Wednesday 28 July 2010

PCUSA General Assembly, Rainbow Scarves

I've already written about the General Assembly and its decisions affecting LGBT inclusion. This report from Huffington Post, though, with its emphasis on the rainbow scarves, prompted a fresh thought: what a contrast this is to the Catholic response to the Rainbow Sash. In both churches, the significance of the sash is the same - a symbol of queer exclusion in church, and a call of full inclusion. At PCUSA, the scarves were openly worn and promoted, not openly at the GA, but also in local congregations ahead of time, preparing the way. In the Catholic Church, even among a gay worshipping community, just talking about them can promote near hysteria.
The rainbow scarves fascinated Libby Shannon. Throughout the Assembly she saw them, hanging proudly over the necks of people over the age of 70 as well as those in their 20s. Men and women wore them as a witness to their support of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Libby attended the 219th General Assembly of the PC(USA) in Minneapolis, a biennial gathering of pastors and lay people who make decisions on behalf of our two million-member church, earlier this month. The gathering prays and studies together, seeking God's guidance for their work and making declarations about social justice issues that will focus our energy and mission.
I also noticed the scarves, even though I wasn't there in Minnesota. I saw them hanging from the crochet needles at our church's Wednesday night Bible study. I spotted them at our local governing meetings. Then I noticed them at the General Assembly (GA) as I watched it livestreaming over the Internet.

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Some Irish Sense On Gay Relationships: Another Bishop Speaking Out.

Willie Walsh, the retiring Bishop of Killaloe, has some unremarkable but encouraging words on homosexual relationships. Unremarkable, that is, for anybody outside of the Catholic episcopate. Encouraging, given that he is of it. Speaking informally at a civic reception to mark his retirement, he was asked for his views on the Irish Civil Partnership legislation, which was signed into law earlier this week. While making clear his unwavering belief in the traditional support for "family" and marriage, he made two important statements which should give encouragement to all gay and lesbian Catholics.

Referring directly to the civil partnership law, he said he had always been "hesitant" about asking the state to support a particular teaching of the Church. This is a clear distancing from his fellow Irish bishops, who were forthright in their attempts to do just that, with strenuous attempts to derail the bill.
(It is not a coincidence that these remarks were made on his retirement. Could he have been as candid before announcing his departure? ) He also said he "respects" people of homosexual orientation, and was "saddened" by the hurt the church had done to us.
“I’ve always been hesitant about asking civil authorities to support a particular teaching of our church. I do place great emphasis on marriage, I have worked in that area all my life and I place great emphasis on marriage and family life.”
“While I do worry about the apparent breakdown of family life, I equally respect the laws of this country. I have always done so and always will do so.
I respect people who are of homosexual orientation and I would be always conscious of the fact that very often we in the church have hurt them and hurt them deeply and I am saddened by that and saddened by the lack of respect for any human being.
He added: “It is deeply, deeply important and we would be endangering that at our peril. I know and respect many people who are gay. We should always treat them with the deep respect to which every human being is entitled.
The emphasis on "respect" is orthodox teaching - but not heard or seen in practice nearly as often as opposition to equality legislation, or to protection from discrimination, so it is good to  hear it articulated, as it is to read his cautious distancing from opposition to Civil Partnership law.
-Irish Times, July 13.

Still, the words themselves are indeed cautious. What makes them interesting to me, is that this is now the fourth bishop in recent months to suggest or imply a more nuanced stance on gay relationships - and as far as I can tell, not one has been rebuked or repudiated by the Vatican or a single other bishop. First, we had Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna  in late April, who has certainly not been repudiated - I've been watching closely. Then there were  Bishops Januario Torgal Ferreira of Portugal, and Francis Quinn, of California. (Note that three of these four are now either retired, or on the point of retirement. How many younger bishops feel the same way, but are more guarded in their words - for now? I suspect it will not take too much for more men too feel that the climate has changed, and so able to speak more freely.)

