Our Missional Imagination in a Post-10A Church
Rev. Scott D. Anderson
Keynote Address, Covenant Network Luncheon
220th General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (USA)
July 2, 2012
Thank you Deborah Block for your kind introduction and thanks to all of you who have come to be a part of the first General Assembly since our church’s historic decision to open the door to ordination for people like me.
I am grateful to the many thousands of Presbyterians across this country who have worked and prayed for this day, and to those brothers and sisters who are not with us but are celebrating as part of that great cloud of witnesses. I’m thankful, too, for the staff and leaders—past and present—of the Covenant Network, More Light Presbyterians, and That All May Freely Serve who have provided such able, persistent, gracious and prophetic leadership for our church. We are all indebted to you. Thanks be to God!
You know, I’ve had lots of interesting e-mails since my ordination last October.
One of my favorites is this one from a 15 year-old teenage boy in Ottawa, Canada: “Way to go, Presbyterian dude!” Of the thousand or so e-mails I’ve received–most from strangers, from every corner of this country and from every continent on this globe–almost all of them are congratulatory and grateful and hopeful, reflecting the sea change now underway in the wider culture.
- Who could have imagined 10 years ago that “don’t ask, don’t tell” would be repealed by a bi-partisan vote in the Congress, or the Defense of Marriage Act would be declared unconstitutional by a federal court?
- Who could have imagined a decade ago that eight states plus the District of Columbia would have legalized civil marriage for same gender couples?
- Who could have imagined back in 2002 that gay and lesbian students at America’s leading evangelical schools, places like Wheaton College in Illinois and BIOLA University in Los Angeles, would have active and visible LGBT student groups?
- Who could have imagined that 44% of evangelical Christian millenials (ages 18-29) now support marriage equality? (1)
- Who could have imagined a sitting U.S. President expressing to the country how his views on marriage have evolved months before a contentious election?
- And who could have imagined a man like Ted Olson, Solicitor General in the Bush Administration, cast in the unlikely role of Old Testament prophet before the federal courts, boldly stepping over the ideological fault lines in his own party. This man with impeccable conservative credentials joining with another man—Democrat and former rival David Boies—to be the principal litigators before the U.S. Supreme Court when marriage equality is argued in that chamber? Who could have imagined this?
I speak of imagination because I believe there is a movement afoot in our world. A movement for civil rights? Well yes, that’s a big part of the story. A justice movement to address ancient prejudices and right ancient wrongs? Well, of course. But there is a deeper, wider, larger movement that permeates these smaller ones. The movement of God, the One who has gone way out in front of us in the church on a mission to heal, and to reconcile, and to restore all of creation, the One whose gracious hand is visibly evident, I believe, in all of these unimaginables we are now experiencing, signs of the nearness of God’s reign.
And is this mission of God not the Good News of the Gospel that the opening paragraphs of our new Form of Government proclaim?
…that the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—creates, redeems, sustains, rules, and transforms all things and all people. This one living God, the Scriptures say, liberated the people of Israel from oppression and covenanted to be their God. By the power of the Spirit, this one living God is incarnate in Jesus Christ, who came to live in the world, die for the world, and be raised again to new life. The Gospel of Jesus Christ announces the nearness of God’s kingdom, bringing good news to all who are impoverished, sight to all who are blind, freedom to all who are oppressed, and proclaiming the Lord’s favor upon all creation. (2)
Another interesting e-mail came from the ecumenical campus ministry at UW Madison inviting me to lead a conversation with students as a part its Lenten series on the Bible and Homosexuality. To frame the dialogue I used Princeton Seminary Professor Stacy Johnson’s paper, “Seven Views of Same Gender Relationships in the Church” which he wrote for the Peace, Unity and Purity Task Force and is now published in book form. (3)
What I didn’t know until after my presentation was that a dozen students from the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship weekly Bible study group on campus were in the room that evening. One of them told me later how many of them were suffering from cognitive dissonance: their lived experience with gay and lesbian friends and classmates didn’t square with what they had been taught by their churches, churches they continued to love and which had so profoundly nurtured their faith in Christ. Now they were bringing new questions to the Scriptures, wondering if they might find a more generous orthodoxy in the Bible while also honoring traditional church teaching on sexuality. I was absolutely blown away by the spiritual maturity of this group of young evangelicals, who wanted to live with the ambiguity of “both-and” and not fall into “either-or” when it comes to embracing what the Bible teaches.
Isn’t this the way our missionary God usually works? When God has gone ahead of us to heal, to reconcile and restore, and we find the fruits of the Spirit in people, in cultures, in circumstances we do not fully understand and which challenge our conventional Christian wisdom, we scurry back to the Scriptures for a fresh look. That’s been the missional hermeneutic for Presbyterians the last 40 years, with the help of the best scholarship and our prayerful discernment. Growing numbers of us have come to understand that the disordered sexual expressions rightly condemned by the Scriptures simply don’t line up with what we see in the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people today, whose covenantal relationships so often demonstrate “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (4) which the Apostle Paul reminds us are marks of the sanctified life.
This 40 year journey has led to scholarly work providing fresh insights into the Trinitarian life of God as a paradigm for covenantal fidelity in same gender relationships, and Paul’s iconic image of Christ’s one-flesh union with the church (5) as expanding our traditional view of marriage to be something more than gender complementarity. (6)
Through all of this wrestling with the ancient texts, hasn’t our missionary God led us once again to reclaim the Scriptures as the message of Good News for this day? Hasn’t this “mission of God in Christ given shape and substance to the life and work of this Church” (7) by making room for ordained leaders like me?
