Listen To Article
Last week I was in New York for the Brooklyn classis meeting of the RCA. That’s the classis (local body of churches) of which I’m a member (long story) and I rarely get to meetings, but I came to this one to report on my experience as a classis delegate at this past summer’s General Synod. At the meeting my heart became heavy with the reminder of how difficult it is for me to maintain an ecclesiastical home in a denomination that continues to reject the gifts of gay people.
At the meeting, I sat with my minister friend Ann, whose church is growing more substantially than any other congregation in the classis. With the help of many local and federal grants, the congregation has a huge hunger relief program; they feed 4,500 people a month. Later this week the church will hold a memorial service for a homeless man who was a beloved member of their community; he used to walk from Manhattan to Brooklyn just to attend church. At the church he also attended the AA meetings that helped keep him sober for over a decade. Ministry is happening, and flourishing, at Ann’s church. But because Ann is gay, she doesn’t have an official call to that congregation, or any of the benefits that come with being a called and installed pastor. She and her wife are both ordained in the UCC, as are so many other people whose call to ministry was not affirmed in the denominations they used to claim as home.
At one point during the classis meeting (after we’d voted to close a church, and discussed how long classis meetings should be, among other things), the issue of Ann’s relationship to the classis came up. Since she’s not an installed minister at her church, Ann’s presence is officially that of a “guest” at classis, a designation that needs to be acknowledged and approved on the agenda at each meeting. Ann doesn’t need to come to classis meetings, but she does, because she cares, and because, as she said to the gathered body, there seems to be a need for more workers in the vineyard when it comes to the administrative tasks of the classis, and she’s at the ready to help. Several members of the classis proceeded to take the opportunity to describe their own views on the “lifestyle she’s embraced” and all the reasons why, even though she’s “a great person,” her ministry basically can’t “count” in the RCA.
This made me so sad. First of all, I felt my “straight privilege,” akin to white privilege, when I considered how I could just show up at a meeting and have a voice and a vote, how I could be a delegate to General Synod, how I didn’t have to wonder whether my “lifestyle” would be a subject of conversation that night. No one’s ever publicly scrutinized whether my sexual ethics are up to snuff. We straight people get a pass on those things. I also felt weary, deep down, when I thought about how much energy my denomination continues to spend on this issue, when so many of our ecumenical brothers and sisters have moved beyond it. How long will it take us?
Judging from what I heard and observed at Synod this summer, however, it will still take a long time. I really don’t know how this issue will get resolved in the RCA, and who might leave in the process or aftermath. And for as much as I’ve been glad in some ways that we haven’t yet split over this, and that we’ve tried really hard to find a way forward together, I deeply grieve what I see as ongoing systemic injustices when it comes to the place of our LGBT Christian brothers and sisters.
It’s hard to watch the continued attempts to suppress or deny the validity of these folks’ ministry. Especially when you know more and more gay people in ministry. Before my trip to Brooklyn, I’d spent a few days in Boston, where I’d stayed with a former colleague and her wife, who are both in ministry, both ordained UCC. I’d heard a great sermon by a gay friend and seminary classmate of mine who was guest preaching at the Presbyterian church I used to attend; he had to wait a long time to get ordained but it never slowed down the remarkable ministry he was doing. I stayed in Hartford with an Episcopal priest friend who is working with her diocese on the ordination process for young clergy; LGBT issues are not a roadblock there. And I returned from Nashville and celebrated with other students when we learned that one of our instructors, for whom I’m a teaching fellow right now actually, had gone to a gay-marriage-friendly state and got married to her partner of 17 years (who is a theology professor). I look at my Facebook newsfeed and see the ministries and family life of my gay friends and I am grateful to know so many people who have honored their calls, who are visiting the sick, baptizing, educating, presiding at the table, counseling, visiting the prisoner, marrying and burying, preaching, feeding the hungry, teaching and mentoring future clergy. And often doing it in the face of challenges and criticisms that I’ve never had to experience.
I also have plenty of friends and colleagues who don’t see it this way, and I know a portion of those reading this and will sigh and inwardly complain about the liberal bent of this blog. But hear me out. I’m not speaking for anyone besides myself; I simply want to tell you what I see from where I sit, and how it grieves me. And I know I’m not alone in that.
I'm with you.
Thank you for this, Jessica. It is a beautifully shared, if sad, testimony of faith and persistence. I couldn't agree more. However, it was your early lines that grabbed me most, "At the meeting my heart became heavy with the reminder of how difficult it is for me to maintain an ecclesiastical home in a denomination that continues to reject the gifts of gay people." I certainly understand your heaviness of heart. A heaviness (and weariness) that many feel, and some even palpably and personally more so. But–and I don't say this lightly or flippantly–I truly want to encourage you, as much as you are able to continue in the promise you made in your ordination, "to walk in the Spirit of Christ, in love and fellowship within the church… always ready, with gentleness and reverence, to give an account of my understanding of the Christian faith. …to preach and teach the good news of salvation in Christ, to build up and equip the church for mission in the world, to free the enslaved, to relieve the oppressed, to comfort the afflicted, and to walk humbly with God." The church needs you to. The RCA needs you to.
I spoke about Room for All at the meeting of the Rockland-Westchester classis last week, and recalled the story in Acts 4, when the disciples refused to be muzzled by the powers-that-were. They did so not out of spite or desire to tear down. Rather, they said, "We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard." We need you, and others, to continue to speak and advocate for Ann and all the other RCA gay pastors who, closeted or not, are living out their ordination vows with faithfulness and humility, and indeed, are living out the Gospel. And we need you to persevere in engaging the RCA from within with grace and patience.
Couldn't agree more, Jessica. Thank you for writing this. One of my lesbian friends said "The sins of anti-inclusion of the denomination are on your hands, too, Jes." Though I am newer to the RCA & minister in a welcoming and affirming church system at Collegiate, I think she is right and I'm not always sure what to do with that. It haunts me.
No doubt people will soon be asking why any RCA money goes to pay for this blog. I'm glad some of mine does.
Paul, while I'm glad you would be supportive, just to clarify Perspectives is fully independent of the RCA. Where some things still overlap, we are in the process of separating. What services we do receive from them, we pay for. But we'd accept your donation…seriously!
Thank you, Jessica.
Thanks Jessica. Living with these sentiments in the CRC…wearying and disappointing are words that come to mind. Bailing for another denomination where these matters are non-issues is tempting, I agree. But keep up the fight. I will too. Thanks for the encouragement and for the grace and candor with which you've expressed it.