Presbyterian Church in America

We Haven’t Done The Work

by Layton Williams

As I sit at my computer writing this, I am still overwhelmed by shock and grief. Like most, I woke up Sunday morning to the news of Saturday night’s horrific shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. Over the course of the day, I followed the updates with growing dread, as the death toll rose and news came out that the victims were primarily Latinx.

Last weekend’s brutal violence is an excruciating reminder—in the midst of Pride month—of how much anti-LGBTQ sentiment still exists and how much work remains to be done. This is especially true for those who are marginalized even within LGBTQ spaces: queer people of color, those who are transgender or nonbinary, and those who are bisexual.

In a matter of days, we will celebrate the one-year anniversary of nationwide marriage equality. 

This milestone signaled to many that we had finally achieved LGBTQ justice in our country. Along with many others, I celebrated that day and the promise it held.

But the truth, made painfully clear last weekend, is that queer and trans people still need sanctuaries and safe spaces to flee from hate, and even those safe spaces are not free from violent injustice. To be a country invested in the well-being of it’s LGBTQ citizens, we must do more to examine our own prejudices and work to eradicate hatred and its deadly affects. The same is true of the church.

As our country honors a year of marriage equality, my denomination—the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—will gather together in Portland for its weeklong, biannual, national meeting, called General Assembly. The last time we met as a national body, we voted to allow pastors and churches to perform same sex marriages and even clarified our language around marriage to be inclusive of same sex couples.

These votes were ratified by our regional bodies the following spring, just before the federal government followed suit. Along with the approval of LGBTQ ordination five years ago, the shift toward marriage equality earned the PCUSA a reputation as a queer-friendly denomination.

But just like our country has work left to do, so does the Presbyterian Church.

At General Assembly next week, the body will consider several overtures related to LGBTQ justice. The most well-known and, perhaps, most controversial is overture O50, which proposes that the denomination make a formal statement of apology for the harm it’s done to the LGBTQ community by denying our relationships and our calls to ministry.

Responses to this overture are diverse, even among LGBTQ Presbyterians. Some argue that a corporate apology denies “freedom of conscience,” which our polity allows for those whose theology still doesn’t allow for full LGBTQ inclusion. Others suggest that—with a few simple amendments—this overture offers a chance for our denomination to make a powerful healing witness.

I see value in both of these perspectives, and I’m grateful that this overture has elicited such thoughtful reflection and dialogue—I hope such conversation continues. My primary misgiving about the overture, however, is different.

I don’t believe we’re ready to apologize. 

I don’t believe we mean it, and not just because there are those in our midst still staunchly convinced that denying LGBTQ ordination and same-sex marriage is the faithful response. I don’t believe any of us have done enough work to confront all of the ways we continue to marginalize and erase LGBTQ people.

Lesbian and gay members of our communities still face struggles around healthcare and job security. Moreover, we have never spoken, as a denomination, specifically in support of those who are bisexual, despite statistics of increased likelihood of depression, anxiety and other health struggles, which suggest a particular need for compassionate response.

We’ve barely begun to name the existence of transgender Christians—and our language, systems, and facilities still heavily uphold cis-centric and binary understandings of gender. Our overwhelmingly white denomination has also only begun to grapple with the reality of racism—which crucially intersects with anti-LGBTQ discrimination for queer people of color.

Don’t get me wrong. I would love for our denomination to corporately offer a sincere apology for the ways it has harmed LGBTQ Christians like myself. And I recognize that this overture speaks specifically to marriage and ordination.

But we have so much work left to do, and it is not only our non-affirming members who need to do it. 

My fear, with this apology overture, is threefold. First, that we assume only some of us need to apologize to those who are LGBTQ. Second, that we are even aware of all that we need to apologize for. And third, that apologizing might make us believe we’ve achieved a level of equality and justice that we are still far from reaching.

More Light Presbyterians offers suggestions in response to overture 050 that call for the beginning of a truth and reconciliation process. More than any other supportive response I’ve read, MLP’s recommendations offer me some hope for a way forward that allows for immediate repentance and ongoing growth and transformation.

But I worry that—without a clear and stated commitment to confronting our collective, continued participation in LGBTQ discrimination—this overture might serve as more of a roadblock than the opportunity for healing that I believe its authors intend.

In the wake of Orlando’s tragedy, I want my denomination to offer a hopeful witness of LGBTQ-affirming and justice-seeking Christian community. 

But I believe we can best do that by continuing to unpack the queerphobia and transphobia we still carry and the justice that remains to be done. In a world where so many queer and trans people have found sanctuary in nightclubs and bars in the absence of open churches, let us seek to open ourselves to all LGBTQ people as another beacon of genuine embrace and welcome to which they can come home.

Photo via flickr user Charles Clegg