This past week, the Presbyterian Church (USA) took the step of recommending to its nearly two million members that the denomination change its constitution to include same-gender marriage; and, allow its ordained pastors to officiate same-gender marriage ceremonies in states where same-gender marriage is legal. When I first heard the news, I was mostly relieved. Relieved that the leadership of the church had finally, formally, recognized the beauty, and legitimacy, of such unions. And relieved to know that I could now, happily accept any requests to officiate a same-gender wedding – robe, stole and full regalia.
Yet, if they had done this twenty years ago, I might have thought about leaving the denomination.
I first experienced the presence of Christ during college, within the loving embrace of a vibrant, evangelical community. This community introduced me to the Grand Story and the three-person God behind it all. They revealed to me the joy, purpose and hope that comes with giving your life over to the care and direction of God, through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. They introduced me to the breadth and depth and beauty of the scriptures; and the health and healing that comes within a caring, intimate group of other disciples. Most of all, they welcomed me in to space and time set apart for God; and, one day, within that set-apart place and time, I realized that Jesus was present with me – the risen Christ, the Anointed One alive and present. I am, literally, eternally grateful for those brothers and sisters in Christ.
It was within this community that I first started hearing rumblings of discontent within a “small faction” of the greater church world – those who were gay and lesbian (at the time, we talked mostly of the “L” and the “G” part of the “LGBT” community and didn’t even really think of those with other orientations). I heard there were arguments taking place over whether or not gays and lesbians could be ordained leaders within a congregation. Membership was a given: “We’re all sinners. If we made purity a requirement of membership, the church would be empty.” But ordained leaders were held to a higher standard. It was acknowledged that leaders, as fallen human beings, would still slip up, but as long as they admitted the sin as sin, repented and sought forgiveness, it would all be okay. So, according to the understanding of the community I first learned from, a homosexual orientation wasn’t really the issue, it was whether or not you “acted” on it. That was the sinful part. The phrase I learned early on was, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Of course, the assumption underlying all of this was that homosexual love, expressed in its most intimate act, was a sin.
These were not ignorant, illiterate, mean-spirited people. These were bright, thoughtful, self-giving disciples of Christ who read the scriptures, understood in a broad way the reality of historical context and issues of translation, and believed, deeply, that God forbade homosexual acts. Further, because of God’s “clear prohibition” in the scriptures, anyone who supported homosexual love was “selling out”, “watering down” the Word of God, and “caving in” to society’s immorality. They pointed out the scriptures to me, both Old and New Testament that they believed supported their views; and, to me, at the time, it all seemed pretty much as they said.
I don’t know when, exactly, my understanding of the scriptures changed. But, I have spent the past twenty-plus years studying the scriptures intensely, meditating on them deeply, and learning from as many others as I can along the way. My focus has not been on any one issue, argument or situation currently being faced by the church. I have simply sought with all my heart and mind to know what God has said and is saying. As one consequence, for me, I now feel strongly that every single scripture that has been used to condemn same-gender relationships can be interpreted, with complete scholarly integrity, to reveal otherwise. I think I’ve known this in my mind for quite some time. What has been far slower to change, though, has been my heart.
In part, seeing same-gender couples together, especially holding hands, kissing, embracing, simply took some time for me to get accustomed to. Early on, I thought my discomfort was because “it was wrong.” Now, I realize I just hadn’t seen many same-gender couples in my life. I imagine it was like what some people experienced in the days when mixed-race couples first began to feel safe enough to be seen in public. I watch scenes from movies about the 50’s and am shocked by the hatred expressed at what is now an accepted part of the fabric of our society. Often our discomforts trouble us simply because we haven’t been accustomed to something.
In addition, my heart has been slow to open entirely to the beauty and goodness of same-gender relationships, because it felt like a betrayal of myself, and God. Those first lessons I learned from that community through whom I first met Christ settled in deeply. For a long time, I feared that giving up any one of those first beliefs might lead to me giving up every one of those beliefs. Honestly, I feared losing God entirely. Christ means everything to me. I couldn’t risk losing him. So, a part of me held on tightly, deeply.
I don’t know exactly when I finally let go. But I have now. And instead of losing Christ, I feel like I see my Lord profoundly larger, more loving, and far wiser than I had ever imagined.
Part of the reason I chose to commit to a large, “Old Growth” denomination, was the desire to be rooted deeply within the historical church. I worried that If I didn’t have a weighty history and tradition grounding me in the Christian faith, I might too easily drift off. Committing to an old-growth denomination means acknowledging that we are not the first people to follow Christ, nor the first to read the scriptures. It means giving voice to our ancestors on what we believe to be true and right. Sadly, that means sometimes we are slower to let go of those things we have been wrong about. I deeply regret all those who have been hurt along the way by the denomination and me; and, I ask forgiveness for me and the denomination I represent. It’s taken me twenty years to get it right, and the denomination even longer. But, I thank God for the steps the PC(USA) took last week, and that I’m still here twenty years on.