Posted on December 16, 2016 by Lē Isaac Weaver
Rev. Janet Edwards, Ph.D. will be the featured speaker at the 2017 GCN WomenConnect retreat, which will take place on the afternoon of January 5, immediately preceding the first General Session of GCN’s conference, “Stories Inspire.”
Janet thoughtfully agreed to be interviewed here on Where She Is prior to her retreat presentation. On Tuesday, December 13, I provided readers with an introduction to her life and work, and followed that up with a three part interview. This is part two of the interview. Part one is here.
My questions are in bold, Janet’s answers are in regular type.
You served on the board of the More Light Presbyterians, the PC(USA) LGBT organization, and were co-moderator of the group at a critical time, namely during the run-up to the 2011 General Assembly vote to change the PC(USA) “constitution and approve the ordination of openly gay men and lesbians in same-sex relationships as ministers, elders, and deacons.“
What do you think was the most effective strategy your group (and other LGBTQ affirming Presbyterian groups or individuals) utilized to bring about this change?
(Quotes in preceding section are from OutHistory.org, “The Presbyterian Church and Homosexuality in the U.S.: Timeline.”)
I think three important things contributed to the constitutional change allowing ordination of LGBTQ Presbyterians passed by the GA in 2010 and approved by the presbyteries in 2011.
First, all the liberal and pro-LGBTQ groups in the PC(USA) worked together with a common goal and shared strategy. When I joined the board and attended GA for the first time, in 2006, I was appalled at the cross-purposes and personal rifts among activists in the different groups. It was a priority of mine at the 2008 GA to get over our differences and work together.
In 2008, LGBTQ ordination passed GA but failed in the presbyteries. How close we got shocked many of the moderate pro-LGBTQ folk and we all saw how much better we did when we cooperated. From then on, our organizing, both on ordination and marriage, was coordinated and very strategic.
Second, we became skilled at the two crucial moments for success in enacting constitutional change. At GA, we had a system for identifying and organizing supporting commissioners so they could participate effectively in the relevant committees as they considered their recommendations on our overtures and on the floor of the plenary sessions when our overtures came up for the final debate and vote.
Then, during the several months of presbytery votes ratifying the GA recommendation, we had a team of experienced organizers who very carefully found our friends in presbyteries, helped them prepare for the debates with points we knew to be successful, made calls to be sure to get out our votes to the presbytery meetings, and tracked the results.
A friend of mine, a pastor, once said to me that Presbyterian spirituality is politics. Being a church whose name is an organizing structure suggests, I think, that there is something to that.
Third, we had a new kind of advertising for the ordination overture in The Presbyterian Outlook, read by many ministers and elders who would be discussing GA actions in their church sessions and voting in the presbytery meetings. Up until this time, ads on GA overtures were always lists of names of pastors, elders, seminary professors, and church leaders who supported or disapproved of an action.
For the ordination overture, instead, we placed a series of full-page ads that helped Presbyterians see their way to vote yes on 10A by telling stories! One was an explanation by a long-time and highly beloved seminary professor about how his mind was changed on LGBTQ ordination by his reading of Scripture. Another was from a pastor of a West Virginia church who feared the congregation would explode when they began ordaining LGBTQ elders but, instead, they experienced renewed spirit and growth.
We addressed in a compelling way, I think, questions that were in voters’ minds and helped ease their fears. It was gratifying to hear that an elder in a deep-south presbytery (expected to be a NO vote) spoke on the presbytery floor in favor of 10A using exactly the argument made in one of these ads.
And our folks cheered themselves—connected themselves with the larger community—by wearing their rainbow scarves to their presbytery meetings on the overture, both voters and those wanting to witness what happened. They were ties that bound us together, reminding us we were part of a great cloud of witnesses.
Earlier this year, the New York City Presbytery submitted a statement they hoped would be voted on by the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. The statement basically called for “admission of, and apology for, harms done to the LGBTQ/Q members of the PC(USA), family, and friends.”
Do you feel that a meaningful purpose is served by organizations or denominations that make public apologies to the queer community?
I would offer a qualified yes to a meaningful purpose being served by a confession of sin in harm done to LGBTQ Presbyterians. I rejoice greatly that the PC(USA), this year, adopted into our Book of Confessions the Belhar Confession, written in South Africa during apartheid. I think the experience of the church in South Africa shows that confession is an important element in a process of reconciliation. I hope the Belhar can be a guide for us to reintroduce the purpose and spirit of that New York Presbytery overture again.
