Posted on December 15, 2016 by Marg Herder
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, I provided readers with an introduction to her life and work, and today, I’m following that up with Part one of our interview.
My questions are in bold, Janet’s answers are in regular type.
You were ordained in 1977 in the Presbyterian church. At that time the controversy about lesbian and gay people being allowed to serve as leaders in the church had been brewing for a couple years. The UPCUSA task force studying homosexuality (1978) recommended that “open homosexuals should not be prevented from ordination or other leadership roles in the church” and “homosexual relationships are capable of being ‘ethically sound.’”
However, at the General Assembly a few months later, a position was adopted that prohibited the ordination of people who were openly gay or lesbian, but “strongly” endorsed civil rights for “homosexual” people. Individual congregations were allowed to ordain celibate lesbian and gay ministers.
Were you aware of this controversy at the time? What were your feelings on this?
Yes, I was very aware of this situation in the PC(USA) and, newly ordained, I participated in the debate at the presbytery level in the spring before the 1978 General Assembly.
What helped me most was the fact that Chris Glaser was a classmate of mine at Yale Divinity School from 1973 to 1976. We were in the same dorm and in the same circle of friends. He arrived at seminary already under care (in the process for ordination) in his Southern California presbytery. I was there when he came out as gay in our first semester.
You may know of the shelf of books he has written on his experience of being gay and Christian. Only in the past decade did Chris give up on his sense of call to ordination in the PC(USA) and was ordained in the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). Chris is a very talented musician and preacher and was when we were in seminary. He served as an out gay man on the taskforce that submitted the permissive recommendation that the 1978 GA rejected.
I was ordained in September 1977 in Pittsburgh Presbytery, a notoriously conservative and contentious presbytery and, so, was a member with voice and vote in the spring of 1978. The recommendations of the taskforce were not up for presbytery vote but they were public. Everyone knew what was coming before the assembly.
So the debate was over who would be elected as commissioner from the presbytery to the assembly. Conservatives sought to ensure votes against gay and lesbian ordination by questioning candidates as to how they would vote on the taskforce recommendations. Liberals in the presbytery contended this was a violation of the Presbyterian tradition that a commissioner is not sent to vote on behalf of a particular opinion. Rather, they are commissioned to vote in accord with how the Holy Spirit moves them in the course of the meeting.
I was part of a group of ministers who filed a judicial complaint against the presbytery for its conduct of the vote for commissioners. The Synod Permanent Judicial Commission held a trial. We lost and there was no time for appeal.
I guess I’ve been a church agitator for LGBTQ inclusion from the start, not just recently.
The two largest Presbyterian groups, UPCUSA and PCUS, had split over the issue of slavery during the civil war. In 1985 they came back together forming the Presbyterian Church (USA). Soon after, at the 1985 General Assembly voted down “an amendment to the church constitution that would have protected homosexuals from employment discrimination.” And went even further by stating, “… all homosexual acts are declared to be inherently sinful regardless of nature of relationship or degree of commitment.” Two years later you became the Moderator of the Pittsburgh Presbytery.
Was there continued discussion about or any continued advocacy for the spiritual equality of lesbian and gay people at that time? Or did the 1985 decision really put a lid on the issue?
I would agree that the reunion between the UPUSA and the PCUS did put a lid on any legislative discussion or progress for LGBTQ inclusion in the PC(USA) for a time. My memory is that effort to engage in discussion about Scripture and theology around LGBTQ inclusion was all that was proposed during the eighties and it was not very successful.
My political analysis of the situation would be that the combination of the mostly conservative PCUS with the conservative wing of the UPUSA gave conservatives a solid majority in the General Assembly that made any progress impossible. I would also say that this situation on the national level calmed the conservatives in Pittsburgh Presbytery around my becoming Moderator in 1987.
I am not sure I would have been elected Moderator of Pittsburgh Presbytery if my opponent had not fallen ill and withdrawn from consideration. I was only the third woman and the first ordained woman pastor to serve (the other two were ruling elders).
I treated presbytery meetings as worship that had church business in the midst of it. I always made sure there was a musician on hand and reviewed the hymnbook of the host church before the meeting. I had hymns planned for various moments during the meeting (this was also good to break up hours of sitting) and began and ended items of business with prayer, as well made sure there was time for silence and prayer before significant votes. Sometimes, a hymn appropriate to the business at hand came to mind and I inserted that in the moment. A ruling elder of a church where I had been invited to preach some years later told me she remembered me as the “the Singing Moderator.” That made me really happy.
