Alaska Presbyterians react to LGBT ordination vote
by Mel Green
Last week the Presbyterian Church (USA) ratified a historic change permitting the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy. How have Alaska Presbyterians reacted? Amanda Coyne of the Alaska Dispatch asked this question, and on Monday presented some answers.
First, a little background (see our article last week for further details; Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance has a brief history). Amendment 10-A, changing the Presbyterian Church USA’s ordination standards to permit ordination of gay/lesbian clergy, was approved in the summer of 2010 at the PC(USA)’s 219th General Assembly (2010). In order to actually become part of the church’s constitution, however, the amendment had to be ratified by a majority of the 173 regional bodies of the church known as presbyteries. This was accomplished on May 10, when the Presbytery of Twin Cities Area became the 87th presbytery to ratify. The Pacific Presbytery ratified the amendment later the same day.
Alaska has two presbyteries — the Presbytery of Alaska, including churches in Southeast Alaska, and the Presbytery of Yukon, covering the rest of the state. Both were among the 62 presbyteries which have so far voted “no” on allowing ordination of gay/lesbian clergy. An exception to the general institutional sentiment in Alaska: Anchorage’s Immanuel Presbyterian Church, in the Yukon Presbytery, which in 1998 became the only Alaska church to join More Light Presbyterians, a “network of people seeking the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of faith in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA).”
Amanda Coyne — herself a member of Immanuel Presbyterian Church — explains the real effect of Amendment 10-A’s ratification:
What this means, practically speaking, is that churches can’t be kicked out of the church body if they choose to ordain a sexually active gay or lesbian clergy, like they could have been before. It doesn’t mean, however, that a church is required to ordain gays and lesbians, nor does it preclude that the regional church body, the presbytery, which has the ultimately say in a church’s choice of pastor, from not hiring a pastor because he or she is gay.
Thus, it’s not a given that an Alaska church — even a More Light church like Immanuel — could have a gay pastor, if the presbytery refused to allow it. (They can, however, ordain gay and lesbian elders and deacons.)
Even so, the change for a church like Immanuel is profound. Like other More Light churches, Immanuel has — until now — lived under the fear that the presbytery would discipline it, potentially even kicking its membership out and taking its church building away. But not now:
Dianne O’Connell, a former long-time Immanuel associate pastor, said that although the church was never explicitly threatened, she always feared that the larger body would take some sort of disciplinary action against Immanuel.
“Now Immanuel is protected,” she said. “The church isn’t in the minority anymore. Is this ultimately going to change anybody’s mind or their hearts? Probably not. But now we won’t feel like such the odd-man out. Now, we are assured that we were fighting the good fight all along.”
In a conservative state with a conservative presbytery, Immanuel has been treated in some ways like a recalcitrant child by the presbytery, accused by some of not being “real Christians,” and has not been given as much decision-making power in church matters as other churches’ pastors.
Rev. Susan Knight, who became Immanuel’s pastor in March, told Coyne that
although the decision was an affirmation of Immanuel’s stance, she understands how much pain and confusion this might cause others throughout the state. “We love our brothers and sisters and hate to see pain. But we are very happy to move forward,” she said.
Coyne also spoke with other Presbyterian pastors throughout Alaska, reporting that most, such as Rev. Henry Woodall of Wasilla First Presbyterian Church, were “saddened” by the PC(USA)’s decision, but were willing to work with it in the spirit of church unity. But Rev. Andrew Ekblad of First Presbyterian Church of Fairbanks, a Presbyterian pastor for 20 years, was now considering leaving the church.
He saw the decision as a cultural intrusion into religion, a slippery slope that won’t stop until churches are mandated to ordain gays and lesbians, and then mandated to marry them in the church, which, he thinks, is totally at odds with what scripture says….
“When we heard about the decision, my wife asked me ‘how can we stay in this denomination?’” he said. “Truthfully? I don’t know if I will.”
Contrast this with the views of Murray Richmond, formerly a Presbyterian pastor for 17 years (10 of those years in Alaska) and hospital chaplain, now a legislative aide in Juneau. Richmond had preached against homosexuality for most of his time as a minister — and then he changed his mind:
With distance, I could see the mean-spirited nature of the anti-gay movement, and the naked way large Christian organizations used the “gay threat” to raise money. Free from the constraints of a congregation, I could spend more time actually looking at the biblical texts that deal with homosexuality, and I was surprised to find they were not as clear as I had supposed they were. At this point, I have done a 180 on the topic. And I believe it’s a change for the good.
So why had we singled out homosexuality as a litmus test for True Christianity in the first place? Why had it become such a lightning rod for self-righteousness?[caption id="" align="alignright" width="240" caption="Immanuel Presbyterian Church in 2009 Anchorage Pride march"][/caption]
One reason, I think, is that it’s easy to condemn homosexuality if you are not gay. It is much harder than condemning pride, or lust or greed, things that most practicing Christians have struggled with. It is all too easy to make homosexuality about “those people,” and not me. If I were to judge someone for their inflated sense of pride, or their tendency to worship various cultural idols, I would feel some personal stake, some cringe of self-judgment. Not so with homosexuality.
Now I am wondering why, if two gay people want to commit their lives to one another, they should ever be denied that chance. No church or pastor should be forced to perform those ceremonies, and they can choose not to recognize gay marriage for their adherents. But the constitution of the Presbyterian Church does not explicitly forbid a pastor from being a thief, a murderer, or an egotistical jerk. It is not designed to do these things. It does prohibit a gay person from becoming a pastor. All I can ask is: Why?
He is one person who no longer needs to ask.
KTVA Channel 11 News (Anchorage) had a story on its May 17 broadcast which featured Immanuel Presbyterian’s Dianne O’Connell (who was also interviewed in Amanda Coyne’s story). Watch:
- 3/28/2011. “Alaskan minister preached against homosexuality, now an ally” by Murray Richmond (Bent Alaska). Originally posted at Salon.com as “I preached against homosexuality, but I was wrong”, 3/27/2011.
- 5/11/2011. “Will Alaska get gay Presbyterian ministers?” by Mel Green (Bent Alaska). Other references for further reading can be found in this article.
- 5/16/2011. “How do Alaska Presbyterians feel about new gay-friendly church law?” by Amanda Coyne (Alaska Dispatch).
- 5/17/2011. “Alaska Presbyterian Churches Divided on Move to Allow Gay, Lesbian Clergy: Both Presbyterian church leaderships in Alaska voted against allowing gay and lesbian people to serve as church authorities but the national church voted in favor” (with video) by Natalie Travis (KTVA Channel 11 News).
- “The Presbyterian Church (USA), ordination and sexual orientation” by B.A. Robinson (Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance). Last updated 5/11/2011.
Are you a GLBT member of a faith community or follow a spiritual path? Would you like to share your story or views on the relationship between religion/spirituality and your life as a GLBT person? Please let us know! And be sure to check out our list of Alaska’s GLBT-friendly churches and religious organizations.