Over the holidays I had the opportunity to speak with an old friend who is on staff in a Presbyterian church (PCUSA) in northern New Jersey.  She’s been a straight ally for over 30 years, so I was curious to know how her allyship might play out in her church and if it doesn’t, what are the roadblocks.  She teaches in the church’s pre-school and directs the children’s choirs, so her job description doesn’t necessarily put her in a natural advocacy role that, say, a pastor’s or youth leader’s might.

I invite you to eavesdrop on our conversation with an eye towards respectful understanding that every congregations is different, and that there are complexities involved in being an LGBT advocate in a denomination that like President Obama “isn’t quite there yet”.  My take away from our conversation is that for my friend’s congregation, internal politics and lack of leadership are barriers to developing a new mission of active LGBT inclusion and advocacy.

This is not to say that I am looking to make excuses for the silence of some of our allies, but that the potential for progress always looks clearest to those farthest away from the action.  If you have straight allies who are people of faith but have faced roadblocks to living their allyship as people of faith, how have you helped them strategize ways around those roadblocks?  Please share your experiences in the comments.

A note on where LGBT people stand in relation to PCUSA

From what I can tell, PCUSA doesn’t have any set policies regarding transgender people.  PCUSA seems to view everything through the lens of sexual orientation.  The document The Church and Homosexuality published in 1978 and augmented by a 2005 study guide is the denomination’s guide for how “homosexuals” should be viewed by and treated in the church.  The Church and Homosexuality essentially says that gays are to be lovingly included into the life of the church and if celibate may be ordained as lay leaders or clergy, but that sexual relationships between two men or two women are sinful.

In 1997 PCUSA amended the denomination’s constitution The Book of Order (pdf) to ban the ordination of “unrepentant” lesbian, gay or bisexual lay leaders or clergy.

Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and / or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament. (G-6.0106b)

“The confessions” referred to above is the part of The Book of Confessions called the Heidelberg Catechism which lists “homosexual perversion” as a sin.  The current version of the Heidelberg Catechism reads:

Q. 87. Can those who do not turn to God from their ungrateful, impenitent life be saved?

A. Certainly not! Scripture says, “Surely you know that the unjust will never come into possession of the kingdom of God. Make no mistake: no fornicator, or idolater, none who are guilty either of adultery or of homosexual perversion, no thieves or grabbers or drunkards or slanderers or swindlers, will possess the kingdom of God.”

The original Heidelberg Catechism was written in the 16th century and made “no mention of homosexual perversion or of same-sex relations in any terms”, according to scholars.  ”Homosexual perversion” was added in 1962.

Efforts have been underway for about 10 years to remove the 1997 rules barring partnered LGB people from ordination.  In July, 2010 at the 219th PCUSA General Assembly the church’s legislative body voted 373 to 323 to replace the 1997 anti-gay ordination language with text that ignores the sexual orientation and relationship status of the candidate.  This vote must be ratified by 2/3 of the presbyteries (local governing bodies) and then again by the next General Assembly in 2012 to go into effect.  A similar effort was defeated in 2008 when the presbyteries declined to ratify the change.

At about the same time “The Church and Homosexuality” was adopted, the kernel groups of what would later become More Light Presbyterians formed.  More Light Presbyterians is a “network of people seeking the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of faith in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA).”  They maintain a listing of Welcoming Churches.

My conversation with a straight Presbyterian ally

You’ve been a member of this church for almost 18 years.  What’s it like to work in your own congregation?

“Very dicey.  It’s a tricky position to be in.  I can’t always state my personal feelings, because I’m a staff member even though I’m a congregant.”  In other words, she doesn’t know whether congregants will interpret what she says as reflecting the church administration or her personal opinion.  ”It’s a tight rope, a fine line.”

She’s never experienced difficulties stemming from this dual role in the church because “I’m cautious.  I do not like confrontation.  So I’m not going to voice my opinion in any kind of situation where I’m going to have to become combative.  So I make sure I’m not in those positions.”

“When the presidential election was going on, this past one, the one before — oh the one before was horrible — because we have a staff member who is very Republican, very conservative, and no one else on the staff is.”

The situation (which hilariously in retrospect included a bumper sticker war) escalated to the point where “we actually said in staff meeting, you know we really have to kind of leave our politics outside of this building because we have congregants that go both ways and you don’t want to set a precedent that you can’t work with somebody that has a differing opinion.”

“And that’s specific to the history in our church and some other things that have happened that divided us where they could not have differing opinions and work together.  It’s taken almost 10 years to heal something else that happened.  It was a horrendous time where some staff members could not even grocery shop in town.  If they saw somebody who was on the opposing side, they would be screamed at.”

