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)
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—to tell the truth, the Church Universal—has struggled for generations over interpretation of Scripture, each specific disagreement roiling the church. The Protestant emphasis upon personal relationship with God in Christ through reading the Bible has been the foundation for one controversy after another. The most recent is over the place of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people among us.
For most of this time we had one solution to the challenge of holding together when we disagreed on God’s will for us: we shared in service to others. I have participated in this, as you have, I expect.
For example, four or five times, I joined the More Light Presbyterians Rainbow Corps, traveling to New Orleans to work with other Presbyterians under the auspices of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to help rebuild homes after Hurricane Katrina. All us volunteers were Presbyterians from across the country from all kinds of churches.
When we gathered in the morning for prayer and directions from our site leader for the day, what mattered was your skill in carpentry or strength of back or willingness to learn and follow orders. It didn’t matter that I am a bisexual person or that my partner assigned to measure and cut dry wall with me is certain that Romans 1:26-27 settles any questions about God’s judgment of LGBT people. We could build common ground by building houses.
This is only one instance of how we have tried and tried in the PCUSA to build gracious space by commitment to sharing in what we all agree upon: service in Christ’s name to those in need. To everyone’s dismay, the decades-long exodus of churches and the enclave mentality of left and right suggest that this has not worked particularly well. Why?
Here’s my answer: in the midst of our shared service, we fail to share ourselves with each other.
One of the memories of MLP Rainbow Corps I most cherish was the year we were assigned to demolish the inside of a ruined home with a group of Presbyterians from Burlingame, California. We Rainbow Corps volunteers were intentional in wearing t-shirts that declared we were from More Light, known as the LGBT group in the PCUSA. After several hours of pulling nails—that was my low skill job—and other tasks, the whole crew sat down together for lunch.
We shared from our sacks and we cautiously shared of ourselves. It turned out their church is a pretty conservative one. Conversation was superficial at first. Then, questions were asked and we all answered them honestly from our hearts. Tough situations some of them faced, like a gay grandchild, were shared. How Scripture informed our faith was offered and received respectfully, if not with agreement.
This was freedom of conscience in action. Our shared service in Christ to the needy brought us together. Our shared respect for one another as Christians and Presbyterians prompted us to delve below the surface of casual conversation. I like to think that our conversations that week in New Orleans helped keep that Burlingame church in the Presbyterian fold. God knows.
One way to encourage that conversation is to provide service opportunities that prompt serious conversation in sensitive areas of disagreement. For example, most Presbyterian congregations are in areas that struggle with the problem of homeless youth. Research shows that a large percentage of those homeless will be LGBT youth, often shunned by their religious family and their church.
Why don’t Presbyterians, who disagree on Scripture’s word regarding LGBT people, work together in service to the homeless? Might the plight of the homeless spark deeper conversations? Curbing bullying and support for LGBT asylum seekers fleeing criminalization in their home countries are two other needs that offer the church gracious space for sacred conversation.
Shared service is good. It’s a start toward being the church together. What we need to add to it is the respect for one another assumed in the PCUSA tradition we call “freedom of conscience.” With this, shared service to the needy becomes a fertile gracious space in which we build together the PCUSA of the 21st century.
Other Posts in the Building Gracious Space Series: