Moderator Joan Gray Shines a Light on How to Be the Church
I have had only two encounters with Rev. Joan Gray, Moderator of the 217th General Assembly (2006-2008) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Both of them have been memorable and helpful to me in understanding how to be a Christian and a Presbyterian.
During the moderator’s election, Rev. Gray said that she was a “a willing learner regarding the place of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the church.” After she was elected, when I heard she was coming to Western Pennsylvania, I contacted her, inviting her to lunch. As boardmember for More Light Presbyterians, I was eager to help her understand our perspective on Scripture, marriage, and ordination just to start the conversation. She accepted my invitation. We broke bread, talked and walked together for a few hours.
While Rev. Gray was a good listener, just as important to me was what I learned from her about the history of the southern Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), the product of Presbyterian schism at the time of the Civil War that was mended in1983.
She described how the PCUS struggled with regard to their theological support for slavery in the 19th century as well as their development of “the spirituality of the church” which maintained denominational support for racial segregation in the 20th century. Rev. Gray said, “The PCUS worked hard to recognize that these were heresies and to repent for what we had done in the past. We committed ourselves to be the church in a better way.” I was impressed by the willingness of these Presbyterians to admit their fault and reform.
This history came to mind in the spring as I reflected upon the presbytery vote on Amendment 10A allowing the possibility of ordination for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Presbyterians. I was struck by the contrast between the voting of presbyteries in Alabama and Western Pennsylvania: All three presbyteries in Alabama voted in favor of Amendment 10A while in contrast, none of the seven presbyteries in Western Pennsylvania have ever voted Yes on any measure affirming LGBT inclusion. My reading, based on my conversation with Joan, is that our Alabama brothers and sisters applied their hard won lesson regarding race to another kind of difference between people that is meaningless in the eyes of God. This is a lesson we in Pennsylvania still seem not to know we need to learn.
My second conversation with Rev. Joan Gray came last month when I called her to ask if she was willing to follow up with me upon her signing of the letter to the church from former moderators asking us to remain unified as Amendment 10A becomes church law, G-2.0104b. She graciously elaborated on her vision for the PCUSA into the future. Once again I found her view enlightening.
Joan was adamant that “the church is in exactly the same place now as it was the day before 10A became G-2.0104b, that is, needing to be about being the church.” She explained, “The foundation for being the church is in John 13:34, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’’’
Her voice rang with inspiration for me when she forthrightly exclaimed, “The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has run away from this fundamental charge from Jesus and we are still running from the hard work of being one in the midst of our differences.” Amen to that.
Anticipating the Fellowship gathering to be held in Minneapolis in a few weeks where old and radical proposals regarding church structure will be presented, Joan warned, “What I really hope we will not do is make heavy structural changes to the church. Those strike me as technical band-aids that do not address the real issues.” Amen to that, too.
Joan summarized succinctly what I also see in the passage of Amendment 10A, “What has happened is a power shift.” And I agree with her about the way forward in this moment; “The hard work of discerning how to stay together takes time to pray, to wait on God, to consider deeper things, to forbear with one another.”
Deepest thanks, to you, Joan Gray, for your gifts to me in two great conversations. I hope my retelling inspires those reading this to add to your thoughts.
Reverend Janet Edwards
P.S. If you want to read more about Rev. Joan Gray, you can also check out this blog from Rev. John Shuck about his experience with her.