In mid May I had a long sit down at the Brick Presbyterian Church in Manhattan with Rev. Mieke Vandersall, executive director of Presbyterian Welcome and the pastor of a new worshiping community called “Not so Churchy.” The two of us could hardly be further apart on the issues that divide Presbyterians today but I believe that during our hours of conversation her personal fear of me abated and a mutual personal appreciation was fostered.
Our time together was somewhat orchestrated as the director of the documentary film “Out of Order” pitched a series of questions at us. Those questions included inviting us to reflect personally about ordination, marriage and the church. Queries like:
- Why can the two of you not be ordained and serve in the same denomination?
- Where do you stand on the issue of gay marriage and why do you take that position?
- What does Jesus say about marriage?
- What is your hope for the church going forward?
We also dealt with the issue of why, as a person who acknowledges herself to be under the authority of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Rev. Vandersall feels completely free to continue performing same-sex marriages.
We talked about the reality that even though the language of the Book of Order may have changed, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) people are not receiving calls to serve as pastors of congregations in significant numbers. Vandersall asked me to be frank in my perception of why that is so. Seeking to speak the truth in love I told her that the Presbyterians I know best, the lay people in the pews of PCUSA churches, are far more conservative than those who are ordained. And those lay people are on pastor nominating committees and voting on the issuance of pastoral calls. They want pastors whose lives are marked by transformation; not pastors who they perceive to be reserving a part of their lives from God’s redemptive and transforming power.
We talked about whether or not LGBTQ issues are really justice issues. Vandersall conceded that those who truly believe in liberality on these issues do not believe in compulsion. Which leads me to believe that we may not see a formal attempt to move from “may” to “shall” in terms of the acceptance of LGBTQ ordination in the PCUSA. She also acknowledged that there is a diversity of opinion on the left on that subject.
In talking about the 2014 General Assembly meeting we both expect marriage to be redefined either through constitutional amendment or through an Authoritative Interpretation that allows for pastoral discretion. The fact that either would lead to a gross internal conflict in the PCUSA’s constitutional documents does not seem to pose concern for Vandersall who is more comfortable than me living with ambiguity.
On the subject of marriage, Vandersall who is a partnered gay woman, shared that although it is now legal in New York state for them to wed, they have not. She shared that they were not waiting for the state’s permission and they did not feel ready to wed at the time of the laws passage. In follow-up conversations, Mieke has clarified that “just because we can get married doesn’t mean we want to. However, Amy and I are in a different place now, a few more years into this relationship, and at a much more natural place to be thinking about marriage. I am not saying it is happening immediately, but that there is a desire for marriage, it is just a constantly evolving conversation and not one tied to the credence of the state.”
Genuine communication is a tricky business. Even if you and I agree in principal on a matter I may still say or write something that gets misconstrued or taken the wrong way. In this case, Vandersall and I agree that the discourse among Presbyterians needs to be elevated and that the future of the PCUSA depends on people of wildly diverse beliefs being able to talk with one another, not shouting at one another. For many years, Vandersall and I admit that we talked past one another. We are now talking to one another. That may not seem momentous to you, but our hope is that actual communication will be fostered into the future. To be clear, we still disagree with one another, but we are not avoiding one another in the midst of disagreement.
One of the interesting take-aways for me was the sense that even with all her credentials, Vandersall doesn’t yet feel fully empowered. There can be no doubt that a significant shift in power has taken place – whereby I am no longer an ordained member of the official order of Presbyterian ministers and she is. I have neither voice nor vote in any council of the PCUSA at any level and she is not only ordained but has been elected and served at three General Assembly meetings. She has represented two presbyteries and Union Theological seminary (New York) as a Youth Advisory Delegate (1998), Theological Student Advisory Delegate (2002) and Teaching Elder Commissioner (2012). And yet, she perceives herself and other LGBTQ people for whom she advocates to be the marginalized outsiders.
The documentary being made chronicles the journey of three LGBTQ candidates pursuing ordination in the PCUSA ordination. But curiously, in a post-10A world, I am the one who is actually out of the order.