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

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Discussion questions for Week 8

Our final class period will be focused on where the congregation goes from here -- what help steps should St. Andrew take to continue the process of discernment and dialogue that we've been having for the past few weeks.

If you have specific suggestions, please drop me an e-mail at or post a comment here.

Notes from Week 7

In Sunday’s discussion we read some biblical passages that don’t deal directly with same-sex relationships but that provide further context for the passages that do.

* Reading some healing passages from Luke, we asked whether Jesus would seek to heal Christians “struggling” with same-sex attraction, or if he would condemn the church for requiring gay and lesbian Christians to stay in the closet.

* We read passages in Acts that discussed how the early church — when deciding how much of the Mosaic Law to burden the gentile Christians with — boiled everything down to abstaining from actions associated with idolatry, avoiding food that is offensive to Jewish Christians and upholding the sanctity of marriage and sexual morality.

* We discussed Romans 6, in which Paul describes how a baptized Christian’s life is supposed to move beyond anything in our sinful nature that would hold back the transformative work God is doing in us.

* And we read 1 Corinthians 5, in which Paul orders the church to deal with a member who is engaged in a relationship with his stepmother — a relationship even the gentiles would find taboo. He argues that it’s better for the church to go through the pain of expelling the man if he fails to repent than to sit silently by as their brother goes on toward damnation. We discussed what is the natural of damnation and salvation, and what role should the church members be playing in calling one another on their bad actions.

There was some concern that, in the course of our discussion, we slipped back and forth between talking about same-sex orientation and same-sex behavior. Nearly every Christian denomination agrees that same-sex orientation isn’t sinful in itself. It’s acting on that orientation that becomes an issue in most churches.

Presbyterian Church USA policy allows for self-described homosexuals to be ordained, for example, as long as they promise to be celibate outside of a heterosexual marriage.
The PCUSA likewise allows for the blessing of same-sex unions — and here’s the legal catch — as long as such a blessing won’t be considered marriage. And while the two people involved in the union can be members, they can’t be ordained as elders or ministers.

While we need to keep those legal distinctions in mind — especially as we consider the next step for our PCUSA congregation — our dialogue on this issue also needs to allow people to share their thoughts, even when their language becomes less than precise.

Finally, we discussed the actual motion that the First Presbyterian Session passed concerning the Norman-Wikner wedding. First Presbyterian Pastor Sam Massey said their Session passed a two-part motion that:

* Gave permission for a Presbyterian colleague, the Rev. Colette Soults-Ciha, to use the building for a non-member, same-gendered wedding ceremony and that

* Initiated a congregation-wide process of discernment and dialogue on the issues concerning same-sex marriage and the ordination of Presbyterians in committed, same-gendered relationships. That process, which is very similar to the dialogue we’ve been having in this class, will begin in November.

From the pastor’s perspective, the decision about the wedding was not precedent-setting, hence the need for the discernment process for the congregation.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Some reflections on the Norman-Wikner wedding

Because this Adult Education Class was initiated largely because of the Session vote on the Norman-Wikner wedding, it seems appropriate to offer some reflections on that special event. Your responses, of course, are always welcome.

Weddings are always public events. The assembled friends and family members are asked to bear witness to the promises made by the loving couple. And a few of those witnesses then sign their names to a license to ensure the marriage is recognized by the state.

But the Oct. 18 wedding of Michelle Norman and Michelle Wikner felt more public than usual. Because of the controversy over the decision to not allow the ceremony to take place in St. Andrew Presbyterian — the Michelles’ church home for the past 14 years — those who chose to stand witness to the event had to consider what message their mere presence would convey.

Some attendees personally question whether their understanding of scripture and church policy allows for a marriage between two women. Yet they chose to be on hand to show they want to continue their relationship with the Norman-Wikner family. And their questioning voices mixed with those of the open and affirming attendees when the Rev. Colette Ciha Soults asked the congregation to state its willingness to help the Michelles live up to their commitment.

And when all those voices were raised in song — especially in the good acoustics of First Presbyterian’s sanctuary — it was clear that the basic ceremony wasn’t that different from the thousands of other weddings that have taken place in Iowa City’s two Presbyterian churches:
  • The happy couple was beaming,
  • Friends were crying, and
  • The homily reminded everyone how marriage is about much more than the momentary happiness brought on by one day of celebration; how marriage is about the joy that comes with building a life together.

Every wedding, of course, has its unique elements. And that’s especially true when the happy couple has been living together for a decade and a half and has been raising daughters for two-thirds of that time. Or when the ceremony itself wouldn’t have been possible seven months earlier. Or when the couple — whether out of necessity, design or resignation — becomes a symbol for struggles and issues that go far beyond the happiness of just one family.

