Takoma Park Presbyterian Church has been regularly ordaining elders and deacons of minority sexual orientation for years in annual elections, but whenever they elected someone in a same-sex relationship, the church faced the threat of repercussions from their national denomination.
But recently, the Presbyterian Church-USA amended their constitution to clearly legalize the ordination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in relationships, validating both TPPC’s beliefs of acceptance and their quiet acts of rebellion.
The 219th General Assembly of the national denomination reworded Amendment 10-A in May to praise ministerial qualifications rather than singleness and chastity, following approval from a majority of the church’s presbyteries.
But members of TPPC say it has been a long road; often painful for those who left and saw members of their churches leave to look elsewhere looking for inclusion, but inspiring for those who found that inclusion in More Light churches like TPPC, which vow to practice diversity, inclusion and social justice for all causes and creeds.
The More Light movement began in 1974, when supporters of equity in the church began encouraging ordination based on qualifications that didn’t exclude LGBT people.
But conservatives at the national level who were unhappy with the direction they saw the Church heading squashed any ambiguity with a new amendment. That wording was almost exclusively used to discriminate against LGBT people, said Wayne Sherwood, a TPPC member and former General Assembly delegate.
And each time PC-USA’s General Assembly met during the decades long struggle, the amendment was defeated by fewer votes until it finally passed this May.
“It’s just something that went on year after year after year,” said Sherwood, 73, who joined the year TPPC became a More Light church.
“I’ve seen a long march and it keeps getting better, but what pains me the most is to see so many people I know be hurt and rejected and scorned.”
In describing his own search for answers regarding his sexuality when he was in college, Sherwood, 73, said, “The only course [at Harvard] that referenced gay and lesbians was in a criminology course about sexual deviancy. So I’ve seen a long march and it keeps getting better, but what pains me the most is to see so many people I know be hurt and rejected and scorned.”
Sherwood added that he’s received understandably skeptical reactions from some Takoma Park residents toward the national denomination’s conservative stances.
“They think you’re talking through your head and are hypocrites and they don’t want to be a part of it. I’m kind of amazed that anyone stayed at all,” Sherwood said. “And hopefully there will be more LGBT people who come in through the doors and stick around.”
In 1998, Shawn MacDonald, now a pastoral associate at TPPC, decided to come out, even though she thought it would end her career in the ministry. But she was surprised to be invited back to serve as a pastor three times over, in states across the country.
“I was like, ‘You guys know about me?’ and they were like, ‘Yeah, and we checked with the churches you served before and they said you were great.’ And it wasn’t a problem,” she described.
MacDonald didn’t break any rules because she was not in a relationship at the time, and she said her positive experiences are not the norm. However, she still faced some discrimination from members of her church who were uncomfortable being led by a lesbian pastor.
“I think a lot of it comes from people not really understanding what sexual orientation is about and thinking if somebody is of a minority sex orientation that they’re somebody who’s purposely choosing to do something wrong, instead of just being who they are,” said MacDonald.
“It’s up to the churches as well as individual Christians to see that God is calling the church to a new place, and to try to help the church to see that,” she added.
There are other More Light churches in the area, but the Rev. Mark Greiner of TPPC said his congregation often felt like a “lone voice in the wilderness.”
And the next issue churches and individual ministers may have to take a stand on, TPPC members agree, will be the question of legalizing gay marriage in the Presbyterian constitution.
The national denomination allows union services, not same-sex marriages, and at the last annual meeting of the church’s General Assembly, the issue was tabled and didn’t come to a vote. Instead, PC-USA released two reports that support the status quo.
While states in the region, including Maryland, still ban same-sex marriages, a law legalizing gay marriage in Washington, D.C. took effect in March.
“It’s absurd that something the civil authorities would say is legal, a church would get in trouble for doing in the District of Columbia,” Sherwood said.
Because pastors have legal authority to officiate gay marriages under some state and district laws, they now have to decide how to move forward to achieve those same rights in their religion.
“That’s exactly what churches are trying to figure out right now, and I think churches have to figure out together how to do this. It can end a pastor’s career,” Greiner said of performing same-sex marriages in D.C.
But Sherwood said creating a national change in the denomination will require combination of resistance from individual churches and use of the legislative process.
With a laugh, he said, “Eventually, all the rules kind of collapse in the face of the moving of the holy spirit, and the love of the people and eventually people say, ‘Why not?’”
Photos by Rachel Horesovsky .