What Unties Presbyterians

Deborah A. Block
Pastor, Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Milwaukee
Executive Committee Member, Covenant Network of Presbyterians

 Address to the Covenant Network Commisioner Convocation Dinner
215th General Assembly
Denver, May 23, 2003

In Milwaukee we call them the Uecker seats. Waayyy in the back roowww! Not Denver’s Mile High but a mile back! Named for the beloved announcer of our beleaguered Brewers, former catcher and current Mr. Baseball, Bob Uecker, whose major league record was, well, back row.

In May of 1971 I was seated in the Uecker seats at the 183rd General Assembly. The Presbytery of Milwaukee by luck or rotation or reputation or whatever was seated in the back row of the convention center in Rochester, New York. I was the Youth Advisory Delegate from my presbytery and one of our commissioners sharing the back row as the assembly convened was Elder Lois Stair. But she didn’t stay long in the back row. One of four candidates for moderator that year, she won — on the third ballot by twelve votes — and became the first woman in the history of the Presbyterian Church to hold that office.

It was an exciting moment for the church and an inspiring moment for me. I stood on my chair to watch the moderator’s stole placed on her shoulders and the heavy Celtic cross put around her neck. I remember that when she took the podium she acknowledged what many in the hall were thinking. “Here I am, filled with amazement and gratitude, and standing in the need of prayer.”

And at some point in all of that I remembered my job. I was the one designated to communicate the news to the people waiting back in Milwaukee. I had the dime and the number to call collect. But every pay phone in the convention center had a line of people waiting. So I ran back to the Flagship Hotel with some of the best news I’ve ever had the privilege to tell.

That was a legendary assembly in the life of the Presbyterian Church. A watershed for some, a Waterloo for others. Sexism and racism reared their ugly heads; and there were tumultuous debates around social justice issues, the Vietnam War, conscientious objection, the arms race, environmental renewal, South Africa investments. A debate on a legal defense grant by the Council on Church and Race was explosive and divisive for years to follow.

And the recommendations from the Committee on Women were highly controversial. Like urging Pastor Nominating Committees to interview and hear preach at least one woman and recommending that presbyteries elect women to chair committees in equal numbers to men. Commissioners applauded and cheered when a portion of that report was voted down, and Moderator Stair responded without hesitation: “It is bitter to have defeat applauded. Please respect one another in diversity.”

Nineteen seventy-one. It was a real eye-opener to a high school senior from Franklin, Wisconsin who was entertaining the thought of going into the ministry. There I was, filled with amazement. Here was the church: turbulent, complicated, conflicted, messy, standing in the need of prayer. Wow, I thought. Yes!

When I got home I typed a report for the presbytery on my brand new Smith Corona portable electric typewriter. And I consistently misspelled the name of the denomination. The Untied Presbyterian Church. More accurate than accuracy. My fingers spelled it right. We were a church untied, unreconciled, fit to be tied.

But that was then and this is now. We dropped the “United” part of our name twenty years ago when we reunited; since then we’re just the Presbyterian Church, with all the spelling anomalies that affords, and the still possible Presbyterian Church in the Untied States of America .

I think I’m a good Presbyterian. I know I’m a bad typist. I confess I occasionally misspell the title of Kirkpatrick and Hopper’s book. But I believe that what unites Presbyterians involves a spirit of trust, respect, and civility.

Two weeks ago I was at a meeting of the Board of Trustees at our nearby Presbyterian (sort of) college. Carroll College is seriously untied these days in a conflict involving the administration and the board, the faculty, students, alums, and former faculty. After a particularly long and intense meeting, another trustee approached me to acknowledge my distress. Pershing E. MacAllister is a successful businessman, former chair of the board, alum and benefactor of the college, lifetime Presbyterian, longtime elder and in fact, a former candidate for moderator of the General Assembly. He told me that he had shared with the chair of the board some of the wisdom stated in our the Historic Principles of Church Order. We

“believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which persons of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other” (G-1.0305).

Those words are a reaffirmation of what the Apostle Paul and his conflict management school called “bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2-3).