That must be why the Michelles decided to break with tradition and greet their guests both before the wedding as well as after. It was an extra step to ensure each of their guests felt a welcome part of this long overdue celebration.

Nor did the brides have traditional maids of honor. They, instead, had their daughters stand alongside them to witness and to participate firsthand in the blessing of their family. (The only time I got verklempt, in fact, was when 10-year-old Anna read the scripture with such poise and expression.)

The biggest difference from the traditional ceremony, however, was that no one gave anyone away during the wedding. The two brides walked each other down the aisle instead.

It was a moving symbol of the Michelles’ interdependence as well as a sad reminder that some of their family members disapproved of the wedding and failed to attend.

Likewise, while there were many St. Andrew faces in the congregation, there were still others who — even if they love the Michelles, Anna and Eva as sisters in Christ — felt they could not bear witness to a ceremony they fundamentally disagree with.

That’s why so many of the wedding guests decided to clap so joyfully and loudly at the announcement and (re)introduction of the Norman-Wikner family. They were trying to make up for the people who were missing. They were trying to make up for all the years this family has survived — and thrived — without public acknowledgment.

I hope the ceremony and the reception gave the Michelles the affirmation they deserve. But I also hope — somewhat selfishly — that it eventually will help the Norman-Wikner family make their way back home to St. Andrew.

Class Notes for Week 6

Sunday’s class was a response to traditionalist scholar Robert Gagnon’s challenge that the “burden of proof” now lies on the proponents of change to explain how the consequences to individuals of enforcing the biblical prohibitions against same-sex acts are greater than the consequences to the church of ignoring the testimony of scripture and overturning thousands of years of tradition.

The final third of the documentary “For the Bible Tells Me So” offers several examples of the consequences to individual Christians as well as to the church in general.

* The psychological damage done to families when parents are taught — often by groups like Focus on the Family — that they must not accept the lifestyle choices of their teenage or adult children who come out as gay or lesbian. The consensus of the psychological and psychiatric communities — with some minority dissent — holds that homosexuality is no more a disorder than heterosexuality is. To try and “treat” same-sex attraction can only result in, at best, pushing children away and, at worse, inflicting deep psychological harm.

* The church has lost many good and faithful members who, after recognizing themselves as gay or lesbian, see no place for them left in their congregation. Or, even worse, they see no place left for them in God’s kingdom.

* The suicide rate for gay and lesbians — especially teenagers — is well above that of the general population. Some traditionalists offer this statistic as evidence of the self-destructive nature of homosexuality identity. But open and affirming advocates say the statistic is a natural, human response to isolation, secrecy and abandonment. “Closets are places of death,” said the Rev. Mel White.

* The church’s stance sanctions homophobia, what Harvard Divinity School Professor Peter Gomes called, “the fear and loathing of homosexuals.” No member of St. Andrew would condone violent, hate-filled acts committed against any human being. And no member of St. Andrew would agree with the actions of Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church in their picketing at funerals and worship services with signs that read, “God Hates Fags” or “Fag Church.”

But the scholars and pastors interviewed in the film find a thin line between hating the sin and hating the sinner. The open and affirming folks say the church’s view of homosexuality as unnatural and ungodly directly contributes to the cultural forces that give rise to violent, homosexual acts and rhetoric.

(The final third wasn’t all doom and gloom. It also provide bit of closure for the Poteats who, although they won’t accept their daughter’s lifestyle, continue to have a strong relationship with their daughter. And it also shows the ordination of Gene Robinson and its encouraging impact on open and affirming advocates from other denominations.)

Our conversations after the video raised questions about:

* How open and affirming St. Andrew would be to any of its teenagers who were questioning their own sexuality.

* How much the documentary polarizes the debate to seemingly be between advocates of complete acceptance and advocates of complete intolerance.

* How this debate plays out in the church on the international level, especially in the Anglican communion.

Discussion questions for Week 7

I have been unable to find a guest speaker for Oct. 25 (Reformation Sunday), so we are going to use the time to continue our conversation and to answer unanswered questions.

I encourage everyone to catch up on past readings (see below). There is plenty of discussion topics already on the table. It would be good to discuss some of them in more specificity. (I also suggest that we reread the specific biblical passages again and see if we have more to say about them in Week 7 than we did in Week 2.)

You also can read and respond to my reflections on the Oct. 18 wedding of Michelle Norman and Michelle Wikner. (As well as the notes on our class discussion on Oct. 19.)

