Rev. Emily C. Heath

Presbyterians, Gays, & the Ramifications of Being Lukewarm

Filed By Rev. Emily C. Heath | April 27, 2011 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: Christian beliefs, homophobic behavior, LGBT, PCUSA, presbyterian, religion

In the next few weeks there will be a news story on the role of gay clergy in one of the oldest and largest religious denominations in this country. You will hear that the Presbyterian Church (USA), a denomination with over two million members, has approved the ordination of LGBTQ clergy members. Those reports will be wrong.

presbyterian-gay.jpgBecause most news outlets have about as much nuance as a sledgehammer when it comes to reporting on religious issues, let me clarify. I was a minister in the PCUSA for over eight years. I was a seminarian for another three before that. And the fight for LGBTQ ordinations was my own. And, while what happened is a good step in the right direction, this was not the victory for which I was fighting.

The presbyteries of the PCUSA (think geographic governing bodies roughly the sizes of dioceses but with democratic governance) are about to ratify an amendment that allows individual presbyteries the right to decide whom to ordain. This means (though it is unspoken in the wording of the amendment) that a local presbytery could ordain an openly, non-celibate LGBTQ person as a minister.

This is hopeful. And yet it is not nearly good enough.

What this means is that every governing body will make the choice to honor or not honor the diversity of God's creation. So only in some places will a gay pastor have a shot. Are you gay and in Baltimore? You can probably be ordained. Gay in South Carolina? No chance. Gay in Atlanta? Well, that depends on how the vote goes on that particular day.

Individual presbyteries will likely become either open or not open to out clergy. Some will become theological battle grounds where votes on a specific person's ordination will become debates about homosexuality in general. It will continue to be a personally painful process for many out clergy.

So you're a progressive church in a conservative presbytery and you want to call a gay man to be your pastor? Too bad. You're a third year seminarian in a divided presbytery? You're in for a rocky road. You're a pastor with a partner? In some places your relationship may be used as grounds to vote to bring you up on charges and strip you of your ministerial standing.

There will still be a young gay seminarian who gets turned down for ordination his final year of seminary. There will still be the lesbian pastor who is offered a position at a church and then is voted down when she tries to get standing in a local presbytery. There will still be votes where we are forced to listen quietly to people calling us pedophiles or pushing ex-gay ministries. And in most places the inclusion of trans clergy isn't even on the radar.

Then there's always the chance this could be voted on again. It's possible that in a year another amendment, replacing this one, could be approved for voting in the presbyteries. And once again debates on LGBT clergy members and elders (local church leaders) will take place across the country. I think that going backwards is unlikely, but further, painful debates are not.

But beyond the question of when the PCUSA will finally put those debates to rest, there's a bigger question. When will they repent of what they have already done?

My Presbyterian education taught me well and in seminary I learned a lot about the concept of repentance. I learned that one must turn away from injustice and make amends for harms caused. And, even if the whole PCUSA eventually decides to stand on the right side of history and God's love, I don't foresee formal repentance happening anytime soon.

But there's a lot to repent. There's repentance for what was done to the gay man who waited years for ordination. Repentance for the way a lesbian seminary colleague wasn't able to put her partner on her church health insurance when she became too sick to work. Repentance for the treatment of a young gay seminarian I knew who became suicidal as he struggled between being out or being ordained. Repentance for the way a transwoman was left to cry on the back steps of my seminary after her application for admissions was rejected. Repentance for what was done to the child of a lesbian clergy member who could not have both parents stand with her at her baptism. Repentance for the fact that gay students and allies at my seminary were not allowed to worship in the chapel on National Coming Out Day for fear it would alienate financial donors. Repentance for the treatment of a gay clergyman who was brought up on charges after legally marrying his partner.

But will the repentance come? No. Will there be a formal apology? No. At least not for a long time.

The PCUSA reminds me of someone who drives miles in the wrong direction before finally admitting they need to turn around. The right thing to do would be to call ahead to the people who have been waiting for you and explain that you made a mistake and are trying to fix it. Instead, the PCUSA will show up to dinner two hours late and with no explanation or apology for the ones they've kept waiting.

The PCUSA is dying. It has been for years. And until it can embrace LGBTQ folks completely and repent of its past, it will continue to do so. Recently I read a poll that asked young adults whether they supported civil rights for LGBTQ people. Overwhelming the response was "yes." That same poll asked whether they perceived the church as anti-gay. 91% said "yes."

