Church members celebrate acceptance of gays
Retired pastor Don Steele visits with Verna Robinson at a reception at the Sixth Presbyterian Church following the Sunday morning service.
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As a rainbow flag fluttered above the church door, members of Sixth Presbyterian Church in Squirrel Hill gave thanks Sunday that a ban on the ordination of partnered gay people in the Presbyterian Church (USA) had been lifted to allow local option.
"On this new day the church continues to live into its call to be a house of prayer for all people, seeking reconciliation, calling forth the gifts of all who seek to serve Christ in the world," said the opening litany, in which 100 people joined their voices.
"While we celebrate this day, we also know that minds and hearts need time and clarity to understand issues that divide us. We pray for God's guidance, humbly seeking to be united in our common purpose -- to live and proclaim the good news of the gospel."
Sixth Presbyterian is a minority in Pittsburgh Presbytery, which has consistently opposed gay ordination. A few local congregations left the denomination because they believe the practice is unbiblical. But on Sunday it became church law.
In May, a majority of the nation's 173 presbyteries ratified the removal of a requirement for clergy and church officers to "live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness." It now says, "Standards for ordained service reflect the church's desire to submit joyfully to the Lord Jesus Christ in all aspects of life. ... Governing bodies shall be guided by scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates." That change took effect Sunday.
In 1997, Sixth became the first of four congregations in Pittsburgh Presbytery to become More Light churches, which declare their welcome to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Since congregations call elders and deacons, churches can now openly ordain them. But since the presbytery calls clergy, it remains to be seen whether any openly gay pastor will be confirmed by Pittsburgh Presbytery.
The Rev. Mary Louise McCullough preached on overcoming division and hardness of heart. Although it's easy to lash out in anger over injustice, she said, "we must go out and meet the ones who disagree with us and talk with them in love."
Sixth was already a More Light church when Rev. McCullough was called in 2005. The congregation had taken that step after years of study and discernment because most members believed it was the right thing to do, she said. "The surprise was that it led to our revitalization," she said.
Since 2005, membership has risen from 170 to 240.
Many of the new members aren't gay, and sexuality isn't a topic on a typical Sunday. "The gay members say they are joining because they want to be part of a church, and they don't want to come and just work on gay issues," she said.
Two years ago, Brittany Story, now 28, saw the rainbow LGBT flag and decided to check it out. She stayed because of the preaching and the friendly people.
"Taking this step opens the church to a more honest and expressive relationship with God," she said of the new opportunity for gay ordination.
Allison Schlesinger, her husband and two young children left a conservative church in another denomination for Sixth. Their previous congregation had been quiet about sexuality until a denominational fight led the pastor to make a strong stand against gay ordination and same-sex partnerships. This decision by the Presbyterian Church (USA) affirmed her family's choice.
"We had to make a decision about whether this matters in our lives. I didn't want to raise kids in an environment where they think it's OK to treat people differently," she said. "I couldn't live hypocritically any more."
Few at Sixth felt the impact more acutely than the Rev. Don Steele, a retired pastor who volunteers there. He was ordained in 1970, five years before the denomination had its first debate about gay ordination and more than 20 years before he realized that he was gay. He couldn't be brought up on charges because he was ordained before the church explicitly banned the ordination and call of partnered gay pastors.
He grew up in a home and church where sexuality was never discussed, he said. Not until he was counseling a number of gay men "did I come to the understanding that gay is good and that it could be a gift. And then I came to understand that I was gay and I literally prayed to God that it could please not be my gift. I was 24 years into a committed marriage. This was not what I chose at all," he said. Ultimately, the Steeles divorced.
He grappled with Bible verses that he had always understood to condemn homosexuality. He concluded that the term "homosexuality" didn't exist in the biblical languages, and that biblical scholars disputed the meaning of those passages. He believes they refer to the sexual abuse of boys and to cult prostitution.
"I think Jesus' commandment that we love our neighbor trumps everything else. We are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves. There is no modification to say 'except the neighbor whose lifestyle you disagree with,' " he said.
He has known many Presbyterians who felt called to serve God as a pastor but who gave up because of their sexuality.
"I've known people who have left the church because there was no room for them to serve in the way that they felt God was calling them. This opens the doors for many such persons to serve not only as pastors, but as elders and deacons in the church," he said.
Correction/Clarification: (Published July 12, 2011) A quote from the Rev. Don Steele in a story about gay ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA) should have said, "This opens the doors for many such persons to serve not only as pastors, but as elders and deacons in the church." A word was omitted from the quote in a story Monday.
First Published July 11, 2011 12:00 am