First off, I have an apology to any who have read my last blog. Yesterday, the Spirit convicted me that it was not my place to judge the motivations of our former PCUSA Vice-moderator as he led the communion portion of GA’s opening worship time. Since he has not shared what was going on in his heart and mind, I was wrong to assign ill intent and to paint him in a negative light. Christ calls us to think the best of others unless and until they give us objective evidence to the contrary. I failed to do this, and I apologize. Fortunately, not too many read my blogs, so perhaps I have not done much damage. Now on to some related thoughts concerning yesterday’s happenings at GA.
Back at the 1993 GA, the leadership came up with the defensive mantra, “Theology matters!”, in response to the heretical “Reimagining God” conference in which some denominational staff had participated. Many of us were heartened to see this emphasis, led well by our Office of Theology and Worship even up to today. However, as the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” You can lead others to good theology, but you can’t make them embrace it. Theology matters, but only if it is woven into our lives. Our denomination seems to show increasingly that we don’t actually believe what we mouth. If “theology matters”, then “Integrity matters!” as well. We should live in accord with what we declare to be our shared convictions. Two things occurred during yesterday’s business which bring this into question.
First was the election of the Vice-moderatorial candidate who had been selected in advance as part of the “ticket” of the new GA Moderator. Her name is Tara Spuhler McCabe, a minister serving in the Washington, D.C. area. Her nomination had been problematic for many because it “came out” a few weeks ago that she had conducted a same-sex wedding in the District of Columbia, something permitted by secular law in the District, but forbidden for PCUSA ministers to participate in by our church law. When asked directly if she had performed this ceremony, she refused to answer affirmatively, instead saying only that she stood with the lesbian couple, and that her name is affixed to the wedding license as officiant. When people use words to avoid the truth without denying it, we all know what that means. As a minister of the church, Tara took the same vows we all do, including “Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline? Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit?” Nevertheless, she knowingly violated our present Constitution and spurned this vow. That would be bad enough as is. But having done this, she is still willing to stand as the Vice-moderator of the General Assembly of the PCUSA, serving to represent our “order” and faith in the second highest elected office of the denomination. To the credit of some of this year’s commissioners, this lack of integrity was troubling, and so what would normally be a perfunctory confirmation vote by acclamation turned into a tepid show of support as she was elected by a 60% majority. Still, the majority elected her, and demonstrated by their vote that “Integrity doesn’t matter,” even at the highest levels.
The second sign has to do with another minister recently in the news. Brian Ellison appeared last night before the Middle East Peacemaking Committee to inform them of the general work of the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment, which he presently chairs. Their work is to oversee how denominational monies are invested so as to help shape ethical behavior in companies which otherwise might place profits before justice. The activities of the MRTI Committee have generated some controversy over the years, and this year is no exception, but the integrity issue I’m concerned with lies not with them but with Brian Ellison. He has been pastor of a congregation in MO for 13 years, and last month submitted his resignation in order to pursue a new call to serve as the Executive Director of Covenant Network, a liberal advocacy organization committed to normalizing the gay agenda within the PCUSA. Brian also serves as a board member of the Board of Pensions of the PCUSA, which recently passed a controversial decision to extend full benefits to same-sex partners and dependents of church employees. In his announcement letter to his congregation, Brian not only told them of his new call but “revealed” to them that he has been in a committed homosexual relationship since 2003. Apparently, the fact that this lifestyle has been a violation of his ordination vows for all of his ministry (up until the striking of any standards from ordination vows last July) never concerned him enough to give up this behavior or to demit his ordination. Instead, he wanted to continue in a vocation which prohibited his lifestyle, so he just flew under the radar. Now that it is “safe” to admit, he has written this “Oh, by the way…” letter to his congregation. On top of that, as a board member of the Board of Pensions, he apparently participated in the discussions and vote on extending benefits to same-sex partners of church employees. We’ll never know for sure, unless he discloses this, for all their deliberations are privileged and private, but I sure hope he recused himself from the decision-making process. What makes me doubt it is the fact that he hid his lifestyle from his own congregation until last month – why would he disclose it to a group he only meets with periodically?
Now here he is, addressing a GA committee on making ethical decisions….Integrity matters, it seems, only when it is convenient to our purposes. Sadly, we are an unconverted denomination, perhaps like the alcoholic at the inner city mission who comes for his nightly meal but has to sit through the sermon first in order to eat. When you talk to him, he can share with you all the essentials of the gospel, and he’ll affirm whatever you want him to as long as he can get his hot meal and then go back to his bottle. We mouth the Reformed confessions that others risked their lives to pen, but then live in defiance of them. I’m reminded of Jesus’ assessment of the religious hypocrites of his own day: Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Mt 15:7-9 RSV).
Theology matters, but only when we say it does; integrity matters, but only when it’s convenient; words matter, but only according to our private definitions. These seem to be the slogans of our denomination today. Our ancestors would be ashamed. May our Lord have mercy.