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.
Because 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.