At the same time, words without action are hollow. And the fact is, the Presbyterian Church really has not “approved” LGBTQ ordination (or marriage, for that matter). Any congregation or presbytery that does not approve of LGBTQ ordination can choose not to nominate LGBTQ candidates or to approve them. The PC(USA) has only recognized that these are the proper structures of the church to discern God’s will (not the national level). Presbyterians can still judge LGBTQ people to be sinners or defective in the eyes of God.
I would say, as long as that is the case, the PC(USA) cannot confess sin against LGBTQ people with any integrity. First, this action would not include those Presbyterians who do not feel that they are sinning when they judge the LGBTQ person. Second, people with these judgments are still hurting LGBTQ people in the PC(USA). We are not of one mind in the PC(USA). While we do most things by majority vote, it seems to me that this is one instance where we would need to be of one mind for the confession to be dependable for LGBTQ people. I trust we will be of one mind some day, but we aren’t now.
In 2015, you participated in a demonstration in Washington, D.C., led by Democracy Spring and wrote about your experience for the Huffington Post. You were arrested at that demonstration, which I believe was your intention at the time. Can you speak a little about why you felt this protest was important enough to risk arrest? Do you feel demonstrations like that one are becoming more necessary in the effort to create change in this country?
In the fall of 2015, I heard about this weeklong action by Democracy Spring from a tweet I received from one of the participating organizations with the query, “Would you be willing to get arrested?” The specific cause we were to demonstrate for was campaign finance reform, which I do see as a basic source of corruption in our political system. Fixing it would go a long way to assuring an equal voice for all in our democracy.
It struck me that bold witness was important here and I decided I am old enough that I have nothing to lose by being arrested. I am not risking a job or childcare or a rap sheet or a job reference. I committed to be among those willing to risk arrest.
I did think of this experience as a pilgrimage of a kind. I was never particularly frightened during it. I did exactly what I was coached to do. I am very glad I did it and I would do it again for a cause I think is as fundamental to human rights as I felt this one was.
I have been a volunteer in election campaigns since 2000. I demonstrated in Pittsburgh for the Affordable Care Act when it was under consideration in Congress. I volunteered to help register people in Obamacare when it started up.
I see justice as God’s love in the public square or in the human community. I think we are called upon to make our desires known to the people we have given political power to, and to use our numbers and persuasion to prod them to do what we want, what we judge to be the common good.
I wish this political persuasion would not come to risking arrest but I expect it will continue to. Given what I fear of a Trump administration with a Republican Congress, it even seems likely. Perhaps I will be wrong. I wish advocating for God’s justice would not require arrest but sometimes it does.
I found your post on Believe Out Loud, “A Confession of a Bisexual Granted Straight Privilege” to be very thought provoking (as are many of the pieces you wrote for them). It reminded me of posts I’ve seen where transmen explain male privilege from their unique experience of being on both sides of the gender divide.
You have been married to a man for many years, and are probably viewed as heterosexual until you actually declare yourself to be bisexual. Do you think people’s first impression of you as a straight person helps conservatives to be more willing to listen to your message of affirmation and inclusion?
I would not say that others’ presumption that I am straight because I am married to a man has helped me with conservative Christians. It has been a shock to them, I think, that what they thought was true about me was not. In my experience, that shock often led to judgment, which some shared with me. Their assumptions about bisexual people led them to then presume that I was adulterous and promiscuous.
While conservatives in my area may have accepted that gay and lesbian people can be faithful in a long-term relationship, they seem to assume that the reason people are bisexual is a voracious sexual appetite that is not satisfied by partners of the opposite sex. This is supported for them by Paul’s comments in his letters about sexual appetites. Their perspective meant to them that my coming out as bi was a confession of cheating on my husband.
I think it has been educational for them to meet a bisexual person who did not fit those assumptions. I assured them that I was faithful to my husband. I explained that being bisexual is a claim to sexual identity, not a disclosure concerning sexual practice.
Where I do think my marriage has helped me (aside from the unflagging support from my husband through the length of my ministry) is the protection it has given me that my gay and lesbian friends have not had. I have not violated any set conviction that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman. That charge could not be brought against me in a way that it could be brought against gay and lesbian Presbyterians until our statement on marriage was reformed.
I have tried to use that privilege to help others.
Connect with Rev. Janet Edwards
Index of 2017 GCN Conference Content on Christian Feminism Today
Introduction to the #GCNConf Series
Introduction to GCN WomenConnect Featured Speaker Rev. Janet Edwards, Ph.D.
Interview with Rev. Janet Edwards, Part 1
Interview with Rev. Janet Edwards, Part 2
Interview with Rev. Jan Edwards, Part 3
Reflection by Jennifer Kane — “A Most Inspiring Story”
Reflection by Elyse Kitrakis — “The Inspiration to Move Forward”
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