With Ginny and Davie Davidson at the 1978 San Diego General Assembly.
Virginia West Davidson ably chaired the Presbyterian
Task Force on Homosexuality and Ordination (1976-1978).*
In honor of Pride month, this is the second of four posts adapted from a Meekhof Lecture I gave at Newport Presbyterian Church in Bellevue (WA), January 11, 2014, regarding the meaning of the LGBT movement for the broader church.
When I served as the only openly gay member of the former United Presbyterian Church’s Task Force on Homosexuality and Ordination in the late 1970s, many people testifying during our four regional hearings expressed their fear of homosexuality by appealing to the example of a Greek myth. They were afraid that homosexuality would “open a Pandora’s box.”
You might remember the Pandora of Greek mythology who opened a jar, which Erasmus mistakenly translated later in Latin as “box.” She opened the jar or box simply out of curiosity, unwittingly unleashing all the evils and ills of the world.
You could say it’s another misogynistic blaming of a woman for all of our troubles, like what happened to Eve when she ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Pandora was also considered the first woman in Greek mythology. What is forgotten in the popularization of this myth is that the jar also contained Hope, and Hope did not escape but was preserved in that jar.
So what were the evils and ills and demons that came out of the particular Pandora ’s Box of homosexuality? In the view of many at the time, their name is Legion, but I will round them to eight in number, as eight on its side represents infinity!
Rather than describe them as demons, evils, or ills, I prefer to refer to them as challenges the church faced. In Part One of “Opening Pandora’s Box” I list four of these; in Part Two, the remaining four. The final post will reflect on the Hope for the church’s reformation that remains in Pandora’s jar.
Our first challenge as a church was xenophobia. That’s the umbrella concern that plagues most of us: fear of the stranger. In Christian tradition, the stranger is the very person we are to greet, to welcome, to offer hospitality, to visit, to provide for, as in “the least of these.”
“All are welcome” has become the church’s marketing catch phrase, but in a workshop on church inclusiveness, those attending were able to come up with a list of more than 40 categories of persons they would prefer not to have sitting next to them in the pew!
Our second challenge as a church was inertia, the tendency of an object following a certain trajectory to continue moving in that direction or, if not moving, to remain at that point. A huge amount of energy must be expended to change an object’s course or position, what our tradition calls metanoia, repentance, an about face, a transformation, a Pentecost, a Reformation.
The church had difficulty even imagining ourselves wrong when it came to homosexuality, let alone change our collective mind.
Our third challenge was what theologian Carter Heyward named erotophobia. Despite the body-affirming myths of creation, incarnation, and resurrection, historic and contemporary Christianity has had “issues” with the body, with sensuality, with sexuality, with our earthliness.
Can sexuality be a good created by God for pleasure and relationship, or must it always be tethered to procreation and marriage between a man and a woman? Could we even talk about sexuality within the church—isn’t sexuality in opposition to spirituality?
When a possible change to the denomination’s Book of Order would have added the line “Governing bodies may ordain church officers regardless of sexual orientation,” my then presbytery voted a tie—and I couldn’t help but see God’s sense of humor when that tie was 69 to 69.
But the moderator of the meeting felt compelled to cast a tie-breaking vote, and after showing much discomfort, voted against the amendment because, he said revealingly, of three little letters at its heart: S-E-X!
Our fourth challenge, particularly for those of us who were Calvinists, was pleasure. Can pleasure itself be a good created by God for our delight? I wanted to title my first book of meditations “Biblical Pleasures,” because it contained reflections on biblical quotes. But the very term “pleasure” was considered spiritually suspect.
In a book of prayers entitled Coming Out to God, I wrote of prayer-making as pleasurable, and before publication I was asked to justify this notion, as apparently “pleasure” is automatically associated with Hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure at all costs, and associated with the body—which is seen somehow in opposition to the spirit.
Body theologian James B. Nelson scandalized the church by declaring that “pleasure is the strongest argument for the existence of God.” In the first congregation I served after seminary there was a church member, a gay chef, who, when offering grace before a meal, would give thanks to God for putting nerve endings in all the right places!
Each of these alone—xenophobia, inertia, erotophobia, and suspicion of pleasure—was barrier enough to prevent the welcome of LGBT Christians in the church, yet there are four others to be described in the next post.
The hope that remains in Pandora’s Box is that each of these challenges will contribute to the reformation of the church.
*I searched through hundreds of my photos but failed to find one I have of the task force that demonstrates it was multi-racial, gender-balanced, and of a variety of ages.
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Sept 8-10, 2017
Kirkridge Retreat & Study Center
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