Thursday, July 5, 2012

Elusive Courage: GA220 Presses Leadership

A disclaimer of sorts...

The caution in writing about things that are "observed" is that such perceptions fall short of knowing what actually caused the observable event.

Yesterday's resignation of the General Assembly's Vice Moderator the Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe was seen by many. The events that led up her stepping down are known to a very few. I have no inside information, just an inside response. I have my observations and my perceptions based on what I saw and what I read. I have these reactions within the context of the last six days of being at GA, but in the end these comments are intuitive and subjective.

Tara's resignation is in the middle, in this sense: behind Tara is all that led to her decision. Before her are all of us receiving her choice. Her action most likely satisfies the desire of the General Assembly to conduct the business of the church decently and in order. In many ways, her resignation was a business decision, as well as a pastoral choice. I say this because within minutes she had resigned, the name of a new vice moderator was offered, and the assembly was back on track. That is until a commissioner stood and asked this Christian body, "What just happened here? Are there any feelings of compassion or the need for some of us shocked by this decision to have some voice, some discussion..." The answer to that was no, by a vote of 232-233-17. We needed to vote to talk to one another as part of the human and church story that had just been exploded upon us. Our own pastoral care toward one another had slipped away, for the moment. 

And some of us remained silent.

Remember I said this is about my perceptions, and to me, it appeared that the leadership of this church "for the good of the body" exerted its power to chill us all down so that we could move forward. For those observing, many believed this was a good thing. Others, like me, disagreed. And it seemed that the overnight hours produced reflection that prompted a set-aside of fifteen minutes after lunch today for a "speak out." We will see how that goes.

For now, though, I have two things on my mind that might be described as the difference between what I hope for and what has happened, so far.

And, here, another clarifier. These General Assemblies tend to intensify everything. Thousands brought together in limited spaces and times with packed agendas and work to be done. It is a time every two years when those seeking entrenchment or change sit across from one another, too often dig their feet in and argue with passion and little openness for compromise. Yes, all too familiar.

Yet there are also here the signs of remarkable change and movement. It is amazing, for example, that in our time we have stepped beyond the discriminatory boundaries on ordination for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) folk, and we now seek a constitutional change for marriage equality in the Presbyterian Church(USA). The cumulative effect of more than forty years of sacrifice and work by thousands to welcome folk who are LGBT into the leadership of the church has changed this church.

Considering all that has been reformed around welcoming the LGBT community, it is not surprising that there are forces in our church represented here that will attempt to roll back such changes. Where that is not possible, these forces will create an entrenched presence to stop the church from any further advance in welcoming our community.

In small spaces and with limited timeframes to influence outcomes, some segments of the opposition become over zealous. The "pushbacks" can become so hurtful, un-Christian, and so pernicious that they obscure the loving embrace of the great majority of this church. There is an incredible cloud of witnesses here, witnesses who, whether in agreement or disagreement, have not forgotten who we are, whose we are, and how we are called to love one another. This is not about us who are such witnesses.

This is about our work. It is in this space and time that we are called to serve. And it is not easy. And, courage is sometimes elusive. Yesterday's resignation of the vice moderator spoke volumes for me about the shortcomings of love, patience, and understanding in our leadership and the void in courage it created. In the vice moderator's statement of resignation, she stated that she did not want to become a distraction to the work of the church. I am of the opinion the the "distraction" and that which causes it is, in fact, the work of this assembly, this church, our communities, our country, and our world. Our great desire to be macro-oriented in the work of the church has had the creeping effect of dwindling us into a limited, brittle, and fractured institution attempting to control outcomes, confusing courage and acquiescence. Therein lies much of our decline. It is self-imposed.

The resignation of Tara McCabe Spuhler was not the outcome of disagreement in theology, polity implications, or pastoral care. She signed the marriage license for a same gender loving couple. We all knew that before the assembly and Tara addressed it directly in her comments in the nominating process. And we elected her and a moderator who disagreed with her action but respected her decision of conscience and pastoral care in the matter. As a diverse church, we embraced that tension in the shared leadership role of the the moderator and vice moderator. Many of us hoped it might reflect a model for how we could grow more united, even with our differences in many areas.

No, the resignation was the result of bullying and the decision of the leadership not to stand up to the bullies. We chose the order of the church and its business over one another. And no one on the leadership team stood to say, "No."

Martin Niemöller"s words come to mind: "First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I did not speak. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak for me." 

Seventeen abstentions did not speak...

I admit it. I have long hoped for leadership in our church made up of leaders who would stand and speak out against the bullying that has poisoned our process, even if it meant that their jobs were at risk. Yesterday, the opportunity to do so slipped away.

  • I wonder what it might have been like yesterday if the moderator had said, "No." 
  • I wonder what today might have been like had this church stood up against the forces that now pervade us, causing us to cower and cave. 
  • wonder what tomorrow and this witness might have been like for those who day in and out experience the impact of the bullies in our world.
  • What might it have been like had this assembly stood up to our own bullies, even if our jobs were at risk.
It did cause at least one person their elected position. But more, it caused us to be seen as elevating bullies in the Church of Jesus Christ, instead of saying get thee behind us...

Yesterday proved how, once again, courage will always be elusive unless we have the courage to say, "No." Yesterday, those who bully - not all those who disagree and love one another - but those who bully won the day.

Perhaps had their actions been a table in a temple we would have overturned it. One can still hope.