In light of the decisions made today at the 221st PCUSA General Assembly gathering, giving pastors the discretion to marry same sex couples in states where it is legal and sending new wording regarding marriage in our Book of Order to the Presbyteries for approval, the prevailing thought is that there will be some (and perhaps many) people, and even entire churches, leaving our denomination.
I hope they won’t. I didn’t.
In 1997, I heard the call to ministry while I was living in Atlanta. I had all the application forms from Columbia Seminary ready to fill out. It was also the year that Ellen DeGeneres decided to come out–in real life and on her television show. The associate pastor at my home church (who hadn’t been there when I was growing up) wrote a great letter to the editor at my hometown paper. Instead of condemning the coming out show as many ministers were, he suggested that we all look at the show as an opportunity to gain understanding and learn tolerance. My church–the church where I was baptized and confirmed, the church that helped form my faith, where I went to Sunday School and youth group and felt loved and affirmed–fired the associate pastor after the letter came out. I mean, they had to go through all the proper channels and ended up having to make a big payout, but they fired him for writing the letter. And I decided I wanted no part of any ministry and tossed my application to seminary in the trash. But I didn’t leave the PCUSA.
Later, after moving to Boston, I could no longer ignore the call to ministry and enrolled in Andover Newton, a UCC seminary while coming under care of my home Presbytery. Right as I was about to begin, my best friend from college came out. I was so relieved. I was beginning to think she was kind of shallow because no boy was every good enough for her (and some really amazing ones had pursued). Turns out she wasn’t shallow at all, just not attracted to boys.
While in seminary, it felt wrong to work toward ordination in a denomination that wouldn’t also ordain some of my brothers and sisters in Christ because of their sexual orientation. I seriously considered seeking ordination in my seminary’s sponsoring denomination. The UCC was reformed and had been ordaining gays and lesbians for awhile, and if I could just make that shift to congregational polity, it could work. But I decided to stay.
I have been Presbyterian all my life, but for the past 20 years, I have thought of leaving more than once (like when the General Assembly voted to defer the issue of providing childcare). I’ve never liked the traditional hymns very much, often find worship services at Presbyterian gatherings stiff and boring and have become increasingly frustrated at the amount of time, energy and resources we’ve been using to debate an issue that I don’t even see as an issue.
But I have stayed. Because even when I disagree with the policies and polity, or interpret scripture differently, or am frustrated by resistance to change or am bored to tears at some worship service, I know that the people in the PCUSA are prayerful and care-full and committed when it comes to a life of faith. In fact, the reason I feel so strongly about extending love and acceptance and full inclusion to all of God’s children is because that’s what I have been offered by the Presbyterian churches I’ve been a part of–even when I stood up for gay rights, even when I brought a guitar (and even a screen!) into the sanctuary, even when I laughed too loud in meetings, even when I’ve been (and continue to be) a huge pain in the butt trying to get the church to think about things a little differently–I have been loved and included. So I stayed.
I hope you will, too.
–Rev. Anne Russ