Thoughts On A Presbytery Meeting

The day after the winter meeting of the Central Florida Presbytery, the aspect of the Presbyterian Church (USA) of which I happen to be a member, I find myself a bit more sober than usual, and a bit conflicted.
Honestly, I am not surprised that my presbytery voted to uphold the current language in our constitution, the Book of Order, which ostensibly prohibits homosexuals (and a few other folk, as well) from ordination as a deacon, elder or minister of the Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  My presbytery has overwhelmingly voted down similar attempts to change the ordination standards over the past few years, and the margin has not changed a great deal.  
While I did not expect the outcome of the vote to be any different than in the past, I did expect some dialogue and a bit more debate.  Apparently, the presbytery staff anticipated that there would be as well.  There were three microphones set up in the meeting space.  The "blue" microphone was for those who wanted to speak for the amendment, the "red" microphone was for those who wanted to speak against the amendment.  The third microphone was for those who wanted to bring up parliamentary issues--things like, "I call the question," or "I call for a division of the vote," or "Could the Moderator instruct [name withheld] to address his questions to the Moderator and not to the candidate? (all real lines from the meeting in question).  Anyone who spoke, we were told, had to limit their time to 2 minutes.  No one could concede their time to anyone else.  We were admonished to be silent if someone else made a point that we were planning to make ourselves.  We were going to be decent and orderly as good Presbyterians should be.  Everyone agreed to these rules and regulations.  
I found myself troubled a bit, however.  As I surveyed the microphones, I found myself wishing that the third microphone was for people who found themselves holding ideas that might be spouted on the "blue" mic in tension with ideas that might be spouted from the "red" mic.  A sort of "purple" mic, if you will.  That would have probably been the microphone I would have strode toward with at least some measure of confidence.  As it stood, I was silent, and everyone else was silent with me. 
I had come expecting some debate.  In fact, I was actually looking forward to it.  I even told the two elders from my church, who attended with me, "This is going to be a fun one!"  But nothing happened for what seemed like an eternity.  
 Finally, an elderly man, who happened to be sitting near me, got to his feet and went to the "against" microphone.  He lifted up a tattered book, which he identified as some sort of definitive text that he read long ago in the 1950's that essentially defined how Christians, Americans, pretty much anyone should feel about homosexuality.  He said, and I quote, "Even the word 'gay' has become an aberration.  In my day 'gay' meant happy." Then he went on to add, "I have found that homosexual men are the most distraught of all people."  At that point his two minutes expired, and the Moderator ended his diatribe. He doddered back to his seat, and everyone sort of looked at him as if he had just broken wind.  But no one else said anything.  There was no debate, no discussion, no one else made the journey to either the red or the blue microphones.  
At last, the pastor of the largest, most prominent and conservative church in our presbytery (who happened to be wearing a smashing dark grey suit), went to the third mic and said, "I think that we are all feeling fatigue from this debate," and he called the question--which is a decent and orderly way of saying "it's time to vote."  And so we did.  When the votes that we cast were tabulated about an hour later, no one was shocked at all that the amendment failed.  I am sure that there were people who were thrilled that they had "won," and others who were grieved that they had "lost," but I have to believe that there were more than a few of us who didn't know what to feel.  I alternated between being relieved and dumbfounded.  I had to admit that the pastor in the smashing dark grey suit was probably right.  We were all tired and ready to move on.  Unfortunately, at least on that day, we wouldn't really be given the chance.  
  
I have to tell you, one of my great "moments of Zen" came when we began discussing an overture that had been presented by the largest, most prominent and conservative church in our presbytery.  The overture basically was just a restatement of an overture that had been approved by another presbytery.  In essence, we were using our time to make a point that someone else had already made, which sort of violated our own rules.  
I thought about striding to what should have been the purple microphone and making this point, but it was a long way away and I feared for my own life.  You see, the overture stated in unequivocal terms that the PC (USA) needed to return to and lift up the interpretive statements about homosexual ordination that were adopted by the "northern" and "southern" branches of our then divided denomination from 1978 and 1979.  

I was ten years old in 1978.  That was the year that Elvis died.  I wore bell bottoms.  Star Wars (the first one...or should I say the "fourth" one) was still playing in most theaters.  It was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.  

