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)
A good friend of mine, a fervent activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) inclusion in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), was visiting. As a born and bred Pittsburgh Presbyterian, I was sharing with him some of my presbytery’s history.
I said, “Of course, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) decision in the Kenyon case is really important to many around here.”
He replied, “You know, I’ve heard that name but I have no idea what it was about.”
I tried to explain how, in my view, the Kenyon case planted distrust so deep and wide in the PCUSA that healing this wound is still crucial to the well-being of the PCUSA. Here’s how I understand it. Around 1974, Wynn Kenyon was a candidate for ordination in Pittsburgh Presbytery who, in his oral trials, shared that he could not, in good conscience, participate in the ordination of women.
The presbytery approved his ordination. Remedial charges were filed against Pittsburgh Presbytery for this action on the grounds that equality between men and women was an essential of reformed faith and polity and every person ordained in the PCUSA was required to assent to ordaining women. The GAPJC upheld that argument and, in the end, Wynn Kenyon was never ordained to ministry in the PCUSA. Presbyterians who thought as Kenyon did were forced to swallow their more literal interpretation of Scripture in order to remain in the church.
At the same time, this besieged wing of the church saw the power of judicial action to enforce a majority position on controversial issues. Over the next forty years, they used it liberally to attempt to discipline pastors and sessions that ordained LGBT members and presided at weddings for lesbian or gay couples. Now, a whole other wing of the PCUSA has come to distrust their colleagues in ministry. We all feel besieged.
How can we proceed together in the PCUSA with such distrust of one another? We can’t. How do we begin to rebuild this trust required of us, not only by our ordination vows, but also by Jesus in His prayers in the gospel of John?
Here’s my suggestion in a word: kindness.
Please, by this I do not mean polite courtesy or affability, skating over what is deeply held, or might hurt. Benign niceties toward one another have prompted a tendency toward parallel groups of friends and separate spheres of ministry. It has led us to live beside one another, not with each other, together, in the Body of Christ.
I mean what Paul calls a spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22): kindness.
Kindness seeks that which is of God in every person we meet. Kindness sets aside all assumptions about who the other is, what the person thinks or believes. Kindness keeps an eye out for the pain or problem challenging the other. Kindness says what it means and means what it says, communicating, always, with compassion. And it expects the same from others.
I imagine you could add other qualities of kindness from your experience of practicing this discipline and receiving it from others. I also fear that you could share exchanges during debates in presbytery or conversations with colleagues who disagree on church matters where kindness was hurtfully absent. What are we to do with these moments?
Talk about them and practice kindness.
We are the Body of Christ when we love God and love our neighbor. These are only possible when we practice kindness. There are many places and times when kindness prevails in the PCUSA, sparking joy and growth. We know how to be kind in lots of different situations.
Right now, we need to be kind to one another across our lines of difference. Trust arises from this and only this. And trust is required for us to live together into the future as the Body of Christ.
Since we all eventually felt some blow rising from the Kenyon case, we can begin to practice kindness and build trust by talking across old lines. This would be the best foundation for the coming discussion on the proposed amendment 14F to the Directory for Worship 4.9000, the section on marriage.
Freedom of conscience is at the heart of that recommendation. It is the solution our Presbyterian ancestors gave us to be the church even with inevitable theological differences.
The future vitality of our church requires trust, and trust requires kindness.