Finally, I’ve spoken with some of the leaders over at First Presbyterian, and I’m writing up an account of how they decided to allow Michelle Norman and Michelle Wikner to use their building for their wedding on Oct. 18. I have to double check the accuracy of the account, but I’ll try to get it posted in time to read for this Sunday.

Let me know if you have any other suggestions.

Reading list so far:

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Class Notes from Oct. 11 (Week 5)

Our discussion on Oct. 11 showed us yet again why the conversations on this issue need to continue long after our eight-week course is over. Although we had no video to take up half of the class session, we only got to discuss two questions in small groups and only had time to report back to the whole group our answers to the first question (“Where do you think the burden of proof now lies for affirming same-sex marriage or ordaining pastors and elders in committed same-sex relationships: With the traditionalists or with the More Light folks?).

Most of the group agreed that, in practical terms, the burden of proof was with those who want to change what has stood as tradition concerning this issue. But one group said that – at least at the congregational level – the burden of proof was on the traditionalists to explain why they had denied the wedding request from Michelle Wikner and Michelle Norman.

The issue of “burden of proof” raises a number of discussion questions surrounding the denominational policies around the request from Wikner and Norman. Dell Richard explained that his legal brief was crafted to explain to Session members how they could approve the request and still remain within the denomination’s restrictions – if they wanted to. The Session members in the class attested that Wikner and Norman wanted an actual wedding, not a “safe harbor” blessing ceremony – one that would be legally binding under Iowa law.

The thought was raised that First Presbyterian had approved the Wikner-Norman wedding as a regularly outside building use and thus not to be affected by the denominational restrictions (It’s taking place Saturday, Oct. 17, at 2 p.m.). But the sessions members affirmed (Brad Baldes and Melissa Fath in class, and Barb Fleckenstein later by e-mail) that the session was aware that no St. Andrew staff members would be performing the wedding ceremony.

Some asked what steps the denomination could take against St. Andrew if the Session had approved the wedding. It was pointed out that the denomination owns the church property and could do anything from sanction the church and the clergy to dissolving the congregation. It’s unclear the extent to which action – if any – the actual presbytery leaders would have taken against St. Andrew, however.

We eventually moved on to the second question (“Assume for a minute that science had proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that homosexuality is as common and as natural as left-handedness. How – if at all – should that fact affect a church’s policies concerning same-sex relationships?)

Unfortunately, time got away from us before we could report back.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Discussion questions for Oct. 18 (Week 6)

Just a reminder that for this Sunday, I’ve asked you to reread the essays by N.T. Wright and Robert Gagnon (at least the pages specifically discussing responses to homosexuality). You might also want to read through an essay put out by the Presbyterian Coalition, “The First of Institutions,” by Gilbert Meilaender.

As you read, I suggest that you identify which passages you find to be the strongest response to the claims and arguments that have been offered in the “For the Bible Tells Me So” documentary. As we discussed in class last week, the question of where the “burden of proof” lies is an important one in deciding how the church in general — and our denomination and congregation in particular — responds to questions of sexuality in regards to opening up the requirement for marriage and ordination.

When responding to Dan Via’s essay in their co-authored book, “Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views,” Gagnon ends his rebuttal (and the book) with a clear statement that the “burden of proof” now lies on the proponents of change to explain how the consequences to individuals of enforcing the biblical prohibitions against same-sex acts are greater than the consequences to the church of ignoring the testimony of scripture and overturning thousands of years of tradition.

Gagnon doesn’t believe such a case has been made. But the final third of “For the Bible Tells Me So” tries to make that case as powerfully as possible.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Discussion questions for Week 5

Thanks for a good discussion on Sunday. I’ve posted my summary the class session here — please do let me know if I left out something you considered important.

For next week, we will read through some of the traditional readings of the biblical passages:
The selections specifically challenge the notion that the gay and lesbian issue is analogous to issues of race, slavery and the subordination of women in Church History. (I’m also looking for a good 20-30-minute video to show that summarizes the traditional perspective.) If you have a good one, let me know.

We’ll return to “For the Bible Tells Me So” on Oct. 18.

Class notes for Week 4

Discussion during Week Four shifted from reactions to the “For the Bible Tells Me So” documentary (we’ll be watching the final third on Oct. 18) to reactions to N.T. Wright’s paper on “Communion and Koinonia,” what Wright describes as “Pauline Reflections on Tolerance and Boundaries.” The paper is helpful for our purposes because it challenges people of faith — Anglicans in Wright’s case — to pull upon their own traditions as they read the scriptures and discuss how open and affirming congregations should be toward their gay and lesbian members.