My guess is that my fellow trustee and I may not agree on a good number of things, given his genuinely fond description of the Advisory Council on Church and Society as a “bunch of bleeding heart liberals.” But he and I connect because we are both Presbyterians, and that is not coincidental but consequential. It matters in how we think and behave, in an out of church. It matters that we are bound by the same faith to the same principles. We agree that when we are thoughtful, well-behaved, and faithful, the church does disagreement well and even helpfully. Not because we hug and pray and sing “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” when conflict is choking the life out of us and pretend our differences and divisions don’t exist, but because “we think it the duty” in our individual and collective lives “to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.”

P.E. MacAllister served on the (then) Advisory Council on Church and Society for nine years, always in the minority. “I have never, ” he told me, “heard such cogent, respectful, careful thinking in my life!” And he said it was one of the best things he’d ever been part of.

If a sense of duty does not compel and persuade us, how about a sense of history? Consider “persons of good characters and principles” who were Christians of other branches.

I returned to Rochester last summer, to worship with friends at Third Presbyterian Church and to visit the Susan B. Anthony House. (After all, it’s named after my cat.) Susan B. Anthony (the person) was a leader in the 19th century movement to give women the right to vote in this country. Miss Anthony was raised a Quaker, and in her first encounter with Presbyterians found them “vain and worldly” (although a close colleague wrote that “in the era of the reformation [she would have been] a Calvinist”!) Formed by her religious tradition to believe in the equality of all persons, she became an ardent supporter of the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of women.

[I always misspell suffrage as “sufferage”, which indeed is the result of not having full personhood. And if not “suffer”, where does that word “suffrage” come from? The primary meaning is “a prayer or act of intercession or supplication.” What we do, however you spell it.]

Susan B. Anthony’s partner in the suffrage movement was Elizabeth Cady Stanton. A Scotch Presbyterian herself, Stanton was an outspoken critic of the churches’ slow acceptance of equality. The two women were very different in background and temperament — one Quaker, unmarried, shared household with sister; the other Presbyterian, married with seven children, husband working in another city (if we could just go back to those “traditional families”!) But they forged a personal bond and a political partnership that defined their stories for over forty years and our history to this day.

They were always united in public; but it was a complicated relationship that strained over questions of principle and compromise, ends and means, allies and opponents, single-issue focus or comprehensive agenda. Stanton argued that at the head of the list of rules for reformers was “Do all you can to get people to think on your reform, and then, if the reform is good, it will come out in due season.” Anthony argued for doing whatever it would take to get the right to vote, and the consequences of emancipation would follow. These tensions around common vision and differing strategies were real and painful, but never terminal. A friendship based on respect and common cause was a sustaining force. Their life was worthy of the calling to which they had been called, “bearing with one another in love.”

Another relationship spells the same kind of tension and forbearance.

Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, former slave and eloquent anti-slavery leader, were also lifetime friends. Douglass was a frequent guest in the Anthony home, not exactly social convention in those days. When tensions emerged between the antislavery and the woman’s suffrage movements, longtime allies were estranged.

After the Civil War, hopes were high for the enfranchisement of both women and former slaves, but the language of the 15th amendment was restricted to “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Women of any color were omitted.

In May of 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass squared off publicly at the annual assembly of the American Equal Rights Association, Douglass making an impassioned appeal that the then-called “negro vote” was more urgent than the woman’s vote. The inclusion of women, it was argued, would make a hard political fight harder, if not impossible. The two movements were split, and the woman’s movement itself was divided on whether to support a voting rights amendment that did not include them.

The relationship between Anthony and Douglass strained but it never broke. Enough forbearance, enough love, enough respect, enough larger hope to maintain that “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass were at a meeting of the National Council of Women the day he died, and she gave the eulogy at his funeral.

Susan B. Anthony died in 1906 at 88, a month after speaking the ringing words, “Failure is impossible.” But success was still fourteen years away. The 19th amendment giving women the right to vote passed in 1920. By one man’s vote in one southern state.

