I was ordained to the ministry in the Presbyterian church twenty nine years ago. At the time, I was living in Greensboro with my partner Katherine and working two jobs, as a campus minister at UNC Greensboro and as the Director of the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South. My presbytery didn’t exactly know that I was a lesbian. They didn’t ask and I didn’t say.
That was 1982. I had been out of seminary for five year, and it took me all that time to jump through the Presbyterian hoops to be ordained—as a woman, never mind about the rest of it.
I went on being a campus minister for a few more years and then switched to just one job, the one with RCWMS, which I still have. I also went on having a female partner until 1990, when I took up with men again.
On this the 10th day of May, 2011, as I wait for the last necessary presbytery to approve a PCUSA amendment that will remove the barriers to the ordination of openly GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered) people in our communion, my mind wanders over the stories of friends. Some of my gay and lesbian colleagues kept their mouths shut about their relationships, about their families. Some gave up their ordinations, choosing to be clear, well integrated, and open about their lives. Some left the denomination all together and found homes in places like the United Church of Christ who gave up crucifying and prosecuting people based on their sexual orientation.
For those who chose to keep going, being ordained members of a denomination that was uncomfortable with their presence, things got stickier. By 1997 and the passage of the “fidelity and chastity” amendment to the Book of Oder, GLBT ministers and elder were formally out of compliance with the Book of Order. Said amendment required fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness of Presbyterian clergy and elders. Since GLBT people couldn’t be legally married at that point, it left them outside the door, except for those who chose celibacy.
It is that amendment that is being “undone” today and to that I say, “Alleluia!” What we want of people in leadership is that they be open, honest, and faithful people. We want to teach young people mutual respect and not to take advantage of people who are younger, smaller, or in any way weaker. Sexuality can and should be an expression of love, not of power over. Sexual orientation should not the issue; the quality and equality of relationships should be.
We are a rugged lot, we Presbyterians. We often stay and fight it out. (Perhaps you’ve heard of the Hatfields and the McCoys. They were our folks.) I’ve been so proud of GLBT Presbyterians and their allies who didn’t give up. We’ve stayed in the church vowing to change the rules. The debates have become more civilized and somewhat more respectful in the last three decades. The number on our side of the issue has increased. I’ve almost been bold enough to believe I’d see this day. And now, just moments before the last needed presbytery begins its meeting, I have butterflies in my stomach.
The day I graduated from seminary, I turned to friends and said, “They’ll be sorry.” As I watched older people rankle at the idea of GLBT clergy, I said, “They’ll age out.” Here on the brink of my 60th birthday and what feels like the authorization of my ordination, I just want to say, “Thank you.”
I thank the scores of people who have stayed with this church family long enough to see this one issue a little further down the road. That’s a mighty fine example of fidelity in my book.
When we heretics finally get our way, I guess we don’t get to be heretics anymore. We get to take up the rank and file of regular, imperfect, sinful people of the church. We also get to remember that we are what there is, we are the stuff God has to work with. We are who there is to do God’s work in the world. And there is much more work to do.
To all those who have kept the faith, “Thank you.” Today, you have made me proud to be a Presbyterian.