Last night (May 10, 2011) the Presbyterian Church (USA), in which I am ordained, both as elder and minister of the Word and sacrament, passed an amendment to change our ordination standards. There are about fifty-eleven news stories, blogs, tweets, and facebook statii which can explain about Amendment 10A. The biggest implication (although not the only one) is that the PC (USA) will now be able to ordain queer folk who are involved in same gender loving partnerships as deacons, elders, and ministers. The PC (USA) has published an official statement here.
It would be easy to raise my fist in the air and dance across this blog, and of course I am joy-filled. It would be disingenuous to say I wasn't, no matter how many pleas for graciousness go out. And I don't expect those who disagree to hide their sorrow. I am an openly queer pastor, and it has been a very stressful few years.
But I am left with deeper thoughts tonight than this celebration--a deeper joy at my own personal return to a right relationship with God and the church. I thought I might share what I mean.
I joined Goleta Presbyterian Church in the fall of 1996 after a 10 year courtship with the church. I hadn't grown up a Christian and my family did not attend church. That's another story. But in 1996, I felt a call to become a member finally at GPC. I was married, although we didn't have children yet. After 10 years I wanted to belong finally to this little church that had nurtured my spiritual life and introduced me to God. These people prayed for me and listened to my stories. They shared their own stories over potlucks and communion and retreats and in worship. They welcomed me, despite my authority issues, my inappropriate attire, and the scorn I had for our scriptures.
To join the church I had to make a public profession of faith during a Sunday morning worship service. This is no small thing for a person like me, who finds faith more intimate than sex and deeply personal. In every way I felt vulnerable. Worse, I had to state: "Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior." I did not feel this thing I was to say, but I understood it intellectually. I understood well God as Creator, even if I choked on calling God "Father." I had many times felt and seen the Spirit at work. But the idea of Jesus lay beyond my grasp, however willing I was to make this profession.
To accept Christ as Lord and Savior is to submit in some way that I barely understood and simultaneously resented. But I did anyway, because of the deep trust developed over many years with the people of that congregation.
A few months later I was ordained as an elder. We had started a contemporary service, and I sang in the band. I was assigned to the worship committee where I could liaison between the contemporary worship team and the session. Again this ordination had an unexpected twist: I had to kneel as part of the ordination.
I do not kneel to anybody. I do not submit to anybody. I dislike intensely moments of vulnerability, having abundant memories of violations of my body and trust. Worse, they prayed by laying on hands. And again, what allowed me to follow through, to engage with this body of people, to submit to God by kneeling in the midst of witnesses, was the trust and love we had built in the congregation.
A few years whizzed by and I discovered what it meant to love Jesus, to submit to that love, to understand myself to be in deep relationship with this Savior. I understood it both as a personal, individual faith and as becoming a part of a larger body in Christ. Anybody on earth can tell you that I have authority issues and that structure chafes my soul badly. But this church somehow wooed me with its gentle ways. In 2005 I decided to leave my position at the church as youth director and apply to seminary. God's call on my life seemed very clear and my husband agreed. The church celebrated. The presbytery received me with joy as an inquirer (the first step in the ordination process). All seemed well.
And then after the presbytery meeting where I was received as an inquirer, I was asked to sign a code of conduct. It was required of all pastors, candidates and inquirers under care of the presbytery. Mostly this was a formality--a piece of paperwork that had been forgotten in the process. I should have signed it before I was presented to the presbytery or at least been allowed to consider it. The last item on this fairly standard code of conduct was a clause which stated that I would not participate in or condone homosexual activity.
This brought me up short. I was married to a man, and only had the vaguest inkling of my own queerness--it just wasn't something I thought about in relationship to myself. But my oldest, closest friend is a lesbian. And many of the youth I worked with identified as queer in some way. I very nearly refused to sign that code of conduct, but I also refused to walk away from this call. Truthfully, I did not grow up in the church, and I had no idea that unmarried, sexually active individuals could not be ordained as an elder, deacon, or minister. It sat wrong with me. I had just become an inquirer, and I suddenly realized that this church was not what I thought it was. In some very deep way my trust with this church was fractured, and the peaceful connection with God that I had discovered became fraught with tension, rebellion, dislike, and the desire to run.
And again, the trust I had built with this small church sustained me. I moved on to seminary, and during my years there I divorced. In the process of ruminating on the church's obsession with sexuality I figured out my own queerness. Feeling both a physical distance from my presbytery (3,000 miles) and a spiritual distance, I transferred my membership to Plainsboro Presbyterian Church in New Jersey. These were people close to my new home who could nurture me in my faith, care for my family as we weathered our crises, and provide guidance through the ordination process.
The tension of being at odds with this denomination I love so very much did not ease. The discussions about sexuality have been difficult. The rage I feel when same gender love is equated to pedophilia is something I can't describe. And I have been shaped by that. My spiritual practices have been shaped around the need to rebel against what is not God in the midst of the church--this deliberately narrow heterosexual framework imposed upon every member.
I joined the queer student group at the seminary. Conservative students made threats to notify presbyteries of our membership in that group. Dr. Robert Gagnon was brought in by Presbyterians For Renewal (student group) for a three lecture series. I was acutely aware that just condoning homosexuality could nix my ordination. I couldn't imagine the row if I openly declared I was queer.
I do not have a partner. My ordination was not a sham. There was no need for me to declare anything as I was not violating our book of order. But I was ordained under the shadow of knowing that my deeper truths would be shamed and displayed if they were known. I was angry at my ordination, where again I had to kneel. The day after my ordination I could barely get out of bed. I was exhausted after five years of pushing hard to get through this process. I was incredulous that I had finished the process. It was a year before I could feel the Spirit moving through me again.
What I felt was that I had submitted to God in good faith, and that somehow that submission had been perverted into a submission to other humans. When I knelt for ordination, I did so knowing that I was bending to injustice, becoming complicit in a structure that hurt people in the name of love. The only way I could do such a thing was by holding to the anger that brought and channeling that anger into changing this system.
Last October, a year after my ordination, I decided to come out publicly as a queer pastor. It was a way to channel my anger and to stay true to my convictions. What I discovered is that I was no longer sustained by the trust I felt with the people of the church. I was sustained, instead, by anger and injustice. I built trust with other people in other ways, but it was no longer possible with the church. When I attended a pastor's training with other first call pastors, I was acutely aware that I could not share the fullness of myself. I did not trust these people with my story. I was disconnected from people I was hoping to love. My public declaration eased some of that tension.
The passing of 10A has returned the possibility of building trust with the church and her people. I felt today, as I was walking, a great deal of joy at the possibilities for the church and queer folk. But deeper within I could feel the Spirit moving again peacefully, in a way I have not felt since 2005. I no longer am living under threat of shame and discipline. I can risk again deep vulnerability with the people of this church.
For six years I have submitted to the church and to people, and it has damaged me in ways I hope I can repair. The passing of 10A returns my submission to Christ. In a way that was previously only possible by leaving this church, this church has restored my faith. My words here fail to express this fully, but I have been liberated from a deep pain, and I thank you.