God alone is Lord of the conscience,
and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men
which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship.
(Book of Confessions, 6.109, The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, F-3.0101a)
An important vote is coming for all of us in the Presbyterian Church. Known as 14-F, it is the recommendation from the 221st General Assembly to adopt a section on marriage in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Directory for Worship that reflects the diverse mind of our church in the 21st century.
Some say the future of the PCUSA rests on the “what” of this vote. I propose that our future together depends more on “how” we conduct this vote.
As befits our “presbyterian church,” politics is, in many ways, our spirituality. The coming voting season is a test: are we ready to be the church of Jesus Christ? Can we listen prayerfully to every speaker? Can we choose not to fight among ourselves any more? Can we create together common ground, not so much as compromise, rather, as something else, something new, something that will blossom as the Body of Christ into the future God has in store for us?
There are presbyteries and congregations that have already found this gracious space. It was a feature of the General Assembly in June that astounded long time observers.
The GA recommendation offers freedom of conscience on marriage between two men or two women in the section on marriage for the Directory for Worship. The assembly arrived at this proposal after unprecedented small group discussion among commissioners and long, respectful debate. It reflected what some presbyteries already are and modeled the way we all can be. It was not easy.
I was a commissioner in Detroit. I did hear frustration, sadness, fear and anger in my small group and in the lengthy debate on marriage at GA. I think one reason these feelings did not direct the assembly is this: everyone there has had these feelings through the decades of considering the place of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in God’s eyes and in the church. We have all known frustration, sadness, fear and anger somewhere along the line.
Please ponder with me for a moment what this means.
Up until now, we have taken freedom of conscience to mean going off into our corners, having little to do with those who think differently from us. This assembly showed us all there is a more excellent way. Freedom of conscience opened for us a gracious space, a place of shared feelings that held us together even with our different conclusions about LGBT people.
There were some very disgruntled commissioners around me at GA. Their views were losing their place as the dominant perspective and they exuded what Paul Detterman captured in his July reflection on the assembly in The Presbyterian Outlook as feeling in “exile.”
And yet, what gives me some hope is the fact that we who are in the emerging majority have known that feeling of exile—all those feelings that go with losing—too. We have known frustration, sadness, fear and anger in church, too. Recognizing this invites us to sit together in that space of shared feelings.
This is what my friend, Pastor Doug Dunderdale (known affectionately as Fundy Dundy to some) and I would do at lunch over many, many years. Doug’s views on most matters prevailed in the PCUSA at that time. Mine did not. We ate together. We shared our best thoughts. We listened carefully. Doug always told me that he loved me and teased me when, in my “Frozen Chosen” manner, I struggled to take that in and to express my care for him.
Doug knew a time of exile in the 1970’s when his views on the ordination of women did not prevail. Perhaps that made him sensitive to my feelings of exile. We found blessed common ground in our shared feelings of exile and wanting refuge. We both wanted to connect–to love one another, as Jesus wants us to do–even when our perspectives differed.
This dynamic of shared feelings is common already in many congregations and some presbyteries. Cultivating it in every presbytery is the work of this coming season. It starts with the recognition that we all yearn to be loved.
Shared feelings may seem gossamer-thin but cobwebs are mighty strong.
Is acknowledgement of shared feelings present or growing in our presbyteries? If so, I am hopeful for it offers a foundation for the gracious space in which we will be, together, the PCUSA into the 21st century.