My regular bike ride takes me past a small rural Presbyterian church that has been struggling with a decreasing congregation over the last ten or twenty years. It is the nearest Presbyterian church to our old house and so I have attended worship there several times over the years.
I’ve even preached there once or twice when a friend of mine pastored the church for a number of years and asked me to fill the pulpit when she was on vacation. Like many small churches, they worried about their declining numbers. My friend tried to help them focus on reimagining their role in the local community and how they might be a faithful church rather than to obsess too much over church growth (or lack thereof).
So, I have a connection to this small church and its congregation and always think fondly of them and my friend as I cycle past the church several times a week.
I also know that this church has been struggling with the issue of homosexuality in recent years.
Several years ago I was on an Presbytery panel that focused on “Amendment One” in NC, which sought to define marriage as “between one man and one woman.” I presented an overview of the PCUSA’s support of civil rights over the years alongside a summary of the divergent expressions of marriage in the Bible. I argued that regardless of how Christians felt theologically about the issue of homosexuality, legal discrimination against any group of people is unjust and contradictory to the witness of the PC(USA).
The interim pastor of Memorial Presbyterian was on the panel supporting Amendment One and its proposed discrimination of gays and lesbians.
I can only imagine how members of this church received the recent news that the denomination had voted to allow pastors and churches to celebrate gay and lesbian marriages. I knew that they had been having conversations about leaving the denomination over these changes.
A couple of months ago, the sign in front of the church read “Welcome EPC.” In the world of Christian acronyms, this stands for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church – a denomination created in the early 80s for Presbyterians who felt that the denomination was too “liberal.” I wasn’t entirely sure what the sign meant – were they welcoming members from the EPC to worship? were they welcoming community members to a new EPC congregation? were they testing the waters of transition with their weekly message? Who knew?
Yesterday, when I rode past the church I noticed with great sadness that they had covered over the iconic PCUSA crosses on that very sign. The sign still reads “Memorial Presbyterian Church” but with the erasure of the denominational symbol of the PCUSA, this small church has joined many other churches across the country in leaving behind the mainline Protestant tradition to embrace an evangelical tradition representing conservative values and rigid, intolerant interpretations of scripture.
My heart broke a little as I rode my bike past that church. It broke for that congregation whose prejudices against gays and lesbians pushed them to leave a community of churches that they have been a part of since their formation. It broke a little for my Presbytery that has now lost another church from our community of faith. It broke a little for the knowledge that it was likely the prejudiced teachings of earlier traditions of Christianity that helped to shape the prejudice and bias that continues to mark this community’s reading of scripture.
I believe that the Christian faith is full of wisdom that can help lead people to live strong, faithful, justice-filled lives rooted in community and compassion for the created world. It is not the only source of wisdom for a meaningful life, but it is an important source that motivates, inspires and helps to heal and guide billions of people around the world.
Christianity can also be used to hurt, exclude, shame, and harm other people. Often by people whose interpretation of Christianity is rigid, intolerant, and exclusive.
As a living faith, Christianity grows, changes, and responds to the world in which it lives. Christians learn from science, from history, from experience, and from people witnessing to their knowledge of the sacred – even when it is different from our own.
In recent years, many Christians have had to unlearn many hateful and inaccurate things that the Christian church and tradition has taught about homosexuality in the past. Many of us have learned from our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters new ways of understanding what it means to be created in the image of God and this has helped us to see and understand scripture in new ways.
These shifts in interpreting scripture are an example of how Christianity continues to live and grow and have meaning for people of faith in our world. Over the centuries we have reinterpreted our understanding of many things that were once thought fixed due to our “interpretation” of scripture – slavery, divorce, the role and status of women, and sexuality are just a few of these.
My heart breaks for Memorial Presbyterian Church and the many other churches who have left the PCUSA and other mainline denominations over the issue of homosexuality. Not because of the continued fracturing of the body of Christ, although that makes me sad too. Not because I think my denomination is best and the churches who leave can’t be faithful Christians somewhere else. Not because they have taken their property and walked away from Salem Presbytery.
What I see is fear and intolerance winning out over justice. And it breaks my heart.