07/27/2010 02:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Gay Rights and the Presbyterian Church

The rainbow scarves fascinated Libby Shannon. Throughout the Assembly she saw them, hanging proudly over the necks of people over the age of 70 as well as those in their 20s. Men and women wore them as a witness to their support of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Libby attended the 219th General Assembly of the PC(USA) in Minneapolis, a biennial gathering of pastors and lay people who make decisions on behalf of our two million-member church, earlier this month. The gathering prays and studies together, seeking God's guidance for their work and making declarations about social justice issues that will focus our energy and mission.

I also noticed the scarves, even though I wasn't there in Minnesota. I saw them hanging from the crochet needles at our church's Wednesday night Bible study. I spotted them at our local governing meetings. Then I noticed them at the General Assembly (GA) as I watched it livestreaming over the Internet. The gathering considered many issues, and often the ones that garnered great attention were around the inclusion of LGBT people. Would our denomination's insurance cover gay and lesbian partners? Would we redefine marriage in our constitution from "a man and a woman" to "two people"? Would the denomination allow people who are open about their same-gender relationships be ordained? The Presbyterian Church (USA) works a bit differently from other denominations. We don't have powerful bishops who decide the will of God for us. It's much more democratic, with laypeople and clergy represented in our votes, so progressive change can be a bit more arduous than it is in some other historic denominations. At the heart of these decisions, we would be pointing to a deep shift, one that not only acknowledges same-gender relationships but also understands that God blesses them.

It ended up that the Assembly approved insurance coverage of same-gender spouses. They turned back the overtures that would redefine marriage until the next GA, in two years. They voted to delete an amendment that restricts gay and lesbians from being ordained. Since the deletion is a change to our constitution, it needs to be voted on by the local bodies, and then approved and enacted by the next GA before it becomes ratified. So the struggle continues for full inclusion of LGBT men and women in the Presbyterian Church (USA). And, at about this time in the process, I begin to wonder why LGBT advocates do it. Why keep fighting for the inclusion of LGBT persons? Why not just walk away?

I asked some of my friends who attended the Assembly, especially those under the age of 40. People in their 20s and 30s are not typically part of denominational churches. As a new generation grows up, we have difficulty filling out that Religious Views slot on our Facebook profile. There's no societal expectation that we attend church, and yet there is a robust and interesting group of people who have stayed connected to historic denominations. It seems that the demographic shift is on our side -- our younger clergy and members tend to reflect the larger population in that we favor full inclusion of LGBT people -- but we are still in the midst of this struggle for same-gender rights. I spoke to people like Rev. Landon Whitsitt, who was just elected to be our Vice Moderator at the age of 33. He was clear about his hopes: "I just want people to feel loved and welcomed." Sometimes he worries about how long it takes, but he appreciates the system. Whitsitt says that when there is full inclusion of LGBT members, "it's not going to be the act of the hierarchy, it won't just reflect the will of the people who are the elite. It will not just be a decision of a small minority. It will be an act of the clergy and laypeople together."

Libby Shannon, 26, a seminary graduate who works as a peace advocate in New York, also realizes the struggle is important. Shannon points back to all of the men and women who fought within the denomination so that we, as women, could be ordained. And she looks to the future. When she saw members of a youth group that she once worked with at GA, it reminded her of why she stays. "It's because of them," she said. "The church is going to look totally different. The church in the very near future will be welcoming and inclusive [to LGBT men and women]. If I just walked away, what does that say for the legacy that was offered to me?"

We know that there has been a progressive thread weaving throughout our history. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has worked on the behalf of the poverty issues, civil rights, elderly rights, environmental causes, and feminist issues. Now, that yarn is rainbow colored, and we intend to prevail in this struggle as well.