It is also worth recalling that the last unequivocal denunciation of homosexuality, the "Homosexualitatis Problema" was issued over twenty years ago. Since then, ten countries have approved gay marriage, including four Catholic countries and Canada, which is damn near majority Catholic. Meanwhile, there have been numerous reports of hostile words by Pope Benedict, including a reported attack on gay marriage in Portugal, just before the legislation was signed. But close attention to his actual words has generally shown they were not quite what the press was reporting. Even the Portuguese address, while probably implying a criticism of gay marriage, did not actually use the words.

Are we in the eye of a storm, do you suppose, waiting apprehensively while the Vatican prepares an updated Hallowe'en letter to cope with the new onslaught on "traditional" marriage and family - or is it conceivable that the worst of the storm really has passed, that the Vatican theologians are in fact quietly preparing a discreet, tactical retreat from the excesses of the JP II papacy on sexual ethics, while they attempt to digest and come toe terms with the implications for theology, as James Alison has suggested (Discovery of "Gay" = Good News for the Church"), of what medical science, biology and anthropology have already made plain: homosexuality is not in any sense "unnatural", and is not diseased?   It is also not "disordered" in any sense except that it is not "ordered" towards procreation -but then, nor is celibacy.

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Presbyterian Assembly: Lesbian/Gay Ordination.

Last week, the PCUSA General Assembly meeting in Minnesota approved a decision to accept openly gay or lesbian pastors without any requirement of celibacy. This move, widely reported, follows a similar decision by the ELCA in the same venue a year ago. This should be a clear cause for celebration - but hold the applause for now. The same decision has been taken in previous years, without coming into effect. First, the GA decision must be ratified by local presbyteries, which is where it has come unstuck in the past. Does the present assembly decision represent real progress, or will there be yet another failure at grass roots?
At "More Light Ministries", who will carry  a major share of the work promoting the idea to local congregations, the mood is optimistic, but conscious of the hard work involved:

We rejoiced with the extraordinary pro-LGBT vote approving by 53 to 46% a "Revise-B" Ordination Overture. This vote advances the moral equality of LGBT persons in both Church and society within the USA and around the world. There are Presbyterians in over 100 countries. So, creating one standard for ordination for all persons regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or any other human condition in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is remarkable statement for justice and equality.
Historic levels of support for Ordination Equality during the 2008-2009 Ordination Amendment 08-B Campaign offer hope and encouragement. We look forward to the life-giving and liberating conversations and work of a national ratification campaign to ensure passage of this overture. Everyone participating in this national grassroots ratification campaign will ensure its passage.
This is the fourth year that this decision has been approved at GA - but the margin this year is almost unchanged from last year (in fact, support has slipped slightly - from 54 /46 last year, to 53/46 this year. At least one report from the grassroots, in a region where the decision was rejected last year, the expectation is that there will still be no ratification.  This is from "The State" (South Carolina):
The debate over the ordination of practicing homosexuals to the ministry of the Presbyterian Church USA once again moves to the local level, leaving some clergy energized and others worn out by the continuing debate.
“I’m frankly weary of it,” said the Rev. Scott Bowerman, pastor of New Kirk Presbyterian Church in Northeast Richland and an opponent of a more liberal ordination policy. “I’ve been talking about it for 20 years, and I’ve been involved in study groups and debates and conversations. I’ve not changed my position over time.”
“I hesitate to count the number of ways that we have dealt with this,” said the Rev. Alan Arnold, leader of Trinity Presbytery, which oversees 67 PCUSA congregations in the Midlands. “It has been four or five times that it has gone back to the presbyteries.”
He predicted Trinity Presbytery would again reject the new overture, despite updated language that makes no mention of gays and lesbians. The new language states that “standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life.”
-Read more at  "The State"

Does that mean that the motion is doomed, yet again, to an endless stalemate? Not necessarily. There are strong grounds for hope, even so - and even if the ratification drive does fail.

