My heart ached when I read about the split vote at First Presbyterian Church, Houston. According to the reconciliation and dismissal procedure of the Presbytery of New Covenant, a congregational vote would need to be a supermajority of 2/3 of those present in order for permission to be granted for the congregation to leave the PCUSA for ECO. Their vote was 65% in favor of leaving. Ouch! An outcome that is bound to make no one happy.
There are, of course, many reasons that a congregation may seek to leave the PCUSA, but most of us are aware that the presenting issue is the ordination of gay and lesbian people. With the upcoming General Assembly taking up the standards of marriage, there is a great divide among us.
But is it what we think it is? Really? I was struck by this finding in the Public Religion Research Institute:
Regular churchgoers (those who attend at least once or twice a month), particularly those who belong to religious groups that are supportive of same-sex marriage, are likely to over- estimate opposition for same-sex marriage in their churches by 20 percentage points or more.
- About 6-in-10 (59%) white mainline Protestants believe their fellow congregants are mostly opposed to same-sex marriage. However, among white mainline Protestants who attend church regularly, only 36% oppose allowing gay and lesbian people to legally marry while a majority (57%) actually favor this policy.
If we believe most of our fellow congregation members think differently than we do about the issue, I suppose, we’re more apt to keep our opinions to ourselves. Just before the presbyteries approved amendment 10A in 2011, the General Presbyter of the Presbytery of New Covenant, advised pastors that they shouldn’t assume they know the opinion of their members when it comes to issues of sexuality. Unless we talk about the topic, our concerns and our hopes, and unless we listen to each other, we cannot assume we know where people stand. At least an open discernment process allows congregations the opportunity to speak and listen.
Monmouth Presbytery approved a discernment policy in January 2013. It’s a good policy, in that it assures that the church seek discernment together. If a congregation is generally of one mind after learning and listening, studying and praying, then we accept that they are being led by the Holy Spirit. The congregation in Mount Holly went through a significant period of discernment, and, as a result, the presbytery dismissed them to ECO on October 1st. It wasn’t a unanimous decision, but it was the mind of 87% of the voting members.
Most congregations are not of one mind … not in sexuality, not in politics, not in worship preferences, not even in Biblical interpretation. Though we strive to be in the same mind as Christ … that often leads us to different places. And that’s good. Our different opinions challenge us and make us stronger … but only if we allow each other to speak and only if we listen with an openness to the Spirit to change our hearts and minds. This is the strength of our heritage and the claim of Christ on our lives. To be willing to have our mind changed.
All of the states in the Synod of the Northeast now recognize marriage between people of the same gender. And, if a federal court judge in Texas can rule their laws against same sex marriage as unconstitutional, then, certainly, the trend will continue nationwide relatively quickly. There is an anxiety in the PCUSA about how the assembly will deal with this reality. Will we change our definition of marriage? Will we reaffirm our stance? Will we find a way to live together despite our differences of opinion?
Here’s my hope. That we continue to find ways to talk and to listen to what Christ is doing in our own lives, in our own families, in our own hearts. So that we can, at least, live with a priority on unity in Christ. That we loosen our hold on the truth. That does not mean uniformity of opinion, in fact, it means we will live with disunity of opinion, but unity in Christ. That is, we are unanimous in our desire to strive to be like Christ, listening to each other and to the Holy Spirit … even if that leads us to places of discomfort.