This decade-old divisive event was due to an event within the church rather than external politics, but “it set up this feeling in our church that you can’t have any kind of differing opinion, because obviously we can’t play together in the sand box if we don’t agree on everything.”

Of course nobody agrees on everything, and so the church has been on tenderhooks since.  But hope is on the horizon.  ”A minister left, we’ve gone through a couple years of interims, and now we just now this month got our permanent head of staff who has a degree in counseling.  So there’s going to be a difference now I believe, and he’s going to force us over time to say ok, we can have differing views, and we can still work together for a common good”.

“I know other churches go through these kinds of things, and this is just where our church is right now.”

Has the congregation had to deal with any major problems during these past 10 difficult years, or has it been pretty quiet?

“Things have been pretty quiet because everbody’s scared.  In the mainline churches you’re losing members, so its pretty quiet.  The one issue particular to our town is undocumented workers.  That is a huge problem here.  Where do you stand as a church on that?  Do you feed and clothe them even though they’re undocumented, even though the Mayor is kicking them off the street?  Then do you go against the Mayor?  People whose cause this is have moved to the side and quietly done all the work they want to do on it, and the rest of the congregation doesn’t pay attention because they don’t care.”

So the rest of the congregation isn’t obstructing that work?

“They’re not obstructing them, although I know some of the older people in the church hate that.  They want all the undocumented workers kicked out.  But they don’t say anything, they just say OK that’s your thing I’m turning my head because there’s the sense of we need members, can’t upset anybody.”

Over the past 10-15 years, membership in the church has gone way down.  ”Whatever the national average is, we’re probably right there with them.  It’s down substantially.  …People are just too busy – they don’t come to church.  I don’t know whether they don’t believe, it’s the only day of the week I can sleep in blah blah blah, all the excuses you’ve heard over the years.

National polling shows the United States to be very religious, but apparently that doesn’t translate into as great a need to attend weekly church services as in the past.

Does the denomination interfere in issues of the local congregation or are you free to work out your own problems?

“In the Presbyterian Church you’re in your own church, then you’re part of a presbytery, which is a regional grouping.  And then the national office in Louisville, KY is in charge of everybody.  So from what I can tell, it comes down to how active, how good the head Presbyter is in terms of what they let you do, not do, get away with.”

“Part of what’s going on in the Presbyterian Church is we have huge congregations in the South who, as you can guess, are a lot more conservative.  That’s also true of some of the California churches – the big money California churches are more conservative than people would think.  And these huge churches are deciding they’re going to leave the Presbyterian faith because they don’t like the direction the Presbytery is going in.”

And what direction is that?  ”Being more inclusive, being gay friendly.  But those aren’t the only issues.  There are all kinds of management and administrative issues of which I’m not part of because as a staff member I can’t be in the ruling body of a congregation.”

Why are you a gay ally?

“Well I don’t know, I just always have been!  Why wouldn’t I be?  Obviously because of you is a good part of it, but part of it is, I was a music major. Basically, I was surrounded by gay guys.  If I wasn’t friendly, I wouldn’t have had any friends.  I can’t say that I was in high school and before because frankly it wasn’t on my radar and I didn’t even know what it was even.  And if I did I probably snickered like it was something funny.  And then I got into college and had this rude awakening like oh!  Oh, OK!  So I guess that’s it.  I just never wouldn’t have been from the time I got into college.

There’s a difference between treating gay people fairly and being an advocate — and advocacy takes all kinds of forms.  For example telling people you’re gay-friendly and why, I call that advocacy.  Do you see advocacy happening in your congregation either formally or informally, for example like with the congregants helping the undocumented immigrants, that it’s a calling for them?

“I don’t really see it in our congregation, and I think it’s because we don’t have a leader.  There’s not someone who says ‘My son’s gay and he needs equal rights so let’s go after them.‘  I don’t see any of the kids saying ‘I’m gay, I need support,’ because they would have it in the church – our church would support them.  If somebody was there and asked, it would happen, I think.”

“When I’ve been around some of the older — like I’d say 80s and up — opinionated people who throughout our congregation’s history have always caused trouble, those people will make cracks about ‘well you can just go to the Episcopal church down the street and have a gay man, you know, feed you the lord’s supper‘ or something, and they’ll make those kinds of comments, and you just look at them and go, you are so old.  Because I would say from age 80 down, most of the congregation does not feel that way.  They would not make that kind of comment.  Because almost all of them know somebody gay or have someone in their family who’s gay.  And so maybe some of them are advocates and are out doing things, but we don’t talk about it.”

“We refer to ourselves as ‘the frozen chosen‘, which means that we’re pretty stiff, tight-lipped, don’t talk about stuff.”

