Monday, July 20, 2009

Comments to the Committee on Civil Union and Christian Marriage

Friends: The Committee has asked for feedback as they prepare their report. The press release can be found at The Presbyterian News Service. Please consider writing to the committee.

The following is what I forwarded on July 20, 2009. Thanks for your courage and your voice in commenting.

Comments to the Committee on Civil Union and Christian Marriage
Ray Bagnuolo, Minister of Word and Sacrament
Gay Member of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Community
July 20, 2009

  • How could the PC(USA) not honor marriage for people of the same sex in the very same way we do such relationships between a man and a woman?
  • How will we be faithful to God and to our sisters and brothers in this Body of Christ and undo the harm that has been caused by years of marginalization of the LGBT community in the PC(USA).
  • In light of the young children finding love and safety in homes with parents of the same gender, how could we relegate them to the status of a “diminished family” in the eyes of the church? How could we ever expect such families to find God in our midst, when we see less of God in theirs?
In the lives of the LGBT community in the PC(USA), the same sections of our constitution always present the biggest challenge. I will ask you to set them aside in your work. I recommend that you accept the premise that the constitutional barriers will be resolved, so that you may be bold and just in your recommendation. Please avoid recommendations that generate more studies, more arguments, and muted leadership in the face of continued exclusionary violence to our LGBT community.

Witness the work of The Theological Task Force on Peace Unity and Purity of The Church in attempting to resolve the ordination standards practices. The Task Force did much good work, but did its recommended methods of opening a path for ordination of folk who are LGBT succeed? Considering that since the time of the report not one openly gay candidate has been called, examined, and ordained to minister of Word and Sacrament, I would say no. In fact, if my statistics are correct, the last openly gay candidate who was called, examined, and ordained was in November of 2005, months before the acceptance of the task force’s report at our 217th General Assembly in 2006. Since then, of all the candidates that have been called, examined, and ordained as ministers of Word and Sacrament – not one has been openly LGBT.

And, that is not because there are none to be called. It is because G-6.0106b continues to be used to discriminate against the LGBT candidates and the majority of presbyteries find the work around of the task force too weak and uncertain. It would have been more prophetic had the Task Force recommended that G-6.0106b be deleted. The impact and the results might have been substantially better, especially considering the recent voting on the ratification for the substitute to G-6.0106b, Amendment 08-B, that was sent to the presbyteries for ratification by the 218th GA.

The recent near-passage of 08-B supports the growing recognition by presbyteries that the constitution can no longer be used against our baptized sisters and brothers who are LGBT. The inherent risk-taking of Christian love is real; Christian love and all its risks have always been the praxis of welcoming, justice, and true hospitality in our church – except, institutionally, when it comes to LGBT folk. There is no way to compromise Christian love. It doesn’t work, as far as I can tell.

I believe there are lessons in these past experiences for the task ahead of you. Even now, some of what has been suggested as possible recommendations for the committee sounds like compromised approaches; considerations that if embraced fall under the heading, once again, of the LGBT community “waiting and less than.”

For example, one solution offers a blessing to same-sex couples, but not marriage. Another is to forego marriage (with or without a blessing) and support the civil union idea. A third is even a recommendation that we do away with marriage altogether, suggesting that the church should have no interest in the “marriage business” in the first place.

Fears? Absolutely. Such “shadow solutions” are all about fear and worse, when it comes to people who are LGBT.

Consider the lengths some suggest we should go to in preventing same-sex marriage. The idea of actually eliminating church marriage altogether to keep it from same-sex couples is glaringly indicative of how deeply ingrained the disease of homophobia has become in our thinking. As for eliminating marriage in the church – fine. First, grant it to all. Then we can talk about its elimination. Equality for all first. Then consider change as a whole community.

Yes, the PC(USA) has made some progress, but in too many cases it turns out to be more binding than loving. As a minister of Word and Sacrament, I can “bless” holy unions as long as I do not use the language of/or mislead the same-sex couple to believe that I am conducting their marriage. In truth, I have no way of parsing the mystery of God’s love in such covenantal relationships – nor could I be faithful to my ordination by doing so.

Endorsing some tethered solution of civil unions and a blessing is lukewarm, at best, and insulting at worst, elevating the “heterosexual status,” once again; feeding the homophobic and violent fringe of society with another diminished status for those we call sisters and brothers in Christ. I don’t believe we can have it both ways. We cannot be sisters and brothers in Christ, with some “just a little less sisters and brothers in Christ.”

Lastly, as an openly gay man ordained as Minister of Word and Sacrament, I can assure you that we who are your LGBT sisters and brothers are not issues. We are not the “ordination issue” or the “marriage issue.” We are living, breathing, loving, baptized members of this church and our community. Our lives continue to be directly affected by the decisions of this church.

It is my opinion that your recommendation should not be based on whether the church can accept it. Your recommendation should be based on what faith demands it to be. Let the acceptance and wrangling that follows be what it may, but let your voice be one for all those marginalized who need to hear and know that they have not been forgotten and are loved in the PC(USA) as equals.

