Monday night was a Presbytery meeting. For those not up on the inner workings of Presbyterian governance, it works like this. The smallest collection of Presbyterians is a congregation; the local church you find familiar. The governing institution within that church is called session, which is populated by members carrying the ordination of “Elder”. Our pastors are not actually members of our churches. They are instead members of the next biggest body, called Presbytery. I belong to Burlington Presbyterian Church, which belongs to Boston Presbytery. Presbytery is part of a larger regional body, called Synod. I think we’re in the Synod of New England? The Northeast? Then all the Synods come together in a body called General Assembly, which is a national body. There is no international body, but the various GAs usually have a certain communion with each other. It is also important to note that all Presbyterians in this body share two common books. The first is our creeds, which begin shortly where the Bible leaves off and has been added to as recently as th 60s. The second is our Book of Order, which is more or less the constitution of the church. All officers of the church vow to be guided by these two documents.
That’s a long introduction. Monday night we gathered together for a Presbytery meeting far more fraught than usual discussions. In 1996, an amendment was made to the Book of Order with the intention of preventing practicing homosexuals from being ordained in any capacity within the church. (It doesn’t actually SAY that, but that is widely understood to be the outcome.) Since then, every time GA assembles, an amendment has been proposed to Paragraph B. The latest version has come out of my church’s session and through the Boston Presbytery. It returns the language to a more Biblical focus (instead of a focus on the Confessions). (You can read more about it here) Needless to say, the original amendment was controversial and every amendment since then has also been controversial.
There is a lot to say on both sides of the issues. My main points would be:
1) We are all sinners. I personally violate the ten commandments once a week. I do a terrible job of remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy and I have not been committed to changing that sin of mine. If ordination is only available to those who are not sinners, our church will quickly be depopulated, or only populated by hypocrites.
2) Jesus doesn’t talk much about sexual sin. He’s much more interested in hypocracy and money. We should go forth and do likewise.
3) None of the amendments would mean that any church had to accept or elect as an officer or minister any person they did not think was appropriate.
4) Who are we to say who the Holy Spirit can and cannot call?
Anyway, the amendment to Paragraph B above worked it’s way up to GA and now has come back down. It must be approved by the local Presbyteries in order to be adopted. Monday night was the night that our Presbytery took that vote.
For all that we sponsored this to GA, the passing was not a given. There was one commenter as we discussed this who said, “This amendment was born here. Let it die here.”
The meeting took nearly 5 hours. I’m sure that for some people there, it was agonizing. For me, it was inspiring. There is no doubt we disagreed. There is no doubt that people felt extraordinarily passionate on both sides. I know that some of my brethren in Christ feel as thought his amendment is corrupting. I see their point, although I disagree in both form and substance. What excited me, enthused me and filled me with joy was that we could come together. We debated this hot, passionate topic with kindness and love. There was prayer and song throughout. We sat mixed together in faithfulness. During the long vote counting process, as the clock neared midnight, we sang together as we waited.
I find it utterly thrilling, in this age of division and segregation on lines of opinion, that we could and did come together to lovingly disagree with each other. It feels like, as a culture, we have increasingly written off those who disagree with us as stupid, malicious, ignorant and vindictive. The Presbyterian church holds that people of good character can disagree with each other on issues of faith. I think that is an increasingly precious and beautiful point of view.
The future of the amendment to Paragraph B is uncertain. It narrowly did pass in Boston Presbytery. While I care about the amendment, I hope and pray that the church may continue to come together to argue with each other and disagree, and yet cheerfully be part of the same community.