Well, I think it is, anyway. I’ve written two other posts related to 10A this week. (Amendment 10A changes the ordination standards to permit gay and lesbian people in committed relationships to be ordained; more here.) But more than the other two, this post has me quaking a bit, because I want to be as precise as I can.
Preface: I am with Bruce Reyes-Chow, former moderator of the PCUSA, in placing a high premium on graciousness, even and especially when one’s point of view prevails. I write this in that spirit.
There’s a lot of stuff floating around the intertubes since this decision—here’s one great list of responses. There is a concern, or perhaps just an awareness, that congregations might be leaving the PC(USA) over this decision. Some already have—one estimate is that 100 congregations (out of our 11,000) have left in recent years over this.
One item zipping around the ‘tubes is a letter to those who are troubled by the decision—when I see a copy on the Internet I’ll link to it. It was written by a couple of pastors in Chicagoland, but signed by several other folks, including some friends of mine. I was asked to sign this letter but opted not to. This blog post tries to explain why.
In essence, the letter expresses gratitude for the passage of 10A. At the same time, it asks those who are disappointed not to leave the denomination. The PC(USA) would be poorer without you and your voice, as we believe it would be without us and our voice, the authors write. I have heard this sentiment expressed from many quarters—24 former moderators of the PC(USA) offered a similar letter, saying, We believe that the Presbyterian Church (USA) needs the voices and gifts of all of us, whether we agree with Amendment 10-A or not. Our unity is strengthened by our diversity, and vigorous debate as well as mutual forbearance is essential to the body.
This sentiment is practically sacrosanct in certain liberal circles (not that all of our former moderators are liberals). And I completely agree that a denomination is strengthened by hearing a diversity of voices. This is fundamentally theological: we are united in Christ through our baptism, not our opinions. We are adopted into this family, this crazy, cranky, contentious, sometimes and unexpectedly beautiful family.
And engagement with people of differing views helps strengthen and hone one’s own view. And sometimes, people’s hearts are changed. I need my heart changed on a great many things. Not to mention the fact that, while I might disagree with people about GLBT issues, I might agree with them, and even find common cause with them, around other issues. We are not a single-issue denomination.
That said, here are a few reasons why I can’t sign on to pleas for people to stay:
1. Public witness to those outside the church: Yes, community across theological lines is important. But at one point does unity compromise our witness? I have a number of friends, non-religious friends, who find issues of GLBT equality to be a complete no-brainer. (In fact, it’s worth mentioning that the number 1 view of Christians from young people outside the church is that we are “anti-gay”.) It’s hard enough for them to understand why I would remain in a denomination in which so many people oppose gay rights and the full equality and participation of gay persons. What does it say to them about my conviction on these matters when I start begging people to stick around who don’t value that? What does it say to GLBT people who have been hurt by the church?
This works the other way too. For people who feel that they are being biblically faithful by opposing GLBT inclusion in leadership, perhaps it dilutes their mission and ministry to remain in fellowship with me, who clearly interprets the Bible very differently. More on this in #5.
2. It acknowledges our post-denominational, decentralized reality. I recently heard a lament that there are 38,000 denominations world-wide. Though it might be heretical to ask this, why is this so bad? Is our goal really one big super-denomination? We already have that; it’s called the church universal. I think 38,000 denominations is a good thing. If anything, we could stand to be even more decentralized. The Internet provides manifold ways for congregations and individuals to connect—we no longer need a bureaucracy to do that work for us.
Also, if the Presbyterian Church down the street leaves the denomination, it’s not like I’m suddenly going to brand them as evil. They’ve just… left the denomination. They are still my brother and sister in Christ. Perhaps it’s because I’m relatively new to the PCUSA, but I simply do not understand the grief over this. This is not the Civil War. This is denominational affiliation—something people care less and less about when “shopping” for a church.
3. Theologically: it makes an idol of unity. We are called in our ordination vows to uphold the “peace, unity and purity” of the church. Pleas for people to stay seem to elevate unity over the other two. People have been saying, “this allows people to ordain those whom they deem suitable, but nobody’s going to be forced to ordain gay people.” I totally get that and am not arguing for quotas or anything. But isn’t this trying to have it both ways? Do we value the full inclusion of GLBT people, or do we only value it up to the point that other churches begin to leave?
4. From a systems perspective. Simply stated, I don’t know how a self-differentiated leader justifies going after people who threaten to leave, trying to talk them into staying.
Granted, I have only had one person threaten to leave a congregation. (I know, give it time.) Here is what I said to that person:
“That is a significant threat that you are making. I need you to know that I take threats to leave very seriously. And I will not try to talk you out of this. I will be sad to see you go, but you need to follow what your conscience leads you to do. Please let me know what you decide.”
I don’t know how a self-differentiated leader does otherwise. Sure, there are some issues that can be ironed out. I’m not saying you boot someone out the minute they make a threat. But let’s be honest. Some folks threaten to leave just to yank your chain, or to hold a community hostage. Others do it because they sincerely can’t go where you’re going. In both cases, it seems to me, the reaction should be the same—to take the request seriously and not be captive to it. Which leads to…
5. (and most important) It seems disrespectful to the other person’s point of view. To ask people to stay belittles how important this issue is to them. For many folks this is nothing less than an abandonment of biblical standards. While I obviously don’t agree, and can scarcely even put myself in the place of understanding such a view (though I try hard), it is nonetheless a deeply held view. It seems to me that saying “No no, please stay” does not honor the dignity of the other person’s deeply held view.
I hope it’s obvious that I’m not saying “We win. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” Quite the opposite. I have quoted the Princess Bride many times on this topic, which I picked up from a training many years ago. That is, that if you sincerely feel that the Spirit is leading you a certain direction—as a denomination, as a congregation—and someone really cannot or does not want to come along, the most faithful response is to say, like Wesley, “As you wish.” And remember, “As you wish” always meant “I love you.” I love the people who are hurt by this. If they really and truly do not feel that they can remain in our denomination, then I want to bless them on their way.
One of the basic foundations of love is freedom.
Love does not make threats, but love does not beg, either.