The most difficult moment I remember in my year as Moderator was a long, contentious examination of a woman candidate for ordination. I do not remember LGBTQ concerns coming up at all during that year.
Many LGBTQ Christians face a difficult choice about coming out. To stay in the closet is almost unbearable, but coming out carries potential for negative repercussions.
When you made the decision to marry a lesbian couple (Nancy McConn and Brenda Cole) in 2005 I’m sure you knew there could be negative repercussions since the PC(USA), was not supportive of same-sex marriage.
Can you take us through your discernment process, why you decided it was worth it to take that action?
In 2005, the Presbyterian Church (USA) was in a difficult phase of the LGBTQ and allies’ effort for full inclusion in the church. The discussion about this had begun in the 1970s. It led at that time to a General Assembly resolution forbidding LGBTQ ordination (the first LGBTQ issue before us). We then engaged for years in the historical approach to controversy in the Reformed tradition: we studied, especially Scripture, and talked with one another about it. In 1997, an absolute rule entered our Constitution (in the Book of Order) against ordination of women or men in sexual relationship with a person of the same sex. Advocates for inclusion often continued ordaining LGBTQ elders, deacons, and clergy. Opponents began to take these into the court judicial process to enforce the Book of Order. There was little conversation within the church at this time. The church courts became the primary context for LGBTQ voices to be expressed.
This is the situation I faced in the spring of 2004 when Nancy and Brenda asked me to consider presiding at their wedding.
I met Brenda Cole when we served on a Pittsburgh taskforce to implement recommendations for improving the spiritual and religious lives of the LGBTQ community in our metropolitan area. She is the daughter of a Methodist minister and a very serious Buddhist. At a meeting of that taskforce, I rejoiced when she shared with us her engagement with Nancy, a retired scientist with NASA and a life-long Presbyterian who worshipped in her childhood church after returning to her home upon retirement.
A few months later, they asked me to talk with them and invited me to preside at their wedding. Nancy wanted a Presbyterian minister to officiate. I asked if I could have the summer to be in prayerful discernment as to God’s call here. And they agreed. The wedding was set for June 2005, so there was time.
I studied Scripture. I’d say the most important biblical theme for me in this became the primary foundation for my view of marriage as a covenant of love between two people. In particular, the covenant between Israel and God or between the Church and Christ is not between a man and a woman. Though we often depict God or Christ as the bridegroom and Israel or the church as bride, we know that God is not male in God’s nature and that Israel or the Church is not inherently female. To the extent that human marriage is a reflection of the covenant God makes with creation, at its heart, the love and commitment is what captures that, not the sex of the partners.
With regard to history and tradition, one of the most impactful comments came from the mother of a devout Catholic German family where I was an au pair in a year abroad after college. I visited her that summer specifically to share Nancy and Brenda’s invitation to me and to get her insight about it. She raised two questions. First, “You are a Protestant, right?” Yes. “What’s the use of being a Protestant if you don’t protest every once in a while?” My tradition is Reformed, always being Reformed (which is why we tend to protest what is traditional). Coming to a more expansive understanding of marriage is our generation’s experience of reforming our grasp of God and God’s will for us.
I read carefully our Book of Order and all the judicial decisions that were precedents for my presiding at the wedding, as did my church lawyer, and I was certain that there was no clear prohibition against officiating. The crucial wording for a strict, enforced rule in the PC(USA) is “shall” or “shall not.” These words were not used anywhere; the strongest language was a high recommendation.
I realized I was applying a story my dad liked to tell when I was a child during the Cold War. He said there are four approaches to the law in Europe. In England, everything is allowed except that which is prohibited. In Italy, everything is allowed, including that which is prohibited. In Germany, everything is prohibited except that which is allowed. And in the Soviet Union, everything is prohibited, including that which is allowed. For me, the legal tradition in the PC(USA) is the English one because it allows the Holy Spirit to inspire us. I think the conservatives in our church want our law to be the German approach; it gives us control over everyone.
In my case and in others that followed, the permissive approach, trusting the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for pastors presiding at weddings, became precedent in judicial panels and was adopted by the PC(USA) in 2015. The decision in my case—that what I had done was impossible but doing the impossible is not a violation of Scripture or the Constitution of the PC(USA)—is a creative way of expressing it, I think.