If you're one of those young adults who believes in equality, why would you want to ally yourself with a denomination that is at best lukewarm about, and at worst on the wrong side of, the greatest civil rights issue of your day?

The PCUSA may be on critical care now, but we in the church believe in new life. It's there. It's possible. But it will require some immediate, real commitments to equality. This means not only opening up ordination to all people, but also affirming trans folks, and removing the restrictions still in place on allowing clergy to officiate same-gender marriages.

I love the PCUSA. But I'm no longer a part of it. I transferred my ministerial standing to the United Church of Christ, a denomination that does not mince words when it comes to affirming LGBTQ people. The UCC ordained its first openly gay clergy member in 1972. Not everyone agreed, and the journey took a while. That was 40 years ago and the PCUSA is basically only doing now what the UCC did then. It's going to be a long, hard journey. And I truly fear, PCUSA, that you do not have 40 years to fix this.

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Don't give up hope. I was disappointed that there was no LGBT-specific discussion and little material at this past February's national convention for Presbyterian Church educators. A few weeks ago I submitted a proposal to teach the following workshop at the 2012 convention:

All God’s Children: Teaching Children About Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity

The headlines of teen suicides reveal the devastating impact of teasing and bullying based on orientation and gender. The Christian community has a responsibility to model respect and offer grace to all people, regardless of their differences. When is the right time and what are the right words for teaching about gender diversity and sexual orientation? Open and caring conversation helps children develop a foundation of acceptance—of themselves and others.

Last week I was notified that my proposal was accepted.

So, organized religion continues to marginalize "the other", thereby becoming increasingly irrelevant to our lives - because we're all, ultimately, other. There are other places for my spirit to soar.

gay presbyterian | April 27, 2011 11:25 PM

Sorry, but this seems overwrought and a bit ridiculous. Yes, prejudice against LGBT people never should have existed, yes, it is appalling how much inequality and discrimination remains, and yes, this is an enormous injustice in the world.

But given where we are, this is hardly the time to be criticizing the PCUSA for finally making this extremely important change. And yes, it's not going to make the entire Presbyterian church gay-supportive overnight, but you can't do that through a simple vote anyway. This is the most we could ever have hoped for this year, and we have had 17 presbyteries change their votes to support us this time around. The fight is not over, but this is clearly a big step in the right direction for Presbyterians. We should congratulate them on their progress toward justice.

"Overwrought and ridiculous?" Shame on you. Calling someone or a group of people overwrought or ridiculous for articulating the injustice done to them accomplishes little other than further marginalization. I find this particularly striking since you appear to identify as LGBT.

Moreover, you've missed the point of this article. Rev. Heath is not arguing that the current forward movement in the Presbyterian Church is not a good step. It is. But it's not enough. This is NOT the most change we could have ever hoped for. In fact, I think it was the least the Presbyterian Church could do and still hold the appearance that things are moving forward.

Here is the reality: Clergy in many parts of the country will still be denied jobs even in Presbyteries that vote in the affirmative. And again, the point of the article, is that the damage has already been done. And a big piece missing from this current step is an apology. The PCUSA has openly discriminated against and made unreasonable requirements of its LGBT clergy for years. Those clergy will still be less than fully supported by their denominational body. Their Presbyteries will still have license in many cases to discriminate against them, particularly if they decide not to ratify 10A. And yet in all of this, there has been and likely will not be a formal apology for so much harm and wrong doing.

You are right to point out the subtleties behind the vote: this is not a simple vote in favour of LGBT clergy, but one for regional decision taking. I am not Presbyterian but Catholic, and do not wish to get into the specifics of what this means for the PCUSA - but I believe that the decision nevertheless has major importance for the wider Christian community - and for secular law.

This is because limited though it is, this is symbolic of a much wider transformation underway of Christian responses to homoerotic relationships. It is only a step in the right direction - but it is one step among many others, in all major denominations. With an increasing number of visible, out and partnered queer clergy, it becomes increasingly difficult to stick to the traditional belief that our relationships are inherently sinful. With the expectation that our clergy's relationships should be faithful and accountable in a manner comparable to marriage, pressure will grow to have them recognised in the same way - in church weddings.

Every one of these steps in the right direction builds its own momentum. The pace of change in attitudes over just a few decades has been extraordinary. Change will come, just as it did with women's ordination, and religious backing for slavery before that. Openly gay clergy will soon be as widely accepted as female pastors are today. Religious opposition to marriage equality will then become exposed for what it has been all along- misguided at best, or even based on nothing stronger than prejudice.

