Benton: a change of heart, a plea for forgiveness

September 9, 2014 

Pastor who brought suit that defined PC(USA)’s distinction
between marriage 
and holy unions,
repents of his position and seeks forgiveness  

Scarborough, NY – “I am here to ask for forgiveness from the Presbytery and particularly those members of it who I harmed by a court case that I initiated in 1999 titled Benton et al. versus Hudson River Presbytery,” begins a statement by the Rev. Marc Benton.  “I am here today to repent of that position and apologize to you who were hurt by my actions, and apologize to the Presbytery as a whole for the time and money spent in what I now recognize was an incorrect thing to do,” writes Benton, who will join in conversation with members of the Hudson River Presbytery
at their September 23 meeting.

“We are beginning with Marc a journey of forgiveness involving remembrance, honesty, understanding and, wherever possible, healing.” said the Rev. Dr. Susan Andrews, General Presbyter.  “When Marc reached out this summer to let us know he had a change of heart and mind and wished to apologize, we sensed the Spirit
making a way forward.”

Benton, a member of the Hudson River Presbytery, is currently teaching at York College and Harrisburg Area Community College in Pennsylvania. In his personal and reflective statement he articulates how and why he came to change his position. Through numerous conversations with people who are lesbian and gay he came to understand “that they did not in any sense choose to be gay – this is who they are, and have been since they first became aware of gender and sex” and was “devastated” by the hardship they faced of living in a culture where “there are still many people who are prejudiced against homosexuality.” As he carefully read and re-read Scripture, Benton came to believe that people who are lesbian and gay were being unfairly targeted for censure by the evangelical church. “And so it became a question for me of basic fairness.”

Benton expresses gratitude to God for changing his heart.  “And so here I am, some 15 years later, to apologize for what I did back then,” he writes, “…for the
pain and trouble I caused…for the part I played in holding back some of God’s
children from full acceptance in the Church…for trying to prohibit some of you from
being the people God created you to be.”

At the request of Benton, the presbytery first sent his statement to presbytery members and now is releasing it to the wider church.  “Marc is joining our regular presbytery gathering in September because it was important both to Hudson River Presbytery and to Marc that there be time for members to reflect upon his apology and then to meet together face-to-face,” explained Andrews.

When the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly ruled on Benton v. Hudson River Presbytery, it made a “determinative distinction” between a permissible
same-sex ceremony and a marriage ceremony.  The PJC ruled that ministers (and sessions, if church property were used) could exercise judgment    over whether union ceremonies between couples of the same sex could be performed, but “ministers and sessions should take special care to avoid any confusion of such services with services of Christian marriage.”[1]

Benton’s change of heart and mind comes at a pivotal moment in the PC(USA).
This June, the 221st General Assembly voted to pass an authoritative interpretation that immediately allows for pastors to perform “any such marriage as they believe the Holy Spirit calls them to perform” where legal by state law, including same-sex marriages.   And the 221st GA also approved a recommendation to change language in the Book of Order to indicate that “marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” That recommendation is before presbyteries for a vote.  Hudson River Presbytery, which concurred with an overture in support of this step, will be voting on this amendment later this year.

In the hope that his statement will benefit others, Benton requested that the Hudson River Presbytery share his statement widely.

“In each of our lives there have been times when we have seriously revised positions we once held,” said Andrews.  “When we take the next step, to consider how actions we have taken as a result of our former beliefs have hurt others, to listen and take account, and to begin the process of repairing what we can, new life becomes possible for us, for others, and for the church.”

______________________
[1] The Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Decision,
Marc G. Benton, et al., v. Presbytery of Hudson River, Remedial Case 212‐11, 22 May 2000, p. 6.

 

Contact:  The Rev. Noelle Damico
Director of Communications
Hudson River Presbytery
914-525-7040 or [email protected]

 

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STATEMENT TO HUDSON RIVER PRESBYTERY – SEPTEMBER 23, 2014

I am here to ask for forgiveness from this Presbytery and particularly those members of it who I harmed by a court case that I initiated in 1999 titled Benton et. al. versus Hudson River Presbytery. I became aware that Pastor Joe Gilmore of South Church in Dobbs Ferry was marrying same gender couples. While these ceremonies were called “holy unions,” instead of marriages, there was a clear understanding, at least to me, that they were, in fact, weddings – indeed, Joe candidly admitted that to the NY Times. I asked this Presbytery to stop such ceremonies, whatever name they were known by, because I firmly believed they went against both Scripture and the PC(USA) Constitution. When this Presbytery voted by an overwhelming margin to allow such holy unions to continue, I took my case to court at the Synod and General Assembly levels. I was quite firm in my convictions that South Church and the Presbytery were wrong in allowing such unions. I am here today to repent of that position and apologize to you who were hurt by my actions, and apologize to the Presbytery as a whole for the time and money spent in what I now recognize was an incorrect thing to do.

