These days my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), finds itself bracing for the possibility of further membership losses with more congregations jumping ship- this after a majority of presbyteries voted to remove the constitutional requirement that all ministers, elders and deacons live “in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” (G-6.0106b in the church’s Book of Order). In effect, the new language opens the way for gays to serve in ordained ministry by letting everyone’s sexuality and sexual preferences (not just gays’) be a matter of conscience.
The change has given way to some ripple effects. The National Presbyterian Church of Mexico has severed ties with the PC(USA), ending a 139-year-old relationship. Now some 2,000 clergy and laity representing about 850 congregations are debating the question of whether to stay or go.
In the meantime, a decisive factor will be how well we can answer the question, “How then shall we live together?” Just last week at a meeting of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, the governing entity of elders and ministers to which I belong, those of us present began to work together towards an answer. In small break-out groups we were asked to discuss two proposed alternatives to our current form of polity which might allow us to remain unified despite our differences and prevent further splintering of our denomination.
I had arrived late, so had been ushered to one of the few open seats. There I found myself within a rather random assortment of conversation partners who together had been asked to grapple with the various challenges and opportunities presented by these two possible revised forms of government.
If truth be told, I felt a bit uncomfortable. I didn’t know the people in my circle from Adam or Eve. They were strangers with name tags- our only connection being our leadership in the same denomination and a unifying belief in the saving love of Jesus Christ- and here we were being asked to share our views on a loaded topic. Six very different people representing six very different congregations, each with very different backgrounds and experiences. Could authentic and abiding fellowship really be found here? The question had crossed my mind as we were introducing ourselves.
But then something happened. The one African American in our group, an elderly gentleman who had been a pastor for many years, began to speak. He spoke passionately and articulately from a place of real vulnerability and gentle conviction. He shared from his own personal experience of having grappled with Scripture and in dialogue with others. He shared about a time when he sat in a room with members of a certain church whose brash, unapologetic rejection of homosexuals as full-fledged members of the body of Christ seemed an awful lot like bigotry; he called us to consider the opportunity presented by this experiment before us, an experiment in a different way of relating to one another that would ask for courage and a new-found dependence on the Holy Spirit. That would require us to put our money where our mouth is, so that, in the words of the old hymn, “they will know we are Christians by our love.”
He kept talking- so much so that a couple of us exchanged nervous glances, wondering if we would ever get through the questions we were to answer. But as he spoke, an amazing thing happened: I began to listen. To really listen. To listen without an agenda, without thinking about the next question or what I ought to say next. Just to listen. And as I listened, I began to thank God for this man next to me and for each of us sitting there in this circle of mostly strangers, so thankfully different one from another. All of us called to this place at this time in the life of our churches and denomination. Here in these moments we had been obliged to encounter one another as persons. Not as categories of “conservative” or “liberal.” Not as members of opposing tribes, but as individuals- as saints and sinners wrestling with the complexities of Scripture and the limits of our own experience.
We human beings are instinctively tribalistic: we tend to gravitate to those who are just like us, who look like us, talk like us, think and act like us. Differences can make us uncomfortable. So we choose to live in certain neighborhoods over others. Our children prefer certain cafeteria tables to others. We attend certain churches rather than others, so that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. once put it, America remains never more segregated than on any given Sunday morning.
Last Thursday this kind of tribalism injected itself in an ugly way into the Republican primary debate when an American soldier fighting in Iraq, built like an Iron Man but speaking a bit tentatively, called in with a question: “In 2010 when I was deployed to Iraq, I had to lie about who I was because I’m a gay soldier and didn’t want to lose my job,” Stephen Hill told the candidates. “Under one of your presidencies, do you intend to circumvent the progress that’s been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?”
Hill’s question elicited loud boos from the audience. Then Rick Santorum answered. He gave no words of thanks for this man’s service, no gestures of appreciation. Only boisterous reassurances, to the loud cheers of those present, that “don’t ask, don’t tell” would be reinstated under a Santorum presidency.
Tribalism. It is about as old as a man and a woman in a garden with an apple and a serpent. It is in our loins, a bit like sin, and it is everywhere. All around us everyday. In the church and out.
I left last week’s exercise in listening to those different from me with an answer to my question. Can we find unity in our differences and belonging in our diversity? Can we find fellowship in our separateness? Yes, by the grace of God we can. For all of the times we have failed, maybe this time will be different. Amen.