As the minister of a local congregation, I often find myself acting as a sort of go-between. I'm both mouthpiece of a national denomination and spokesman for the members of my own church. I try to provide guidance according to the individual needs and situations of Calvary's 400 members, and also to follow the lead given by the Presbyterian Church (USA). None of the issues I wrestle with--from race relations to evangelism to abortion--presents me and my congregation with a trickier stumbling block than that of the role that gays and lesbians play in the church.
It's a stumbling block because in the church we are forced to live with complex questions that the larger community often brushes aside or ignores entirely. Many people have deep, unspoken feelings about homosexuality, but they are afraid to publicly condemn or condone it. In the church--an institution that people look to for moral guidance--we cannot take such evasive action.
The issue of homosexuality was highlighted for me last week as I followed news of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, meeting in Fort Worth, Tex. Commissioners once again debated a question that has raised passions and anxieties within the denomination for more than 20 years: Whether to ordain gays and lesbians who are open about their sexual orientation. A 1978 General Assembly policy prohibits the ordination of "self-affirming, practicing homosexuals."
In an effort to chip away at that policy, an assembly committee had recommended deleting a constitutional requirement that deacons, elders and ministers live either in "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or [in] chastity in singleness." But on Friday, the General Assembly as a whole rejected this recommendation, preserving the status quo.
Perhaps it's inevitable that the national debate seems to hinge on extreme positions. At the committee's meeting last week, a lesbian activist, Janie Spahr, argued that the denomination's stringent policies have been "killing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. The church is participating in our deaths." Not sensing this passion among my people, I want to say, "Calm down, Ms. Spahr."
At the same time, I do not hear Calvary's concerns in the opposing position, voiced by Julius Poppinga, an elder from New Jersey, who said, "Repentance is the key"--in other words, repentance of any practice that Scripture and the standards of the church call sin. This is more easily said than done. There are many biblical prohibitions, not all of which we follow to the letter, from lending money with interest to the poor of God's people (Exodus 22:25) and the mixing of different materials in clothing (Leviticus 19:19), to the starkly clear "root of all evil": love of money (1 Timothy 6:10). Why do we put such emphasis on the handful of verses that declare homosexual activity a sin, such as "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman" (Leviticus 18:22)?
What am I to make of this when I preach a Sunday sermon, or try to offer guidance to members of the congregation who are wrestling with these questions in their personal lives? I'm all for fidelity and chastity--fundamental Christian values that I try to practice and preach--but I can't help but feel that the debate over homosexuality continues to reveal a disconnect between the General Assembly and the congregations it represents. Last week's debate does represent some shift in attitude--and a split in church leadership--but it is not very enlightening to gays and straights who would rather serve the church--and God--together than sit in judgment of each other. If the denominational pronouncements are missing the mark with Presbyterians, then they are surely way off course with the community at large.
I don't mean to deny the importance of the ordination issue for my congregation. Far from it. The question of what role gays and lesbians should play vexes many of Calvary's members, probably many more than will openly voice their views.
The voices I hear in my congregation are occasionally strident--one couple left the church after I preached a sermon suggesting that because companionship is part of God's plan for us, it may be possible for homosexuals to live in faithful, monogamous relationships. On the other extreme, another couple joined a more liberal denomination in another state after 40 years in the Presbyterian Church because they were tired of the homosexual issue being "continually swept under the rug, or referred back to a committee for more study." But far more often I hear parishion-ers saying that they want to be a friendly and welcoming church, and to be a support to fellow Christians regardless of their sexual orientation. When a person is discovered to be gay or lesbian, Calvary members tend to be more interested in his or her peace of mind than in his or her sex life.
One elder at Calvary, a true pillar of the congregation, has spoken about her opposition to homosexuality, based on her experience of having a close friend with a gay son. She couldn't and wouldn't support his homosexual behavior, she told our board of elders. And yet she acknowledged that this son was the only child in the family who took care of his mother. Her mixed opinion of him was clearly based on more than his sexuality, and it created in her a tension between disgust and admiration that I see in many straight people's views of individual gays and lesbians. They intuitively sense that it is wrong to judge a whole person based solely on sexual orientation, and so they refrain from condemnation in the community and in the church.
This same kind of broad-based assessment is made whenever Calvary nominates and elects persons to serve as church officers. Calvary has been served well by elders both gay and straight, and I don't think that sexual orientation has made a bit of difference in any of these leaders' effectiveness. To my knowledge, no candidates are ever asked point-blank about fidelity, chastity or sexual orientation, but instead are evaluated on the strength of their beliefs and their gifts for church leadership. Christian virtues such as faithfulness, commitment, love and sacrifice are seen as central to fitness for ministry. While this may not make us the most rule-abiding of Presbyterians, I frankly don't know of any other way to select church leaders.
Our congregation sees what the national Presbyterian leaders cannot--namely, how people behave in a particular community of faith, where it doesn't take long to figure out whether a person is reckless or promiscuous or abusive or unloving. Of course, if an elder were to make a public spectacle of his sexuality--whether heterosexual or homosexual--I believe that his days in leadership would be numbered.
So, should churches make every evaluation for church office completely subjective? No, I don't think so. Both religious and nonreligious people look to the church to be a mooring in a chaotic world. I know the dangers of "creeping congregationalism" and I cannot support the efforts of many of my fellow Presbyterian pastors to give regional presbyteries and local congregations the option of ordaining openly homosexual persons if they so choose. We are not simply a set of independent congregations--and it is important to the church and larger community to have leaders who are held to the same standards across the country.
For now, the law of the Presbyterian land remains fidelity and chastity. This pleases my conservative church members, including large numbers of African immigrants who follow Scripture's condemnation of homosexual practice and say quite simply, "It is an abomination." But it disturbs my more liberal members, who see this as a justice issue, and want the Presbyterian Church to be more welcoming toward gays and lesbians, as Jesus was toward the outcasts of his day. Once again, I find myself acting as a go-between--not always able to mediate between such differing points of view, or to give people an unambiguous "word of the Lord." If I were asked to get tough as a pastor and enforce the fidelity and chastity regulation, my first question would have to be: How? By employing private detectives? Public whistle-blowing? Periodic examinations?
It is better, I think, to call people to do their best to be faithful in all their relationships and to trust that the community will know goodness when it sees it. My guess is that faithful, committed, monogamous relationships among homosexuals will someday become acceptable in the Christian community; after all, who would have guessed just a few centuries ago that churches would defy tradition by helping to free slaves and work for the equality of women? The church is in the business of encouraging promise-keeping, self-control and steadfast love--goals that should be encouraged in all communities and among gays as well as straights.
The line has been drawn at sex in an effort to exclude gays and lesbians, just as it once was drawn based on gender to prevent women from being ordained. But religion is a spiritual enterprise, not always logical or predictable. Sometimes, by putting the spotlight on issues that the rest of the community chooses not to address directly, it can help us all confront our feelings, our beliefs and our prejudices. The local church may not give people all the answers, but it provides them with a pretty good place to struggle faithfully with the big questions of the day.
Henry Brinton is pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Alexandria.