It was the spring of 1997 when presbyteries across the country voted on what was then known as "Amendment B." The language, which was eventually approved by a majority of presbyteries and ratified as part of our church's constitution, would do something that had never been done before: single out one issue by which those seeking to be ordained as ministers, elders or deacons would be measured:
Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.
Meanwhile, as presbyteries were debating and voting across the country, I was blissfully lost in the seminary world as a third-year student, wrapping up my last semester. My focus was on papers, final exams, and most importantly landing that all-important first call. I was marginally aware of the politics taking place in the greater church I was preparing to serve, but I was told two things by reliable people. First, this new amendment, if approved, would not affect me, since I was not gay. Second, it was doubtful churches and presbytery examination committees would ask me anything about it in the call process, since the vote was still in progress.
The "reliable people" were wrong on both accounts. The new amendment very much affected me as a life-long heterosexual, as its original authors chose not to use direct language like "gay" and "lesbian" in their exclusiveness. Instead they opted for a convoluted "process-of-elimination" lingo that read more like an advanced calculus problem. Single and married folks were unwittingly dragged into the mix. "Chastity in singleness" - who still used the word "chastity," anyway? Besides, it wasn't like I was planning on suddenly beginning a life of hedonism upon being ordained. So what was the point?
They were also wrong about the topic being off-limits in interviews. I was meeting with a presbytery's Examination Committee, pursuing what would become my first call. The meeting was going pretty much as I was told it would: pleasant conversations about theology, polity, what kind of pastor I'd be. Near the end, though, a crotchety old man brought up the Amendment B vote that was making its way across the country. This particular presbytery had already voted, I was informed, but how would I have voted if I had been a member there? He practically had "litmus test" written on his nametag. Thanks a lot, reliable seminary people.
The "Fidelity and Chastity" amendment, as it's been called, has been with me for my entire time in ministry. In fact, I guess we kind of entered the ministry together. And while I've found a home for myself here, our denomination never got comfortable enough with Amendment B to let it move in to the guest room. Critics have consistently pursued courses of action to have it overturned. Supporters have held to it rigidly and threated a mass-exodus if removed. The debate has brought out lots of the bad in the church: division, vitriol, mistrust. Oddly enough, it's brought out a little of the good too: passion, commitment, a desire to seek God's will. But mostly the bad.
There have been attempts to remove or replace the amendment in the fourteen years since, but all have failed. Until this past Tuesday, May 10th. That was when Twin Cities Presbytery in Minnesota became the 87th presbytery - a majority - to vote in favor of replacing Amendment B of 1997 with Amendment 10-A:
Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life. The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation. Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.
You'll notice the language is quite different - and language matters. Gone are terms that shamelessly exposed our obsession with sex. Instead we find authority being placed where it should've been all along - submission to "the Lordship of Jesus Christ" (you'll note that "Jesus" is notably absent from the former amendment). Gone is language that limited and restricted how churches and presbyteries engage in the call process. Instead, those agencies are fully empowered to more effectively do the work they're entrusted with. Gone is rhetoric that defined ordination standards in negative terms (who is not qualified). And the obvious: gone is the air of exclusivity that has weighed down the church like a ball and chain. Instead we find a more inclusive mindset regarding who can serve the church as an ordained minister, elder or deacon.
Now - it goes without saying that there will be some who won't welcome this change. Human sexuality, for most folks, is one of those "dig-in-your-heels," "no compromise" kinds of issues. There are very few fence-riders. Already there have been threats of individuals, even entire churches, jumping ship and leaving the denomination. These actions, if followed through on, would be ill-advised.
For one, it's not like they're suddenly going to start busing ordained gays and lesbians from some undisclosed location to churches all over the country. This amendment does not force churches or presbyteries to call homosexual persons to ministry - it only removes the prohibition against it. In essence it fully empowers the governing bodies of our denomination entrusted with calling and examining ordained individuals to do their job. Does this mean some may still rule an individual unfit for ministry because of their sexual orientation? Yes. But it also enables those same bodies to call a person based on their complete gifts for ministry, sexual preference notwithstanding. Either way, the decision is completely up to the church or presbytery who is meeting with this person and considering their ability to serve.
Besides, while a lot will change with Amendment 10-A, a lot won't. And ironically, one of the things that won't change is the ordination of gays and lesbians! For, as pointed out by my Presbyterian minister colleage in this blog post, we already have gays and lesbians serving as ministers, elders and deacons. Every denomination does! Presbyterians have been ordaining them for years, even during the tenure of Amendment B. That's because in some instances the individual has remained silent about their orientation. In others, those around them have engaged in a sort of ecclesiastical "Don't ask, don't tell" - because they understood the power and significance of a call to ministry.
And that, for me, is what it all boils down to; and why I personally welcome the change and the language of 10-A. I hold very sacred the notion of a calling to ministry. I know first-hand what it's like to receive that call; how it brews inside you over many years, how you catch glimpses of it at various points in your life. It is part of who you are like the cells in your body or the breath in your lungs. You can't escape it, you can't rationalize your way out of it. It is who you are. And to have a blanket denial of someone's call built into our church's constitution, where one issue is singled out over all others - well, that's never sat well with me. Especially when it involves something that's also part of who a person is. Just as one doesn't "choose" their sexual orientation, one doesn't "choose" to be called to ministry. It chooses you.
And so I welcome 10-A; not because I claim to know every nuance of God's will, but precisely because I don't. I welcome 10-A; not because I lack faith in the way our denomination discerns those who are called to ministry, but precisely because I have full confidence in it.
Still, I know this decision is painful for some, in the same way that the decision to keep the old language the past fourteen years was painful for others. I pray for those who are pained by this decision, and I hope we continue having respectful conversations about human sexuality. I've posted this blog post on my church's website in hopes that it will clarify what this new amendment means - and doesn't mean - as a member of First Presbyterian Church and the PC(USA).
And when it comes to those who are thinking of walking - well, I've thought and prayed a lot about this over the years, knowing this day would probably come. And I think I've figured out what my response will be. I won't try to talk them out of leaving, nor will I attempt to change what they think or believe. I don't think either is the pastoral thing to do.
Instead I will simply ask for six months: a six-month moratorium on the decision to leave; six months to continue worshipping, serving and being an active part of our church together. Six months of Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, Bible studies and Sunday school, fellowship meals and missions. I'll invite them to meet with me when those six months are over. And if at that time they can honestly say they've felt a palapable change in our church as a result of 10-A, that our particular congregation is no longer witnessing to the resurrected Jesus Christ, then they will leave with my blessing. If, however, they don't feel any different about our church, if they come to the conclusion that God is still God and the church continues to live out God's mission as it always has, then I will suggest that perhaps an amendment that changed ordination standards was not an amendment that destroyed the church.
This is a time of change for the church I love, and change is never easy. There will always be those who will choose to hold on to their fears. I, for one, will hold on to hope - because our God is a God of outlandish hope. I invite you to hold on to that hope with me too.
(NOTE: Below is a message from Cynthia Bolbach, Moderator of the 219th General Assembly of the PCUSA, about the ratification of Amendment 10-A. I encourage you to take the 3.26 to watch it.)
(VIDEO LINK HERE)