A Tale of Two Churches

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“The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.” – Oscar Wilde, “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

Newport Beach is home to two Presbyterian churches. I was a member of St. Andrew’s for 17 years and, more recently, have been a member of St. Mark for the past eight years.

The two churches sit on opposite sides of Upper Newport Bay, and on opposite sides of an issue that has roiled the Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination.

St. Mark is an “open and affirming” church that fully welcomes the LGBT community. St. Andrew’s has chosen to leave the denomination for another body that doesn’t permit the ordination of LGBT persons or recognize same-sex marriage.

It has been said that faith is a journey without maps. We stumble around, trying to find our way. But if you are a Presbyterian, the lack of a map is arguable – what about the Bible? Isn’t that map enough for your journey of faith?

For more than two centuries, Presbyterians have deliberated and disagreed over biblical intent. This is a good and valuable practice—as our understanding of various issues deepens, positions evolve. Even so, congregations have sometimes left the denomination over disagreements about slavery, the ordination of women, and the role of divorced people in the church.

(The issue of slavery had threatened denominational unity since the late 1700s, and in 1861 the southern churches formed their own Presbyterian denomination. It would take them more than a century to reunite).

In every case, all sides believed their position to be faithful to the Bible. Discerning biblical intent is a complex journey.

I experienced this during my years at St. Andrew’s, where my responses during Bible study often seemed not quite acceptable. Still, I taught, served on committees, and did mission work. I thought I would always be a member there. But I also sat in on meetings attended by hundreds of people who were fearful that “Presbyterian life as we know it” would end should gay ordination be made acceptable.

I also sat in on meetings about what could be done to keep the church’s property (which legally belongs to the denomination rather than an individual church). I grew increasingly disturbed by the thousands of hours spent obsessing over these issues. At one meeting, only one person out of dozens spoke up to ask how we might minister to the LGBTs in our midst.

After all, LGBT believers face a particularly rocky journey of faith. Their desire – and I believe it’s a healthy one – to authentically integrate their sexual orientation and their faith is impossible in a church whose message of “hate the sin, love the sinner” tends to refer to others but not to the powers that be.

As one progressive pastor (who wished not to be identified) put it, “To give credibility to ‘reparative therapy’ damages God’s children, who were created by God to be gay. LGBT people don’t need therapy; they need equal justice.”

So I turned toward St. Mark, because full inclusion of LGBTs makes perfect spiritual sense to me.

We have lately come to a deeper understanding of sexual orientation. Similarly, a good deal of solid biblical scholarship now denies homosexuality as inherently sinful or evil. But it’s more than this. Congregations like St. Mark have not only declared but consistently demonstrate the moral and spiritual equality of LGBTs and straights.

Each Sunday I see the joy in gay friends’ eyes as they worship and serve as ordained deacons and elders, to paraphrase the old altar call of a hymn, just as they are. That affects all of us in the congregation. Somehow, because we accept LGBTs just as they are, we straights grow freer to live more authentically, just as we are.

A pastor friend puts it this way: “When you boil it down, what Presbyterians disagree about and divide over is the value of compassion versus the value of purity. Jesus repeatedly condemned purity and exclusion while he taught and embodied compassion and inclusion.”

St. Andrew’s ultimately sought dismissal from our denomination, though they wanted to keep their property. Their request was granted on May 31, 2014, and the congregation later ratified the decision.

I wish St. Andrew’s well, but in my opinion the church has gone off the path. Time will tell whether St. Andrew’s is on the wrong side of history — and theology.

Jean Ardell is President of the Newport Beach Women’s Democratic Club.

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