When the New Jersey legislature was voting on marriage equality this year and the Catholic church was aggressively lobbying against it, was any of that conversation brought into your church?

“No.  Our church, we were looking for our new minister and that’s all we focused on.  Oh, there’s a tsunami in the rest of the world?  Oh well.  We were focused on oh my goodness, we’re losing members, oh my goodness we need a new person to come here, oh my goodness I hope they don’t screw up and get an awful person like they did last time.  They had such blinders on, and then the only room they have is for their own particular cause.”

“We have people who their cause is helping the Katrina places, and twice a year they take a week or 2 weeks of their vacation and go down and build houses and paint houses and do Katrina stuff.  We have people that go to the Dominican Republic every year.  We have people that do a clothing bank out of the basement of the church every Tuesday for the undocumented workers.”

So your church is very mission driven.

“We are extremely mission driven.  Remember where we dropped the oranges off that one year?  We started that men’s mission.  Our church does a lot of mission stuff, but they don’t talk about it, they don’t advertise it.  And in fact when new people like new ministers come in they say ‘What’s wrong with you people?  You should be out there telling what you’re doing.’  But of course we don’t because you’re not supposed to do that.  You’re not supposed to wave your flag and say ‘look at all the good deeds I do‘.”

Reading some of the PCUSA literature you’d think this was the place to be for gay Christians because it talks about being joyously inclusive, etc.  But reading deeper you see it states that gay relationships are a sin.  So there’s a jarring disconnect there between treating people with humanity but then telling them their relationships are depraved.  In your 18 years at your church, what kinds of things have been said about gay people from the pulpit?

“The minsters have preached on tolerance, that’s their big thing. When __ was here, whatever gay issue the General Assembly was debating that particular summer, he gave a very good sermon that mentioned a big church change like allowing women to serve communion.  I don’t remember exactly but something big like that.  He said that took 125 years to get change.  He said it seems so simple to us, it seems like a no-brainer, but it took 125 years, or whatever the years were, but it was huge like that.  He said we’re starting the conversation now about allowing gays to serve communion, or whatever it was that particular summer, but it was something about a gay issue.  But he said, for the people who are disappointed in how it turned out I say to you, it took 125 years for women to serve communion.  He said, we’ll get there in the end, but it’s a process, so don’t give up.”

“I remember that sermon because I though, oh my goodness, he’s pro-gay, he just said it from that pulpit in a round-about way, and he actually did a sermon I can tell you about this many years later, that’s how much it struck me.  But never again.  He never said anything about gays again.  Then he left.”

“The next minister was definitely pro-gay and talked about his uncle being gay and how hard it was to watch people not accept him, but didn’t really say — all his sermons were about himself, so he didn’t tell us to do anything.”

“And then any of the interims we’ve had, who I can tell you whole-heartedly would be all pro-gay — because interims are far better than regular ministers as far as I can tell — and they’re more able to let people know how they feel because they’re going to be there 1 or 2 years.  So they are much easier about telling people how they feel, but again never calling people to arms or go fight for gay marriage.  I never heard that from the pulpit, I just heard ‘we’re all God’s children‘ kind of thing.”

“And then our most recent interim, after Tyler Clementi died by suicide …she did a sermon that was just, ‘what is wrong with us that we would be in this society that we would allow this, that a child would not feel safe to go talk to somebody‘.  She said all the kids’ names — But again, her message was we need to love one another.  Period.”

Not ‘we need to make sure that gay people in our congregation know we’re there to support them‘?

“Right.  No, it was, we’re here, we need to love and accept each other, and that’s our mandate from God.  Period.  Be loving.”

So that was your most recent interim.  You have a permanent pastor now?

“Yeah he just got here this month so I have no idea.  So we’ll see with him.  He seems to be tolerant on the ‘we need to love each other‘ kind of thing, but we’ll see how that translates, you know.”

It sounds like in your church none of the ministers would be opposed to someone in the congregation starting a gay advocacy project, but the clergy isn’t going to initiate that.

“Exactly.  I would agree with that.  And they are walking a fine line, because they’ve got that 80 year old congregant who is in the last parts of their life who, and I hate to be this way but, who’s basically funding the church.  Because of course the people with money are the older people.  People who are younger, with families, they’re not giving as much money to the church.  And I don’t want to say you rule the church by money, but it is an important thing that somebody that’s giving a lot of money, is paying your salary.  So you have to at least acknowledge that they feel a certain way.”

A religion-positive pollster recently showed that 2/3 of Americans “see connections between messages coming from America’s places of worship and higher rates of suicide among gay and lesbian youth.”  At the same time, people tended to think their own church handled gay issues well.

“Wow.”

So the perception that churches are a detriment to gay people, that’s a widespread impression.

