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 Laymanonline.org. 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.