May you have the courage to be the prophets you have been called to be.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

On War, Fishing, and Manipulation in the PC(USA)

On War, Fishing, and Manipulation in the PC(USA)
A Reflection on the
Pastoral Letter of Carmen Fowler, President,
Presbyterian Lay Committee

by Ray Bagnuolo, Minister of Word and Sacrament
White Plains, New York
July 15, 2009

I have read and sometimes supported commentaries and positions taken by leaders of the Presbyterian Lay Committee (PLC) on their website This, however, is not one of those times.

Over the years, our exchanges in response to articles and editorials have exhibited strong disagreements, yet the “footprint” of these interactions indicated genuine attempts at honest and respectful discussions. With those experiences in mind, the tone of The Rev. Carmen Fowler’s recent pastoral letter:
‘War,’ ‘Go Fish,’ ‘Manipulation in the PCUSA’ was strikingly different. The bellum references describing the work of which others and I had been a part in seeking ratification of Amendment 08-B was a misrepresentation as much as it was disappointing.

I am not suggesting that that those seeking full welcoming for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) persons in our church and the PLC are always in harmony. Personally, our disagreements are real. I am an openly gay Minister of Word and Sacrament, ordained as such in 2005. I have served on the board of
That All May Freely Serve and currently serve as a board member of More Light Presbyterians (MLP). I have stood alongside those seeking to delete G-6.0106b, witnessing and advocating at General Assemblies, as well as participating in workshops and panel discussions in regional venues. And, in doing so, I have stood respectfully alongside those with whom we disagreed.

The idea of our actions “playing” anyone, as Rev. Fowler suggested we did of the presbyteries who changed their historical positions in supporting the ratification Amendment 08-B, is as false as it is insulting to the presbyteries who carefully discerned the choices they made in prayer, community, and, as always, in the presence of God. This use of ridicule and fear undermines and transforms honest efforts at unity and justice in our church. A church that always has and always will made up of all God’s family, including sisters and brothers who are LGBT.

In fact, throughout the struggle, we (God’s family) have often found ourselves assembled together, from worshipping to witnessing – trying to navigate close quarters with the pronounced differences we share. Has it been easy? No, but I believe we have mostly done our best to be faithful, respectful, and honest. While the rhetoric at times has been strident, I have never felt at “war,” as if I were “gaming,” or attempting to “manipulate” groups or church members who sought to prevent full inclusion. I have never believed the solution to our very real struggle was in domination or deception.

Nor have I believed that the answers we sought were in the strictest of interpretations of the Bible. Still, such differences in interpretation never meant that I wished to diminish or demean those who came to God from a more literal belief in the written Word. I don’t think that most people who are moving with the Spirit in welcoming LGBT folk are doing so because they are shifting their way of holding the Bible in their hearts. I believe their hearts are changing because they cannot see the Bible being used any longer in any way to hurt others, many of whom are members of their families; people who are faithful in their beliefs and practices.

In the several months leading up to the final vote of the presbyteries on the ratification of Amendment 08-B, individuals and groups worked together, reaching out to members of presbyteries across the country. The work of MLP and others was rooted in embracing the guidance of the 218th General Assembly to dialogue with one another, as baptized members of the same family and Body of Christ. We were intentional in listening to each other, as we invited God, Spirit, and Jesus into our midst. Judgment was never a part of the process.

Groups in favor of ratification of Amendment 08-B worked together to undertake the massive challenge of reaching out to the majority of presbyteries in the United States. Thousands of conversations were had. Often they were not easy, and more often they were amazing. There were numerous talks with folks opposed to ordaining LGBT individuals that poignantly touched at the heart and the pain of our struggle. You may not be surprised to know that those visits often ended in prayer, praying for God’s help in the healing we so desperately needed and continue to seek. In every case, we did our best to practice the loving-kindess that reflects the unified church we were hoping to become. There was no game of “Go Fish” or of any other kind. It was Spirit-filled, real, and much more difficult to do than criticize its outcomes.

As for manipulation of the presbyteries, which connotes intentional deception and secrecy – there was none. I’ve actually never met a “tricked presbytery.” It occurs to me that such a thing is oxymoronic. At any rate, we were open and transparent with the leadership within each region about our organizing efforts. We sought out information about those who might be able to help us and who might be more inclined to consider having conversations with us. We spoke to supporters, those undecided, and those in opposition; we asked all groups to vote in favor of ratification. We wanted the amendment to pass, but we knew that ultimately it would be in God’s time.

In the process, the privilege of being in conversation with so many of our sisters and brothers across this country was a humbling and precious gift. It was quickly apparent that we are “one” more than all our differences might ever suggest. If you talk openly to hundreds of people, one-to-one about God and this church as many of us did, you will discover just how much God is with us all. All. We are a connectional church, indeed, and the outreach made that wonderfully and abundantly clear: clear that the Spirit was at work with all of us, and clear that we should not give up on one another. Clear that we need to remove G-6.0106b and work together from there. Clear, to me, as always, that his amendment has been a dividing line for too long and more and more are coming to understand that.

