Ordination: an Instrument for Faithfulness

Deborah Flemister Mullen

Friday, November 10, 2006

Covenant Conference 2006
Broad Street Presbyterian Church, Columbus, OH

Deborah Mullen is Dean of Master’s Programs and Director of the Center for African American Ministries and Black Church Studies, McCormick Theological Seminary.

Thank you for your gracious welcome. When my dear colleague, Deborah Block, called last spring, I was sure she had the wrong number. I thought, finally, even Deborah has gotten us mixed up. Now, in order for you to appreciate what I’m saying, I’ll have to let you i n on an inside joke.

Believe it or not, several years ago now, when Deborah was on the faculty at McCormick Seminary, serving a two-year term as our Mohr Professor of Ministry, people had the odd habit of mixing us up. I kid you not!  It happened with such regularity that finally, one day, having experienced this strange occurrence yet again, Deborah and I looked at one another and decided, “It must be the hair.”  So, when I got the call inviting me to deliver the keynote address at this conference, I thought automatically, it’s happening again, another instance of getting Deborah Block and Deborah Mullen mixed up. But then it occurred to me – Can’t be; this is Deborah Block!

I am delighted and indeed deeply honored to be part of this conference that continues a rich tradition of public conversation on the Presbyterian Church initiated by the Covenant Network in the late 1990s. As I stand here looking out  at you all, seeing the faces of many friends and colleagues who have gathered for these three days to hear a word of affirmation and hope, a word of encouragement, and to refuel the tanks for the road ahead, I’m almost tempted to give thanks for G-6.0106b. Of course, I’m not thankful for G-6.0106b, but it was because of some of the most intense and divisive conflict our denomination has seen in recent history concerning the church’s polity and stance on the ordination of gays and lesbians, that all of this began. Let this be a time to strengthen our resolve to continue the work that was started as a “call to covenant community” in the liberating name of Jesus Christ. 

Thank you to the Board and to the Covenant Conference planners for this opportunity to share some of my thoughts on the topic, “Ordination: an Instrument for Faithfulness.”  Rather than present an academic lecture per se, my remarks are intentionally less formal, but organized around a set of reflections on the question, What would ordination as “an instrument for faithfulness” look like in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. today?   

 So, let’s start with some assumptions about who’s here. My assumptions are, if you are here, you must be, in some way, an advocate or activist working for change in the constitutional standards that presently govern our denomination’s theology and practice of ordination;  you must believe that the church can and will change its understandings and practices of ordination that categorically exclude sisters and brothers who are considered to be sexual “minorities” because of how they express their humanity, in part, through their sexual identity; you must be willing to do whatever it takes to help our church get to the place where it can embrace and adopt a theology and practice of ordination that makes the way clear for all who are seeking to minister as ordained officers of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. to be measured by the same standards as sexually active heterosexuals without prejudice related to gender, sexual identity and sexual orientation; you refuse to give up on the power of God’s radical love at work in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., a love that will not give up on or be turned against God’s faithful gay sons and lesbian daughters in the name of Jesus. Am I close?

So, here we are at the 2006 Covenant Network Conference in Columbus, being invited to consider or re-consider “ordination after Birmingham.” Yes, we’re here trying to make sense of what happened there, and I am especially grateful for colleagues who will help us do just that. We are also here seeking to better understand and learn from our anguished history of struggle over ordination, who gets it, who doesn’t, and who decides which “bodies” “the Body” believes can appropriately and legitimately serve the church. Yes, polity still matters, and it can be bloody!

One of my favorite resources on our constitutional heritage recorded in the Book of Order was written by William E. Chapman, then an adjunct professor of polity at Princeton Seminary. Published in 1999, Chapman’s book and leader’s guide is entitled, History and Theology in the Book of Order:Blood on Every Page. Anticipating the questions that would surely come, Chapman opens the book with a story about how the subtitle came to him out of a conversation with a Presbyterian elder. This man, a convert to Presbyterianism through marriage, was elected an elder, dutifully responded to the vows of office, and was ordained without any training or understanding of the church’s polity or the history behind the vows he had just taken. Before too long the elder was appointed to the congregation’s personnel committee, and soon after a crisis arose that caught him between two friends on opposite sides of a conflict. His distress over what to do and whose advice to trust drove him straight to the Book of Order, which he took with him to read in its entirety while on vacation.1

Long story short, Chapman encountered the elder again after he had finished reading the book. The elder asked Chapman whether he was still teaching polity at the Presbyterian seminary. When Dr. Chapman said yes, the elder became very serious and admonished him, “Tell your students that our Book of Order has blood on every page.”2  The take-home message, friends, is that whether we always agree with the Book of Order and the confessional standards of our church, like it or not, there is a cache of accumulated pain, wisdom and promise from which we need to continue to learn. Conferences like this one are truly a gift to the church and also a reminder of the cost of discipleship.      

