Last year, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA appointed a Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage. The committee was given two years to study how the theology and practice of marriage have developed in the Reformed tradition and the place of covenanted same-gender partnerships in the Christian community.

This adult education course tries to do something similar over an eight-week period for St. Andrew Presbyterian in Iowa City. Throughout this discussion, we hope to hear from class participants’ personal experiences and questions concerning sexuality and the Presbyterian faith.

For questions or comments, contact Jeff Charis-Carlson at

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Class Notes from Nov. 1

Here are my notes for the discussion in the final session of our eight-week class. On Nov. 19, I'll be giving a report to the Session on on how the class went and what we need to do next.

If you have any suggestions on what I should say, drop me a note at

With about 40 people crammed into our classroom Sunday, we came to a number of startling realizations (some critical, some complimentary, some complementary, some contradictory) about our church and our community:
  • There aren’t many cultural Presbyterians in our PCUSA congregation. Only about 20 percent of the people in Sunday’s class identified as being raised Presbyterian. The others were raised in a wide variety of other faith traditions, including: Episcopal, Lutheran (ELCA), Lutheran (Missouri Synod), the Reformed Church of America, Methodist, Covenant Church, Roman Catholic and Salvation Army.
  • It seems one of the few forces binding together this theological hodgepodge at St. Andrew is the structure and order of the Presbyterian Church USA.
  • Yet the majority of members of St. Andrew know little about the organizing structure of their denomination. And some class members said the congregation probably would identify itself as “more progressive” on same-sex relationships and other issues if the denomination wasn’t “holding it back.” (But then again, if the congregation decided to step out from the denomination’s strictures, it’s unclear what would be left to hold everyone together.)
  • While the broad theological umbrella encouraged by the PCUSA has allowed a wide variety of people to worship together at St. Andrew, that “unity” too often has been the result of ignoring differences rather than airing them and coming to a compromise/decision. Some fear that St. Andrew members have forgotten how to discuss difference in respect and love — especially when the discussion will lead some members to decide their faith journeys are leading them away from St. Andrew.
  • We reaffirmed how St. Andrew is a lot like Iowa City — it’s not really as “progressive” as the members like to think it is, and all the members like to think of themselves as being “above average” in terms of intelligence and toleration.
  • St. Andrew, in fact, is a middle church — one balanced out by the extremes on both ends, and one who’s middle is now seesawing slightly between left and right, open and traditional.
  • St. Andrew is large enough that its biggest challenge is communication. Many members complained they had no idea the Session was discussing whether to move the church, despite the Session’s multiple efforts to invite more input through the mini-messenger and small groups as well as from the pulpit. Many members (including me) didn’t know the Session was considering the marriage request of Michelle Norman and Michelle Wikner until after the request had been turned down by a close vote. (On the other hand, I’ve heard that some session members didn’t know that our class was going on until about the fifth or sixth week.)
  • Because St. Andrew seems to be swaying on its fulcrum right now, too many members have become less excited about the church. They aren’t thinking of leaving in a huff, but their attendance has slackened, or they just don’t see the point of giving 110 percent to a congregation they now feel less connected to. And because of the size of the church, it’s very easy for them to shift from the stage to the wings without attracting a lot of attention.
  • Before the Iowa Supreme Court ruling, the issue of same-sex relationships was just one of many theological differences that were ignored rather than discussed at St. Andrew. With the marriage request of the Michelles, however, this issue has come to symbolize (or stand in for) many of the other differences within the congregation. And it’s now of paramount importance that we focus on calling a senior pastor who has the skills necessary to help a congregation clarify its identity and deal lovingly with those who are at odds with that identity. (Yet we'll probably need to address the issue before a permanent senior pastor is installed.)
  • But before St. Andrew begins any congregation-wide discussions of same-sex relationships and related issues, the staff and session need to decide that they will make a decision. That is, they need to decide that St. Andrew is a decision-making (rather than a decision-deferring) church. (And that hasn’t seemed to be the case for at least the past decade.)
The 40 people attending class on Sunday disagree over what the church’s stance on same-sex relationships should be, but they all agree that St. Andrew needs to clarify its official stance. That the church needs to stop sending mixed signals to its gay and lesbian members. And that the congregation needs to clarify the relationship between St. Andrew and its sister PCUSA congregations.

We would like Session to endorse and encourage a congregation-wide process of discernment and dialogue on the question of whether St. Andrew should allow same-sex couples to marry in its sanctuary. Just as the church underwent a year of reading the Bible — an effort that combined input from Adult Ed, youth programs and exhortations from the pulpit — so we now need a months-long (if not year-long) study of the issue with the goal of helping the Session gauge the consensus opinion of the congregation. We'd like that discussion to begin in January.

At the end of the process, the Session — as representatives of the congregation who are charged to vote their own consciences — will vote and make a clear, informed decision on the issue. (First Presbyterian is going through a similar process. It might be beneficial to both our congregations to go through the part of the process together.)

Everyone in the class realizes how this conversation has the potential to split the congregation. But they also realize how ignoring the conversation already is allowing people to wander away.

Whatever is left of St. Andrew at the end of this process will be a congregation with a clearer sense of its mission and identity — a congregation that will be better prepared to respond to its many other challenges and opportunities.

1 comment:

  1. I am pleased that your congregation is having this conversation. I wish for you all courage, wisdom, and love.


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