On Presbyterians, Exiles, and Apologies

Behind my desk there are two framed certificates on the wall. One is from 2001. It is reads “Certificate of Ordination as Minister of Word and Sacrament, Presbyterian Church (USA)”. The other is from 2010. This one reads “Certificate of Ordained Ministerial Standing, United Church of Christ”.

When I transferred my ordination to the UCC in 2010, I wasn’t sure what to do with that first certificate. The Presbyterian Church had trained me to be a pastor at one of its denominational seminaries. It had shaped me as a candidate for ministry. I had been a member of PCUSA churches, interned in a PCUSA congregation, and served honorably for over eight years as a PCUSA minister.

But, in 2010, I left.

I didn’t want to. I loved being Presbyterian. I can still tell you all about the Book of Confessions, and my favorite parts, from Heidelberg to Barmen. I love the Presbyterian commitment to education and loving God with our whole mind. I am deeply Reformed, down to the bone.

And I am also gay.

In 2010 I had to make a choice between the church I loved and my life. I knew, for my own mental health, that I could no longer be a part of a church that asked me to either abide by an unfair ordination standard applied only to same-sex relationships or to remain silent about it in certain settings if I chose not to abide.

I have been out since I was 18. I never hid that fact. But I lived within the strictures of the PCUSA’s ordination standard. I did this not out of shame, but out of a sense that I could not ask someone to partner with me and live in the shadows. As even my father told me when it became time for me to leave the PCUSA, it wouldn’t be fair to someone I loved.

When it became clear that change was not coming fast enough, I had to ask myself questions about staying. I came to understand that remaining in the PCUSA would be fundamentally damaging to me, and to my sense of integrity. And so, reluctantly, I left.

Within a year of leaving the PCUSA I met my now-wife. We dated openly, celebrated our engagement publicly, and married in a church of my new denomination. When DOMA was overturned, and when the Supreme Court later made equal marriage the law of the land, we rejoiced with the whole-hearted support of our denomination. I have come to understand what it means to be accepted and loved by my church, just as I am.

rainbow-sealYou might think that after all that I am angry at the PCUSA.

For a while I was. I think I had good reason. But then, I wasn’t. As much as my treatment, and the treatment of every other LGBTQ person in the church, was unfair, I still love the Presbyterian Church deeply. I hang my ordination certificate in my office so that every day I will see it and remember the gifts I received from the PCUSA. And I rejoiced when the PCUSA took steps to include LGBTQ people in leadership and marriage.

Over the past few weeks, though, I have felt some of those old feelings of frustration return.

There is an overture being considered in the PCUSA right now which calls on the denomination to apologize for its past treatment of LGBTQ individuals because “there will be no chance for healing and reconciliation until the PCUSA admits its mistakes and makes a statement of apology”.

The Covenant Network, which believes itself to be an ally to LGBTQ people, has come out against the statement. (For historical perspective the Covenant Network also urged past delays on votes which could have included LGBTQ people in the ministry sooner out of concerns for “unity”. As a PCUSA seminarian at the time I had a hard time with that stance as well.) Other PCUSA “allies” have also spoken against the apology saying it does not have consensus or that it will create further division.

Let me say first that division has already been created. The fact many LGBTQ Presbyterians are now exiles in other denominations should tell you that. Those of us who were forced to leave will not have a voice on Presbytery and General Assembly floors, and so I urge you to listen to what we have to say now. We are, literally, not in the room.

Beyond that I hear some say that the apology is “forced”. If a minority of GA made the majority apologize, it would indeed be forced. But this is an overture that will require a majority voice. If a majority of the delegates at GA find this is appropriate, then they will represent the majority will of this connectional church. The same thing happened when LGBTQ people were banned from ministry, and yet this same argument was not made.

I hear others say it won’t matter to LGBTQ people. Curiously, I have not heard this from LGBTQ people. (And particularly not from any of us who lived through the worst of the ’90’s and ’00’s as candidates or clergy.) As an LGBTQ person, I can tell you it would matter to me. I will personally be okay without an apology from the PCUSA. I’ve done my work. But, I would find the apology deeply meaningful and healing. I would also see it as the start to real reconciliation between those of us who have left and our former church, as well as a sign of healing for those who have stayed, and their partners.

I have also heard people ask “have we apologized to other groups” such as women and African-Americans, who also bore grave injustices at the hands of the Presbyterian Church. No. You haven’t. You should do that, by the way.

Mostly, though, I believe in this overture because I believe in the power of making amends. In the recovery community one of the major steps towards healing and wholeness is looking at the people you have hurt and saying “I’m sorry”. Until you do that, you can’t really heal. And I want health and healing for the PCUSA. There is so much good that the PCUSA does in this world, and so much more that it could do. The world needs a healthy Presbyterian Church.

As for me, I have made my peace with the Presbyterian Church. I have looked at my resentments and forgiven the PCUSA for the pain. I have found gratitude for the good gifts I received from the PCUSA; gifts that continue to inform my ministry every day. I have claimed my own “serenity to accept the things I cannot change and courage to change the things I can”.

Perhaps in writing now I am exhibiting that I still don’t have the “wisdom to know the difference”. I don’t know if these words will have any effect on anyone. And yet, as a product of the Presbyterian Church, and as one who still deeply loves the church, I offer them for the consideration of those who still dwell within its walls.

And I also say this, expecting no reciprocity but remaining hopeful that perhaps someday it will come: When I made my ordination vows I fully intended to remain a Presbyterian minister until the day I died. For my part in not remaining faithful, I am sorry. Having had to leave continues to grieve me more than you know.