Many Presbyterians jubilantly proclaimed the Holy Spirit had unquestionably descended upon their 221st General Assembly, when Presbyterians voted to amend its constitution’s (The Book of Order) definition of marriage from “a man and a woman” to “two people. It’s the only way their vote affirming and blessing the loving coupling for its same-sex worshippers could have happened.
With an overwhelming 61 percent in favor for the amendment and 39 percent in opposition to it (of 565 commissioners), the Holy Spirit — if indeed she’s to blame for the church’s recalcitrant attitude toward its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) brethren — took a long time coming. This recent vote is a welcoming change of heart from the church’s 1991 and 2008 rulings prohibiting clergy to perform same-sex marriages.
When clergy performed these marriages, the church’s retribution was both draconian and antithetical to any cleric’s vocation toward fairness and justice. These brave ministers — straight and LGBTQ — sat in the hot seat of their ecclesiastical trials as the church considered four possible censures: rebuke, rebuke with rehabilitation, temporary removal from the church, or the permanent removal from church office, meaning defrocked.
While homophobia is nothing new in the hallowed halls of most churches, the Presbyterian Church — born out of a liberal Protestant Christian tradition, descending from the branch of the Protestant Reformation begun by John Calvin — in many ways is an embarrassment to itself. For more than three decades the Presbyterian Church has been more at holy war rather than spiritual discernment over the issue. And for some Presbyterians, because of the recent vote to amend its constitution, their heels are now dug even deeper either into the church’s archaic polity or their religious imaginations of God’s edict on the matter.
“My heart breaks,” the Rev. Steve Wilkins, representing the New Harmony Presbytery in South Carolina, shared with the New York Times during the debate. “I don’t think it’s up to us to change the definition of marriage; in fact marriage has been defined by us and revealed to us in God’s word.”
Many Presbyterians in 2010 were in righteous indignation when the General Assembly (GA) decided to ordain its LGBTQ ministers, resulting in break-away churches. Although the church’s Amendment 10-A removed the provision prohibiting the ordination of sexually active unmarried Presbyterians as church officers the ratification came with a scolding and heterosexist caveat — church officers must be either celibate (allowing for non-celibate LGBTQs to be ordained) or be active with a member of the opposite gender.
While such a proviso on how church officers are to be sexually active or celibate is laughable to anyone living in present time, sadly, the governing body of the Presbyterian Church isn’t laughing. It is the Church’s governing body that calls the shots. And it’s the governing body that continues to hold both civil union and marriage equality states — even in queer-friendly Massachusetts — hostage to their Directory for Worship in the ”Book of Order,” impacting and impeding 9,777 church officers to faithfully serve all of God’s children.
The advocacy group “More Light Presbyterians” gives us hope. It is a coalition of congregations and individuals in the American Presbyterian Church committed to increasing the involvement of all people in the church, regardless of sexuality. Their mission is for the full participation of LGBTQ people of faith into the life, ministry, and witness of the Church. And they were instrumental in successfully lobbying for the vote to allow same-sex marriage at GA.
But before the Presbyterian Church gives itself congratulatory pats on the back, let’s remember the constitutional amendment will only become church law if approved by a majority of 172 presbyteries.
And as a church that proudly touts itself as ”reformed and always reforming” let’s hope the Holy Spirit shows up again to help it along.
Rev. Irene Monroe is a Huffington Post blogger and freelance journalist.