The many people who have been associated with the Women’s Center, through the years, have been dedicated and active supporters of ordination for LGBT Presbyterians. That support has taken different forms over the years. It has included bringing speakers like Rev. Jane Spahr, Rev. Michael Adee, and Lisa Larges to campus to speak, preach, and talk with the community; forming a pioneer seminary chapter of More Light Presbyterians; sponsoring a week-long installation of the Shower of Stoles in Caldwell Chapel. All these events, and others like them, aimed to promote clear, principled support for LGBTQ ordination among LPTSeminarians. So it is no surprise that the Women’s Center gladly heard the news that Amendment 10-A had passed in the majority of presbyteries needed for its official acceptance. [Amendment 10-A replaces language designed to make same-gender relationship an absolute bar to ordination with language that focuses on a person’s relationship to Jesus Christ as the central criterion, and leaves the matter of determining a candidate’s suitability for ordained office to the examination and judgment of the ordaining body, whether session or presbytery.]
The Women’s Center is not alone, I know. I have been reading with interest the many statements the action has generated in the past week, including those made by prominent Presbyterian women, like those by the moderator of the General Assembly of the PCUSA, (and also the thoughtful, less formal statement in Cindy Bolbach’s blog), by our friend Lisa Larges, and by pastors Janet Edwards, Laurie Kraus, Laura Viau, and Katie Mulligan.1 Although some dear friends — some of whom have been mourned in the pages of this blog, including Virginia Davidson and David Bos — did not see this manifestation of the goodness of God in the land of the living, I have confident hope that they share our gladness in the communion of saints.
It feels essential for the Women’s Center to acknowledge and celebrate this moment, for which so many people have worked for so long and with such passion, even though little if anything is left to say that has not already been said, well and beautifully, by others. The Women’s Center can only be happy that we as a denomination have moved further in the direction of full inclusion; happy that the church will benefit from the gifts given to LGBTQ folks, rather than scorning those gifts, and will affirm and honor the clear calls that have been denied for so long; happy that the polity no longer includes a carefully worded act of institutionalized discrimination. No one here innocently imagines that the vote means we Presbyterians all finally agree on the relevant essentials, however any of us might parse them, or that Amendment 10-A will not initiate its own set of difficulties, even as it puts an end to what we have long seen as others. No one here believes that “this changes everything.” But, changing the rule that required barring some of us from ordained service to the church on the grounds of sexuality and relationship status feels like a large collective affirmation of trust in the grace of a benevolent God. For that, with gratitude to the people who have dedicated themselves to the hard work of bringing this moment about, we are thanking God.
One thing the past week’s many beautiful, thoughtful, generous, and happy statements have not mentioned, however, is power. At least, people have not had much to say explicitly about power. Implicitly, in the repeated calls for empathy with those who are experiencing the vote on Amendment 10-A as a loss rather than a victory, there is an acknowledgement of power differentials, and the way they often make people feel.
Perhaps it is not even worth mentioning. It is no secret that a collective decisionmaking process, like the ratification of an amendment, emphasizes the political dimension of collective life. That political dimension always involves us in exercises of power or powers, whether intentionally or othewise. The mechanisms of parliamentary politics, like counting up numbers or referring to established procedural rules, are historically mechanisms for making the exercise of power, if not less adversarial, at least less violent.
But I was thinking of another kind of power, which seems to be particularly important in this case: the power to persuade.
There was a time when the patriarchal paradigm of social relations was the unquestioned canon of normality and reality. In that paradigm, power is understood to belong rightly to fathers, especially successful fathers. Women and children revolve around these powerful father figures. They are unintelligible, they have no meaning, outside of the roles that relate them to patriarchal heads of household, and outside of the functions that make them valuable in that context. What would a woman be, if not a wife, mother, or daughter? What would a woman do, if not produce the father’s children, and care for the father’s house?
It would be a mistake to overstate the relaxation of that patriarchal paradigm for social life. It continues to operate in our world, still influencing many people’s imaginations of normal reality, shaping a range of social phenomena, and carrying a presumption of legitimacy in numerous readings of Christian sacred text. If this were not so, there would not be an ongoing debate over the acceptability of women’s ordination in circles in which substantial numbers of Christians move.
Nevertheless, we can see signs of the diminution of the compulsory character of patriarchal social relationships. It is no longer strictly mandatory for people, especially women, to marry – or risk being unable to support themselves. The range of intelligible social roles, for women in particular, is no longer strictly limited to the set of possible relationships to a male head of household. The sole mark of social acceptance for women is no longer successful procreation.
The support for Amendment 10-A is probably another such sign. I suspect it means, among all the other things it means, that the patriarchal paradigm no longer possesses the power to make same-gender relationships appear self-evidently aberrant, without further argument or justification. Once, patriarchy claimed and could make people believe, that its reality was all the reality there was; whatever and whoever had no place in its categories was wrong. Now we have, it seems, come to a point in the long, slow, and I hope sure demise of patriarchy at which many people — enough people — can no longer find possible and positive same-gender relationships simply unavailable imaginatively. Enough people can no longer really believe that same-gender relationships must be dangerous rather than safe, life-denying rather than life- and love-affirming, or distortions of something given by God rather than themselves something given by and approved by God.
To the extent that the vote on Amendment 10-A means that the power of patriarchal reality to present itself as exclusive and right is waning, it means we are moving in the direction pointed by scripture. We know from scripture that our social world is distorted, broken, and that no social arrangement can be presumbed to have the full imprimatur of the divine. The Bible points beyond itself to an as-yet unimaginable world, in which the old heaven and the old earth have passed away, there is neither marriage nor giving in marriage, and we do not know what we shall be except like a Word of God whom we shall see in all the fullness of that Word’s complete reality. The Bible points beyond itself to that Word of God in scripture; that Word presumably outlasts every temporal and cultural limitation embodied by scripture. Insofar as we readers of scripture seek to attend to the Word of God and practice the ways of life that Word affirms, our passing world along with its presumptions must change.
Patriarchy is part of that passing world. Patriarchy, we are convinced, for all its long history and its appearance in scripture, is wrong. We ought to know by now – its fruits are rotten. Traci C. West, in her book Disruptive Christian Ethics, claims that a “liberative approach to bringing together particular and universal moral concerns compels Christians to engage in an ongoing struggle for sustained, systemic changes in the universal moral agreements about social relations in our society” in conjunction with struggles for concrete solutions to particular problems.2 The waning of patriarchy, to the extent patriarchy is on the wane, is just such a change in universal moral agreements about social relations. It has come about, to the extent that it has come about, by moving in directions people learned in church – the direction of relief of suffering, the direction of caring for the neighbor, the direction of gracious inclusion – in their efforts to address particular problems faced and felt by particular people. Like the particular LGBTQ people called by God to special functions in the church, which a still-changing moral agreement about social relations in our society has at last given more power to appear simply as faithful Christians striving, like all faithful Christians, to be steadfast in our callings.
1. Rev. Robert Austell’s list is a thorough and clearly organized resource for various categories here.
2. Traci C. West, Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 52.