The pastor of the largest, most prominent and conservative church in our presbytery got up to speak for his overture.  He basically said that we needed to take a stand against the way  the Church had become so adversely influenced by culture.  The overture, as he put it, was the way we could turn the tide, so to speak, for a denomination that was going to hell in a hand basket (my words, not his...although he probably would agree with my use of them).  
At any rate, there was a bit of silence after this,  but it didn't last long.  An older pastor stood to his feet.  By the looks of him I thought that he would head for the "blue" microphone to speak for the passing of the overture.  Instead, he made his way to the "against" mic, and began to speak his piece.  He stated that he agreed in principle with the idea that we needed to keep the Church and our denomination from becoming influenced by the dominant culture.  He pointed out that if the Church had allowed itself to be influenced by culture during the strife of the Civil Rights movement, it would not have ordained African Americans, which it did.  If the Church, he added, had allowed itself to be influenced by culture during the struggle for equal rights for women, it would not have ordained women, which it did.  Rather than advocating for exclusion, separation and intolerance, the older pastor asserted, the PC (USA) needs to stand for inclusion, tolerance and respect for all God's children.  A retired African-American minister sitting near me, loudly said "Amen!"  
After the older pastor sat down, I felt tears come to my eyes out of respect for him.  There had been no purple microphone provided, but he created one anyway.  He did not state any particular position about his interpretation of what the Bible says or doesn't say about homosexuality, he just pointed out in a gentle kind of way that as Christians we are called to better behavior than most people.  But sadly, we don't usually take the hint.  
  I felt like standing up and screaming to the folks who had presented the overture, "ENOUGH!!!  We voted, and you won.  I even voted with you, are you happy?  I voted with you because there was no purple microphone and I didn't really have a good choice to make!  Now be gracious in your victory, pray with those who are grieved that you won.  Don't kick them now while they are down.  Don't add salt to the wounds.  Don't set fire to bridges that are already rickety and broken. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ here....aren't we? Aren't we?"    
At the end of the meeting, we all stood and sang the last verse of the hymn "Here I Am Lord."  The words haunted me.  

I, the Lord of wind and flame,
I will tend the poor and lame.
I will set a feast for them,
My hand will save
Finest bread I will provide,
Till their hearts be satisfied.
I will give My life to them,
Whom shall I send?

The image that we painted with our parting song was a Eucharistic image, an image of communion, the Lord's Supper.  The feast in our song was attended by the least of these, the outcasts, the poor, those who were marginalized and forgotten---those our culture deems "other."   We sang as one---me, the guy with the tattered book on the evils of homosexuality, the retired African American minister, the brave old pastor, the sharply dressed pastor from the largest, most prominent, conservative church in my presbytery, all of us together.  

Here I am Lord, Is it I Lord?
I have heard You calling in the night.
I will go Lord, if You lead me.
I will hold Your people in my heart.

Comments

  1. I actually attended specifically because I'm taking polity next semester. So I had no voice and no vote.
    I felt very sad. Not because of the outcome, but because of the level of distrust that this sort of "debate" engenders and is a symptom of. If we could trust one another to truly listen to the Holy Spirit to ordain only those called by God to do the work of God, would we need these rules?
    I wanted to know why our friend in the striking gray suit felt the need to see the division, rather than allow vote on paper. Perhaps so that he literally could see the division. Perhaps so that elders might be influenced by (or influence) their pastors when they saw "where the pastor stands" on the issue. Maybe he had more positive motivation. I'd like to believe that, really.
    I was also sad for the people I know and love (who love this crazy church of ours), but are part of the 10% of the population that older gentlemen considered such a threat to our society and to the church. Who love the God who made them different, but still loves them enough to send gifts of the Spirit and call them to ministry. If we cannot ordain the brothers and sisters, can we at least find a way to treat them with the same dignity and grace with which we serve those who are without homes, clothes and food? When did we see the Lord confused and hurt by the actions of His Bride?

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  2. I think you hit the nail on the head about why he wanted to have a "standing" vote. My two elders were dismayed when I did not vote with them on the overture. We worked it out, though.
    I normally do not speak up at meetings, but I did my best to offer support to my former church when their candidate got the stuffing beat out of him.
    I actually saw that coming, but was hoping for better. Alas.

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  3. The language here is slightly cynical and passive-aggressive... the post doesn't accurately represent the reality of the meeting or the underlying realities, imo. I understand there are high emotions involved, but they haven't helped this issue, stated thus.

    I was there, and new to our Presbytery [and geographically distant from other churches], so I have no close friends or associates here... and I'll just say that some of this framing is unfair.

    It's no way to move forward, if that is the consideration.

    God bless,

    Loy

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  4. To be honest, I can't think of a topic that has had more debate over the past 30 years than homosexuality. To mourn that we are unwilling to discuss it is to ignore that history. At some point, it has to be acknowledged that people have long debated and made up their minds and the debate is over.

    We no longer debate women's ordination. It's still a very hot topic in Christianity. We still have many people uncomfortable with our polity on it. But, I'll bet you if someone in our Presbytery came with an overture to remove the ordination of women, it would get little debate and be quickly voted down.

    If that happened in your Presbytery, would you "troubled" by that lack of debate? I suspect not.

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