Wednesday, May 11, 2011

a new day

I have been wondering for a long time what I would say if this day ever came. This is a day that I have been working toward for several years -- almost as long as I've been in the church, in fact. It's a day I have dreamed about, despaired of ever seeing, hoped for, longed for, prayed for, and worked for. It's also a day that brings out fear--fear of what might happen, who might leave, what will be said/misrepresented/misconstrued/misunderstood...

But, I have to say, even with a large amount of compassion for the many people for whom this day is sad, I celebrate.

Today, the 87th (and 88th!) presbyteries voted in favor of a change to the PC(USA) Book of Order's ordination standards, putting the "yes" vote in the majority. The language that was inserted 15 years ago with the sole purpose of keeping GLBT people out of church office will be removed and replaced with language that more closely adheres to our historic church standards and that raises the bar pretty significantly for all of us who presume to undertake the task to which God has called us.

No longer will the standard be "fidelity in the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness." Now it will be that we all "submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in every aspect of life." No longer will everything the confessions call sin disqualify people from leadership (since that disqualifies every single person who ever lived, in my read of the Book of Confessions), instead the standard will be the living Word of God, with the examinations focusing on our character and conduct and ability to uphold our ordination vows--and not just our favorites (energy intelligence imagination and love!) but all of them.

To be clear: as I said when the PUP report was released, I do not believe this is going to cause a wholesale change in the way we do preparation or examination for office. The reality on the ground has always been that sessions and presbyteries prepare candidates, oversee their education, and determine whether a) they are called AND b) are suitable for the office. While the "standard" has been in effect, it has been applied inconsistently at best, because the way ordination in the PCUSA words it is inherently local-on-behalf-of-the-wider-church. We don't all gather at a central place once a year and have the bishop do examinations and ordinations. We discern and learn in community, and prayerfully consider who is called and how we can best support them into their ministry. Sessions ordain the people they believe have been called to lead the local congregation. Presbyteries ordain people they believe have been called to serve. There's never been a national body double checking those ordinations. In that sense, this is not a change--each session and presbytery will have to prepare, examine, and determine the calling and qualifications of each candidate, just as we have been doing for decades now.

People have been using the words "lowering" or "relaxing" to talk about this "new" standard.
I don't know about you, but fidelity or chastity seems like a pretty low bar. I mean, how hard is it to not cheat on your spouse? Is that really the requirement?
Submitting *joyfully* to the Lordship of Christ in every aspect of my life? Let's just say that I don't submit to many people (anyone?) and that joy isn't part of my understanding of that word. This is a high bar--and I try really hard! This is actually a major part of how I understand what it means to be a Christian, and I still choke a little on the word "submit."

I also think it's a hard thing for us to admit that we do not get to choose whom God calls. We are Reformed Christians, we believe in a God who is sovereign over all things, including who gets to do God's work. Scripture is full of unexpected and unworthy people being used to do God's will in the world...and so is the church; it's just that we've often forgotten that we're just as unlikely to be good enough as the next person. None of us live up to God's expectations--but God uses us anyway. None of us is equipped and ready for the work--God equips us with what we need for the task at hand. None of us is a likely candidate--but we're all recipients of grace upon grace.

Now...can we extend that grace to those with whom we disagree? Can we work together for a kingdom of God that has many mansions within? Can we work together as parts of the body who cannot say to one another "I have no need of you"? Can we allow the church to be a reflection of God's grace in the world?

I am hopeful and even joyful about today's turning of the page in the story. I believe we have made the right step toward being the people God calls us to be, loving, serving, and caring for the world. I am grateful for the friends and colleagues who have suffered in their work to be accepted as people called by God, and saddened by the loss of so many people who had to seek other outlets to live out their calling. I celebrate with those who finally know there is a place for them in God's church.
I know there are people who disagree. May we all find ways to serve the living God, who would not be contained in a tomb or a book or a church.