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.

4 Responses
  • Chaplain Mary Murphy War Widow on August 12, 2011

    Do you have research on ministry to Veterans Incarcerated. We cannot find if this community is identified; i.e., disability prior to their offense.
    The War Widows

  • Janet Edwards on August 12, 2011

    Dear Mary,

    Blessings on you as well.

    Mary, it is not clear to me what connection your ministry to vets in prison has with Rev. Joan Gray’s thoughts or with the concerns before us here on Timetoembrace.

    I hope you will explain more to help us all be in meaningful conversation with you.

    Peace be with you, Janet

  • Silva Theiss on August 12, 2011

    Could you elaborate on what you and Rev. Gray meant by, “What has happened is a power shift?” To me, it seems like what has happened is that the numbers have changed in our denomination, such that those who believe the physical expression of homosexual love is sinful are now outnumbered by those who believe it is not. The old view is being displaced in part by people changing their minds, in part by attrition as conservatives leave for more securely conservative denominations, and in part by death as demographics favor the newer view dominating over time. (I am curious as to the relative size of the three causes.) But it seemed like you had something more profound in mind?

  • Janet Edwards on August 12, 2011

    Dear Silva,

    I too found the notion of a power shift in the PCUSA a complex idea so I am really glad you have given some of your take on it and invited us to elaborate as well–Thanks!

    I agree for the most part with your analysis of what has contributed to this power shift which is apparent in a Yes vote on opening ordination to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people after four No votes since 1997. I do have one thing to add that I think is important.

    I want us to remember that the actual wording of G-2.0104 does not mention LGBT people so its adoption does not necessarily mean that the Presbyterians who respect same sex love now “outnumber” those who do not. I think it could be argued that 10A passed because enough Presbyterians are now neutral toward, not for or against, same sex love and are willing to engage in conversation about it. G-2.0104 requires this discussion of churches and presbyteries as they discern members’ calls to service in the church.

    It may be that a majority of Presbyterians want the conversation because we see what you see that same sex love will not dominate the future generations of the church as it has these past 40 years. For me the profound question is how the emerging majority will use it s power. And my fervent hope is that we do it in a respectful, loving way because we remember what it is like to be the minority.

    I hope that answers your question and I am eager for your further thoughts.

    Peace, Janet

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