There is Such a Thing as Being Too Gentle

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Watering down the LGBTQ/Q Apology Overture at GA222

Author Brooklynn Smith
Author Brooklynn Smith

I never thought “collateral damage” was a term I’d identify with as a church-lady. I was wrong.

I was baptized as a young girl in a Presbyterian church that would become my family’s spiritual home for the next fifteen years. I remember the promises that congregation made to me. There, I was welcomed in as a member of the household of God. But it wouldn’t be a home forever.

In the weeks following the 222nd General Assembly, I have several times referred to it as a kinder, gentler GA.

This Assembly was my third; I’ve attended the 220th, 221st, and now 222nd GAs. Over these six years, I have witnessed a remarkable change in the way we treat each other, trust each other, and talk about each other. It’s like we’re being revived, like the Spirit is moving among us again.

That said our kindness and mutual forbearance at this Assembly doesn’t mean we all got what we wanted, or even that we we treated each other with kindness and gentleness all of the time. There were plenty of occasions that exhibited mistrust and understanding, including instances on the floor of plenary and in the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee, in which I served as a Theological Student Advisory Delegate (TSAD).

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It seems to me that Presbyterians ought to be in the business of repentance.
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In committee, there was deep, fundamental agreement that Belhar ought to be passed for the final time. The room’s waters were still, deep, and unsettled when we discussed the need for Belhar: how it spoke into our current situation, our need for racial justice.

Belhar GA News ScreenshotThen out of the blue, a commissioner requested that we add an addendum to the beginning of the Confession, or the introductory materials preceding the Confession in the Book of Confessions. He requested that we state that the reconciliation and mutual respect expressed in Belhar refers to racial justice and not to matters of homosexuality.

That knocked the wind right out of me.

Why are people still making human sexuality an issue? I thought we were finally done debating people’s humanity as a church! And we were, it turns out, because the committee rather quickly voted down that suggestion. (An aside to polity nerds: We were later advised that we couldn’t have approved with comment anyway.)

However, even though the suggested comment didn’t pass, my consciousness was still spiked. I felt like I was being put on the defensive again; a feeling which re-emerged in the “eleventh hour” of plenary business when we were discussing Overture 11-05: “On the Admission of, and Apology for, Harms Done to the LGBTQ/Q Members of the PC(USA), Family and Friends” an item that, in the end, was amended to be a “Statement of Regret”.

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We had an opportunity to apologize to people kicked out, shunned, tried, fired, defrocked, marginalized, sent to reparative therapy programs by the church that made baptismal vows to love them, nurture them, and pray with them.
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In this instance, I was at odds with the will of the majority. After years of seeing devoted servants of God kicked out of the church, or asked to step down, or being “up for debate” at General Assembly, I was ready to vote on an apology.

You see, I feel like so many people are owed an apology. As “collateral damage”, I’m definitely not on the first page of that list – but I feel I am owed an apology, too.

Rainbow Flag - PDWhen I was in college, I was the President of Spectrum, Presbyterian College’s Gay-Straight Alliance. I got to teach people who had never been exposed to LGBTQ-anything what sexual orientation was, or why we were called Spectrum in the first place. I had the privilege of holding people’s hands as they came out for the first time, and I was able to tell them that they were so brave to be authentic. That God loved them, and that I was with them every step of the way.

During my time of service, I also held the hands of people whose worldview crumbled around them when they found out that dear friends were gay, people for whom suddenly the homophobic rhetoric they had been raised with made no sense.

I never felt the need to closet my work with Spectrum, nor did I feel it was an authentic representation of my faith to conceal my belief in marriage equality, or that LGBTQ persons could and should be ordained to all ministries of the church. Eventually, however, it became clear to a few members and leaders of my home church that I was at odds with their position on the issue. Through a series of well-orchestrated, very Southern and passive-aggressive tactics, I felt that I was being asked to leave that congregation.

Losing a church home is devastating.

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The good news is that I don’t have to have the permission of the General Assembly to make my own apologies. And neither do you!
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I was treated that way for being an ally. I was, as I said above, merely collateral damage. How much worse have we treated our own LGBTQ siblings? People made into targets. I can’t imagine the devastation of being rejected as an out LGBTQ Presbyterian in this context, or of being put on ecclesiastical trial for performing a same-sex marriage. And it’s important to note that the same committee that considered this apology overture (11-05) also considered overture 11-23: “On Therapies Purporting to Change Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity.” Ecclesiastical rejection and discipline is only one of the injuries that people who are LGBTQ have experienced at the hands of church people.

Franzen LGBTQ PicWhile we as commissioners and advisory delegates of the 222nd General Assembly may never have been the direct hand of injury, we had an opportunity to apologize to people kicked out, shunned, tried, fired, defrocked, marginalized, sent to reparative therapy programs (I could go on, but you get the idea) by the church that made baptismal vows to love them, nurture them, and pray with them.

We had an opportunity to say, “We hurt you, and we’re sorry.”

It seems to me that Presbyterians ought to be in the business of repentance. It’s what we do. Our Reformed theology holds strongly to the doctrines of original sin and total depravity – for all human beings. We take seriously the call to confess our sin against God and neighbor. We publicly confess our sin in worship. But when we had the chance this General Assembly to make an apology, we blew it.

But this is the Gospel we’re talking about, and with the Gospel, there’s always good news.

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I’m sorry we turned the beautiful gifts of human sexuality and gender identity into something shameful. I’m sorry we put you up for debate. I’m sorry you were referred to as an “issue”. I’m so, so sorry.
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In the case, the good news is that I don’t have to have the permission of the General Assembly to make my own apologies. And neither do you! So (without naming names) here goes: I’m sorry. I’m sorry we hurt you. I’m sorry we allowed people to say dehumanizing things about you on the floor of so many past assemblies. I’m sorry we refused to acknowledge your God-given gifts, and I’m sorry we refused to ordain you to ordered ministries. I’m sorry we forced you to leave communities you loved. I’m sorry we demanded that you choose between Jesus and your authentic self. I’m sorry that we used Scripture – the same Scripture that you held dear – as a weapon against you. I’m sorry we turned the beautiful gifts of human sexuality and gender identity into something shameful. I’m sorry we put you up for debate. I’m sorry you were referred to as an “issue”. I’m so, so sorry.

sorry apology note - PDEven as we might be lulled into believing this is a kinder, gentler church, there are wounds yet to be healed. I promise to be a part of the healing.

These days, I’m the temporary pastor of a congregation who have opened their arms to me and my story. They have bandaged my wounds. They love me for me, and they remind me why I said “Yes” to God’s call. When it is time to leave this congregation, I will cry happy tears. I will leave here knowing that this community has embodied God’s love, acceptance, and call to me to serve God’s church.

To those who we’ve allowed the church to hurt: I pray this and more healing comes to you. And I will work to make it so.

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AUTHOR BIO: Brooklynn Smith is finishing her M.Div at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Hailing from South Carolina she now student pastors a congregation in San Rafael, California, and tries to find time to play with other people’s pets. As her Twitter bio truly states, she is prone to fits of enthusiasm. 

Read the amended “Statement of Regret” from Overture 11-05: “On the Admission of, and Apology for, Harms Done to the LGBTQ/Q Members of the PC(USA), Family and Friends”.

Read more articles in this issue “A Year for Confessions: Issues of Social Justice Coming before the 222nd General Assembly.”

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