Since November of last year, Presbyterian ministers and elders have been listening, discussing and praying over an amendment to our church constitution. One by one, faithful Presbyterians, including me, have gathered to vote in presbyteries across the country on whether to allow our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters in Christ to be ordained as Ministers of Word and Sacrament.
This week, the Twin Cities Presbytery cast the majority vote needed to adopt this amendment – making the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) the latest mainline Christian denomination to allow lesbian and gay people to be ordained. It is the first denomination to adopt a measure like this through a grassroots, democratic vote – rather than by a top-level governing body.
This is a major milestone for the Presbyterian Church. However, its importance transcends this one denomination. This democratic vote in a moderate denomination suggests that something far greater is happening in America. People of faith, Christians in particular, are beginning to discover in their religious beliefs a confirmation of the blessed place held by lesbian and gay people in the church and society at large.
What’s most remarkable is that support is not just coming from the usual people and places. It’s coming from people like Rev. Arlo Duba, a self-described “life-long conservative Presbyterian.” Despite knowing gay people, including gay Christians, he had always voted to uphold the ban against openly gay clergy.
Then, he began a study of early baptismal practices – curious to learn whether anything could prevent someone from being baptized. Paging through his worn Bible, he became aware of countless examples of people formerly excluded from religious participation now being invited into the church – like Levi the tax collector and the Samaritan woman at the well. All were people shunned by society – and all were now being welcomed into the body of Christ.
His study didn’t convert him easily or quickly. But he started to feel increasingly uneasy and continued his exploration of Scripture.
Several years later, Rev. Duba received a phone call from a close friend asking him to donate to an ad opposing an amendment allowing ordination for lesbian and gay people.
“You’ll contribute, won’t you?” the friend asked.
“No, I won’t,” Rev. Duba quietly responded. “My mind has been changed.”
The phone call was brief – and he’s never heard from that friend since. Today, Rev. Duba is one of the amendment’s strongest supporters.
The specifics behind the vote on this amendment also challenge conventional wisdom about where to find support for lesbian and gay equality. In 2009, a similar amendment fell nine presbyteries short of the majority needed. This year, 19 presbyteries which voted against the amendment just two years ago changed their votes. Many of those switches came from presbyteries in Louisiana, Nebraska, Florida, Oklahoma and Tennessee – not the most liberal places in America.
During a vote in south Alabama, an elder from a small rural church rose to speak. He described himself as conservative and someone who was concerned about ethics in the church. Supporters of the amendment, thinking they knew where he was taking his remarks, were surprised by his next words.
“All over the Bible, there are stories of Jesus bringing in those who had been outcast. We say that gay people are welcome in our church, but as long as we deny ordination, they really aren’t,” he concluded.
He voted for the amendment and this presbytery in South Alabama joined others that switched their votes in favor of the amendment. As Christians weigh the place of lesbian and gay people in the church and in society, they are turning to their Bibles. Many are coming to see that the answer has always been right before them: the Bible says unambiguously that Jesus loves everybody.
This moral awakening will mean that increasingly, lesbian and gay people will both be fully embraced in the pews of their churches and at the ballot box as Christian voters continue to consider questions of civil equality. But it will not be an easy journey. Some Christians remain morally conflicted.
To win civil equality, gay rights advocates must talk to Christians and make a fundamental appeal to their deeply held religious values. It is simple math: Seventy-six percent of Americans identify as Christians. These are the very voters who ultimately determine the outcome on issues like gay marriage, adoption and non-discrimination policies.
And for those of us also dedicated to creating a truly welcoming and affirming church for our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters, clearly our work is not done. God requires me to walk humbly. It is in this spirit that I will reach out to my brothers and sisters who voted against this amendment – recognizing that some see God’s Word differently than me.
While this journey may be difficult at times, I know that God will guide this conversation and our reconciliation in the way that Isaiah 41:13 says, “For I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, ‘Do not fear; I will help you.’”At the end of this journey, we will be a stronger church and a stronger country.
Rev. Dr. Janet Edwards | May 12, 2011 1:59 PM