Seeking a Positive Peace in Detroit

Since October of last year, More Light Presbyterians has provided a forum for teaching and ruling elders to Stand for Love by indicating their willingness to publicly marry same-gender couples in obedience to their ordination vow to “show the love and justice of Jesus Christ.” Currently 300 teaching elders have signed Stand for Love and are supported by 546 ruling elders. Since the addition of New Jersey as the 14th marriage equality state, 25% of teaching elders find themselves in an untenable situation – choosing to provide pastoral care for the people they’ve been called to serve, or withholding it in order to comply with the current language in the Directory for Worship in the Book of Order.

Yesterday the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly sent a letter urging all Presbyterians to remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream at the Detroit assembly. As we prepare for the General Assembly, we are mindful about how Stand for Love echoes the call to a positive peace in Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail: “The great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

Our denominational partners in the United Methodist Church are also facing a similarly untenable situation. This past weekend retired United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert stood for love in his denomination and officiated at a same-gender wedding in Birmingham, Alabama. He married Joe Openshaw, 59, and Bobby Prince, 54 who were already legally married Sept. 3 in Washington, D.C., where same-gender marriage is legal. As the opposition among United Methodist Bishops leading up to this watershed moment for justice intensified, Bishop Mary Ann Swenson wrote an impassioned dissent in support of Bishop Talbert’s actions. Swenson’s dissent provides a model of King’s positive peace and why we Stand for Love to establish the full presence of justice through an authoritative interpretation and an amendment to the Book of Order at the 221st General Assembly in Detroit.

Here’s the back story: The executive committee of the United Methodist Council of Bishops had urged Bishop Melvin Talbert to not perform the same-gender marriage because, “The bishops of the church are bound together in a covenant and all ordained elders are committed to uphold the Book of Discipline. ‘Conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies’ are chargeable offenses in the United Methodist Church. (¶2702.1.b).” Bishop Swenson replied with this dissent:

For too long, the Church has refused to see the face of God in LGBTQ people like Joe and Bobby, speaking instead of the importance of “clergy covenant” and upholding antiquated and unjust laws that do not conform to our Wesleyan understandings of Scripture through tradition, reason, and experience. We reduce gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer people to sexual activities, robbing them of their full humanity, the love, fidelity, and grace found in faithful companionship, as well as deny our understanding of human sexuality as a good gift from God…

There are times when Biblical Obedience – faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus and his new commandments given to us in the Scriptures – trumps following the letter of the law in our Discipline. It is written in the Scriptures that our risen savior Christ Jesus broke the Sabbath commandments and healed those who needed healing. Jesus broke these commandments not for the sake of disregarding the law but to follow the spirit of the law found in the greatest commandments to love God and to love neighbor. Jesus has given us the commandment to love one another. Who are we to stand in the way of God’s law for the universe? It is in this spirit of love of God and neighbor that we can find inspiration and direction for how our church should respond to the unjust laws found in our Discipline

The time has come for acts of faith and courage. I support Bishop Talbert in his willingness to officiate a service of Christian marriage for Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw, two faithful men whose story I personally have heard and whose deep love for each other I have witnessed. Until we can revise the discriminatory language of The Book of Discipline, I encourage my colleague bishops to follow the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, to ignore these unjust laws of our Discipline, and to permit United Methodist clergy who find it in their consciences and in their duties to fulfill the pastoral needs of those in their flock to celebrate ceremonies of Christian marriage for same-gender couples to do so. We all have the power to do the right thing.

In Swenson’s dissent she characterizes both the need to allow individual clergy the ability to officiate same-gender ceremonies if they “find it in their conscience and in their duties to fulfill pastoral needs,” as well as the need for the Church to recognize LGBTQ people full members of our congregations, membership which includes the ability to covenant together in marriage. MLP supports both an authoritative interpretation and an amendment in order to live into both of these callings.

We believe Stand for Love prefigures the presence of justice for LGBTQ people and teaching elders in the Presbyterian Church (USA). More Light Presbyterians and Covenant Network’s pursuit of both an A.I. and an amendment at the 221st General Assembly seeks to make the presence of justice a holistic reality for LGBTQ people and the entire church.

This is the positive peace we seek in Detroit and in our daily living.

Photo: From left, the Rev. Kevin Higgs, Bobby Prince, the Rev. J.R. Finney, Joe Openshaw and Bishop Melvin Talbert. (Photo by Greg Garrison/ggarrison@al.com)

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