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)
I exclaimed, “Wow!” when I first heard that Marc Benton intended to travel from his home in York, PA to stand before the Hudson River Presbytery to ask forgiveness for bringing charges in 2000 against the presbytery when it allowed congregations to hold same-sex weddings (http://www.pcusa.org/news/2014/9/10/seeking-forgiveness-hudson-river-presbytery/). There was no guarantee that he would receive it.
In what became known as the Benton case, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission ruled that these unions “would not be sanctioned” and “would not be proper” in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). What Marc Benton set in motion within the PCUSA sent ripples far beyond Hudson River Presbytery.
It led to a flood of accusations across the church against ministers like myself who were fulfilling the office of pastor by presiding at the weddings of LGBT members. As in my case in Pittsburgh Presbytery, these proceedings were a terrible drain of time and treasure. For many defendants, lives were permanently disrupted and presbyteries bore the cost of adjudicating the charges. My case dragged on for three years.
When Marc wrote to Hudson River that he “sought to apologize to you who were hurt by my actions,” I guess I am one of those Presbyterians he was addressing. Can I forgive him? What would that mean and how important is it?
Extremely important, I think.
There is an ocean of hurt roiling beneath the on-going life of the PCUSA. Anger is in the mix. It has been there a very long time. There are women among us who have never had the chance to fulfill their potential in ministry, and African-Americans who have persevered in the face of frustrating blindness to the challenges presented to them by both church and society. There are the pastors who, as seminarians, were vocal in their opposition to the war in Vietnam and the Presbyterians who would still accuse them of cowardice.
There are the LGBT Presbyterians who have endured biting judgments, and the evangelical Presbyterians who remain in the PCUSA as their life-long friends judge them by exiting for other Presbyterian folds. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will not flourish until the deep feelings sparked by these and so many other occasions are touched by forgiveness.
How we conceive of forgiveness is crucial here. How do you?
My sense of forgiveness was given to me many years ago by Marjorie Thompson, a wise spiritual director. She suggested, forgiveness is “to release the one who has harmed you from the sentence of your judgment.” This is what we desperately need in the PCUSA. This is one way to understand our essential reformed tenet of “freedom of conscience.” This is a building block of gracious space.
The grace I find in this understanding of forgiveness comes from its respect for my judgment, my sense of being harmed. I retain that. What I let go of is any infliction of punishment on the other; there will be no “sentence” in that sense. Nor will I harp on the matter, reminding the other of my grievance in words. There will be no more “sentence” in that sense either.
Perhaps this turning of punishment in word or deed over to God is what Jesus meant when He emphasized that judgment belongs to God and taught us to love our enemies.
Whatever your vision of forgiveness is, we all need to bring it now to the table in the PCUSA – and the wider world. The accumulated baggage of hurt and blame has become too heavy for any of us to bear. We cannot carry it into the 21st century. Forgiveness is the key to shedding it.
On September 23, 2014, Marc Benton met with Hudson River Presbytery. I heard emotions ran high in those from whom the GAPJC Benton decision exacted a very high price. As Truth and Reconciliation experiences across the globe tell us, forgiveness requires us to navigate difficult emotional waters. And Hudson River Presbytery had the faith and courage to do that. They created a gracious space.
Can we join them? Can I forgive Marc Benton? Can you forgive the one who hurt you?