One additional consideration was that I was not serving a church at the time. I was not involving a session (leadership board) or congregation in my action. I was also not putting my family at risk by the possibility of losing my livelihood. I did not have these serious constraints that others obviously need to be careful about. I was in the perfect position to take on the risk.
It was a little like Esther. Perhaps God had placed me in these life circumstances for just such a time as this. I felt called to this pastoral service and said yes.
Within the PC(USA) LGBT advocacy is reported to have begun in the mid seventies. Later, in 1992, a group called More Light Churches Network (MLCN), was formally created, and six years later this group merged with another Presbyterian LGBT group, Presbyterians for Gay and Lesbian Concerns, to create a single organization, More Light Presbyterians.
You were active with More Light Presbyterians for many years. During the time of your involvement, you started a campaign to give away rainbow scarves to participants in the General Assembly. I thought this was such a beautiful example of art as activism. I wonder if you could tell our readers the story of the rainbow scarves?
We were at breakfast at the 2008 winter meeting of the board of More Light Presbyterians. Someone shared that the Lutherans had handed out rainbow material scarves at their national assembly the previous summer as a witness to LGBTQ inclusion in the ELCA. I thought that was something we could do at our General Assembly coming that summer and I asked permission from the board to try to make that happen. They gave me the green light.
When I got home, I committed myself to doing at least one thing every day to make this happen. I used the parameters set by the Lutherans: use of a certain yarn easily available at Walmart, Michaels, or other craft stores; length and width. I wrote up an invitation to knit or crochet these as a witness at our GA, with our house as the place to send them. We sent this out to the More Light Presbyterians church network. For several weeks every day, I sent the invitation out to church knitting groups and LGBTQ groups, whoever I could think of. The power of the Internet was amazing.
I discovered that one of the distinctive qualities of this project was the open-endedness of the directions. People were so creative. Many didn’t care about the directions given but every single scarf sent was a work of art (as you say) and every stitch was an act of love for LGBTQ people who had been hurt by the church. And we received every one with appreciation for the creator’s witness. Knitting groups and individuals from far and wide, not just Presbyterian, contributed, which was a great way for so many to feel they were a part of this justice movement. Over time, for many groups, this became an expected project in an Assembly year.
The first year we received and gave away several hundred scarves. Every year after (2008, 2010, 2012, 2014), we received more, into the thousands, and we gave away every one. The More Light booth at GA became a destination to make sure you returned home with a rainbow scarf, especially for the young people.
I also learned that our way of distributing them was distinctive (the Methodists also had a program for this at their conference; in fact, I heard the Lutherans got it from them).
I insisted that volunteers in the More Light booth give them in a very specific way. If a person said they wanted one, they were directed to pick out one (usually from a huge pile) that called out to them and bring it back to that volunteer. The volunteer then took it and said something like this: The person who made this wants the church to reflect God’s loving heart for all God’s children, including LGBTQ people. Do you share this desire? (Yes) Then this is yours if you promise to do two things. If, when you are wearing it, someone admires it, do you promise to tell its story—that it reflects God’s love for LGBTQ people—and tell why you share that view? (Yes) And, if someone says, “I wish I had one,” will you offer to give this to them on the condition that they will do the same—tell its story, their story, and pass it on in the way you have done? If the recipient says yes, then they were to say a short prayer of thanks for the knitter and the recipient, their shared witness to God’s love, and a blessing upon the recipient as they go forth. And the volunteer was to then put it around the other’s neck. As far as I know, none of the other denominations did anything like this short ritual.
So it was meant to be a foundation for a conversation and sharing of stories, as you can see.
It was an effective witness at our GA for a couple different reasons. First, it had a practical value, given the often-chilly air-conditioning in the conference centers where GA is held, so the recipients appreciated that care for them. Second, it had symbolic value, of course, with the LGBTQ rainbow connection, but also with the rainbow covenant in the Bible. It was a silent witness that the opponents to LGBTQ inclusion in the church could not find an effective way to object to. I found out many years later that there was a rule against wearing partisan buttons on the floor at GA but this was not a button, so it flew under the rule.
Almost every picture of a PC(USA) General Assembly in these years has someone wearing a rainbow scarf. It was really something. And the PC(USA) passed ordination for LGBTQ members in 2010 and marriage in 2014. Hmm.
(Check back tomorrow for more!)
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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