Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Fabulous Cheap Grace

This past week the Presbyterian Church of the USA (PCUSA) officially lifted its ban on ordinations of gay and lesbian clergy. Like the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) before it, this comes at the end of a long, hard struggle. The vote by the Minnesota Presbytery to accept the denomination’s vote at its last general convention paves the way for the open and official ordination of LBGT Presbyterian clergy.

At some level, congratulations are in order for the Presbyterians. Indeed, I spoke with some Methodist friends this past week who long for their own (and my former) denomination to get its act together to finally do the right – and ultimately the inevitable – thing on this issue. And I know a ton of Roman Catholics who have stopped holding their breath for the boys in Rome to have a lucid interval on this issue.

But I must admit I find myself with mixed feelings as I read the accounts of this vote. The Episcopal Church’s Integrity news feed ran this headline amidst the reports from the PCUSA vote: Is that fabulous, or what!?

Well, maybe.

On the one hand, the fact that yet one more Christian tradition has finally come to grips with its long history of homophobia, in ever so limited a fashion, is, indeed, fabulous ( if we simply must live into the stereotype). For many of us whose sexuality does not fit into the reductionist notions of “normal” in this society, any breakthrough in the struggle for justice is a good thing. It’s not just fabulous, it’s absolutely unexpected given where our society was just a mere two decades ago.

But what troubles me about this assessment is the sense in which the straight people of the PCUSA (and all the denominations before them) seem to see themselves as having done something really noble for "those poor people" in their denomination. No doubt, they are presuming that for this noble act they should be thanked profusely and the beneficiaries of their generosity should never lose sight of their magnanimity.

Except, of course, none of that is true.

This vote by PCUSA, like every other denomination dealing with this issue, is ultimately about the denomination, not its gay parishioners. The treatment of LBGQT people is simply the context here. The text is the integrity of the denomination.

The Prime Directive of Christianity has long been the two Great Commandments, the second of which is “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” It is impossible to simultaneously love one’s neighbors as oneself and discriminate against them. It is also impossible to live into the Golden Rule –doing unto others as one would have done unto themselves - while treating others as second class citizens. No one would agree to be treated this way themselves.

These principles and actions are simply mutually exclusive. And, as such, when they occur, they expose a lack of authenticity and integrity on the part of those whose words and actions do not meet their principles. Hence, the decision to end blatant discrimination against LBGQT clergy says very little about the clergy themselves. But it does suggest a glimmer of recognition on the part of the denomination.

Saturday morning, I celebrated the Eucharist at the profession of a new brother in the Third Order, Society of St. Francis. I employed the training I was afforded in the Episcopal seminary I attended. I wore the black clerical shirt and white tab I am entitled to wear as ordained Episcopal clergy and a beautiful quilted stole made for me by one of my Franciscan sisters.

I am grateful that the Episcopal Church at large found a way to accept my gifts for ordained ministry even as the diocese in which I currently live (and Saturday served at the altar) vehemently refuses to do so. My guess is that many Presbyterian clergy in presbyteries which agree to follow their new guidelines (recognizing that many will not and others will simply find disingenuous ways to continue discriminating) will soon feel much the same gratitude as that which I relate here.

Recognition of religious orders is always an enormous gift to those called to ministry, particularly when that calling is recognized and honored by the tradition of which one is a part. I never take that for granted and I always am grateful for the diocese in California which took a chance on me when they ordained me priest. And yet, the further I am from that event, the less I am inclined to see my ordination in terms of the church having done me - or any other gay ordinand - any kind of particular favor.

The question of the ordination of LBGQT ordinands is not a question of whether their traditions are willing to do those seeking orders a personal favor out of their magnanimity. The only genuine questions that ecclesial hierarchies can ever legitimately ask about any candidate for ordination are the questions of calling and competency to minister.

When the answer to those questions proves to be affirmative, traditions which only now have proven willing to ordain LBGQT clergy must forego the self-congratulatory celebrations to address the question of why they have not previously ordained them in the first place. Their willingness to countenance that question indicates whether those traditions actually are capable of recognizing the wrongful attitudes which have marked their attitudes and behaviors for far too long.

There is a part of me that wants to respond to the “Is that fabulous, or what?” question with a rather snippy response: Actually, no. It’s not fabulous. It’s taken far too long. These folks have known for a long time that their actions and the understandings that informed them were not defensible. But more importantly, there is no sense in this action of the critical aspect of this change – repentance.

I have never forgotten the response two decades ago of a friend when I told him I was going to seminary to become a priest. His face darkened as he said, “I haven’t had anything to do with the church for years. And I’m not going back until they are willing to say they’re sorry for what they’ve done to us.” At the time, I thought it was a rather childish response. But as the years have gone by, increasingly I see that he was right.

The only reasonable response to the recognition that one’s wrongful behaviors have hurt others is an apology. And the only reasonable response to the recognition that one’s attitudes and resulting behavior have betrayed one’s own professed value system is repentance. None of that is apparent in this so-called “fabulous” turn of events at PCUSA. And it has been missing from the changes in policy in all the traditions prior to this as well.

In many ways, this is the cheap grace of which Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke. This “fabulous” decision by PCUSA is little more than “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession.” It’s a version of the tired phrase “let’s just move on” used in politics to avoid responsibility for one’s wrongdoing.

In all honesty, I cannot help but hear in this event and the resulting commentary the self-congratulatory white liberals I remember only too well from my childhood speaking about the end of desegregation in the early 1970s. To hear them tell it, we Southerners saw the light, recognized our sin, turned over a new leaf and then did the right thing. In fact desegregation occurred mostly due to court orders and only rarely because the racist society which had maintained Jim Crow segregation for a century after the Civil War ended slavery recognized they were wrong – indeed, sinful – in maintaining such a dehumanizing system.

I do not look for church people in America to recognize anytime soon that their homophobic attitudes and policies have been sinful. Their investments in their personae of righteousness are deep-seated and time worn. And the cognitive dissonance which almost always results from admitting that a foundational understanding of the world as one knew it was not only wrong but harmful - and thus sinful - is probably more than most are willing to deal with. As a friend of mine is quick to point out, the power of the human mind to engage in self-delusion is unlimited. No doubt, it is in hyperdrive over at PCUSA right now.

I suppose that one day, perhaps a few decades from now, children will ask their parents with sincerity why our society was not able to see how destructive their understandings of LBGQT people were. And I suppose some well meaning person will offer the obvious answer about ignorance, stubbornness and the unwillingness to admit their mistakes, very human traits, all of them. In the meantime, pardon me if I don’t attend the ticker tape parades and the fabulous parties celebrating this great new event. I guess I simply want more than this. Like my friend, I’m waiting for the repentance…and the apology.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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