Because this conference comes at the end of a year-long celebration of the multiple anniversaries of women’s ordination as deacons, elders, and ministers of Word and Sacrament, we can be encouraged that eventually things do change. We can hope in faith that just as there came a time in the PCUSA when the traditional and legal barriers to the ordination of women had to be removed, there will come a time in the PCUSA when the traditional and legal barriers to the ordination of gay, lesbian, transgender, and other non-heterosexual sisters and brothers will have to be removed as well. But that day is not yet; and until that day comes we must continue to chip away at the structures of oppression, patterns of discrimination, and ways of practicing our faith in the church that mask injustice. I am no friend of G-6.0106b.

Of this much I am convinced:  when the church’s theology and practice of ordination fail to acknowledge the power of God’s call on the life of its members who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, the church’s theology and practice of ordination need to be reformed. When those authorized to ordain fail to make room at the table and font for whosoever has shown herself or himself called by God and worthy to take up the cup and towel of servant leadership because a constitutional provision in the Book of Order a.k.a. the “fidelity and chastity amendment” stands in their way, the church’s theology and practice of ordination need to be reformed. 

Just as we were reminded on last evening in the sermon preached by J. Herbert Nelson that our celebration of women’s ordination is not yet a reality shared by all women in the church, let us not forget that we are still “the church reformed and always reforming according to the will of God.” We give thanks for the life and ministry of the Rev. Dr. Margaret Towner. She is a living witness of personal faithfulness, in whose wake thousands of ordained women, spiritual daughters and grand-daughters in the ministry of servant leadership have followed. Thanks be to God!  But there are still minds that need to be changed before the full inclusion of women as senior pastors and heads of staff can be realized in our denomination even today.

Yes, we’ve come a long way in seventy-five years of women’s ordination.  But we have a long way to go before we can truly lay claim to the peace, unity and purity that come from recognizing, on the one-hand, our need for mutual forbearance in matters around which we have not reached consensus, and on the other hand, realizing the urgency with which we must proceed toward the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender sisters and brothers as ordained ministers and officers of this church. Patience is a virtue that many of us who have experienced prejudice and discrimination cannot fully appreciate. We must not compromise our commitment to justice for those who have waited for too long to hear the unqualified welcome of this church into the ministry of ordained servant leadership.  Whether women, African American, lesbian and gay, transgender and bisexual, the words “Not now” just don’t do it for us.   

So, what are the qualities of ordination as an instrument for faithfulness  that commend themselves to our attention as we unpack what I think it means for the church to “do” ordination differently so that all may free serve?  For example, how would placing less emphasis on the gate-keeping and regulatory aspects of the ordination process yield more honest relationships between particular “bodies” (gay, straight, questioning, red and yellow, black and white) and “the Body” (Session, Committees on Care and Concern for inquirers and candidates, Committees on Preparation for Ministry) authorizing ordination?  Could it be that more attention needs to be paid in the initial stages of the discernment process to the unique personhood and distinctive human gifts and talents the one seeking ordination will bring to the ministry rather than spending all of the time and effort that many in our church do trying to keep a tight lid on ordaining homosexuals [sic]? 

What might it look like if the church were to think theologically about and practice ordination as an instrument for faithfulness in conformance with the parts of our church’s polity that welcome rather than alienate those whom section G-6.0106b really intends to single out?  What if the church’s polity placed more value on a discernment process for ordination by developing relationships that mediate God’s power of call rather than foster distrust and mutual suspicion?  These are intriguing questions to which I have no ready answers.  I give thanks for the work of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church, because they are thinking these same thoughts.

The invitation to address this particular conference comes as the result of my having served as chairperson of the Task Force on the Theology and Practice of Ordination in the Presbyterian Church nearly twenty years ago. Formed in 1988, the sixteen-member task force was assembled by the Theology and Worship Ministry Unit from nominations received from across the PCUSA. It was a dynamic time in the life of the newly reunited church. The Theology and Worship Ministry Unit was well staffed in its early years by folks many of us in this room hold in high regard, people like George Telford, Joe Small, Aurelia Fule, Jack Rogers, and John Burgess, folks who intensely loved and proudly served this church with all its faults and frailties.    