God’s mission of healing the wounds of shame and prejudice, of breaking down the dividing walls of hostility in the wider culture is accelerating. And we Presbyterians have more catching up to do in following God’s lead: mentoring, equipping and supporting the many gifted LGBT candidates who are called by God to serve as Teaching Elders, introducing them to Pastor Nominating Committees, creating new opportunities for ministry through the 1,001 New Worshipping Communities initiative of our General Assembly Mission Council, and initiating more local efforts in opening doors to new forms of service. I pray that this work will be high on the agenda of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians.
In the last six months I’ve had some challenging e-mails as well. One came from a 27-year old father of a newborn in Madison wanting to know if I would baptize his daughter. After leaving the church of his childhood because of its treatment of his lesbian sister, he had concluded that there was too much hypocrisy in the institutional forms of the Christian religion, but he was still a Christian and wanted his daughter baptized into what he called “the general Christian community.” Surely I shared his disdain for the church, he wrote. He had convinced himself that given my personal history I was the right person to perform the sacrament at his home.
I invited him for coffee and conversation as I wanted to hear more of his story, but in the interest of full disclosure I wrote to him about how Presbyterians view baptism. There is no “general Christian community” apart from the messy humanity of a particular church, I told him. And while I knew all about the hypocrisy he abhors, I also mentioned the many ways a community of believers, some of whom share his experience of church, might benefit his family. We corresponded for several weeks, but my repeated requests to meet face to face went unanswered. And I think we both ended our conversation a bit disappointed.
Another e-mail came soon after my ordination with an invitation to keynote an interfaith dialogue on sexuality at UW Madison on a Sunday afternoon in late January, co-sponsored by the local LGBT Center and the UW Department of Sociology.
When the day arrived, I knew I was out of my element when a slew of hands went up in the room of 250 college students and young adults as the facilitator asked, “How many of you embrace more than one religious tradition?”
During one of the breaks a young woman cornered me to tell me about her spiritual journey of reconciling her Quaker upbringing with the teachings of Buddha. She asked if I had any books to recommend to her.
A Muslim graduate student found me a little later to confess that after overdosing on Sunday morning television preachers one weekend he made a beeline for the campus bookstore to buy a copy of the New Testament, wondering if the source documents of Christianity were consistent with what he heard from Hour of Power re-runs, Joel Osteen, and a local hell, fire and brimstone Pentecostal on the Madison airwaves.
The day we spoke he was in the middle of the gospel of Luke, and he was pleased to find big chunks of Jesus’ ethical teaching resonating with the Koran. “I can see why the Prophet Mohammed considered Jesus to be a great prophet,” he said. “Tell me why he is also a savior.” That was his first question to me.
Whatever expectations I had for this gathering, giving my personal testimony to a 25 year old Muslim was not on the list. He listened intently, and before we parted he asked if I had read the Koran. “Only parts,” I confessed. He encouraged me to read the whole book, and I promised him I would.
Then there was this group of sassy Lesbian pagans in the second row, who approached me after my keynote to tell me all the reasons they have no love for the Christian Church. Then one of them asked if I had been to Iona in Scotland. “One of my favorite places on the planet,” I said, and then she mentioned that she had been reading about the Iona community on-line, and how drawn she was to the Celtic Christian tradition, fed by the intersections of paganism and Christianity in deepening her creation spirituality.
Well, after 4½ hours of this kind of conversation I was ready for a nap, feeling old when I arrived in this hall of twenty-somethings, exhilarated by the conversation, but feeling older at the end of the day, humbled, and frankly, ill-equipped.
When I asked myself what was it about this special day that gave these young adults permission to talk with me about their deepest spiritual questions and journeys, it was probably my own public testimony, which in many respects is a story of healing and reconciliation, a small reflection of the work of our missionary God, work that has changed my life. If nothing else, my journey, coupled with our church’s recent ordination decision, served as a discussion starter with folks who are a part of an entire generation that has walked away or is disinterested in the church we all know and love.
If the missional questions of the last 40 years have focused on Biblical anthropology and sanctification (what does it mean to be created in God’s image, and how are we to live in relationship), the questions of the next 40 will most likely include ecclesiology and revelation (what does it mean to be the body of Christ in a religiously pluralistic world).
So, if we are to jumpstart a conversation with the two generations that are missing from our pews and address these missional questions, there is no group of people better equipped to do so in the Presbyterian Church (USA) than the people in this room. No group is better positioned theologically, and no group is better prepared institutionally.
There is a movement afoot in our world. The God we know in Jesus Christ is way ahead of us on a mission to heal, to reconcile, and to restore the whole creation. The challenge before us is this: will we have the courage and the imagination to join in?
(1) See Public Religion Research Institute Report, Generations at Odds: The Millennial Generation and the Future of Gay and Lesbian Rights, available at www.publicreligion.org.
(2) Presbyterian Church (USA) Form of Government F-1.01 God’s Mission.
(3) William Stacy Johnson, A Time to Embrace: Same Gender Relationships in Religion, Law and Politics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).
(4) Galatians 5:22-23.
(5) Ephesians 5:32.
(6) See Eugene Rogers, ed., Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002).
(7) Presbyterian Church (USA) Form of Government F-1.01 God’s Mission.