On Tuesday, May 10, the final votes were cast to pass an amendment to the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) removing the ban on the ordination of gay and lesbian people who are not celibate. This decision brings with it blessings and challenges–change always does. Read on for what the thirteen year cicadas can teach us about what it could all mean.
The thirteen-year cicadas have been emerging for the last couple of weeks in the North Carolina woods. The sound is a primal shrill bottomed with the hum of creatures who sound relieved but also pressed for time.
You may have heard cicadas before and can name their distinctive summer time sound. But these red-eyed long-winged ones have their own distinctive rhythm to waiting for life—and the audibility of their living is inescapable.
For a while I wasn’t sure what was going on—I would go outside and hear the whirring distantly and wonder if it was machinery, something being poured out, an opened release valve spewing strong vapor. Then I started seeing their carcasses and them flying around like little humming birds. Pine trees look decorated for a primordial transition—with husks hanging on to branch after branch. Then I had a close encounter and saw the red eyes and sizable wings. It looked cicada-ish mixed with a giant horsefly.
For thirteen years, they have waited to emerge.
During that same time, we Presbyterians have been gestating our own transition. For over thirty years a conversation about sexuality has been a part of the landscape of every denominational gathering worth reporting on. And for just a tad longer than the cicadas have been waiting to emerge, the PCUSA has argued about the specific prohibition in our constitution of the ordination of gays and lesbians who are not celibate.
Now lest anyone think this Presbyterian process of transformation has just been about fighting and about winners and losers, please consider some of what has gone into the emergence we are a part of today in the Presbyterian Church.
For years, there have been wide-spread efforts to learn, study the Bible more closely, have open dialogue, build relationships between people who disagree on this issue, hear people out, pray together, struggle together, and most of all stay together as a church. We’ve lost some people and churches on both ends of the continuum, but the bulk of the denomination made a commitment to keep being in relationship, keep struggling, keep listening, keep praying.
We’ve come to a place now where the language we’ve adopted for our constitution clears space for a church that values differences with more integrity. No church or presbytery will have to ordain or refuse ordination for anyone based on sexual orientation. We will do what Presbyterians do—we will engage in processes of discernment in community to decide who has the gifts for ordination with scripture, our constitution, and most of all Jesus Christ and the Spirit as our guides.
Fourteen years ago when this debate took its constitutional form in the fidelity and chastity amendment, so much was different. The world was different, just like it was when those cicadas nestled into the dark crevices of earth’s cradle to wait their turn to fly and breathe.
What was dense forest is now sprinkled with human habitats. The dangers to cicadas have been added to—no more just fellow insects and other predators challenge them. But the heavy wheels of cars and their fast appearing windshields blink out little buzzing lives that waited all these years to find air.
And the church is different. Of course in the 90s we wondered why things were changing for mainline churches, but now we are no longer in denial. Cross-cultural possibilities and economic realities ask for new kinds of skills and vision from those who are called to preach and pastor. There is growing space for creativity, testimony, embodiment, spiritual practice, and varieties of music in the ways we worship. Christianity is merging and emerging into some new phase of life.
The cicadas primal shrill started as a strange distant sound. Now it blankets the air I breathe. It sets the tone of morning and evening and everything in between. And what once seemed strange noise is now familiar music. Eventually the woods will go back to their normal spring/summer banter of crickets and bull frogs.
As the PCUSA moves into this new stage of life, we will find ourselves still groping to figure out how to do and be church together. You may be rejoicing for the church’s newly affirmed space for all children of God to respond to God’s call. Or you may be grieving what feels like a loss of biblical proportions. Or you may be not all together sure what this could all mean. No matter what, next time you are outside, listen to the chorus of the ones who never question that things are always changing. They emerge in their time and sing the song imprinted in them. They instinctively follow the pull of being who they were made to be. May all of us be able to emerge from this with the space to do just that.