Wednesday, February 25, 2009

More Light: Presbytery of Arkansas Votes Against Ordination Discrimination

Here's a bit of local news that deserves national attention: last Saturday (21 February), the Presbytery of Arkansas voted by a large majority to approve a change to the constitution of the Presbyterian Church USA that would permit the ordination of openly gay people. The vote was 116 in favor and 64 against.

At its General Assembly last June, the Presbyterian Church USA (to which churches of the Presbytery of Arkansas belong) passed a resolution calling for a change to Paragraph G-6.0106b of the denomination's Book of Order.

In order to change the Book of Order, two-thirds of the church's presbyteries have to approve this amendment.

The presbyteries of many Southern states (and some Midwestern areas) have historically resisted this change. And, true to form, presbyteries in states like Virginia and Alabama have voted the amendment down--as well as in south Arkansas, where Presbyterian churches belong to the Presbytery of the Pines, which also comprises Presbyterian churches in north Louisiana.

The vote of the Presbytery of Arkansas, to which churches of central and northern Arkansas belong, is surprising many observers. I can't say I am all that surprised. There has been a quiet revolution going on for some years among many Presbyterians in this part of the state, in which these thoughtful and well-educated folks are sifting through the arguments advanced against ordaining openly gay church members, and finding them insufficient. And downright discriminatory.

Though the media and right-wing mavens would like for us to think that the discriminatory language in the Presbyterian Book of Order has the force of longstanding tradition, it was placed in the Book of Order only in 1997. Anti-gay legislation like this in the Presbyterian and United Methodist churches is a recent phenomenon. It represents the attempt of right-wing political operatives in groups like the Institute on Religion and Democracy to split these mainline denominations by politicizing the discussion of gay human beings and gay lives.

I take heart in the fact that many Presbyterians are moving courageously against discrimination in their church life, and are combating the influence of right-wing political pressure groups like IRD. Paragraph G-6.0106b is inherently discriminatory. There never has been a tradition of examining non-gay candidates for ordination in the way gay candidates have been examined in recent years--a tradition of inquiring into the most intimate details of their lives, to assure that they were celibate as a prerequisite to their ordination.

And note that the requirement to remain in celibacy as a precondition to ordination affects gay clergy very differently than it does straight ones. As the present language of the Book of Order makes very plain, a single straight person who is ordained may then go on to marry. But a single gay person who is ordained is expected to live in celibacy for the rest of his or her life. No provision is made for recognizing gay unions ( see here).

This is arbitrary. And it is cruel. Kudos for the Presbyterian citizens of my state (well, at least of the central and northern parts of Arkansas) for recognizing the arbitrariness and cruelty of the stipulations the Book of Order places on gay lives, in its current wording, and for voting to change things. Perhaps one of the surprising effects of the overt racism expressed by many Arkansans in the last federal election, and of our shameful vote to deny gay citizens the right to adopt their own children, will be to make thinking, ethical citizens begin to work harder against prejudice in their back yard.