Since the weather on Friday morning looked a lot like it did the day before, and since I really didn’t want to repeat getting soaked again, I brought my umbrella with me when I left the hostel, guaranteeing that it would be dry when I got off the metro. Once I arrived at the Gratz Center, I quickly found my morning cup of coffee and sat down in the lobby waiting for the caffeine to kick in. While sitting there, I struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to me, and while it didn’t dawn on me at first, I gradually realized that I was chatting with a denominational trailblazer of sorts – Scott Anderson. Anderson is the first openly gay person to be ordained as a minister after the constitutional changes that removed the language specifically prohibiting non-celibate gay and lesbian people to ordained positions – whether as Deacons, Elders, or Ministers of Word and Sacrament. That restrictive language itself only dated to 1996; its removal in 2011 had the effect of returning to the more historical tradition of each local presbytery having the authority to decide for itself on such ordination matters. In any case, Anderson gained some national notoriety because of his unique place in the church’s history. I enjoyed meeting him and our short conversation.
The first thing on the schedule this morning was a brief prayer session, featuring a responsive reading of a Psalm that alternated between “Anyone” in the gathering reading a portion of the text – sometimes resulting in one spoken voice, other times several different voices joining together – and “All” responding. The short service was led by Daniel Vigilante, a recently ordained pastor who made news as being the first openly gay person to be ordained and installed to service in Minnesota. It turns out that he’s also a pretty talented pianist, providing the musical accompaniment for this and at least one other service that I attended while at the conference. I’m very happy for Vigilante and I applaud his groundbreaking status. At the same time, I hope that the day isn’t far away that the ordination of an openly gay pastor will focus solely on pastoral gifts, and that one’s particular sexual orientation would draw less than a yawn from people. I don’t imagine that Vigilante, or Anderson, or any other LGBTQ person, wants to be known for being a “gay pastor,” but rather, simply a good pastor who just happens to be gay.
After this was the morning plenary session, given by Amy Plantinga Pauw. Pauw’s presentation was informative, enjoyable and inspiring, as she went through an analysis of the institution of marriage from a Reformed Protestant perspective, and why the concept of marriage equality is theologically consistent with this perspective. You can read her whole presentation here. And you can find a good story about her presentation here. I don’t mean to distill a very thoughtful and engaging presentation to a catch-phrase, but she did leave those of us in attendance with the repeated call to arms, of sorts: Why should Christians support marriage equality? IT’S TIME. Indeed, it is.
After the morning plenary, I attended Matthew Vines’ workshop, during which time he laid out a very brief outline of his personal story and of his new organization The Reformation Project. As he explained in the workshop and on the organization’s website,
we will equip [trainees] with the tools and training they need to go back to their communities and make lasting changes to beliefs and interpretations that marginalize lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Once they go back, we will continue to offer them personal, financial, and infrastructural support for months and years to come. We will ensure that even those with the biggest and most daunting of goals will have the means to accomplish them.
Crucially, the aspiring reformers that we train will not be seeking to change their churches by asking them to ignore or look past the Bible. The Bible is not anti-gay. It never addresses the issues of same-sex orientation or loving same-sex relationships, and the few verses that some cite to oppose those relationships have nothing to do with LGBT people. Careful, persistent arguments about those passages have the power to change every Christian church worldwide, no matter how conservative its theology. The mission of The Reformation Project is to train a new generation of Christians to streamline that process and accelerate the acceptance of LGBT people in the church.
After the morning workshop, we were left to have lunch on our own. I ended up having a bite, and an interesting conversation, at a place just down the street from the Gratz Center with Mark Achtemeier – another traditionalist-turned-progressive who’s been pummeled by church conservatives for his theological shift; and Randy Bush, a Covenant Network board member and the pastor of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh.
In the afternoon, we were treated to the plenary session given by William Stacy Johnson, a theology professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of A Time to Embrace: Same-Gender Relationships in Religion, Law, and Politics. I have to say that Johnson’s presentation may have been the high-water mark of the already high tide of the overall conference. You can catch two competing news reports of his message here and here. This was a really strong speech.
After this, we adjourned for a delicious chicken dinner. This evening, my table-mates were an older couple from California, Matthew Vines, and several really great students from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The table conversation was lively and enjoyable. Still, I was actually in a bit of a hurry to finish up, because this evening I’d planned to ditch out of the evening worship service (honestly, even pastors can get worship overload sometime) and meet up with some long-time friends who live in the Chicago area. We had an absolute blast that evening, having a light snack and a few adult beverages, mostly just enjoying the company and the conversation.
Here’s a picture of the three of us. It was great getting together with these guys; I really wish we’d had more time together. We ended up at Cru Kitchen & Bar, a nice restaurant not far from Fourth Pres. In fact, while we were there, there was a gathering of young adults from the conference scheduled at the same location. They all filed in when the three of us were on our second drinks, and took up the bulk of the dining area immediately behind us. The staff apparently saw all the grey hair at our table and realized that we needed to be isolated from all those young Presbyterians, so they drew the curtain immediately behind us for separation.
After this, one of my friends drove me back to the hostel. Knowing that I’d be checking out early the next morning, and not wanting to be too disruptive for the other roommates, I got most of my poop in a group, ready to go for a quiet morning departure, and then crawled back up into the upper bunk. And there was morning, and there was evening, the second day. And somehow, I managed to not lose my umbrella.