After my wife Catherine and I had spent six years as members of the very first church home for either of us (I, out of freakin’ nowhere, became a Christian when I was thirty-eight years old; a year later Cat was all in), we were asked to sign a document asserting that under no circumstances should any person involved in a same-sex relationship be allowed to hold “any position, of any authority” at that Presbyterian USA church.
We had both been elected deacons of the church—which is how we came to learn that part of becoming a deacon there was signing this document.
I actually thought the head of the Deacons Committee was kidding when she laid the statement before each of us to sign. Cat and I knew the woman. She was a member of the small Bible study group we’d attended for years. We liked her. She was sweet.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if there really was such a document?” I chortled.
Looking slightly confused, our friend said, “But there is. It’s this document right here.” As if maybe we’d already forgotten them she nudged the papers a little closer to our side of the table. “You have to sign this.”
I looked at Cat. She was already looking at me. Although no one but me would have read it, the message Cat’s eyes were sending was, “Yikes! Did our train just stop at Crazy Town?”
Then we both bent to read the document.
Having finished with it, I asked our friend, “Do we really have to sign this in order to become deacons? Are you actually not kidding?” I’m a fairly private person. Plus, I’m sane. So I like to keep to a minimum signing my allegiance to extremely clumsily articulated amalgams of reactionary theological proclamations combined with blatantly discriminatory hiring policies.
Ya’ know. It’s just a general rule I have.
“No, I’m not kidding,” she said. “You have to sign it. All our deacons do.”
“But … that doesn’t really make sense,” I said, since, irrationally, I continue to believe in the powers of rational thought. “Why would we have to sign something like this before we’re deemed worthy to serve donuts between services and help pass around the collection plate? That’s a little … draconian, don’t you think? Actually making someone sign their name to something? Isn’t that just a little too Joe McCarthy? You understand how that feels a little extreme, right?”
But, alas, she completely didn’t.
“Plus, Cat and I have been members here for six years,” I said. “In all that time, I’ve never once heard anyone associated with this church say a single thing about homosexuality. Never a word about it from the pulpit; never in a meeting; never in a class; never in the bulletin; nothing on the website; never a word about it in our Bible study class. Total silence on this matter. And yet it’s a matter so important to the church that you can’t become a deacon here unless you sign something specifically about it. Doesn’t that seem a little weird to you? If, as a church, we’re going to believe in a position about something as strongly as we apparently believe in our position on this issue, shouldn’t we, at least every once in a while, say something about that belief? If we believe it, we should preach it. People in the congregation have a right to know the rules of the club they’re in. It’s not right for Cat and me to just now be learning about this, don’t you think?”
“But we’re talking about being deacons, right?” piped in Cat. She was then Chief Financial Officer of a major non-profit. Organizational hierarchies are kind of her bag. “It’s not like we’re being named pastors of the church. We’re talking about being deacons. Visiting shut-ins. Helping put out chairs at meetings. That sort of thing, right? Nothing that has anything whatsoever to do with who should or shouldn’t be hired at the church. Just deacons, right?”
Yada, yada, yada, and our choices were exactly two: either sign the “No gay person should be so much as a door greeter or janitor at our church” document—or, by virtue of not signing that document, fail to qualify as deacons of our church.
“Please let us be deacons without signing the paper,” we begged the high mucky-mucks of our church (almost all of whom were in our Bible study group). “We love this church. We’d love to help with it. It’s not like we’re going to be in a position of hiring anyone at the church. Isn’t it possible to allow us to serve as deacons without our first having to sign that paper?”
Yeah, so that’d be a no.
Thus were Cat and I put in the weird position of being members of a church, the leaders of which had decided—had, in the end, publicly decided—that we were not morally suitable to be deacons.
Don’t you just hate it when you’re reduced to the status of second-class citizen in your own church?
I’m joking now, but at the time the whole affair really hurt. It’s difficult being told you aren’t spiritually qualified to visit people who couldn’t make it to church, to help with the services, to greet people at the newcomers’ table. All that. We were deemed unfit to do any of it.
And it was really difficult when, in the course of our “discernment process,” the pastor of our church—a man whom I had every reason to consider a personal friend—placed in the lobby of the church, right beside the doors leading into the sanctuary, stacks of a piece he had previously written about how Christians who don’t hold the “correct” view on homosexuality are heretics.
That’s the word he used, repeatedly: heretics. And every person at our church knew why he’d put that article out, and to whom it was referring.
Ultimately, Cat and I felt we had no choice but to leave the church that for so long had meant so much to us. Lots of good people there. But in the end (and to a person) they preferred our leaving the church to our serving it without first signing their anti-gay declaration.
Torn from her first church home, Cat cried for days.
Then she did what Cat does best: she got scary smart. She studied the issue of the relationship between the Bible and homosexuality. She basically disappeared into her office for about three weeks. I almost literally never saw her.
When she finally emerged from her study, she was carrying a huge stack of papers. I was on our couch doing what I do best: watching television. She plopped the papers down on the coffee table before me.
“It’s not in there,” she said.
“That homosexuality is a sin. That’s not in the Bible.”
“It’s not? At all?”
“At all. The whole thing about the Bible condemning homosexuality is complete bullshit.”
The image is Banished, by Yvonne Petkus.