The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will soon make headlines, one way or another. The decisions we make at our 221st General Assembly will be reported across national media outlets through words loosely connected to what we actually experience together as a denominational family. (Prayers for you, reporters!)
Amongst other decisions—some of which will be just as heated, if not more—we will vote to clarify the definition of marriage in our constitution to include same-gender couples. At the minimum, the overtures from presbyteries will be killed in Committee 10, the committee on “Civil Union and Marriage Issues”. At the most, the amendment will be passed by the plenary and sent along to presbyteries across the country for ratification over the next year.
For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) Christians leading and worshiping in Presbyterian congregations, decisions about our most intimate relationships are felt deeply, intensely, and personally. Like the votes on the ordination of LGBTQ ministers, elders, and deacons in recent years, the PC(USA) has the ability to recognize us as equally redeemed in Christ – or not. Decisions to diminish our humanity are familiar, and they are painful. We have known grief far more than reconciliation at these gatherings.
The Assembly does not get to determine where the Spirit moves. What we do get to decide is whether or not we will recognize it.
For many of us, the General Assembly is the culmination of months of prayerful work advocating and organizing in our congregations and presbyteries. Over the past year my colleague, the Rev. Mieke Vandersall, and I have worked at Presbyterian Welcome to educate youth and adults in local congregations about what the Bible does and doesn’t say about marriage. We’ve helped sessions understand marriage equality overtures and spoken to the Presbytery of New York City about why changing our constitution is crucial to living out the gospel. As I write this, I’m preparing to travel to Detroit as the Presbytery of New York City’s overture advocate to amend the Book of Order’s definition of marriage.
As I prepare with others to stand before Committee 10 and proclaim Christ’s love of and presence in same-gender relationships, I trust that the Spirit will move. Those kairos moments, where the Holy Spirit is palpably present – whether as clarity at the election of our Moderator, a surprising sense of peace in an anxious committee, or a moment of levity and laughter during the intensity of our plenary – make the very human concoction of the General Assembly worth it for me.
It is this trust in God’s presence among us that allows us to gather as the Church rather than a club. As our Presbyterian theology and polity articulates, we trust that each commissioner is there to seek the mind of Christ and vote according to her/his conscience. It’s a beautiful thing, our theology that each person represents Christ, not a constituency. Because we know Christ, yet Christ is beyond us, voting as a national body means we hope to collectively discover God’s will for our world.
No matter how the 221st General Assembly votes on marriage, God is already at work in the lives of LGBTQ people, blessing us with relationships that are a gift to the world.
This strange and unpredictable beast we’ve created still has the power to harm and heal in very real ways. In a week, the hopes and prayers of LGBTQ Presbyterians and those who support them will all hang on a few hands raised here and there, some parliamentary procedure or another that will be lost on most of us, and a tired committee being worked into the wee hours.
After the week we will spend together in debate and discernment, the headlines will roll out across the country, appearing on the screens and doorsteps of Presbyterians, ex-Presbyterians, fellow Christians, and those who couldn’t care less what a Presbyterian is. As I think of the LGBTQ people who will read the news—with hearts bursting with pain or gladness I cannot yet say—I wish I could remind them of one simple thing: The General Assembly is not God.
No matter how the 221st General Assembly votes on marriage, God is already at work in the lives of LGBTQ people, blessing us with relationships that are a gift to the world. The Assembly can affirm or deny this, but it does not control whether or not this is true. By denying God’s blessing of same-gender relationships, the PC(USA) continues to be an aging exclusive club, scraping up pennies to replace the peeling wallpaper. But by naming the goodness of LGBTQ people and our relationships, the General Assembly becomes the Church, as we point to and name God’s dream for a world redeemed in love. Either way, the Assembly does not get to determine where the Spirit moves. What we do get to decide is whether or not we will recognize it.
So thanks be to God that the General Assembly is not God. May we always seek the mind of the Christ who redeems every one of us, and may we trust in the Holy Comforter who walks with us through it all.
AUTHOR BIO: The Reverend John Russell Stanger serves as the Minister for Advocacy and Education at Presbyterian Welcome in New York City where he lives out his call to help others reconcile the rift between their sexual, gender, and spiritual identities. He is a graduate of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and Schreiner University and former Young Adult Volunteer in Kerala, India. He loves youth, Texas, coffee, Brooklyn, and the women of pop culture.
Click here to read the items of business on the agenda of the Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee at General Assembly this summer.
Read more articles from The Road to Detroit: Issues of Social Justice Before the 221st General Assembly!