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John Shuck on Amendment A

Amendment 01-A Will Keep All God's Creatures in the Ark

The Rev. John A. Shuck, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Billings, MT, has sent us this essay, in which he reflects on the benefits that passage of Amendment A would bring to all of us as a denomination, and to our congregations and members.

It would, he says, be faithful to Scripture, respectful of differing opinions among us, and in harmony with the meaning of ordination in our church.


[12-12-01]

I am a typical pastor in a typical Presbyterian church. I am not a scholar; I am not an activist; I am not a precise theologian; I am a pastor. I have some reasons why I feel as I do in regards to Amendment 01-A. These reasons are neither profound nor unique. You have probably heard them all before. Many people will agree with these reasons, many will disagree and many will agree with some and disagree with others. I think that is what it means to be Presbyterian. We find our way to do ministry decently and in order. 

The congregation in which I joyfully serve is neither conservative nor liberal nor moderate. We are a collection of individuals with divergent views on many topics. We disagree with one another now and again, often strongly. But we know the value of community. And we know that unity is not the result of thinking alike, but of loving one another amidst all the diversity and complexity that makes us human. What I would like to do is engage with others in conversation about this Amendment. I will throw out some ideas under various headings and hope for fruitful conversation from any takers.

Scripture

I highly value scripture. On the whole I hear it as God's Word of boundless love and enduring hope for creation. I preach from scripture week by week. I believe that our church should be ordered from the message of scripture. This message is ultimately embodied in the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. I take scripture so seriously that I cannot take it literally. I always wrestle with what my beloved New Testament Professor, the late J. Christian Beker, called coherence vs. contingency. What is the coherent, central and timeless message of scripture and what aspects of scripture are contingent upon context, culture and ideology? 

As fallible interpreters, we will often mistake the contingent details of the Story for the coherent Message of the Story. No one is immune from this tension. That is why we need each other. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a diverse community to interpret God's Word. It is even trickier to apply our interpretations of various texts to current situations, issues and people. It seems to me that we must have a clear, fair and intelligent understanding of contemporary problems in order for the Message of Scripture to speak with any authority to them.

The contemporary problem we have had before us for 25 years or so is whether or not openly gay persons (my shorthand for "self-affirming practicing homosexuals"--which I find to be laborious and dehumanizing) may serve the church as Deacons, Elders, and Ministers of Word and Sacrament. The actions by various General Assemblies ("definitive guidance", "authoritative interpretation"), PJC decisions, and G-6.0106b (and the litigation that has followed in its wake) seem to suggest that the majority of presbyters have so far said "no." Are these actions backed by the coherent message of scripture? Many agree. Many do not. 

Prior to the last General Assembly over half of the biblical studies faculty at PC(USA) seminaries called the scriptural evidence of denying full participation of gay and lesbian people in the church into question. (1) They saw that the contemporary problem (the denial to ordained leadership of openly gay persons) was not sufficiently addressed by the selected biblical texts often used to support this position. To them, some of these texts are contingent to a larger narrative. 

For example, Romans 1:26-27 is a culturally contingent example of Paul's larger coherent assertion of humankind's inability to comprehend and obey God's will. The Levitical prohibitions (i.e. Leviticus 20:13) are ancient tribal contingents of the larger coherent Holiness Code which instructs Israel to be Holy as God is Holy. It is also true that the coherent biblical drama is couched in the contingent patriarchy from which Israel was embedded. The contingency/coherence model reminds us not to miss the forest for the trees in biblical interpretation. 

Some passages, such as the Sodom and Gomorrah incident (2), refer to the sin of inhospitality and gang rape, and the much disputed word in I Corinthians 6:9 seems to come under the rubric of what we might now call "sexual misconduct." Neither would be acceptable then or now. Certainly much of what was acceptable then in regards to sexual behavior and relationships we would no longer find acceptable. Much of what was unacceptable then, we do find acceptable now. (Rather than go into detail on that point, I refer you to Walter Wink's article, "Homosexuality and the Bible.") (3)  

None of these passages speak directly to contemporary human beings who live in loving, ethical, mutually affirming, and community enhancing relationships that happen to be of the same gender. In fact, I might go as far as to say that no contemporary social issue is addressed directly by scripture. That is why we need the Holy Spirit. You cannot simply go to the Bible and "look it up."

