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A rather limited welcome...

Sat 21 Apr 2012 In: Politics and Religion View at NDHA

Rev. David Clark After much debate the Presbyterian church decided, in 2004, to bar glbti people from positions of leadership, meaning openly and actively gay people could never become ministers - except those who were ordained, or on the path to ordination, before the policy came into effect. This left many existing ministers such as the late Rev. David Clark in limbo and tormented by the church they had dedicated their life to. For glbti people who now aspire to leadership in their church the door is officially bolted shut, unless they lie or tiptoe along the the fine line between honest self-expression and an enforced duplicity. Surprisingly, a handful of gay and lesbian ministers manage to honour their calling in the Presbyterian Church and, with the help of generally supportive parishes, have become effective and respected leaders. Rev. Allan Davidson At the funeral of Rev. Clark in mid-April noted theologian The Reverend Dr. Allan Davidson took to the pulpit to proclaim: "If the Presbyterian Church wants to honour David, then it will revisit its attitude towards gay Christians in ordained leadership and promote the inclusive church which David himself embodied." He said the Church's stance had "deeply wounded" Clark who had nevertheless shown "great courage" in the face of the policy of rejection. Davidson's stance was supported by fellow minister The Reverend Dr. Keith Rowe who reflected on how Clark had "retained a love for the church which had caused him considerable pain." "But being inclusive is the very essence of Christianity," said Rowe after the funeral. Rowe believes that an underlying cause of the Presbyterians' inability to come to terms with fully including glbt people is a fundamental split based on how the modern Church should "use the Bible." And he suggested a clear decision favouring glbti leaders was avoided by those who put maintaining Presbyterian unity ahead of the possibly divisive matter of glbti inclusiveness and justice. Rev. Martin Baker With this impassioned call for true inclusiveness in mind has asked the church's official spokesperson, the Rev. Martin Baker, to clarify the Presbyterians' position. His extremely careful and sometimes evasive answers highlight the church's on-going inability to come to terms with homosexuals in its midst. Baker first made the point that he attended Clark's funeral: "It was a very moving event for a friend and colleague who has made a very significant contribution to the life and work of our church." The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church meets every two years. "Among other things, the Assembly makes decisions about rules which govern our life and practise. These decisions require a 60% majority," Baker backgrounds. "In 2006 the General Assembly endorsed a 2004 decision that anyone in a sexual relationship outside marriage between a man and a woman cannot be admitted for training, licensed, ordained or inducted." 

Asked for the practical implications of this policy for openly gay people who wish to become Presbyterian ministers, people who were not openly gay when they were ordained but have since come out and people who have been ordained but who have not yet come out, Baker simply stated that "any person who wishes to become a Presbyterian minister can do so as long as they meet criteria which include abiding by the church's rules."

 "The same rule applies to all Presbyterian ministers whether or not they have disclosed details about their sexuality," he added. "Because this decision was made in 2004, this rule does not apply to a gay person who had been accepted for training or ordained before October 2004." 
Asked for the theological basis for this policy, on the basis that Christian churches base their values on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, Baker neatly side-stepped the question. "Discussion around this policy has, over the last twenty years especially, attracted a lot of debate. Groups both supportive and not supportive of this policy have supported their views with theological argument and reference to scripture." 
Of Dr Keith Rowe's suggestion that the Church has historically put unity before addressing injustices, particularly regarding homosexuals in church leadership, Baker would only say that "biblical scripture affirms a unique unity experienced by those who join in following Christ." "In my view," he says enigmatically, "the unity and the justice about which the Bible speaks are inseparable. So, what place do inclusiveness and justice have in the Presbyterian Church? "Inclusiveness and justice are central to our decision making processes," Baker states. "Our decisions and rules are made through open and robust debate with people able to have their voice heard at local, regional and national levels." It's hard to avoid the interpretation the process must be inclusive and just but the results can be anything but. Especially on the subject of homosexuality. 

Asked what message the Church has for glbt Presbyterians who are allowed, and even encouraged, to join the church but told they are unacceptable as leaders, Baker articulates a surprisingly narrow official view of what it means to be 'welcome.' "This rule only applies to those who are called to specific positions of leadership in our church," he says. "Anyone is welcome in a Presbyterian church." Jay Bennie - 21st April 2012    

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Saturday, 21st April 2012 - 12:31pm

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