Thursday, May 12, 2011

Presbyterian Church Votes to Remove Anti-Gay Discriminatory Language from Book of Order: Historic Shift in American Christianity

Significant news today about the rapidly progressing movement in U.S. faith communities to support the human rights of gay and lesbian persons: the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. has just voted to ordain openly gay ministry candidates in committed relationships.  As I noted two years ago, when a narrow majority of the church's presbyteries turned down a similar proposal, a shift was already underway the last time the church voted on this issue.  And so it is not surprising that a majority of presbyteries has now voted to approve ordination of openly gay partnered candidates for ministry.  A great deal is changing quickly on this front among people of faith in the U.S. today, and the shift in this major Protestant denomination (following on the heels of a similar decision by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) in a mere two years demonstrates the quickness of the change.

As Laurie Goodstein reports in New York Times, though the voting process has not yet ended (but enough votes have now been cast to give the proposal a majority), already 19 presbyteries that voted no in the last round of votes about this issue changed their minds.  Goodstein quotes Rev. Gradye Parsons, the PC-USA stated clerk, its highest elected official, who says that the vote reflects both the growing acceptance of gay and lesbian persons in the culture at large, and weariness on the part of people faith with conflict about how or whether to fit gay and lesbian human beings into their scheme of things.

To my mind, Rev. Parsons is spectacularly missing the point with his suggestion that church folks are growing "weary" of this topic.  I suspect that, instead, they're becoming ever more aware, and rapidly so, of how radically unjust the treatment of gay and lesbian people has often been in our society, and of the role the churches have played in fostering the injustice.  As Candace Chellew-Hodge notes in a Religion Dispatches article about this issue today, the language in the Presbyterian Book of Order that this current amendment ditches is, after all, recent language.  

And it's highly politicized language, language that reflects a discriminatory agenda promoted by political activists within mainline Protestant churches of the U.S. in the final decades of the 20th century.  It was inserted into the Book of Order in the late 1990s as the anti-gay movement reached fever pitch in the political and religious right, and as one mainline Protestant church after another in the U.S. caved in to pressure from right-wing special interest groups within the churches to write discriminatory language into their constitutions and books of discipline/order.

People are growing tired not of the debate, but of the discrimination.  Of the discrimination in the name of God.  This is why there is such decisive pushback right now, as a "progressive" Christian group like Sojourners still implicitly defends anti-gay discrimination in the name of God by saying that the group can't "take sides" re: the movement for gay rights.

As Rev. Janet Edwards, a longtime advocate of gay rights in the Presbyterian church, notes at Huffington Post today, there's a moral awakening in American Christianity right now about these issues.  Sojourners is  under fire because it's on the wrong side in a historic struggle against discrimination and injustice, and for human rights.

And as Catholic theologian Paul Lakeland notes, the various shifts now underway in our culture and churches around these issues make it all the more imperative that the Catholic church foster dialogue about these matters--as Lakeland's Fairfield University will do later this year, in collaboration with Fordham University, Union Theological Seminary, and Yale University Divinity School, when these schools sponsor a conference entitled "More Than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church."  A conference that is already being attacked by Catholics of the right, who know that the culture is changing and that the kind of discrimination they continue to defend and promote in the name of God is increasingly regarded as unacceptable in mainstream American society . . . .

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