Please indulge me in giving you a bit of background that will allow you to see why I did so, and then I’ll explain why I am now in a position to say that I was wrong. I was raised as an atheist. I did not believe in any sort of God until I was almost 28 years old. My father was a lapsed Catholic who left the Church as a teen, and was quite convinced, sometimes strident, in his atheism. He was widely read and had a formidable intellect; I never thought about challenging his beliefs, and neither, to my knowledge, did either of my two brothers or my mother. His opinion was the worldview that I grew up with….it was “the way things were.”

While working on a PhD in mass communication at the University of Minnesota, and due mainly to questions my young daughter was asking about life and death, I began a search for other answers. Atheism had never really satisfied me. I took a course in world religions and decided that Christianity gave the most satisfying answers about the world and life. I read through the New Testament – I had heard about Jesus Christ, but knew nothing about Him at all. I cannot claim that I made a decision to become a Christian because it happened when I was asleep. I had watched Billy Graham on tv (I had seen him previously because I knew him to be a good public speaker). But I did nothing after the broadcast that night except eat a snack and go to bed. In the morning, I awoke to find that I believed Jesus was who He claimed to be.

I began to feel restless about my PhD work – not that it was not going well – I just felt a tug to learn about God, and get to know and serve Him in the Church. The group that took me in and nurtured me was a very conservative group, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. I resisted the inner urging toward seminary for a time, because I saw it as thwarting my plans for a career in teaching college, but several quite extraordinary incidents pushed me into going to Yale Divinity School. It was very difficult telling my atheistic parents of my conversion and decision to go to seminary because it was a repudiation of what they had taught me. They did not reject me, but had something of a “Where did we go wrong?” attitude. I became the “outcast” of the family, since no one else in my family moved away from atheism. Little did I realize then, how these feelings were much the same for so many of my sisters and brothers in the LGBTQ community.

Yale was not a comfortable place for me – it was a very diverse student body – Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, Mormons, agnostics. There was only a very small group of openly evangelical students, and I felt intimidated – surrounded by students who did not share my beliefs. I stayed for my three year degree, and found out that being in that atmosphere forced me to think hard about what I believed, and to be able to defend it against others. I served two small rural Churches in PA, then a suburban Church in OH, and finally Bethlehem Church in this Presbytery. For the 28 years I was in full-time ministry, I stayed firm in my conservative convictions – the Bible was to be taken on its face as words from God.

That was comforting: I had read the Scriptures through at least three times, I thought that I knew the Word, that I knew God, and that I knew what He wanted. That sounds rather arrogant when I say it now. But today I realize that some of the firmness of my stand came out of fear. I had moved out of an atheistic background where life had no over-arching meaning – had no certainty for today or the future. We were creatures living on a small speck in an enormous and indifferent universe. And I had been transferred from that place into a spacious and settled place….a place where God exists, He is connected to this world, He has spoken, He has acted in history, and we can read His words. And His words are not abstract, but concrete and living and vivid. I had found something solid and certain, something to hold onto in a changing and turbulent world….and I was not going to let go. And so I soaked up the Bible – I felt secure in my view that what God had said was to be taken as literally as possible. I worried that if that notion was shaken, I would find myself back in a place where nothing was sure and true any longer. And the Scriptures included verses where God seemed to be clearly saying that homosexual relationships are wrong….period. And so I felt fully justified in taking my case to the Permanent Judicial Commissions of the Synod and the General Assembly. And while wishing does not change anything, looking back today, I wish I could take back the court case I filed.

Shortly after we left Bethlehem, in 2005, God began to challenge my settled convictions. A woman in my congregation – one of the most sincere and lovely Christians I have ever known, died of ovarian cancer, even though literally dozens of Churches and thousands of people were praying for her physical healing. Some of those praying for her were convinced that she would be physically healed, and declared as much. Her death shook me to my roots. All of a sudden I realized that I did not  “know” God nearly as well as I believed I did. All of a sudden He was more mysterious than I had conceived Him to be. Thus began a long and intense struggle for more understanding: about Him, about life, and about the Bible.