The mandate of the Task Force was to study our history of ordination, and report its recommendations to the General Assembly in 1992. Looking back, I now can see clearly how the work of our task force was a critical component in shaping a new denominational identity – neither northern nor southern. And yet, as a church reunited, we were far from having put to rest all of the issues and concerns that had separated us regionally into the two distinctive branches of American Presbyterianism that we had become over one hundred and twenty- five years of living as the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA). In fact, at the time, I believed, as did many of us on the Task Force, that we were standing on the precipice of a new day dawning for a “new” denomination, and that what we were doing, in part, was helping our new church do the hard work of sorting out challenges facing its unity and resolving deep disagreements that might threaten its future. 

The idea for the Task Force emerged as a project related to the development of the Brief Statement of Reformed Faith, and in response to an overture to the 1986 General Assembly from the Presbytery of Carlisle. Four principles guided our work:

  • first, the study of ordination would be biblically and historically grounded;
  • second, the study would explore ordination from a distinctly Reformed perspective;
  • third, the study would engage issues related to ongoing discussions with our ecumenical partners, and articulate a Reformed and Presbyterian understanding of ordination in the holy, catholic, and apostolic church ­– that one was particularly important, because our having three ordained offices made us a little strange in the holy, catholic, and apostolic church, and we weren’t about to let go of any of them; and
  • fourth, based on its study and as appropriate, the Task Force would propose changes to the Book of Order.

During the period that the Task Force on the Theology and Practice of Ordination in the Presbyterian Church was completing its work, there were six other committees and task forces scheduled to report their findings to the 1992 General Assembly. In fact, there were so many task forces and committees that we were convened for a couple of days just to orchestrate how the General Assembly was going to handle all this business coming to it in 1992!  With the exception of the Special Committee on Human Sexuality, the debate in the church surrounding the ordination of gays and lesbians was largely considered to be off limits. Even our task force, mandated to consider ordination practices,  decided that the overtures pressing for Book of Order changes in the ordination standards, though indirectly addressed in our report and recommendations, would not become the platform to challenge the polity of the church with respect to lifting the ban against the ordination of gay and lesbian Presbyterians. We ducked! 

Part of our ducking had to do with the feat that if we proposed changes, we would destroy the peace, unity, and purity of this church. We didn’t want to risk taking a stand on the ordination of gays and lesbians that likely would have made the study and the task force report on ordination a target of retaliation among those seeking to maintain the status quo in constitutional standards .

Instead we decided, with strong advice from our staff advisors and others, to focus the report and recommendations around a theology and practice of ordination grounded in a renewed understanding of the ministry of the whole people of God as diakonia. And of that, I am and I hope we all are very proud.

There’s a little book still available from the Presbyterian Distribution Service, A Proposal for Considering the Theology and Practice of Ordination in the Presbyterian Church. In it we laid out the reasons we will not relinquish any of our ordained offices – based on a biblical understanding of what it means to be servant leaders in the whole people of God.

At the time our task force was meeting, the “culture wars” were raging all around us. As far as the “homosexual problem” was concerned, the church, the military, and just about every other tradition-bound, socially and religiously conservative institution at the time preached and practiced “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”  Thanks be to God, the progressive voices within the church would have none of it!  Nothing short of full inclusion of all of God’s children in the life and leadership of the church was their agenda then as it is now. The more moderate middle, what author William J. (Beau) Weston and Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick call the “loyalist center” or “the loyalist middle,”3 was caught between opposing camps, each believing their particular position of advocacy was faithful and non-negotiable in the struggle to save the soul of our church. These polarities were yet another dynamic expression of the pluralism deeply rooted in the bedrock of the life and history the Presbyterian Church in America.