This is a great summary for us non-presbyterians. Thanks, Emily!

The problem is also even the local churches within each presbytery. My brother joined a PCUSA church here in the Baltimore area a few years ago. Until that time he had always been supportive of me and was pro-gay equality. Once he joined this church things changed. He started to respond to some of my Facebook posts with things like I don't think children should be taught about gays, they shouldn't be indoctrinated. I was floored and hurt. The final straw for me was when he said to my face that he felt that being gay was a mental illness. Until that time we were as close as two brothers could me. I made the decision to pretty much sever all contact with him. I see him at family events and will make small talk but that's it. It made me evaluate why I believed what I did about religion and ultimately with a lot of hard questions helped me embrace my atheism.

The argument that the PUSA will continue to die because it doesn't go far enough in embracing sex that is denounced in the Bible is ridiculous. Globally and nationally, the churches that are growing the fastest are the most Biblically-centered, Christ-centered, inerrant-Bible believing denominations and congregations, including the Assemblies of God, Church of God in Christ, Presbyterian Church in America, and charismatic/Pentecostal churches. The churches that don't believe in an inerrant Bible and that Jesus is the only way to heaven are declining in numbers.

Globally and nationally, the churches that are growing the fastest are the most Biblically-centered, Christ-centered, inerrant-Bible believing denominations and congregations, including the Assemblies of God, Church of God in Christ, Presbyterian Church in America, and charismatic/Pentecostal churches.

And its these very churches that are churning out the greatest number of atheists and agnostics. Fundamentalists/Evangelical churches have done more harm to Christianity than anything else in the last 2,000 years of the Christian faith.

Secondly, the bible is NOT without error. I've seen the errors with my own eyes. Adding words to Scripture that never existed in biblical times. Gospel accounts that don't line-up with one another. How can this be if it is without error? I was surprised to learn of the errors over time and realized I must rely on God himself more than the KJV bible, Living Bible, or whatever bible version that sits on the store bookshelf.

Remember, it is God alone we worship. Not the Bible.

Leigh Anne | April 28, 2011 1:32 PM

What a lopsided view of the PCUSA! We are called Presbyterians because we are governed by LOCAL elected bodies called presbyteries.

There are gay and lesbian pastors in the PCUSA, Many of them. And my own congregation has both gay and lesbian elders, deacons, and trustees, and has had for as long as I've been there -- coming up on two decades.

It is the union of all 171 presbyteries, called our General assembly, that has yet to decide on a common set of ordination standards that includes gays and lesbians. But with local bodies being locally elected, this is to be expected. It takes time to do ANYTHING this way.

We don't hand down edicts from on high, We try to come to some agreement when meeting as equals.

And good luck waiting for everybody to say "I'm sorry" because a lot of us have nothing to be sorry for, in this area.

Leigh Anne, there are certainly many LGBT individuals serving now. But the issue is that until this passes, they could be brought up on charges and disciplined. Just because some presbyteries are willing to turn a blind eye now doesn't mean that right now it's okay. The Book of Order does
explicitly states that you cannot have sex outside of heterosexual marriage and be a minister or elder. Are there open congregations? Sure. But can they currently be charged under church law? Yes. That's what we are trying to change.

I would also add, just for clatities sake, that presbyteries are not "elected". Each church sends delegates to each presbytery meeting. Then, each minister is a member of presbytery. Amendments are voted on by the General Assembly, which is not a collection of presbyteries but rather a biannual assembly with delegates from each presbytery. If there is a proposed amendment it is first voted on by the GA. It is then sent to the presbyteries for ratification by a majority of the presbyteries. This does not mean the PCUSA is governed locally. It means that local delegates have a vote on constitutional matters, but ultimately must follow
the will of the majority nationwide. For more information, a good resource is Joan Gray's "Presbyterian Polity for Church Officers".

As far as reunion between the UPC and PCUS, that occurred in Atlanta in 1983. Part of that reunion included a real look at the history of the church and it's failure to adequately speak out on slavery. It took just over 120 years for the church to reconcile. Let's hope it doesn't take that long again if another schism occurs.

Here is the passage in question:


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. 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. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and / or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament (G-6.0106b).


Additionally, the PCUSA system of polity is not what you described. As one who studied it and lived under it for years, I am well familiar. No matter how progressive the presbytery, they cannot currently ordain someone who says they are gay and will not remain celibate. In order for that to happen, the Book of Order has to be amended by a resolution passed by the General Assembly and ratified by a majority of presbyteries. As of today, anyone who is ordained and  gay and not "repentant" could be brought up on charges. This may not have happened where you are (praise God) but it sure has happened elsewhere.