Discussions began by dividing into groups, making introductions and then having individuals share why they chose to attend St. Andrew in the first place. The answers ranged from the quality of the youth and music programs, the strong intellectual content now retired pastor Mark Martin brought to every sermon and the close intimacy of the small group ministry. Some people said they knew why they started attending St. Andrew, but were unsure why they keep attending — citing the difficulties in con-necting to people in a large congregation, the failure of the congregation to reach out sufficiently in times of loss and confusion, the current debate over relocating the church and the recent decision to turn down the request of Michelle Wikner and Michelle Norman to use the sanctuary for their wedding ceremony.

Without reporting back to the large group, the discussion shifted to responding to some of the more provocative statements in Wright’s paper. First:

“In order to have any serious discussion about ethical issues, we need to remind ourselves the whole time of the importance of Reason (along with, and obedient to Scripture and Tradition) as one strand of the classic threefold Anglican cord. The current fashion for substituting ‘experience’, which all too eas-ily means ‘feeling’, or ‘reported feeling’, is simply not the same sort of thing. Experience matters, but it doesn’t belong in an account of authority; put it there, and the whole notion of ‘authority’ itself decon-structs before your very eyes.”

Groups were asked how they ranked the factors of Experience, Scripture, Reason and Tradition when it comes to discussing matters of faith and sexuality. After one group noted that we need to keep all four in mind when discussing the issue, all the other groups named Scripture as the first guiding principle. The rankings varied after that point. One group challenged the definition of the vague term “Tradition,” wondering:

  • Whether it means helping us get back to a first-century content for what the New Testament writers would mean (a skill that N.T. Wright has been developing for his entire career),
  • Whether it refers to the Church’s 2,000-year history since then (which has been hit or miss at best) or
  • Whether it (in a Presbyterian context) refers to a Reformed Tradition is based on people applying Reason and Experience to Scripture to challenge church Tradition.
(Some of the groups decided to ignore the question altogether and began talking about the biblical passages or otherwise tried to catch up first time class participants.)

Then we read through and discussed the paragraph immediate before the above quotation in which Wright, somewhat snarkily, writes:

“The fact that our early twenty-first century instinct is to analyze Paul in terms of prejudices and in-consistency shows well enough what sort of intellectual — or perhaps we should say anti-intellectual — climate we now live in within the western church at least. We have allowed ourselves to say ‘I feel’ when we mean ‘I think’, collapsing serious thought into knee-jerk reactions. We have become tolerant of everything except intolerance, about which we ourselves are extremely intolerant. If someone thinks through an issue and, irrespective of his or her feelings on the subject, reaches a considered judgement that doing X is right and doing Y is wrong, they no sooner come out and say so than someone else will accuse them of phobia. If someone says stealing is wrong, we expect someone else to say, ‘You only say that because you’re kleptophobic.’ You will see easily enough where this argument is going.”

Groups were to discuss the degree to which they agreed with Wright’s assessment of the cultural moment, or how and why they found it to be too sharp or dismissive.

Some participants said that Wright elevated Paul’s letters too highly and failed to put them into a framework of Christ’s inclusivity and the command to love they neighbor. Some groups continued their earlier discussion of Experience, Reason, Scripture and Tradition.

Discussions then moved into an account of Presbyterian policy and concerns about living in an “unrepentant state.” Presbyterian policy singles out self-defined, sexually-active gays and lesbians from serving as elders and clergy. Technically, an elder or a minister could be openly unrepentant about other sinful behavior and not face such automatic disqualification — although there could and should be some discipline depending on the severity of the sin.

The observation led to two different questions:
  • Are same-sex relationships inherently sinful and, thus, anyone in a committed same-sex relation-ship is in an “unrepentant state”? Or, as argued in “For the Bible Tells Me So,” is there room in the Re-formed tradition for gay and lesbians in committed relationships — relationships that would then be blessed by the church?
  • Even if same-sex relations are prohibited — or at least a same-sex relationship is considered to be less than a biblical ideal — why should the church deal with these relationships any differently than it has dealt with divorce over the past few decades — making provisions for members to divorce, remarry and resume church leadership positions despite the biblical restrictions in the New Testament?
For example, when St. Andrew called Mark Martin as pastor in the 1980s, the church lost some members because Mark was divorced and remarried. If Paul says he would prefer everyone to be celibate like him but admits that it’s better to marry than to burn, shouldn’t the Church make similar allowances for same-sex unions?

Discussion also turned to what options are available to this and other congregations now that the question has been raised. (We will discuss these options in more detail during our final session.)