In my opinion, a more appropriate text to illuminate this issue would be Acts 10:9ff where Peter beholds a vision of unclean animals being lowered to him on a sheet. He is commanded to "kill and eat." The message is not about food, but people, namely, the Gentiles. What was formerly unclean is now clean. That is certainly a recurring and coherent message of scripture. God chooses the unexpected to do God's work. Many of the parables of Jesus as well as the actions of Jesus were told to counter the prevailing notions of his time in regards to people who were considered unacceptable, untouchable sinners. Jesus partied with them. 

For me, the coherent message of scripture is one of radical inclusive grace and an invitation to discipleship to everyone, which entails living holy lives. If we are fortunate enough to share our lives in intimacy with another, our relationship should be based upon the Gospel ethic of love, fidelity, forgiveness, stewardship, unitivity and hospitality. (4) I have been blessed to know gay and lesbian couples who have lived that ethic pretty darn well. They in turn, have been a blessing to the community and to the Church of Jesus Christ.

Agreeing to Disagree

All of this said regarding scripture, I recognize that Presbyterians in good conscience may interpret the will of God differently on this and many other matters. With most other matters whether they be social issues such as abortion or capital punishment, or theological issues such as the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement or eschatology, we agree to disagree and at best we even strengthen one another by pointing out facets of an issue or problem that the other may have missed. It seems strange to me that we can agree to disagree on so many more substantial issues and practices and allow freedom of conscience and mutual forbearance in that diversity, but this issue requires a categorical prohibition. 

I am not (nor is Amendment 01-A) asking for agreement on homosexuality any more than I feel that we should agree on hundreds of other social and theological issues and approaches. I do not even claim that I am ultimately right on this. I simply feel that there is room for differing viewpoints. There is no consensus of biblical interpretation that would categorically prohibit Presbyterians in same-gender relationships to serve the church in an ordained capacity. No matter how certain we may feel about our interpretation of scripture regarding this issue, we must agree to the obvious fact that there is no consensus. Far from it. A significant and increasing minority within the Presbyterian Church (USA) faithfully interprets scripture to include those who have been excluded by our current policy. 

Part of the beauty, the decency and the order of our Presbyterian system is not to allow the tyranny of a simple majority to overbear upon the minority on issues that are non-essential. All Amendment 01-A asks for is to let the church agree to disagree and to let the governing bodies determine who may serve particular ordained ministries based on their evaluation of the character, faith and gifts of a person guided by the governing body's interpretation of the coherence of Scripture, the Confessions, and The Book of Order (excepting of course the recent addition, G-6.0106b).

Why ordination/installation?

It is curious to me why the social issue of same gender relationships centers on the issue of ordination/installation within the Church. If same-sex relationships are so far removed from the will of God as to warrant policies specifically excluding these individuals from ordained service within the church, why stop there? Why not pass an amendment explicitly excluding these folks from singing in choir, teaching Sunday school, serving on staff as a youth minister, playing the organ, sweeping up the fellowship hall or doing the dishes after the church potluck? 

Why stop there? Perhaps self-affirming practicing homosexuals (there is that dehumanizing phrase again) should be excluded from church membership and baptism. Those who seek to be baptized or to join the church on affirmation of faith or reaffirmation of faith are asked by me in front of the congregation: "Do you renounce the ways of sin that separate you from the love of God?" (5) Can a self-affirming practicing homosexual (let's call her Sandy in a relationship with her life partner, Joan) say: "I renounce them" knowing full well that she has no intention of changing her relationship with her partner? Is the Session not in violation if it is aware of this relationship as well and approves her for membership? Obviously, I am not advocating for more Draconian measures against our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers. I am simply attempting to point out the inconsistencies of the policy to prohibit installation and ordination of these Presbyterians.

Besides baptism and membership, what of other Christian service? How does a congregation or Session prohibit an openly gay person from teaching Sunday School, serving communion, preaching on occasion, serving as a youth minister (or serving as a paid evangelist as in Janie Spahr's case), or any of the myriad ways in which Presbyterians can serve the church, without a direct prohibition in the Book of Order? The answer is quite simple. Congregations figure these things out for themselves.  

