Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Challenge of Diversity

This last Saturday at the meeting of National Capital Presbytery, I sat and watched as an impassioned but civil debate unfolded between conservatives and progressives.  The issue:  something we Presbyterians call 10-A.  Long and short of it, 10-A replaces language that was placed in the Presbyterian constitution back in the 1990s, language that explicitly forbids the ordination of gays, lesbians, and any sexually active unmarried person.  It replaces it with language that asks leadership to use confessional and scriptural standards to assess the calling of a leader...and that, as they say, leaves things open to interpretation.

It passed, of course, because NCP is a very progressive place.  What was interesting to me, particularly given my current coursework, was the "diversity dynamic" at play.  I sat near the back of the room, with a young Asian American Elder from my church.  Well after the start of the meeting, a little cluster of Ghanaian Presbyterians entered the room.  They were from a Ghanaian immigrant fellowship, one of the congregational startups in the DC area.  Their pastor, I knew, was one of those folks who is...with his culture...radically opposed to gay and lesbian ordination.  He'd brought the maximum number of elders to the meeting.  When he rose to speak, his rich warm fluid West African voice spoke of bafflement at how such a thing could be.  He also spoke, circuitously but clearly, of the division that this decision would bring, about how African Christians could not stand with a church that did not call same sex orientation sin.  Honestly, he's right.  It wasn't an idle threat, but a statement of unfortunate fact.

And when 10-A passed, and the time came to share in the Lord's Supper, he rose...along with many of the conservatives who'd spoken against it...and gathered his followers, and left.  I'm sure 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 was humming fiercely in their ears.

Well, he tried to take his group.  One Ghanaian stayed, sitting quietly, still in prayer.  The pastor came back, and spoke a few quiet but frustrated-sounding words to the young man.  But he said something softly back, and the pastor went off again, seeming a bit miffed.  The young man didn't take communion.  But neither did he leave, not until the worship was over.

I've been reading lately a great deal about diversity and multiculturalism in the church, and how to be a leader in a diverse community of faith.  The two books I've cranked through in the last two days have been smart, thoughtful, and potentially useful after a bit of translation.  They're a"academic," meaning I can't imagine the flow of academese doing anything other than putting a truly diverse audience to sleep.  Liberal academe thinks it's talking the talk, but it has no clue how to really speak across the boundaries.  Not the boundaries of race, but of class and culture.  The common tongue is not our strength.

But what I haven't encountered...not an acknowledgment that sometimes you'll encounter cross-cultural dynamics that ain't all sweetness and light, or joyously constructive dialectic, or in which the expectations of the "dominant culture" within a community clashes with values that a leader is not willing to set aside.

Some of those expectations are stylistic.  Within my own church context, which is still strongly formed by the Korean evangelical tradition, I've been told for years that I need to be more authoritarian, more emotionally effusive, less deliberate and inclusive, and less intellectual.  I'm still told that.  Well, I will be for the next six months, at least.  I've modified my style somewhat, but there's only so far you can go before you start violating your own sense of personal spiritual integrity.  Ah well.  Perhaps the next pastor will be more prone to screaming tirades when crossed and shouty-weepy sturm-und-drang preaching.  Might help.  Who knows?

But there are differences that go beyond style.  There are church cultures that insist women should radically submit to men's authority, forever perpetuating the curse of the Fall in a community that claims to have been redeemed.  There are cultures that don't see the new thing that God is working in the church for those who were created with same-sex orientation.

A leader in such a context needs to ask themselves:  If those things are alien to my faith, how do I maintain a sense of integrity and still lead people who live out their faith and proclaim the gospel in ways that radically and fundamentally differ from the grace I have experienced in Christ's teachings?

That can be done, of course.  The font of God's love is limitless, if only we seek to drink from it.   But if a community is to function, there are boundaries to how much tolerance can be expressed.  A thing cannot easily take its antithesis into itself.  

For all of my disagreement with their position, I understand why those who rose to leave the meeting, be they African or just deeply conservative, left.  The bonds of community no longer felt like they were sustainable.