Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Presbyterians and Ordination of Gays and Lesbians

This month, July 2011, the Presbyterian Church PC(USA) took another step in its 30 year debate on gay ordination. (The Presbyterian church is America’s incarnation of the Church of Scotland, with Calvinist theology and low-church order of worship.) The denomination reversed its earlier decision, and will permit regional bodies and local churches to choose if they want to ordain gays and lesbians. PC(USA), the largest Presbyterian body in the country, formed in 1980, when the northern and southern churches joined. They separated during the Civil War. The southern church was perceived to be more conservative than the northern body, and gays were sacrificed on the altar of expediency. Prior to 1980, individual churches chose to ordain whoever they wanted. After the merger, gays were excluded from ordination. This month’s decision simply reverts to the earlier position.

My father was a Presbyterian minister; like my mother, he had a Jewish parent. He was a gentle, loving man; when I was young, I thought I’d follow in his footsteps. After my undergraduate degree, I applied to a Presbyterian seminary. Because I am half-Jewish, I had no genetic link to the denomination; my family isn’t Scottish. I was raised in a traditional home, which wasn’t necessarily conservative, and certainly wasn’t doctrinaire. I never believed that one religion was any better than another. I liked the Presbyterian church, because during my childhood, it was a fairly progressive body. The northern denomination to which I belonged channeled a small sum of money for Angela Davis’s defense fund.

I wasn’t accepted into seminary. I believe one of my references “outed” me. At the time, I was sad and angry. It seemed unfair. I’m not unique in this experience: dozens of worthy people have been denied entrance to seminary or denied ordination because of the denomination’s policy.

From my middle-aged perspective, I am grateful that I was not accepted. I left the denomination; and, while I was often in a spiritual wilderness, I was also free. I was liberated from organized religion, and able to explore alternative spirituality. I was able to study my Jewish heritage, and read about Eastern religion. If I’d gone to seminary, I would have become a different man. There’s a stanza of an old hymn that says “trials that seemed the most distressing, in the end have proved a blessing.” I give my personal thanks to the church that wouldn’t have me. It set me free.

Being outside the church, I was given the opportunity to grow in a way I never could have inside organized religion. I learned more outside the church than I could have inside. Being an outsider, for whatever reason, isn’t bad. Edward Said wrote: “Even if one is not an actual … expatriate, it is still possible to think as one, to imagine and investigate in spite of barriers, and always to move away from the centralizing authorities towards the margins, where you see things that are usually lost on minds that have never traveled beyond the conventional and comfortable.”

I don’t know what the future will hold for anyone, much less the Presbyterian Church. This new-found tolerance could be reversed by the steady stream of disaffected Baptists entering the denomination. Discrimination has hurt many people; the church has wasted 30 years debating a silly policy, and has neglected larger issues: economic injustice, healthcare, hunger. During that time, the denomination, like most, has steadily declined in membership. The Presbyterians are too liberal for the hardliners, and not liberal enough for the progressives. Decisions about gay ordination haven’t changed this fundamental tension.

I respect anyone’s choice to join a church or to leave one. I am sorry for the hurt that has been caused on both sides of this debate. As a gay man, it is difficult not to personalize homophobic attacks. People who want gays out of the church are ignorant, and, sadly, in some cases willfully so. Using the Bible to justify prejudice is problematic; check out Godhatesshrimp.com for proof. As in the case for gay marriage, gay ordination should be possible for anyone who wants it.

For me personally, I had to leave the church to find God. I’m grateful for the Presbyterians’ discrimination. My view of God is far less parochial than it would have been otherwise. Someone said “they drew a box that kept me out, but love drew a circle that took them in.” I couldn’t say it better.

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