A German friend, now living in Berlin, but whose family originally lived in part of Poland, once told me this story. After the war, a monument was erected in memory of the people killed in the defence of a small Polish town. The original wording on the memorial noted the deaths of ‘9 Polish citizens and 3 Jews’. In subsequent weeks however, it was pointed out that the writers had fallen into using divisive language. The ‘3 Jews’ were in fact Jewish Polish citizens. The sign should have said ‘12 Polish citizens’, there was no need for them to be separated into two groups.
I’m hearing some of that language in relation to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s recent decision that you cannot be a member of the Church if you are in a same sex relationship. One spokesperson for PCI said, “The Church alone has the right to interpret and explain her standards under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When the Church meets in General Assembly, as it did last week, it is doing just that – coming to decisions following much prayerful consideration, discussion and open debate.”
Well… when church is Church, that is true. PCI does have a system of governance to set its own standards. On those grounds, it can ‘be itself’.
And yet… My head drifts back to the song I learned in Sunday School, “I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together. All who follow Jesus…” We need to stop thinking about the church, and gay and lesbian people, as two separate groups. I’ve no idea of numbers, but gay and lesbian people are part of Presbyterian congregations; some in same sex relationships, some not. Some are ‘official’ members (communicant members), others are not (but may be as active as any ‘official’ members).
The conversations taking place across the denomination right now is the church ‘being itself’. Many members of PCI are re-evaluating their position in the light of the General Assembly’s decision. Often, this is about weighing up belonging to a local community, against being part of an organisation where the ruling body has made a decision that may well be too hard to accept, namely that if you are in a same sex relationship of any kind, you cannot make a ‘credible profession of faith’ and therefore cannot be a communicant member.
There are a lot of hurt and angry people in PCI, right now. The governing body might be setting standards, but many are having a hard time understanding how members of its community -people of faith, love and commitment, both to the church community and to a partner- have been barred from membership.
It is heart-breaking to hear these stories. All the more heart-breaking given that a small ‘task group’ representing PCI was listening to some of these stories and engaging in dialogue with LGBT Christians as the doctrine committee’s report and recommendations were being written.
We are not two separate groups, ‘we are the church together’. We need to recognise the language being used. There is no them and us; there is only us.