History will bear witness to the fact that these were tumultuous times for our denomination. And yet, no matter how divergent and at times even competitive the strategies and actions were and are in the movement for full inclusion, no matter how little agreement there was and currently may be over how to bring about a radical transformation of hearts and minds in our church on issues surrounding the ordination of gays and lesbians, I believe the one goal that still unites those of us considered to be somewhat left of center to the most radical progressive among us, is to remove the walls of tradition and church law that historically have been constructed around ordination of categories of people in our church:

  • walls of prejudice and discrimination that once created a segregated church in a segregated society, rendering the upcoming Bicentennial anniversary of Black Presbyterianism (1807-2007) as virtually invisible within the wider church, owing to divisions created and maintained by the “color line” separating blacks and whites in church and society;
  • walls that have preserved white and heterosexual male privilege, and maintained structures of androcentric dominance in a social order that, in spite of the impressive accomplishments of women in leadership in our denomination alone, still marks women as second-class citizens, whether in secular or sacred service to God’s so-called “beloved community”;
  • walls that have demeaned the humanity of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender sisters and brothers, obscuring the gospel vision of the church as “beloved community,” and what Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu calls “a radical equality” as “baptized fellow Christians, members together with us all in the body of this Jesus Christ …”;4
  • walls of racism, sexism, heterosexism, homophobia, ethnocentrism, and xenophobia – seemingly indestructible walls that impugn our ability to make a credible witness in conformance with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a gospel of generosity and justice; especially when we fail “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God” and with those not only far away, but also with those closest to us;
  • walls that mark us all as either part of the problem or part of the solution.

These walls must come down, and until they do, our work will not be done! So, thank you for your witness, and that of every individual and organization that will not rest until every barrier in the Book of Order, part two of constitution of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. , is removed, and the way is made clear for all who seek faithfully to serve as ordained officers within this denomination to do so truthfully and with integrity.  

This day has been on my mind for months now, and still I find myself wondering why the subject of ordination remains so contentious in 2006, even after the General Assembly has spoken eloquently in Birmingham of the need to reaffirm our historic standards for ordination while encouraging sessions and presbyteries to exercise more pastoral responsibility in the examination of candidates for ordination. What can I add?  What more is there to say on a topic that has been so thoroughly vetted in every sector of church life and that has remained among the core issues that have defined the theological polarity of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (and its predecessor bodies) for the better part of the last fifty years?

But then I remember what we’re talking about. We are talking about power. Ordination is power. We like to talk about it as “authority,” and it is that as well. But as Lisa reminded us so well this morning, until we can talk about the power that comes with the office, it’s not sufficient to quibble over who has the authority to do what with whom.

This single issue has driven a wedge in the church’s witness that has, in the prophetic words of one former moderator, our brother and friend, Jack Rogers, caused us to miss opportunity upon opportunity “to let all Christians come in.”   It is as Jack has boldly declared in the preface to his amazing new book, Jesus, The Bible and Homosexuality

We in the church are not living according to the ideals of our Savior and  Sovereign , Jesus Christ, when we discriminate unjustly against any group of people in our midst. To act unjustly weakens our witness to Christ in the world. I believe that we will be one holy and whole church only when all our members are treated equally.5

The focus of my remarks this morning has as much to do with where we are going as where we have been.  Several questions compete for our attention at once. What might we take away from our recent history with respect to what is at stake in the debates over who shall decide who shall or shall not be ordained?  How might we come to a place of commitment to mutual forbearance in a denomination that is deeply divided over whether some of God’s people are more eligible than others to be set apart for ministries of ordained service?  What can we reasonably expect the future of our church to look like if we can’t get this problem with ordination behind us, and why doesn’t it matter more? How do our theology and practice of ordination line up with our understanding of what it means to be Reformed and Presbyterian?   

For the past thirty years the debates surrounding ordination have reflected a notable alignment of mostly like-minded and similarly committed individuals on either side of the question whether gay, lesbian, and others, too often lumped together under the banner of “sexual minorities,” should be allowed to serve as ordained officers in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. Both sides claim their positions based upon tenets of the Reformed tradition. Listen now to the words that I believe are above all the foundation on which we must press toward full inclusion and equal justice if ordination is to be an instrument for faithfulness. 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

If being the PCUSA is being Christ’s presence in the world – and that is what I think the church is called to do and to be – we must model our life after Jesus, practicing the gospel in all we do. If ordination is to be an instrument for faithfulness, it must be an exercise in practicing the gospel in all we do. We have the power, we have the authority, to do just that. Let it be so.

Thank you.

1. William E. Chapman, History and Theology in the Book of Order (Louisville, KY: Witherspoon Press, 1999), 1.

2. Ibid.

3. William J. Weston, Leading From The Center (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2003), xi-xiii; 3.

4. Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, in We Were Baptized Too: Claiming God’s Grace for Lesbians and Gays, Marilyn Bennett Alexander and James Preston (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), ix.

5. Jack Rogers, Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), p. x.

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