The Rev. Brett Webb-Mitchell: Celebrating a Church's Change

I never thought I would talk or write about this publicly. There has been no bolt of lightning from above, nor have the heavens opened up with angels singing one more refrain of "Gloria!" While my life goes on as it did the day before I wrote this - I take my dogs out for morning walks, read the newspaper, drink a cup of coffee, text my children, kiss my partner goodbye as he goes to work - there is something slightly different in the air.

The difference is unseen yet has gravity to it. Now when I write or say to a congregation, "I am a Presbyterian minister, and I'm gay," I need not fear censure from the church, nor panic about being dismissed by a congregation or seminary.

While I may be labeled a "gay pastor" for the rest of my career, I do so now with pride rather than angst. I am but one of a growing number of ordained clergy among an increasing number of Protestant churches who are witness to God doing something new in our lifetime, right before our very eyes.

What led to my declaration is part of an unfolding drama that should not be understated. Officially, up to July 10, my public announcement could have left me open to charges of violating the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s ordination standards: "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness."

For years this standard was like yellow ribbon around a crime scene. It became an effective roadblock for closeted ministers in churches or ministerial candidates who were sincerely living out their calling.

Many people who were ordained or who sought ordination had their careers ended abruptly because of this antiquated standard. While not stating explicitly "no homos allowed," it effectively kept those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) away from ordained positions in the church or seminaries, or forced those of us who were already ordained to hide in shadowy closets.

Religious conservatives tenaciously policed the rolls of ordained religious leaders for LGBTQ clergy and straight allies, bringing charges and prosecuting them in church trials based on literal translation of a handful of passages from Hebrew Scripture or the New Testament. Meanwhile, churches often ignored heterosexual ministers having sexual dalliances (unless they became public), condoned divorced clergypersons (Jesus preached against divorce) and for centuries some Catholic priests sexually abused children with no condemnation from Rome.

Yet out, healthy, LGBTQ people who heard the call of ministerial leadership were, for all practical purposes, barely allowed to be members, let alone leaders, in the church - the very institution that is supposed to be the living embodiment of Christ who uttered, "Come unto me, all you who are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest."

The inclusion of LGBTQ people as ordained leaders is but the most recent barrier of oppression to fall within the church. In the 1950s Protestant churches began to ordain women. In the 1960s and '70s, churches that were racially divided began to reconcile. For the oppressed and oppressor to come to the point of reconciliation, the church has historically had to confess its collective injustice in order to embrace the peace of Christ.

When my book "On Being a Gay Parent" was published in 2007, I was told by a church elder to draw the blinds in the front of the house I shared with my partner, and to refrain from any acts of physical displays of affection. She feared that religious conservatives would photograph me kissing him, proving I was in a romantically active same-sex relationship. I was denied countless teaching and pulpit positions because I'm out and gay.

Miraculously, I served as an interim pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Henderson, where the congregation welcomed me. However the community showed the nature of its heart soon after my arrival. On an online city blog, one person posted how families with children should run away from the church because I am a gay pastor.

Another wrote: "Presbyterians, what were you thinking? An openly gay minister? Hey y'all, come to the Methodist Church!"

The Presbyterian Church's new language of ordination - while still avoiding mention of LGBTQ people specifically - states that candidates and those ordained "submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life." Not only are closets opening, but the assemblage of closets that entombed LGBTQ religious leaders for so long will begin to disappear as one more denomination embraces God's grace, extended to all, regardless of who we are, who we love or where we live.

Through faith, by grace, I claim that I am a Presbyterian minister, and I'm gay.

[Used with permission of the author. Originally appeared in the News Observer,July 18, 2011.]