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 would not have said I was anxious as I drove to York, PA to visit with Marc Benton, the Presbyterian pastor who had asked to be forgiven for bringing the judicial charges in 2000 that led to many church court proceedings against me and other ministers providing the pastoral service of weddings to LGBT people. What tipped me off was the fact that I twice misplaced the directions to his home, making it harder to find my way to him.
What made actually getting to him, to forgive him, so difficult? Was I really ready to release him from the sentence of my judgment?
For almost twenty years I have had the habit of repeating the Lord’s Prayer when I fill the gas tank of my car. We say it in church every Sunday after the offering. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors (Matthew 6:12).” I come from a family of Presbyterian bankers, so I know what forgiving debts entails. This verse has probably had the deepest Scriptural impact on my understanding of forgiveness.
That understanding was immeasurably enriched when I read Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy. It’s a reflection upon the Pennsylvania Amish community that forgave the man who killed their children in a schoolhouse shooting in 2006. I have not forgotten their sense that God would not forgive their sins if they did not forgive him.
I went with the intention to formally forgive him. In fact, I thought I already had.
Marc was as described to me: stolid and earnest, a lot like me, I’d say. It strikes me that we both struggle to express emotion and are deliberate in thinking things through. I knew from reading his statement to Hudson River Presbytery that we had this in common: Yale Divinity School was our seminary. We discovered that Henri Nouwen, professor there in the 1970’s, had a lasting impact on us both.
We told one another our stories, our journeys as Presbyterian ministers. He shared how he brought the case against his presbytery and how heated things became there. I shared how I came to preside at Nancy and Brenda’s wedding, how the Holy Spirit truly fell upon that ceremony, how I knew there was no prohibition against it in the PCUSA Constitution nor in the Benton decision. We came to an amazing, sacred place in our conversation that I will share another time.
We were immersed in that discussion when I realized I had not spoken about his repentance and my forgiveness. I had forgotten, and so came back to it. I formally released him from any sentence of my judgment. He volunteered to tell the story of his change of mind about the place of LGBT people in God’s heart if that might help the church have the same kind of conversation we were having. If I think of that as a kind of penance, he freely offered it.
Some days have passed since then. As a slow feeler, I needed time to feel the feelings the morning in York broke open in me. Articulating them may be beyond me. What I can tell you is this: I weep.
I weep with a sadness of which I see no bottom. I weep for the harm done by the breach between followers of Jesus like Marc and me. I weep for all the LGBT people who fell into that chasm through despairing suicide, or hate crimes or indelible scars on their spirits. I weep for the defiling of our witness to Christ by our fighting, our hardness of heart.
I weep with relief. The breach has been crossed with Marc Benton and that eases some great tension in me. Because Jesus prays that the church be one, I feel a serious responsibility to heal that breach in the church. If Marc Benton of “the Benton case” and I can find our way in a sacred conversation, then I have hope for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
It took this weeping to truly forgive Marc Benton.
That weeping is an element of freedom of conscience is a new idea for me. We must weep when we understand that there can be dangerous consequences of disagreement—inevitable for every group—when we fail to honor the freedom of another’s conscience by listening with respect.
I will now approach disagreements with a new readiness to create a more gracious space for us by letting my soul weep when I forgive. Let me know how this goes for you.