This photo depicts one of my favorite moments in Presbyterian history. I’ve shared it before; the events of recent days have made me think about it again.
This is the Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, who was the Stated Clerk – the top church executive – of the Presbyterian Church from 1951 until 1966. This is a photo of Blake being arrested while protesting a segregated amusement park in Baltimore in 1963.
During his time as Stated Clerk, Blake was a strong advocate for Christian unity, being a major voice of the ecumenical movement and calling for a merger of ten mainline denominations into one body. His focus on church unity led him to also serve as the President of the National Council of Churches while serving as Stated Clerk, and later, as the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches.
But his focus wasn’t exclusively on Christian unity, and it certainly wasn’t on unity at any cost. Blake was head of the denomination during the civil rights movement, a time of intense division in the church. He knew all too well the differing, and often heatedly debated, opinions within the denomination’s membership over matters of racial equality and justice. These were explosive issues, and any statements about them coming out of the head office – regardless of content – had the potential for further division, and possibly even denominational schism.
And yet, fully aware of that reality, Blake took a strong, uncompromising stand in favor of social justice. He wrote and spoke powerfully against racial discrimination and segregation, and calling for civil rights and equal justice under the law for all people. He stood up for racial equality and non-discrimination in the church as well, against many who appealed to wrong-headed interpretations of scripture to defend their impassioned arguments supporting the racist status quo.
It’s funny; I remember being a young boy in the 1960s and hearing my own Presbyterian relatives bemoaning the “radicals,” who were probably even closet Communists, who had gotten control of the church and who were turning it away from God and toward the very gates of hell itself. Only years later would I do the math and realize they were actually complaining about Eugene Carson Blake and his unabashedly progressive anti-racist theology.
It was precisely that theology that led him to protest racial discrimination, and yes, to even be arrested for his beliefs. It was that strength of character that led him to help organize, and to participate in, Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963. It was that clarity of prophetic witness that caused him to speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day, just a short while before Dr. King gave his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. He participated in that march, and gave that speech, all the while worried in the pit of his stomach that his participation would lead to further strife and division in the church – and yet, he was convinced that this was where God had called him, and what God was calling him, and the church, to do. There he stood; he could do no other.
For the most part, Presbyterians today are on the forefront of matters of battling racism and white privilege. In fact, our current Stated Clerk and our two Co-Moderators – the top three officers in the denomination – are all direct beneficiaries of Blake’s forward-thinking and uncompromising stance against discrimination based on race or gender.
However, the denomination still has internal divisions, these days largely over the matter of the place of LGBTQ individuals in the church. I don’t have polling data from Blake’s time regarding civil rights to use as a comparison, but with the church membership currently supporting LGBTQ equality in church and society by an approximate 2 to 1 margin (and trending upward), I suspect the division is significantly less than Blake had to navigate. We have, thanks be to God, amended our constitutional documents to permit the ordination of LGBTQ Deacons, Elders, and Ministers of Word and Sacrament, and to permit our ministers to officiate – and be part of – same-sex marriages.
As wonderful as all this is, it’s still only a partial victory. While our constitution allows LGBTQ equality in pulpit and pew, that same constitution permits presbyteries (regions) and congregations to decide for themselves whether to accept it. That means that there are many places within the denomination where LGBTQ people remain unwelcome. This compromise, made in the name of denominational unity, has resulted in a situation within the church where LGBTQ Christians are something akin to the 3/5 of a person that the U.S. Constitution originally considered slaves. Our memberships and ordinations all come with an asterisk – our acceptability for membership or ordination changes not by virtue of our profession of faith, or our preparation and qualifications, but simply by virtue of having crossed a geographical boundary. We are the only group that the denomination allows to be discriminated against by reason of a biological characteristic. To use another historical parallel, we’re living a supposedly separate-but-equal Plessy versus Ferguson existence in a Brown versus Board of Education world. In trying to save the denomination from splitting in two, this compromise has merely established two under one roof.
Would Eugene Carson Blake have supported acceptance of LGTBQ Christians openly participating in the full life and leadership of the church? I’m pretty certain that, in his own historical context, he most assuredly wouldn’t have – in fact, I’d be surprised to learn otherwise. But as firmly as I believe that, I’m just as convinced that if he were alive today, and knew what we now know, that he would be working, and writing, and speaking as courageously for us as he did for others in his own time.
A few days ago, Rev. Dr. Blake’s denomination – my denomination – issued a response to the “Nashville Statement,” the vehemently anti-female and anti-LGBTQ document issued by a number of conservative Evangelical Christian personalities. I’ve addressed the Statement in an earlier post.
Since its release, non-Evangelical Christians, as well as people outside the church, have been issuing an unending flood of denunciations of its backward, hateful content. Really, opposing the content of this theological train wreck is as close to a slam-dunk, no-brainer as things get in the church world – or at least, you would think so. After a couple of days of thoughtful deliberation (we Presbyterians don’t rush into anything), the denomination released a response. Unfortunately, it was an intensely disappointing, dull thud of a response.
There were a number of positive elements in the statement, which can be read here. And it does refer and link to the “Denver Statement,” an excellent and sometimes witty response to the Nashville Statement. But overall, it ended up being just a timid document that shied away from a bold stand for social justice in order to not offend the denomination’s most conservative members, while apparently being less concerned with offending and hurting a large number of others who found themselves once again somewhat under the bus. This was not, you might say, a Eugene Carson Blake moment.
Yes, I hope that someday, we have a courageous, denomination-wide affirmation of LGBTQ people in the full life and leadership of the church in the same manner the we’ve done with women and persons of color. But at very least, the statement could have strongly defended our position that one can be a faithful Christian while holding LGBTQ-affirming views – a position that the Nashville Statement pointedly denies in its Article 10. The Presbyterian response makes ambiguous mention of the Nashville Statement staking out positions “that go beyond anything the PC(USA) has officially taken a stand on.” But this is not one of those things. By our decision to consider both positions equally faithful, we have indeed taken a stand on this particular matter and consider the claim made in Article 10 of the Nashville Statement to be sinful nonsense. The fact that the denomination couldn’t even make a strong denunciation of this point – that it opted for a unity-over-justice position – was hurtful and insulting, and shows that despite the progress we’ve made in the denomination, we’ve still got a long way to go.
I would willingly be arrested defending the civil rights of the current leadership of my church. Given this less than enthusiastic response to the Nashville Statement, I have to wonder if they would they do the same for me.
I have tremendous respect for our denominational leadership. I’m proud of them. I love them. They hold exceedingly difficult jobs, and I’m convinced that they try to do their best to lead wisely, to find the right balance between Christian unity and prophetic witness. And on a personal level, J. Herbert Nelson, our Stated Clerk, rocks an awesome bow tie; not everyone can pull that off. Beyond that, I am genuinely, personally grateful for the strides made in recent years, even if I’d wish for more, which allow me to serve as an out gay ordained minister. But in this case, by way of an overly timid response to this ugly scar on the faith called the Nashville Statement, our denomination has blinked. We’ve missed a major opportunity to do the right thing – to decisively, boldly defend social and ecclesiastical justice for LGBTQ Christians both within the denomination and beyond, against forces within Christianity that would reject and harm us. I grieve over this lost opportunity. Somewhere, I believe Eugene Carson Blake does, too.