As for the outreach and the language of progress that was sometimes used. I agree. I never really liked the description of a “presbytery flipping” when describing a change in a presbytery’s past voting record. The language referred to the vote, never the individuals, churches, or presbyteries they represented. I am equally uncomfortable with the use of the word “target,” in any form. We know how important the use of language is, and in some ways, we fell short of a better way of expressing ourselves. We all can improve in seeking ways to describe who we are and how we go about being faithful in the midst of reunion.

The broadening sense that ratification would soon be in reach was electric and continues to be so. We are intrinsically pulled together in this incredible shift toward a unified and healed church. Yes, God is doing a new thing in our midst, and it has been a long time in the making. It’s important to remember that the LGBT community has been at the center of marginalization and exclusion by the PC(USA) for near forty years. Those opposing our full inclusion are not the ones who have been the oppressed. LGBT sisters and brothers and those who support them intimately understand what it is like to left outside of the church, essentially shunned by fear. And the church has paid an enormous price in many ways, but especially in inadvertently becoming complicit in supporting the broader social disease of hate crimes toward LGBT folk by its institutional positions. Still, in spite of it all and in formation for those who will follow us, our efforts are driven knowing that our church’s present and future is critically dependent upon our unity and healing, and that ours is a special role in that transformation. It is obvious that a growing number of members of the PC(USA) are in agreement that:

Amendment G-6.0106b, for whatever else it might be said to do, has been the cause of our disunity, not the truth that we are all God’s family.

As with quoting Scripture, these and other comments quickly raise arguments and rebuttals to support one position or the other, one belief or the other, one way of being faithful or the other. In fact, our exegetical analyses of Scripture alongside the “nature and nurture” arguments have spawned institutional structures to ensure their survival more than ours as a people. The debates, papers, books, and articles have become comfortable for many and totally inaccessible for others, establishing new dominions that push God’s family further into the chasm of the arguments and the resultant chaos and stultification. The debates roar on, and while they do, the lives of our sisters and brothers who are LGBT and those who embrace them are forced into a marginalized, misrepresented, and maligned status within the church. There can be no such classification in God’s family, and, in spite or distant echoes of debates, that truth is rising up in response from a growing majority of Christians.

We are getting to know one another. We are “personing” the argument, as my friend The Rev. Dr. Janie Spahr would say, taking our Christian and loving lives to the people. More of us who are LGBT are becoming visible, in and out of our church community. Leaders within the church and those seeking leadership roles are openly stating how they identify themselves, often accepting great risk in the process. Friends and supporters are speaking out more, filled with love the Spirit of Love. As we come to know more of our family who identify as LGBT, we are leaving the stereotypes and the debates behind. In its place, we are lifting up the mysterious ways of the Love of God expressed in the equally mysterious gifts of our gender identities and sexuality. I thank the distant echoes of those balanced, never-ending debates for tiring out more and more faithful who have been conditioned to believe there would come an answer from such places. Instead, large numbers of faithful members of this church across the PC(USA) have made up their minds based on their personal and communal faith and the witness of those who are LGBT, their families, supporters, and friends. And, I don’t believe I am the first to recognize this. It’s been going on now for some time. We are further along in this process of coming together than many suggest. Perhaps the accusation of manipulation by some is an attempt to protect their institution by more deeply hiding this truth.

The strong response to changing the Constitution of the PC(USA) has been muted over the several years. There are many reasons for this, but one of them, I believe, is that faithful were hoping that the work of The Theological Task Force on the Peace Unity and Purity of the Church would produce a solution that would eliminate the need for constitutional change. It was with this in mind, that I believe many who voted “No” for deletion of G-6.0106b over the years were actually voting “Yes” for the continuing work of the task force, hoping it would produce “the answer." While the task force did accomplish important work, it clearly did not end the exclusion of LGBT folk from the full work and worship of the PC(USA). As a result, when the time of our most recent effort of ratification came about, those who had given the task force a chance voted in favor of constitutional change. Along with the continuing number of members welcoming the LGBT community, we witnessed a dramatic shift that will soon complete its course.

The outreach of groups and individuals seeking full inclusion for the LGBT community in the PC(USA) will be as it always has been: faithful. In the post-B world, our family will be faced with the hard work of unifying and healing. This marginalized community of baptized LGBT members will stand as we have before, with all our sisters and brothers to carry the gospel message and the witness of our lives to those who have felt unwelcome and displaced by our constitutional dysfunction: G-6.0106b.

This has never been a war, a game, or about propaganda or deception. It has and will continue to be the story of faithful people in love with God and all of God’s family.

We will eventually replace the arguments of fear with the Love of God, which has been given to us so that we might embrace one another as God embraces all God’s family.

We who have been and will continue to be part of the outreach and movement for change acknowledge our role in such a call and promise to continue to love each other into family. We are grateful to the many who join with us in believing that whatever is next for us in the PC(USA) is directly beyond the infection of G-6.0106b.

Let us pray and work together, so that whatever we do, nothing we do ever separates others from the God who created us as a family. All of us included.