A Personal Response to the APTS Faculty Call to “Mutual Forbearance”

Last Friday, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary issued a letter supported unanimously by its faculty that called for parties to practice “mutual forbearance” in our upcoming PCUSA General Assembly. This is our national denominational meeting and this year one of several key issues at stake is marriage equality. There have been strong reactions to the faculty letter across the board, and I have–with careful thought–written my own letter of response and sent it to the faculty this morning. Though it is a personal letter and the faculty is my intended audience, I recognize that I have been vocally involved in many public conversations about this issue, and so I want to be transparent in my communications. Therefore, I am posting my letter here.

You can find the original APTS faculty statement at this link: http://www.jimrigby.org/letter-from-austin-presbyterian-seminary/ and that site also has posts of a number of other written responses.

Here is mine:

 

To the APTS Faculty:

My teachers, mentors, and friends,

I have known since I first read the letter you released that I wanted to respond to you. I have known that you would receive many other letters and I have wondered whether it was worth anything to add my voice, but you all have taught me that my voice matters, and so I will speak. Others have written from the perspective of the broader issues at stake, and I believe that is an essential part of the conversation. But I want to speak personally, because I believe this is all so deeply personal. In fact, I think somewhere underneath the problematic language of this letter, I imagine you were making the same argument: this is all so deeply personal and we would do well to remember it.

My response to the letter you unanimously stood behind was—like many others’—one of deep hurt and betrayal. In your call to “mutual forbearance” and refrain from “premature resolution”—I heard a scolding and a warning not to push too hard for justice or equality at the risk of others’ comfort or sense of belonging. In response I wondered what value there is in a sense of belonging that founds itself in the exclusion (fully or partially) of others. In the past year, I have just begun to understand the weight of history I will carry by being an out ordained queer pastor in the PCUSA. In your pleas for slow, careful movement and your warnings against “haste”—I saw the decades of struggle and pain and hard-won progress of those who have come before me collapsed into the phrase “too soon.” I heard a call to prioritize kindness over integrity and unity over justice—as if these things did not share one beating heart. As if there could ever be true kindness and unity without justice and equality.

I knew, of course, that this letter was not meant to address only me and others like me. But in as much as it seemed to respond to an assumed possibility of imminent departure, I wondered why it was addressed to us at all. What better example of “forbearance” can you imagine than those who have stayed within this church year after year and decade after decade despite abuse, dismissal, injustice, and inequality? What better example can be identified as commitment to the church than those who have invested their lives and livelihoods to ministry even when their ordination has been denied to them on the basis of their God-given identity? What better show of faith is there than those who have remain true to their calling and committed to the Church, even when it has cost them their families, their communities, their safety? What better picture of kindness is there than those who have stood before couples and joined them together in marriage even while their own marriages go unrecognized?

Might I suggest that such as these have something to teach the whole church about what loving kindness is? That is, we will fight for the Church that God calls us to be. We will speak truth. We will name injustice. And then, when others refuse to listen, when others refuse to respect and include us, when others abuse us in the name of the God who has called us, we will stay. But we will never stay quiet when there are still things in need of saying. We have too much love for the Church to settle for less.

I want to say that what was so deeply hurtful to me about this letter, was that what it seemed to be saying was so contrary to the radical inclusion, love, and embrace that so many of you have offered me in my time here and taught me to embody in my own ministry. You have been parents to me when my own could not be, you have affirmed my call and championed me when my community of origin would not, you have taught me a theology of radical love and grace when the theology I had been raised in made me feel only shame and fear. Over the past week, I have at some point thought of each of you individually—seen images of times spent in your offices and classrooms, moments that have challenged me and shaped me and taught me to believe in and fight for a better church—and I have wept. I have cried so much at the thought that these same professors and mentors who have sat with me in those dark places and taught me to hope in the face of seeming hopelessness, would now sign their names to a document asking me to hope less. To temper my faith in the Church that could be and my call to work for it without compromise.

I have had many conversations about your words over the past several days. On several occasions, I’ve had the opportunity to hear some of you clarify your intent and apologize for the other interpretations the letter has allowed. I have heard you say that your intent with this letter was precisely the opposite of how many of us have read it. That, in fact, you meant for your support of queer persons like myself to be assumed, and that you were urging others to be respectful of us and our need for justice. Some of you have admitted naivete and regret at the pain your words have caused. And hearing these things, I have wept again. I have taken great, gulping breaths of relief at the reassurance that you are not something other than I trusted you to be.

But I want to speak boldly and say, “It is not enough.” Intention is important. But I have learned in my writing and preaching that when words are spoken aloud, intention quickly becomes the shadow of interpretation. There are many who will read and interpret this letter for whom your support of equality, inclusion, and justice is not a foregone conclusion. If this letter created doubt so quickly in hearts like mine who have directly encountered your support and love, imagine what it might stir up in less informed hearts. If it is true—as has been said—that there is no confusion among you about your support for queer people in the church—then I wonder if that too might be worthy of public declaration.

Perhaps no such thing has been done before. But you were some of the first people to tell me that I could be queer and called to ministry—and so let me now tell you that there can be immense power in being first. I know that there is great risk in speaking bold and potentially divisive truth, but I also know that the call to faith is also a call to risk. I have so much hope for what might be accomplished if the wider world—even those who disagree and especially those who could never imagine it—knew the best parts of this institution—the parts that I have seen and been lifted up by.

I’m not really asking for another letter—that is a bit more literal than I am intending to speak. I suppose what I’m asking for is that you be just as public, just as vocal, just as convicted, and just as faithful in naming your support for justice and equality as you have been in this public call to “mutual forbearance.” I do not want you to be who you are not, but rather to live into the truth that you each have so thoroughly taught me: that the best way to do justice AND love kindness is to be fully and unapologetically who you are—who God has called you to be. And who that is—from my experience—is an institution that lifts up its queer students, like myself, as valuable leaders for the future of the church. An institution that believes that we are all called into relationship, and that such relationship is founded, ultimately, not in empty kindness or tempered passions, but in vulnerable authenticity and deep belief in the value of every human being.

Thank you for cultivating in me a faith in the love of God that gives me courage to call out moments when I don’t see that love being embodied—even when those moments come from people I love and respect.

So very sincerely,

 

Layton Williams

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5 thoughts on “A Personal Response to the APTS Faculty Call to “Mutual Forbearance”

  1. I have many friends in the LGBT community. But that in itself does not give me the perspective you have. I very much appreciate your words. As I read this review of Peter Matthiessen’s last book, “In Paradise,” I came across this phrase about bearing witness, “there is something about being a witness that is personal, experiential—something unlike the authoritative, and perhaps removed, temperament of a spokesperson.” I realized that is what you are doing. . .bearing witness. For you it is not something you are detached from. It is personal, experiential. I’m grateful for your voice.
    Stephanie
    P.S. This is the whole review on Mattiessen’s book: http://www.tricycle.com/reviews/only-fiction

    • Thank you for these words and for reading. I hadn’t thought about it as witnessing, but I like that concept – I wonder what might happen if there was more witnessing and less shouting.

  2. Pingback: Church | Julie Gillis

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