First, the new moderator is strongly in favour of LGBT equality and inclusion. It is likely that her backing will help to strengthen the continuing work on the ground, at local level. It is entirely possible that some of the presbyteries that narrowly defeated the proposal last year may now switch sides.

Even if ratification is  not achieved, gains will have been made.  In a less widely reported move, the Assembly also voted to extend spousal benefits applicable to staff to LGBT couples on exactly the same basis as married staff. This is in itself an important symbolic move (and a hugely practical one for the people directly affected), and will help to set the mood for future votes, if they are required again.

Win or lose, the process is important. Once again, I am impressed by the discussion, debate and prayer that goes into decisions at these assemblies, which is such a contrast to the Vatican method of simply dictating from on high. We know from experience that where people of good will sincerely discuss pray over matters of homosexuality and faith, minds are changed. Sometimes firm opposition becomes tolerance, sometimes indifference is moved to active support - and sometimes a full Damascene conversion takes place, whereby former hostility is replaced by repentance and advocacy. The Rev. Peter Hobbie, a religion professor at Presbyterian College, said Monday he believes the continued examination of the issue is reflective of the Presbyterian system where “you keep dealing with it until there is a resolution.”
“I know that some people are getting tired of talking about it,” Hobbie said. “But you have to admire the people who deeply believe that it is a cause for justice and what it means to be a Christian.
“I think this is a very crucial issue in the life of the church and I think that it is one we should pursue,” Hobbie said, likening it to the battles over women’s ordination and integration 40 and 50 years ago. “I hope that more and more people are getting to know gays and lesbians and know what these Christians have done for the church.”
But the most important source of hope is fundamental.  Ultimately, it is not human actions that will decide these things, but God, who will not allow injustice to prevail. (For the arguments in favour of full ordination for gay and lesbian clergy, see the "Overture Advocates' Speeches"

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Another Bishop Calls For "Rethink" on Sexuality

Some conservative Catholics are aghast at remarks made by (retired) Bishop Francis A Quinn to "Inside Sacramento" magazine. To judge from the CCD report, you'd think the man was a rabid gay activist, getting an award for advancing the "gay agenda". The CCD was especially  hysterical that he had once conducted a retreat at a centre which is also used on occasion by gay groups. This was particularly highlighted and emphasised - as if the activities of others using the retreat at entirely different times were anything to do with him. It is also true, that at the awards ceremony which prompted the interview, he was serenaded by the Gay Men's Chorus, and his words on gay relationships were refreshingly sane - but that is not what the award was about.

To learn that, I had to go to the original source of the information, the interview in "Inside Sacramento". In fact, the award  was to honour his long career  working with young people, as a teacher and later as a bishop taking special interest in providing services for the homeless, or helping to created affordable housing - and a retirement spent working equally hard on just the same things, as a volunteer. In other words, a lifetime doing precisely what any priest (or other Catholic) is called to do: devoting himself to service to others.

"Bishop Francis Quinn"

So what were the words that so offended the self-righteous readers at California Catholic Daily?
“Pointing to the dramatic changes made within the Catholic Church by Vatican II, Quinn asserts that it is time for a new council, this one dedicated to looking at human sexuality and its intersection with religion,” said Inside East Sacramento. “The new council, he says, should involve the entire Catholic community as well as people of other faiths.”

“So many of the issues that Catholics deal with -- divorce, homosexuality, premarital sex -- center around sexuality and affect how they connect with the church,” Bishop Quinn told the publication. “We need to move beyond this circular logic and look at what is really happening in people’s lives.”
Bishop Quinn doesn't simply join Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna and  Portuguese military ordinary, Bishop     - he goes a great deal further than they have done, calling for Vatican III, to be devoted primarily to consideration of sexual ethics. The "Catholic Caveman" is horrified (are you surprised, with that self-description?) . I am thrilled. It will not surprise my regular readers that I am right behind him on this.

Whatever you do, don't rely on the panicked, selective reports at the usual places. Go to the original interview at Inside Sacramento, and read what he actually said - he's a far more orthodox Catholic than his detractors would like you to believe.