On Christian Exclusivity

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Few religions foster a searching approach to spirituality…. A small cadre of intellectual Catholics delved into the nature of God, of Christ, of the Gospels, of the soul and life after death. Sadly, many of those found themselves in trouble. Delving leads to questioning, and questioning leads to dissent, and dissent leads to disenfranchisement.“Every day a little closer to excommunication,” my husband once said of my columns about the Church.

Anna Quindlen, “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake”

Dan Vigilante’s ordained!

Likely the news escaped you, unless you’re a local Presbyterian. In which case it’s notable, because the Presbyterian Church (USA) – which I belong to – is roiled with controversy over who owns “The Truth” about Christianity and homosexuality.

Vigilante had good credentials for ordination: a long-held desire to serve the church (he grew up in the Presbyterian Church of Morris Plains, New Jersey, where his grandfather had pastored); admirable musical, leadership, and communication talents; and a Master of Divinity and a Master of Education from Princeton Theological Seminary.

So when Princeton called St. Mark Presbyterian Church of Newport Beach in 2004 to recommend Vigilante as one of their best and brightest new graduates, he got hired. There was just one problem. Vigilante is openly gay. At the time, The Presbyterian Church (USA) did not ordain gays as deacons or elders and certainly not as ministers. Vigilante came to St. Mark anyway, where he served with distinction as Director of Ministries, Youth and Young Adults for nearly eight years.

Meanwhile, the shift toward a deeper understanding and acceptance of gays in America was also going on within the Presbyterian Church (USA), which in recent decades has engaged in the sort of thoughtful examination and debate over the issue I’d like to see more of, say, in Congress.

In 2011 the rules changed to allow individual Presbyteries to decide whether to ordain gays. (St. Mark is one of 49 churches that make up Los Ranchos Presbytery.) The change, however, didn’t affect Vigilante’s chances for ordination in this predominantly conservative presbytery.

Early in 2012, Vigilante received an offer he couldn’t refuse from Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, a member of a presbytery with enough votes to support his ordination. So it was that on August 25, Vigilante stood before an audience of family, old friends from St. Mark, and new friends in Minnesota, and was ordained into the priesthood.

Why should you care?

Whether you support gay ordination or not, Vigilante’s journey to ordination speaks to something universal in each of us: the desire for exclusivity is part of human nature. It’s part of our identity, what defines us from others.

For example, my memberships in the Orange County Press Club, the Society for American Baseball Research, and what my Republican husband lovingly refers to as The Subversives (the Newport Beach Women’s Democratic Club), reveal much of what I stand for.

Hang out with only like-minded people, though, and we risk becoming exclusionary — especially in a city like Newport Beach, with our private yacht, golf, and social clubs, and gated communities.

Lamentably, I’ve seen our local conservative churches, be they Catholic, Presbyterian, or non-denominational, claim moral exclusivity.

Yet as the Rev. Curtis Webster, St. Mark’s interim pastor, has preached, “In the very earliest days of the church, before Paul set out on what many thought was a fool’s errand, not a single one of us here today would have been included. We are here because someone was willing to stand up with great conviction and say: ‘These people [Gentiles] must also be welcome.’”

Over time, the Presbyterian Church has split over slavery, and the ordination of women and divorced people – all exclusionary principles.

Currently about 20 percent of Los Ranchos Presbytery’s churches have requested dismissal, in large part because of people like Dan Vigilante.

Because progressive Presbyterians stood up for Dan Vigilante, however, he is able to say, as he told me, “I couldn’t be more grateful and humbled to be in this moment, living fully into my calling to ordained ministry. I think it sends the message, particularly to kids growing up in the church like I did, that being gay doesn’t keep you out of all Christian communities, nor does it exclude you from God’s love.”

I like to think that if Jesus had been present at Vigilante’s ordination, He would’ve high-fived him.

 Jean Hastings Ardell can be reached at [email protected].

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