Room to Discern

ringsIn the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling regarding marriage equality, many Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations across the country are in a quandary.   The uncomfortable reality is that the while ministers (teaching elders) are allowed to make the pastoral decision as to whether or not to marry a couple of the same sex, sessions (local governing bodies) are in control of church property.

It’s possible that a pastor might want to perform the marriage of a couple of the same sex while the session of the church the pastor serves might prohibit the marriage from taking place on church property.

Some sessions are rushing to produce written policies declaring openness to same-sex marriage while others are rushing to prohibit them on church property regardless of the wishes of their pastor. What a mess!

Before the change in our church Constitution and the ruling of the Supreme Court, this was the practice at First Presbyterian. A couple fills out a marriage application. The wedding date is penciled on the church calendar. I meet with the couple for pre-marriage counseling or arrange for counseling if the couple is from out of town. After a period of mutual discernment I decide if I will preside at the wedding. If the marriage is to take place on church property, what was penciled becomes permanent. After the marriage has taken place – whether on or off church property – I report the wedding to the session.

In effect, the session has given me carte blanche to perform marriages on church property.

Last Sunday when I asked for advice from the session of First Presbyterian Church, they said, in effect. “Just keep doing what you’re doing. If you need to consult us, we’re always open to discussion.”

No policies chiseled in stone. No pastoral hands tied. Just a gracious provision of room for me to do what I’m called to do as pastor and teaching elder at First Presbyterian Church.

Does that mean that First Church will host same-sex marriages? The answer is, “That depends. Which couple are you talking about?” Until the discernment period with the pastor and the couple is completed, I can’t answer that question.

Now, if the questions is, “May same-sex couples apply for marriage by the pastor of First Church?” the pastor’s answer is “Yes.”

I’m keenly aware that I am blessed to serve this congregation. My recent conversation with the session is more evidence of that blessing. Just in case you think I take that blessing for granted, you should listen in on my daily prayers.

Rabbi to the Rescue

Screenshot 2015-07-11 14.41.56My Dad, a wise presbyter, counseled me shortly after I was ordained, “You don’t have to speak in every debate on the floor of presbytery. If you wait a little while, someone else will probably make your speech for you.”

I give Dad, now in the Church Triumphant, credit for my decision not to respond in print to Father Eric Dudley’s editorial in the Tallahassee Democrat regarding marriage equality.

Back in August I took Archbishop Thomas Wenski to task for his uncharitable diatribe against supporters of marriage equality. I figured my parishioners could do without seeing their pastor’s mug in the Democrat yet again. Surely, I figured, somebody would make my speech for me.

Well, somebody did. My friend Jack Romberg, rabbi at Temple Israel, produced his own guest editorial in response to Father Dudley’s. Not only did Jack point out that the Bible does not reflect a single, monolithic model of marriage, he also suggested that insisting that there is only one way to interpret the Bible is a form of religious hubris.

I agree.

Two elements of my brother Eric’s opinion piece bothered me most. First were his words about “loving” gay friends and family members. He wrote:

It is not that we dislike homosexual people; on the contrary, we have friends and family members who are gay and we love them, and treat them with the warmth and kindness with which we treat anyone we love. But we cannot support them in their desire to marry.

“Love” that is reduced to “warmth and kindness,” but does not demand justice is not “love” in the biblical sense. “Love” in the biblical sense calls us to acknowledge the full humanity and dignity of the other, not just to treat him or her with “warmth and kindness.”

Growing up in the South, I remember all too well those Christians who maintained, “Some of my best friends are Negroes and I love them.” That “love” did not prevent my white Christian friends from denying people of color their civil rights or from telling and laughing at racist jokes.

I’m often wary when my fellow Christians speak of “love.” “Love” can easily become Christian-speak for “condescension.”

I also take issue with Father Dudley’s assertion that marriage equality hastens our nation’s slide down the slippery slope toward secularism. For him, the Supreme Court’s ruling represents “ . . . yet another unraveling of the Christian fabric of our country, another step in the direction of secular Europe.”

I’m not sure what Father Dudley means by “secular.” In Henry VIII’s time “secularism” meant the disposition of one religious system by another. To gain support for his throne and in his fight against the Pope who refused to grant him a divorce, Henry “secularized” church property.  Some of the “secularized” property went into the royal treasury; some went to his supporters.

“Secular” is also a term used within Catholicism to distinguish the world from the church. I take it that for Father Dudley, “secular” means society’s descent into agnosticism or atheism.  Secularism in this sense goes hand in hand with the waning influence of churches — especially government-supported “established” churches.

We Reformed Christians aren’t too keen on the word “secular.”  It rubs against the grain of our theological tradition.

I agree with Marilynne Robinson that “secularism” has no real meaning in today’s world. The incarnate God, the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, is present and active in all of creation, including all of humanity:

. . . All I wish to suggest is that faith lives in the human world by the grace of God, because of the love and loyalty of God, and in the presence of God, which is free, indifferent to our anxieties, to our categories, and quite emphatically, I think, to our very negative judgments about the spiritual state of our neighbors . . .” (Christian Century, July 8, 2015, p. 25).

It doesn’t help to label marriage equality as evidence of creeping secularism. That’s just a another way of pointing out the speck in my neighbor’s eye while ignoring the log in my own eye.

I thank my colleague Father Dudley for his provocative editorial and my colleague Rabbi Romberg for his response. This is the kind of exchange that makes me proud to live under the United States Constitution.

Unlikely Honor

Empty GownOne of my favorite bloggers is Adam J. Copeland.  (The fact that he is also my son has absolutely nothing to do with my admiration for his writing.)  In a recent blog Adam asked “What’s the Point in Being a Pastor?”  A fair question.

John M. Buchanan, former pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, and editor of the Christian Century, views the issue through the lens of retirement.  John struck a chord deep in my own pastor’s heart when he wrote:

I love the way Barbara Brown Taylor described her vocational decision in Leaving Church: “Being a priest seemed only slightly less dicey to me than being chief engineer at a nuclear plant. In both cases, one needed to know how to approach great power without loosing great danger and getting fried in the process.” The pastor lives and works close to the heat: the passion, tragedy, and exultation, the pain, loss, and indescribable joy of human life. People invite us into their lives at a level not accessible to anyone else. They tell us things they tell no one else, things we must never tell anyone (even our spouse), things we carry around the rest of our lives. They call us when they lose their jobs or a spouse dies. They tell us that sex is no longer interesting, that they can’t believe in God any longer, that their teenage daughter is doing cocaine. They want us at their bedside when they are critically ill and invite us into the most intimate space in all of life when life comes to an end. They turn us into addicts with their postworship compliments, and then devastate us with criticism when we’re most vulnerable. They know our salaries, what kind of car we drive, and where we go on vacation. And, remarkably, they also come week after week to sit quietly and listen to us talk. If there is a more astonishing fact and more unlikely honor, I cannot imagine what it might be.

I’m aware that the culture is changing fast, that many congregations cannot afford to pay a full-time pastor, and that seminarians are being told that they must prepare to be “tent makers” or “bi-vocational ministers.”  For myself, I count myself extraordinary blessed to be able to serve in what we old-timers used to call “the full-time gospel ministry.”

No one but a pastor knows the terrible responsibility of preaching week to week and of providing pastoral care.  On the other hand, no one but a pastor knows what a gift it is to be called to that terror.

John is right.  The pastorate is an “unlikely honor,” but honor it is.