For the past 9-10 months, I have been wrestling particularly over the subject of gay marriage. One question had to do with whether people in the LGBTQ community are born that way or have made a decision to live as such.

Two things in particular have caused my heart-change: first, the people I have come to know in more than a passing manner who are gay have convinced me thoroughly and completely that they did not in any sense choose to be gay – this is who they are, and have been since they first became aware of gender and sex. Some of them were students in my college classes who were willing to talk candidly about when they realized what their sexual orientation was. Not a single one said that it was an easy road, or something they would have chosen willingly – for most of them, it was fraught with the fear of disappointing or angering their families and friends and alienation from society in general. Some were older men, or women, who had lived together for decades. All of them spoke about the uncertainty and difficulty of living as authentic human beings, as they really are, in a culture where there are still many people who are prejudiced against homosexuality. How hard that must be to endure! Many of them talked about a deep love for God, but a wariness of the Church.

In addition, I watched some videos of people who were gay describing their pain and their struggles….one video in particular, “Wish me away,” about country singer Chely Wright, broke my heart wide open – it devastated me. From everything I could tell, she seems to be a lovely and sincere Christian – I have no reason to question her relationship with Christ. Finally, after years of concealing who she really was, she revealed her homosexuality. The anguish she displayed before she did that was particularly over the potential reaction of her parents….and rightfully so – her Dad accepted her, but her Mother shut her off. She also knew full well that other country music musicians might shun her and her fan base could desert her (and many did – in the year following the documentary, she was not invited to a single country music venue, and she received a large volume of hate mail, including death threats). To see that beautiful, kind and genuine woman tormented for years about losing the music career she loved as a result of trying to be who God created her to be was too much for me. To listen to her describe the moment when she almost blew her head off because of her shame for not being honest about who she was, was eye-opening and gut-wrenching.

Secondly, I began to re-read the Bible – I mean really looking at it again. One thing that I discovered was there are many things that are “abominations” in God’s sight – they’re all through the Old Testament. I mean there are lots of them, from eating a peace offering on the third day after it is given to God, to cursing your parents, to eating unclean animals (and, yes, I am aware of Peter’s vision in Acts 12 which changed that restriction), to seven different things that are listed in Proverbs 6:16. And so I began to ask why the evangelical Church had singled out the behavior of people who are lesbian or gay to attach that label of “abomination” to.

I looked again at divorce, and realized that some passages of Scripture take an almost unequivocal stand against it. In Malachi 2:16, the Bible reads “‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord.” Matthew 5:32 and 1 Corinthians 7:10f present two carefully-drawn exceptions, in cases of a spouse’s adultery or where a non-Christian spouse deserts the family. But that’s it. Scripture speaks against divorce in very strong language….and yet Churches in general don’t apply those passages strictly anymore. They read them in the light of the Bible’s overall message of grace and redemption in Christ. So why the prohibition against committed, faithful gay relationships? Why have we singled them out? To me, there is no logical or Biblical reason to do so.

And so it became a question for me of basic fairness. If you want to apply individual passages without reference to the Bible’s overall message of God’s grace, do so in all cases, and not just some. Tell divorced and remarried people that they are also “unrepentant sinners,” or stop saying that to gay people.

And so here I am, some 15 years later, to apologize for what I did back then….for the pain and trouble I caused…..for the part I played in holding back some of God’s children from full acceptance in the Church….for trying to prohibit some of you from being the people God created you to be. I accept responsibility for what I did in judging others rather than extending the love of Jesus to them. I am grateful to the leadership of Hudson River Presbytery for honoring my request to speak here today, and to God for changing my heart. I am so sorry….I feel ashamed for taking so long to come to see what now seems to be so self-evident to me….please forgive me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Gary Blankers says:

    This gives me hope for the future of the church. We no long use the bible to prove the world is flat, or slavery is OK. We will all come to our senses on this issue also.

  2. Schaunel Steinnagel says:

    As I grew up in and was even ordained in Hudson River Presbytery, I maintain closeness with what goes on there, and I guess I can only hope that this will be a part of a growing Spirit of change within our denomination.

  3. Generous – important – and a real witness. Thanks to Rev. Benton for sharing his change of mind (including how he got there) with the wider church, and to CovNet for helping us all see it!

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