If a Session does not want someone to teach Sunday School, lead the choir or run the youth program, it doesn't ask that individual to do so. The same is the case, whether or not a blanket prohibition is in the Book of Order, regarding ordained and/or installed service. If a Session does not want a certain Presbyterian serving in a particular capacity within its congregation, the Session is adept enough to keep him or her from serving. But is it really fair to force a congregation that disagrees with those principles of exclusion to do the same? We should not ordain (nor prohibit from ordination) people based on category. 

We do not ordain (nor decide not to ordain) communists, cigarette smokers, abortion providers, men, women, divorced persons, biblical literalists, grumpy people, or those who have a good word to say about everyone. We evaluate for service Bob and Sue and Ahmad and Soon Li. That is how Presbyterians do things. A governing body is guided by scripture and the confessions (ultimately the Holy Spirit) to evaluate individuals for particular service. The problem for these past two and one-half decades is that a simple majority has instituted and enforced a binding policy of categorical prohibition on one class of individuals for the whole church. We will continue to have problems until we allow charity on non-essentials. To quote from Jesus (with gratitude to Walter Wink for lifting this one up): "Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?" (6)

A larger issue?

I think there are two larger issues at work. One is the social issue regarding human sexuality and how we as human beings balance diversity, individual autonomy and the common good. It is my opinion that at some point society (in part because of the faithful witness of the church), will regard gay and lesbian persons the way the society regards left-handed persons. Few today would advocate changing the handedness of a person. This was not always the case. One gentleman in my congregation told me that when he was a child his teacher would tie his left hand behind his back so he would be forced to write with this right hand. The theory was based on compassion. The reasoning went that since we live in a right-handed world, we should change the individual to adapt to the larger society. 

Since those days (not too long ago), society has changed. We have become more knowledgeable and more attuned to adapting to the needs of a diverse population. Today, we make left-handed golf clubs. Society adapted to include self-affirming practicing left-handed people because they are valuable contributors to society. Now this right-handed world makes space for the left-handed, because it is good not only for the left-handed but also for the society. Someday, rather than attempt to change homosexuals, we will regard them as valuable contributors to society and as such adapt so that they may participate fully in society.

Society is steadily coming to acceptance of openly gay and lesbian people. This acceptance is happening individual by individual, family by family, co-worker by co-worker, and yes, church member by church member. Corporations increasingly provide domestic partner benefits. Changes happen slowly, but they do happen regarding civil rights for homosexual persons. Mental health and medical health fields do not consider homosexuality to be a sickness. So-called change therapies are for the vast majority of homosexuals non-effective and in many cases harmful. Evangelical Christian and sociologist, Tony Campolo, has emphasized this. (7)  

Our society is developing a more open attitude regarding homosexuality. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Is this in accordance with the grace of Christ or is the culture moving against Christ? This will take some thought. Much of our society's permissiveness is destructive. Marie Fortune, in her book Love Does No Harm writes: "It is a paradox that in the so-called sexual revolution of the last 25 years, women won the right to say 'yes' to sexual activity but all but lost the right to say 'no.'" (8) Society regards people as commodities and consumers not as children of God. If there is an openness to sexual activity for both heterosexuals and homosexuals, some of that openness is because the society does not care. The Church rightly does care. Also, our society is not critical of rampant homophobia. Listen to the comments and the names high school students call each other in the hallways. Violence against and misinformation about gay and lesbian people is still far too common.

What does the church do? This is a question that requires faithful discernment. In times of social change, the church has often been enlisted to uphold the conservative social position of the day, a position that in this case is shaped by unexamined patriarchal attitudes. Neither social conservatism nor social libertinism reflects the Gospel. What is the Gospel way? 