“Well and I think its those conservatives that do that.  I mean I would say that I think those conservative churches are brutal.”

I see two levels of problem.  There are those conservative churches that preach anti-gay stuff from the pulpit.  But then there’s a category of churches which I would put yours in — tell me if I’m being unfair — and that is just standing quietly by and maybe making occasional token efforts.  

It was good that gays were mentioned positively in those sermons at your church, but scared gay people can tell a meek token effort from something more substantial.  When the only religious voices out in the wider world are the homophobic ones and they don’t get countered out there by the loving ones, I think that’s noticed.  It’s not that the neutral churches like yours are doing anything wrong, but they’re not doing anything to counteract the nasty stuff that’s going on in the public square.  It makes them look like accomplices even though they’re not.

“Yeah.  I can see the undocumented workers probably feel the same way, the tea party that did something on the town green probably feels the same way.  It’s a difficult place to be in a mainline church, and I think until someone comes to be the captain, or to say ‘this is important to me‘.

That would seem to make sense for a church like yours where people are already very busy doing good things.  Your church does sound amazingly active in the issues it’s engaged in.

“Pretty much the people who are still members are the people that do stuff.  And it might not be very much because they’re busy, but they try and do something.  But they’re not the people who are going to start anything.  The people who start ministries — like one women found a connection in Newark so that for the holidays if you get a free ham, you take it to her, and she started with filling the trunk of her car and now she rents a truck 3 or 4 times a year to take all this stuff to these families in Newark — we’re doing a whole block now, helping this block out — but that was her, she happened to meet someone and talked to her and started a new mission.  And it’s those kinds of things where it’s one person.”

“But of course here’s the bottom line: she was retired.  All these things that start like this are retired people.  They’ve got the time, they’ve found meaning in something to do that inspires them.”

“The people in my generation who I would say, as it comes down in age where I would say I’m certainly gay friendly and an ally, but you go down to my son’s generation, they don’t even think about it.  It’s not even in their vocabulary to be gay-friendly because they just are.  They don’t think about it.  So as it goes down in generations, the group coming up I think there’ll be changes.

Was there anything else that came to mind that you wanted to mention?

“It’s really interesting in talking, I’m thinking well how would our church even have a discussion?  And I thought OK, we do an adult morning seminar at 9:15 and they have different speakers, all kind of speakers: we have interfaith marriage speakers coming in because we have a lot of Presbyterian-Jewish families in our congregation; the migrant worker speakers come in, the undocumented workers speakers come in.  And I thought, you know, we could have somebody come in and talk about the gay issues and the problem that somebody sees around the church and I thought that would be one way.  And I’m thinking, how could I get them in the church?

That could be a very calm, non-confrontational way to broach the subject.

“I work with the woman who runs the committee who gets all those people in.  That would be an interesting way to see who showed up to listen to it.”

And also to test the waters to see whether that very gentle approach would ruffle any feathers, although I would presume that anyone whose feathers would ruffle just wouldn’t come to it.

“I would believe that.  I do believe we have people in their 60s and 70s in our congregation who do have gay children.  So it would be interesting to see who would come and who wouldn’t.  Would the regulars all come or not?  I’ll suggest that to the coordinator, and she’ll take it to the committee…because you know we’ve got to do everything through a committee.  The committee is made up of people my age, so they’ll probably think it’s a good idea.  I think they did their layout through May already, but certainly for the fall.  They’re always looking for ideas.

How shall I refer to you in my post, how specific or not specific shall I be?

“You can say I’m from northern New Jersey.  I thought about, can she use my name?  You know I’ll go out there and trumpet gay rights and I have no problem saying to anyone that I’m pro-gay, and I would say that the the parents of the children that I work with, but there’s something about putting my name, and I work with children.  Because people can be so fricken bizarre about children.  And I have to tell you, in our church we had a convicted pedophile.  And nobody was happy with it but they dealt with it, but that’s who they know as being gay.  Not good!  We need some other gay people in our church!

Yes you definitely need some regular out gay people in your church!

“And we probably do have some but I wouldn’t know them because I can’t hang out with the congregants of the church because I’m working.  There could be a whole sub-culture, I don’t know.

You know, you just momentarily became an honorary gay person by having to think in those ‘will they assume I’m a pedophile‘ terms.  I’ve always been extremely self-conscious around kids because I know the assumptions about gay people, and they’re not true – there’s a difference between pedophiles and gay people.

“Exactly!  And I do make a big point about that when I talk to people.  And I have a little more leeway because I’m a woman.  If I was a man, wow, they have a horrible time of it.  I can be pro-gay and say things and because I’m a woman I think people would not respond as negatively as if I were a man.”