A Mystery: While We were Watching the Vice-Moderator…

It’s one of those neurological mysteries of life that you can have your attention on one thought, or person, or piece of art, or great food, or music: and your mind drifts elsewhere…such is what happened to me over the last several days while reflecting upon the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, of which I am a Teaching Elder.

The Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe was elected Vice-Moderator after it was made public that she had officiated a wedding for two women. Suffice it to say, even the Moderator, Rev. Neal Presa- who was a personal friend- was surprised by this act, and said as much: while in the same breath announced he would keep her as Vice-Moderator. The GA elected Rev. Spuhler McCabe with a simple majority vote, but it was far from a unanimous result.

In the following days, the heat was on Rev. Spuhler McCabe from commissioners who were aghast that she had defied the polity of the church by conducing a same-sex wedding. She submitted her resignation yesterday, after a scant 4 days of service.

In her resignation letter, Rev. Spuhler McCabe made a few comments that are noteworthy, in that it was those comments that precipitated “the neurological mystery” I mentioned above.

I am a pastor. That is who God has called me to be. As I reflect on what’s happening now, I think I am embodying the reality of a growing number of pastors who find ourselves caught. We are caught between being pastors – being with couples in those sacred moments when they make their vows to one another . . . and having a polity that restricts us from living out our pastoral calling – especially in states where it is legal for everyone to be married.

The tension over all of this is real, and clearly the energy and passion about this issue runs deep – and isn’t going away. I am surprised and saddened by the pervasive poisonous activity that has increased toward the overall tenor of our General Assembly and toward the Office of the Moderator. Individuals and groups with no personal relationship with me and have made no attempt to have one-on-one conversations with me or the Moderator are blogging and tweeting unhelpful and, frankly, divisive comments.

I am also saddened by the amount of energy and time that others have taken on, in the midst of their important work here, to defend what the majority has already decided, or to feel the need to protect me…

And so I am resigning as your Vice Moderator. It is my choice and my decision, and it comes from that same pastoral core that led me to be present for two women in their sacred moment in DC.

I can’t help, first off, to be impressed by her candor and transparency in her reflection. To be sure, the PCUSA really benefits from Teaching Elders who care about the church and the mission it has from the Lord.

But, it is in that first paragraph that everyone everywhere observes a subtle, even innocent-appearing, argument being made: my pastoral calling possesses a greater authority than the polity that emerged from the community who contributed to making and authorizing that pastoral calling.

If her conscience now prompts her to a different polity: say so, and demit. For all of her wonderful candor and transparency, it is right here that her gentle tone camouflages her robust commitment to”sacred moments” and to receiving important authorization for her calling from the state.

Just to keep our eyes on the ball here, I am deeply concerned by attention to mission informed and authorized by the state that supersedes the missio Dei.

And that action, of officiating a wedding, is really what prompted the calls for her resignation: it was action that is in defiance of the polity. For if one asks the couple, “Did Rev Spuhler McCabe conduct your wedding?”, we would expect an affirmative answer. For the record: there are photos of Rev. Spuhler McCabe in the wedding ceremony. Why she fails to explicitly state that she performed the wedding is unknown: that she conducted a same-sex wedding is well known.

As far as her expressions of disappointment with social media, that is understandable. And, if I can stand with her for a moment, there is a sense that even if she were transparent regarding her actions and her novel labeling of a wedding she officiated, I doubt the blogosphere or Twitter would become more generous or sparing in its comments and demands for her resignation. I hope that I am not among those contributing to the offense.

And I would state my disappointment straight up for everyone: Rev. Spuhler McCabe should not have conducted the wedding. I wish she would have followed her understanding of her “pastoral calling”, demit from her presbytery, and then moved on. It is agonizing for me to read of colleagues- for that is what we are- who flagrantly disregard the polity of the church. Yes: Follow your conscience, but, No: Don’t defy the polity.

For what are we to make of this decision? She wants to fulfill her pastoral calling, but set aside the polity when it conflicts with that calling. I mean no malice toward Rev. Spuhler McCabe when I suggest she demit: otherwise, the logic of her conscience will continue to set her at odds with the polity. Even in my disappointment, I would not want that for her or anyone else. This calling we share is hard enough work already.

Some might say Rev. Spuhler McCabe is disingenuous regarding her disappointment. I do not believe it: naive, yes, but disingenuous: no. And, no, I haven’t attempted to host a one-on-one conversation with Rev. Spuhler McCabe. If you’re reading, Tara, look me up on your next visit with the family to SoCal: I mean it.

But: About that “neurological mystery” I mentioned. Because, while I’m reading the resignation letter, out of the blue, the question popped into my head: “What else is happening at the GA?” Believe me when I say: most of my emotional energies and focus was upon this incredible whipsawing of events and persons in Pittsburgh. But, there was the question, arising out of that experience.

And, in part, that question was prompted by a prayer request from Eric Hoey, Director of Evangelism and Church Growth, for a proposal being made to the GA for 1001 Worshiping Communities to be started. So, I set a daily timer for 10:01 AM as requested, and have taken a few moments each day for the last two weeks to pray the Lord of the harvest will send out workers into the harvest to start these new communities.

Sure enough: buried in the GA news is a brief report- in the Outlook!!!– of the report made by Eric and his colleagues to the Committee on Church Growth, as well as the response, and here’s a hopeful comment recorded: “One committee member remarked that the purpose of this initiative is ‘missional’ and will help ‘to get us outside of ourselves.’” Awesome, just awesome. This is the kind work and initiative that the church needs to attend to: it keeps us focused upon the Lord of the church.

I was glad for that “neurological mystery.”

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