The most important thing is to recognize that change is difficult even as it is necessary. The Holy Spirit is an instrument of change. "I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" (9) In the midst of change, we need to love everyone. That means we love gay and lesbian people as well as our sisters and brothers in the Confessing Church Movement, the Presbyterian Coalition, the More Light folks, the Covenant Network and so forth. We need each other. We need to remember that we all are faithful Presbyterians who love our church

I also think we need to do our primary job of caring for God's people. One aspect of this caring is to discuss and explore ethical guidelines for living in faithful relationships. One resource is the Marie Fortune book mentioned earlier. I have found it to be an excellent book to get us to think about relationships of all kinds. It is a great resource for high school students, particularly heterosexuals. I believe that the church needs to provide rituals and support groups for gay and lesbian people and for parents of gays and lesbians so that we can live faithfully with one another in a culture that can be cold and dehumanizing. We all (heterosexual and homosexual) need whatever spiritual guidance and community blessing we can get to live good and holy lives. I know I do. That is one issue.

The second issue relates to the direction of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I firmly believe in the big umbrella. My religious background is somewhat eclectic. I have roots in the Assemblies of God and the Southern Baptist Convention. I attended a Roman Catholic High School, and now I am a Presbyterian. All of these traditions have been of great value to me. As I mentioned at the beginning, my congregation consists of individuals of divergent views and experiences. I love them all and we need them all. All have gifts and views that need to be shared. We need to share them with civility and love. I have seen this done. When we do this with great respect and love we build up one another. 

This issue regarding ordination/installation of openly gay persons has deeper roots that our new G.A. task force will hopefully trace. We need to support their efforts. One of the issues that will need to be discussed is the importance of scripture and its faithful interpretation. There is much suspicion and misunderstanding of one another in regards to this issue that I believe can be transcended with assertive and attentive listening and discussion. 

The purpose and mission of the Church is another issue that needs our attention. We need to engage and dialogue about Dirk Ficca's ideas rather than either defend or attack him. We also need to recognize that we are spiritually diverse. Jack Haberer's book, God Views, can be a helpful resource as we learn to appreciate our differing spiritual orientations. I do hope and pray that we can discover that there is room for all on Noah's ark. For if Christians cannot find room for each other, I shudder to wonder if human beings can live long together on Planet Earth.


Peace,

Rev. John A. Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Billings, MT


NOTES

1.  Thirty-three professors addressed a statement to commissioners at the 213th General Assembly entitled: "The Whole Bible for the Whole Human Family." This statement can be found on a number of web sites including www.tamfs.org.

2.  Genesis 19:1ff.

3.  This article can be ordered in booklet form from Fellowship Bookstore, Box 271, Nyack, NY 10960. It is also posted on numerous sites throughout the web.

4.  For an excellent discussion on unitivity and hospitality in intimate relationships see Kathy Rudy, Sex and the Church (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 108-130.

5.  Book of Common Worship, 407.

6.  Wink quotes Luke 12:57 in "Homosexuality and the Bible."

7.  "Tony and Peggy Campolo: Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?" is the transcript of a videotape of a talk at North Park Chapel on February 29, 1996. The transcript can be found at www.bridges-across.org/ba/campolo.htm

8.  Marie Fortune, Love Does No Harm: Sexual Ethics for the Rest of Us (New York: Continuum, 1998), 68.

9.  Isaiah 43:19

 

 
 

GA actions going to the presbyteries   

A number of the most important actions of the 219th General Assembly are now being sent to the presbyteries for their action, to confirm or reject them as amendments to the PC(USA) Book of Order.

We're providing resources to help inform the reflection and debate, along with updates on the voting.

Our three areas of primary interest are:

bullet Amendment 10-A, which would remove the current ban on lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender persons being considered as possible candidates for ordination as elder or ministers.

bullet Amendment 10-2, which would add the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions.

bullet Amendment 10-1, which would adopt the new Form of Government that was approved by the Assembly.
 

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Some blogs worth visiting

PVJ's Facebook page

Mitch Trigger, PVJ's Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!

You can post your own news and views, or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.

 

Voices of Sophia blog

Heather Reichgott, who has created this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:

After fifteen years of scholarship and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and thoughtful community.

 

John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, politics, culture, travel, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in Flushing, NY.

 

John Shuck’s Shuck and Jive

A Presbyterian minister, currently serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., blogs about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and lightening up.

 

Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!

 

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