Plenty of gay clergy have been ordained by simply never saying they were gay in front of their presbyteries. But they shouldn't have had to make that choice. Plenty others have been denied ordination for being honest.


Will McGarvey | April 28, 2011 6:42 PM

Dear Emily, et al.

Actually, the current state of polity in the PC (USA) allows for departures, or statements of conscience, for those - gay or straight – who cannot abide by G-6.0106b. Lisa Larges did so and was approved by the Presbytery (though her case will go before the GA PJC in coming months, perhaps after G-6.0106b is significantly changed. It isn't ideal, and creates a double standard, but we ordained out Elders and Deacons at my church under this current system because the last GA reaffirmed the Peace, Unity, and Purity process, and struck down the Authoritative Interpretation that made up the theological basis for excluding LGBTQ leaders in the church since 1978.

We have a long way to go in every denomination toward full equality, including the UCC and the Episcopal Church. The percentage of Open and Affirming congregations in the UCC is about the same as More Light Presbyterian Churches. While the UCC's congregational polity encourages churches and conferences not to discriminate, it also allows many congregations to do so. Some of my gay male UCC colleagues find it especially hard to find calls out of seminary, perhaps because of the continuing misconception of a link between male homosexuality and pedophilia.

Episcopal candidates need a friendly Bishop to get ordained and placed. Lutheran candidates for ministry are finding that they are not being put on the list of possible candidates for churches to interview by some of their Bishops. If 10-A is ratified, which I have been working hard to see, then we will join our siblings from these other mainline Protestant churches in allowing for local option.

Yes, the work isn't done for any of us. Let us work together to celebrate each victory, and contribute to each other's successes.

Having gone through the "scruples" process in a progressive presbytery during my last transfer of standing in the PCUSA, I can say my experience was different. The COM heard my objection to the current ordination standard but also said they were obligated even with the striking of AI to ask me to abide by it. The scruple was noted, but my assent to being governed by it was required. And the standard in G 14 is still there, with plenty to be debated about in church courts.

Will McGarvey | April 28, 2011 6:44 PM

Dear Emily, et al.

Actually, the current state of polity in the PC (USA) allows for departures, or statements of conscience, for those - gay or straight – who cannot abide by G-6.0106b. Lisa Larges did so and was approved by the Presbytery (though her case will go before the GA PJC in coming months, perhaps after G-6.0106b is significantly changed). It isn't ideal, and creates a double standard, but we ordained out Elders and Deacons at my church under this current system because the last GA reaffirmed the Peace, Unity, and Purity process, and struck down the Authoritative Interpretation that made up the theological basis for excluding LGBTQ leaders in the church since 1978.

We have a long way to go in every denomination toward full equality, including the UCC and the Episcopal Church. The percentage of Open and Affirming congregations in the UCC is about the same as More Light Presbyterian Churches. While the UCC's congregational polity encourages churches and conferences not to discriminate, it also allows many congregations to do so. Some of my gay male UCC colleagues find it especially hard to find calls out of seminary, perhaps because of the continuing misconception of a link between male homosexuality and pedophilia.

Episcopal candidates need a friendly Bishop to get ordained and placed. Lutheran candidates for ministry are finding that they are not being put on the list of possible candidates for churches to interview by some of their Bishops. If 10-A is ratified, which I have been working hard to see, then we will join our siblings from these other mainline Protestant churches in allowing for local option.

Yes, the work isn't done for any of us. Let us work together to celebrate each victory, and contribute to each other's successes.

Leigh Anne | April 28, 2011 7:42 PM

Yeah, and we have women pastors. Paul wouldn't have allowed it. In the churches he founded. It doesn't mean that Presbyterians are lukewarm on this issue. Lots of heat on BOTH sides.

After all, we just merged with the Southern Presbyterian Church a little while back, and the Civil War ended 150 years ago.

Rick Sutton | April 29, 2011 12:50 PM

We Methodists are at odds about this, too. I've bene working within to change it, but a question from my son recently sent me reeling:

"Why would you want to be part of a church that doesn't recognize your marriage?"

Constant internal turmoil. For now, conformity, weekly worship routine and comfort are winning. I don't know how long that can last, and it breaks my heart.

Rick,

I feel your pain also being a gay Methodist. It's hard to reconcile the four pillars of faith (tradition, reason, scripture, and experience) along with local ministry with any kind of the hierarchical nonsense.