Just recently I had a conversation with a friend who is in deep distress over what is going on at their church. An outspoken group of their congregation’s leadership is talking of leaving the PCUSA if the church allows ministers and sessions to choose for themselves whether they will perform or host same-sex weddings. At the minimum the leaders of my friend’s church want to change their by-laws to make it clear that they will never allow same-sex marriages, just like they already did concerning ordination after the “fidelity and chastity” language was removed in 2011.
As my friend talked it was clear that those who are pushing for this in that congregation are deeply angry, but (I think) even more deeply fearful. They are terrified that they will be forced to do something that goes deeply against their belief and understanding. And, they are horrified that the larger church is even considering allowing same-sex marriages to happen in other congregations. They just can’t abide it.
What my friend shared was not “news” to me. That congregation’s concern is well known, and simply echoes what is being heard from so many other congregations. As a graduate of a conservative evangelical seminary (Gordon-Conwell), I already have a variety of friends and even relations whose churches have left the PCUSA in favor of ECO or the EPC, and I know others will inevitably follow. It is painful. It hurts. And, I do take it personally. But, I don’t know how I or we can do anything about it, except to give up my / our efforts to get the church to allow same-sex marriages. And that is something that I can’t and won’t do.
As a gay man, a married gay man, a married gay man who also happens to be a minister, and a married gay man who happens to be a minister who is married to a ruling elder, this struggle touches the very core of my life and being. We have been deeply and personally engaged in the struggle for over thirty years. It touches the very core of my faith, and my discernment of where God is calling our church. I cannot and will not turn aside from the effort. Nor can / will the multitude of others who have been similarly called.
What breaks my heart is what I can only see as the willful misunderstanding and fear of those who think that those of us who are working to allow same-sex marriage in the PCUSA are somehow working to “impose” same-sex marriage on them and their congregations. Among all the many points of disagreement between us, that is the one piece that I regard as simple, stubborn, and sinful wrong-headedness. It is exactly the same set of fears and misunderstandings that were appealed to in the long years of ordination debates. How is permission the same as forcing? It is not, and the experience of the last three years vis a vis ordination seems to bear that out.
I find myself wanting to challenge those in opposition to look me right in the eye and give me one good reason why my being able to be married in my church really and actually effects them? I want to ask them why they will not believe what everyone that I know of who supports allowing same-sex marriage in the PCUSA is saying… that we DO respect their conscience, that we are NOT trying to force their conscience, and that we are NOT trying to force them to do anything that they cannot in good conscience do?
Over the forty years of this struggle, those of us who have pushed and pressed for ordination and marriage have plenty of experience of being forced, against OUR consciences, to refrain from doing what we believed to be God’s will… or risk the disciplinary consequences. It was not pleasant. It was painful and costly. Why on earth would we now want to turn the tables and impose such nastiness on others?
I will admit that I am wary of those who now feel called elsewhere. The departures feel like a final slap on the face, a final rejection and judgment, by those with whom we have only asked to dwell in peace and unity. And, to add insult to injury, it too often happens that those who leave do so wrapping themselves in the language of principle, and even victimhood. I find myself wondering how much of a guilty conscience may be involved, and the fear that we will do to others as has been done to us?
I can only say this to my sisters and brothers who are thinking of leaving: I really do understand the deep and visceral issues, both of faith and human sexuality that our mere existence confronts you with. I was there before I was where I am now, and it was hard and painful to get from the one place to another. If God calls you to that transition, I am glad to journey with you. But, those of us who are advocating for the permission to do same-sex marriages in the PCUSA are not even really asking you to change. (That is happening around us, whatever we do.) We are simply asking you to stay with us and live with us in awkward disagreement. We promise to respect you. We will speak our truth in love. You will speak your truth in love. We will minister side by side, each according to our understanding. And, ultimately, we will see where the Spirit leads us in our onward journey.
“For if this counsel or this work is of human origin, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow it – and in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” – Acts 5: 38-39
— Ken Cuthbertson
May 14, 2014
Ken Cuthbertson is a member-at-large in Santa Fe Presbytery, and a Parish Associate at Las Placitas Presbyterian Church. His book The Last Presbyterian? was published in May 2013.