The Pittsburgh Presbytery 14F Vote: Participating in a Miracle

I followed Carol Chonoska (ruling elder commissioner from East Liberty Presbyterian Church, a CovNet church) and JoAnn Chonoska (Carol’s wife, married in Carol’s brother’s—Jeff Krehbiel—DC church when their marriage was legal there) into the large colonial New England style sanctuary of Bower Hill Presbyterian Church for the meeting of Pittsburgh Presbytery on May 14, 2015 where we would vote on 14F, the overture to replace 4.9000, the section on marriage in the PCUSA Directory for Worship in the Book of Order.

I was on auto-pilot as I was dreading what was to come. I’ve been a member of Pittsburgh Presbytery since 1977 and not once in that time have we had a respectful, robust discussion in presbytery about any matter related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) people. We had never voted more than 37% yes on any overture sent from the General Assembly on G-6.0106b back in the day or 08-B and 10-A more recently.

Carol and JoAnn led me to a seat right on the aisle, one pew away from the two microphones marked “In Favor” and “Opposed” near the front of the church.

Those of us in favor of the motion had done some organizing in the months leading to the meeting. But it was not the standard Get Out The Vote work that was so very effective across the church this year. Experience had taught us here that it didn’t matter who showed up. We would be outnumbered. The debate would be limited to the minimum time set in the manual. Hurtful things said would beat us down. A voice vote would declare No. We would go home.

Still, as I say, we had done some things.

Carol and Senior Pastor Randy Bush at East Liberty Church stayed close to the preparations at the presbytery office for the vote. Lenore Williams, also a ruling elder at ELPC, is Moderator this year and they spoke often with her. Several things happened for the first time.

There was a Saturday informational gathering for the whole presbytery with the Executive Presbyter and Stated Clerk a few weeks before the meeting. There was a conference hour before presbytery with a panel to discuss pastoral needs in light of 14F going into effect in the PCUSA this month. Perhaps, most importantly, a written ballot was given to every voter as we registered. It would be a secret ballot. No one contested this in the meeting.

Rev. Vincent Kolb, pastor at Sixth Presbyterian Church (a More Light church), invited allies to a meeting in the late winter. They agreed to encourage a hand-full of presbytery members to speak in the debate who were not “the usual suspects” and who could tell a compelling story about LGBTQ people and marriage. Several of these did agree to speak in favor of the motion—more about that later.

At Community House Presbyterian Church (a More Light church), where I am a Parish Associate, we tried something new.

Through the CHPC Facebook page, we conducted a Facebook sponsored post program that reached 619,000 FB newsfeeds in the Pittsburgh area, inviting 254,000 people, tagged by FB as Presbyterian, Christian or the like, to go to HarmonyInChurch.com, a website full of posts on helping the church to live together in this post-14F world. It also has a link to the MLP Marriage Study Guide for downloading. 41,761 people took some kind of action (clicked, commented, linked, shared, etc.) in response to these posts. There’s a good chance many of the 35,000 Presbyterians in Pittsburgh Presbytery were among them.

And the pastor of Community House, Wayne Peck, sent the MLP Marriage Study Guide to every congregation in the presbytery, 140 of them, with a letter offering it as a gift: a resource to draw on when new situations would arise and to give all of us in presbytery a shared foundation for understanding the various points of view in the PCUSA in anticipation of our 14F debate. The hope was that the measured tone of the MLP Guide would model for us all the same spirit among us.

Only God knows what factored into the miracle we witnessed that afternoon in Bower Hill Church.

One of them had to be that our Pastor to the Presbytery, Sheldon Sorge, was forthright in his sermon during worship. Though our vote was not pivotal in the adoption of 14F, how we conducted our debate and vote mattered as a measure of how we live together in the Body of Christ now and into the future. He urged us to be mindful of gracious engagement.

When the Moderator asked for those wishing to speak in the debate to come to the microphones, four or five people lined up on each side in the center aisle. I found myself in line and raised my hand high to be recognized. “Madam Moderator,” I said, “A point of personal privilege. Even these lines at different mics already divide us. I ask that we have a moment to hug each other before we begin.” “Please,” she said and there was an audible gasp through the whole hall as we warmly reached across to the other line, hugging colleagues in ministry as friends.

There were parliamentary moves around the debate. A motion to call the question before we began was ruled out of order. When the 20 minutes allotted by the rules ended and one person was left to speak, the motion to extend debate was moved, seconded and passed. In my memory this was unprecedented. This was grace for us.

Every one of the speakers for 14F told a compelling story. For example, two leaders at Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community, a successful new church development now well established, shared how central Jack and Larry have been to their church, leading their meals ministry. Having been together for decades, they were astonished when Hot Metal welcomed them. The church had rejoiced in their marriage this past year and prayed with them just the day before when Jack died in the hospital with Larry at his side. They said, “Jack and Larry needed the church. The church needed Jack and Larry.” And we knew it was true.

I confess, I was too intent on keeping to my three minutes and breathing after I sat down—this was the first time in over a decade that I spoke in one of these debates–that I couldn’t pay close attention to the other speeches. I did feel that the ones against “clanged,” if you know what I mean. There were no stories. One friend has told me since that her eyes teared up twice during the pro-14F stories.

The ballots were marked, passed to the aisle and carried out to be counted. When I saw the Stated Clerk return to the front of the church I knew the outcome was known. She slipped the announcement in between items of business. “All the motions passed,” she said. (We voted that day on all the overtures except The Belhar Confession). Then she sat down. It took a moment for this to register. All the motions. . .that means 14F. . .14F must have passed. . .how could this possibly be?

There was stunned silence and the meeting when on. Before we adjourned, she gave the details: 122 Yes, 110 No, 3 Abstentions.

I will spare you my political analysis of how this could be. I prefer to sit in the mystery of the transforming miracle of Pittsburgh Presbytery voting Yes on 14F. I know there are those 110 who voted No and may have feelings similar to ones I have had through years of losing.

What’s most important to me is the way Pittsburgh Presbytery is joining what the Holy Spirit seems to be doing in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). What a joy to participate in that miracle!

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