall acknowledge their own sinfulness, their need for repentance, and their reliance on the grace and mercy of God to fulfill the duties of their office."
In addition to these changes in language and all they imply, the proposed revisions to Amendment B, if approved, would accomplish something else. Presently there is a ban on the ordination of self-affirming and practicing gay and lesbian people. It is not part of our constitution, the Book of Order. It is what is called an authoritative interpretation of the Book of Order. The primary purpose of Amendment B was to place in our constitution the basis for a continuing ban on the ordination of self-affirming and practicing gay and lesbian people. If approved, our revisions of Amendment B would remove that constitutional basis for the ban. It would allow us to continue discussing such a possibility.
In the months that follow, in this tender time, we will need to practice the three R's: not "reading, riting and rithmatic," but reverence, respect, and reconciliation.
We will need to practice reverence.
Psalm 1 praises the practice of reverence. It praises meditating on God's word on a regular basis. Whatever our position may be on these or other matters, since we are God's people and since fundamentally we are seeking amidst all the pressures to do God's will, we need reverence.
A General Assembly is a hot-house of rumors and suspicions. It is easy to get caught up in the passions of the moment and lose your spiritual balance and poise. Just as it is easy to get caught up in the partisan loyalties of the debate which will occur in the coming months. We have to remember a point of view is not our God. We have to remember a side or faction is not our church. The way to guard against such temptations is to practice reverence, to develop our faith in and with God. To practice it actively, honestly, hopefully, and with humility.
We have to practice respect.
One of our guests, Dr. Maake Masango came to the General Assembly representing the Church of South Africa. He told a wonderful story.
When God created humankind, he stared out on Monday. It was not a good day for God. He formed the clay figures. He put them on a big tray and put the tray in his oven at 450 degrees. Then God got impatient. God was impatient because God was excited. So God did not wait long enough. He pulled the figures out too early. They were half-baked. They were all pale. So God went to the Session and asked the Session what he should do. The Session said to let the half-baked humans live and to try again the next day. So Tuesday, God made some more clay figures and put them in his oven at 450 degrees. This time God was determined to wait long enough. So God went out to enjoy his creation. He enjoyed it too much. He waited too long. When he realized he had left the figures in too long he rushed back and pulled them out of the oven. They were all dark. They were over-cooked. So God went to the Session and asked what he should do. The session said to let them live and to see if they could live together, the half-baked and the over-cooked. Well, as soon as they were put together, they noticed they were different and began to argue and fight with one another. They forgot, they had all been made by the same God.
One result of the practice of reverence is the practice of respect, respect for other people, even people with whom you might disagree strongly.
In this tender time we will need to practice respect.
We will also need reconciliation.
This wonderful passage from Ephesians reminds us of the reconciling power of Christ. People who are at odds with each other and who share faith in Christ can be brought together by Christ. Christ becomes a middle ground or common ground. It is not partisan pressure or political maneuvering which accomplishes this reconciliation. It is the power of Christ.
On the day our committee was to report to the General Assembly, one of the advocacy groups at the assembly distributed a newsletter. In the newsletter there was an article about our report. The position taken by the newsletter was that there could be no middle ground on the matter of Amendment B.
It is tempting in the heat of debate to yield to such spirits. They are, however, a denial of our faith. They are a denial of the powers of Christ and what those powers can do with people who are determined to be faithful.
One of the people attending the General Assembly made an interesting and helpful point. He has watched our denomination fight over various issues for a number of years. He spoke of how different advocacy groups get attached to their battle and antagonisms. It happens in every kind of argument between political parties, spouses, departments in an organization or factions in a church. We can get so attached to the battle we loose our will to find a resolution.
It is a tender time.
We need to practice reverence, respect and reconciliation. When reverence works it breeds respect. When respect is practiced it leads to reconciliation. The three R's are intimately and progressively linked to each other.