Just down the street from the Anthony home in Rochester is a small park featuring a larger-than-life sculpture of these two larger-than-life persons, sitting at a table and having an animated conversation over tea. The sculptor lives in the neighborhood, a Laotian refugee named Pepsy Kettavong, who was brought to this country thanks to church sponsors. He designed and cast a sculpture of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas talking together, sitting at a table, and having tea — because for this refugee from the political and religious repression of Laos, their enduring relationship was a model of hope.

That image evokes these words:

“Already God’s reign is present in the world, stirring hope in all people With an urgency born of this hope, the church applies itself to present tasks and strives for a better world. It does not identify limited progress with the kingdom of God on earth, nor does it despair in the face of disappointment and defeat. In steadfast hope, the church looks beyond all partial achievement to the final triumph of God” (9.54-9.55). The concluding words of the Confession of 1967.

Consider the life of the church and how much of it happens at tables. We meet, we eat, we commune, we communicate , we commit because we belong to God and therefore to each other. Even when we are fit to be tied, we are tied. In Christ “joined and knit together by every ligament with which (the body) is equipped “ (Ephesians 4:16)

Spirituality is a nice word; but give me religion. Religare. To bind back together. What unties Presbyterians is a hope too small to look beyond our disappointments or achievements to God’s hope for us. That we be one, that we be whole, that we be bound and freed by God’s love for us. It is not easy to disagree face to face and maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. It is sometimes as difficult to stay at the table with your allies as to get to the table with your opponents. Reminder to all of us: These are the Lord’s tables.

Inspired by my first General Assembly, I went back again and again. To Denver in 1972. To Louisville in 1974, just before I started seminary. To Cincinnati in 1977 just after I finished, unsuccessfully seeking a call. I was sure that God had called. No one else seemed to have my number. Dorothy Parker might have said, “Churches don’t holler for girls who wear collars.” The constitutional door had been open to women since 1956, but hearts and minds and pulpits were closed.

I marked 25 years of ordained ministry this year, and the silver of it is tarnished by the doors still closed to gay and lesbian Presbyterians. I’ve read with more than passing interest the report to be considered by this assembly on the realities and challenges of clergywomen’s experiences in ministry.

And I am reminded of the reality and the challenge I became aware of at the 1978 General Assembly. It was my first experience at an assembly as a clergywoman in ministry, and after the struggle of getting to ordination I felt accomplished and “arrived”. The debate that year on an authoritative interpretation prohibiting the ordination of gay and lesbian Presbyterians echoed so much of what I had heard (still hear, still live!) about women in ministry, reverberated the same narrowness and fear. I knew then that we were and would be for a long time an untied Presbyterian Church, adrift from the Gospel and disconnected from our foundational Presbyterian tradition. And I knew that I was tied by conscience and conviction to every gay and lesbian Presbyterian standing outside the door I had just pushed through.

Because of the faith that claims me and the Presbyterian tradition that forms me and the blatant and subtle resistance in my own experience, I cannot be untied from the struggle of my brothers and sisters who are gay and lesbian and called to the ministries of the church. I bind myself in a covenant of faithfulness to the teachings of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and to all not welcome at all tables. I commit whatever power I have to work toward a church that is as just and generous as God’s grace, whatever wisdom I have accumulated to open hearts and minds to the example of Christ and to re-order our book and our church.

Commissioners, you have suffrage in this week (and Lord knows, you may suffer this week!) But your votes are part of a much bigger picture. What you do and how you do it at the various tables of this assembly will tie you to a larger, longer ministry. And so with every ligament with which we are equipped, we lift our life together up to God and say with that wise woman, “Here we are standing in the need of prayer.” Here we are, called to be a house of prayer for all peoples. And so we pray for the church:

Fill it with all truth;
in all truth with all peace.
Where it is corrupt, purge it;
where it is in error, direct it;
where anything is amiss, reform it;
where it is right, strengthen and confirm it;
where it is divided, heal it, and unite it in your love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

 [Closing words of prayer from the Book of Common Order, Church of Scotland © 1994]


* * *

(c) Deborah A. Block. May not be used without permission.

Comments will go through moderation before they are posted. Those wishing to leave a comment must include their full name and a working email address, and all comments must be respectful and civil. Personal, ad hominem, or anonymous comments will not be allowed.