It was a neat and nearly perfect circle of deniability. Denominational leaders would grimace and carefully explain to us how the church structure concentrated power in the Conferences and not in the national offices.
Much as they might like to help, much as it might pain them to say it, denominational leaders assured us of their powerlessness to affect change as far as the inclusion of lgbtq people was concerned. Conference Ministers, on the other hand, would point to the congregations as the locus of power; while those same congregations would anxiously point back to the Conference, or even further to the denomination and the Confession of Faith for their reluctance to act.
It was an exercise in avoidance that left even the most hopeful of us dizzy and tired.
But somehow, after decades and decades of hard, hard work, painful vulnerable sharing, rigorous study, heartfelt prayer, and difficult and frequent experiences of callous rejection, somehow, over time, this perfect circle began to stretch, and then it started to bulge in some places and twist aggressively in others. The work continued, until finally, actual ruptures began to happen...slowly at first, but quickly gaining momentum: congregations came out as open and affirming and joined the Supportive Communities Network; dedicated pastors released open letters of support; allies began asking questions and standing in solidarity; talented young adults took a fancy to the color pink and wore it proudly; credentialing committees refused to censure caring pastors; and finally a Conference moved to license an openly lesbian woman, Theda Good, to the ministry.
So it is with a sense of great frustration (and a dab of amusement at the predictability) that I watch as the Executive Board “discovers” that power is not concentrated in the Conferences, but rather in the documents! And interestingly enough, the Executive Board is suddenly clear that these documents give them unprecedented legislative and executive powers, including the ability to make Theda “disappear” from the ranks of the credentialed. This correction in thinking has unleashed a whole new flurry of activities, including bold new rules for the Assembly Resolution Process (which is, after all, where these documents can be altered), the issuance of 8 new “Action Steps,” a plethora of official visits, articles and documents, and even a brand new survey for credentialed pastors. Upon inquiry about her own participation survey, Theda was told by a national staff member: “Following the EB statement of July 1, 2014 in which they will not recognize your credential, leaves us with no choice but not to send you a survey. As Executive Board Staff, accountable to Ervin and the EB, for purposes of our national office your credential is not recognized.” Take that, Theda Good!
These shifts in tactics and the manufacture of new hoops to jump through, should feel familiar to students of history and politics. It is what happens when institutions feel the heat of change upon them.
All this is not to dismiss the importance of documents. They matter. Yet it should not surprise us that MCUSA is now confronted by challenges and rule breakers – after all, the documents that gave birth to the denomination contained a whole section that codified hostile discrimination towards gay and lesbian people, and was quickly extended to include lgbtq people and even our allies. The prophets have warned us time and time again about what happens to those who build upon foundations of injustice. We can, and must do better.
Ultimately, however, it is not just about better documents. It is about pushing deeper and coming to terms with our human bent towards intolerance of difference that gives rise to hostile documents; a trait that bears particular examination for those of us who have chosen a more sectarian expression of Christian faith and zealously defend its boundaries. And it is about seriously reckoning with our seemingly insatiable need for a vulnerable scapegoat. Black, brown, red, female, disabled and queer bodies have all been scrutinized and found wanting by the Christian church, justifying some of our most violent and ungracious tendencies. Until we come to terms with these very painful and foundational practices, I fear that once this particular crisis is over, we will simply transfer our fears and hostilities onto another group of people.
Our tidy circle is rupturing. Our institutional structures are swaying. It is a time of deep distress, and also great possibility. If we listen closely over the din of the confusion, we might just hear the Spirit singing.
Courage in the struggle…