February 2024

Dear Friends and Family of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and Presbytery del Cristo,

I write this letter with trepidation, because I know how emotional the upcoming vote on the proposed amendments has become. I’ve been impressed with the thoughtful letters shared from several of you and so I would like to offer my input in that same sense of civility and connection.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’ve been part of Grace Fellowship in San Francisco since 1990, have served as an elder since 2003, and have served on the Presbytery del Cristo Congregational Care Committee and the CPC/CPCA Unified Committee on Theology and Social Concern. Over the past two years, I’ve taken a sabbatical from Grace Fellowship to worship with other local congregations, from Roman Catholic to Mennonite trying to gain perspective on what God is doing in this neighborhood. The thoughts in this letter are mine alone and reflect things I’ve learned both ministering at Grace Fellowship and looking outside the Cumberland to see how other traditions handle sexuality discussions.

Several letters have discussed the polity implications of these amendments and I have nothing to add since they were penned by people, such as the 13 former moderators, with a deep understanding of the history and function of the Cumberland. If I were voting, I would give great weight to what these people say.

Likewise, the letters that deal with the Biblical texts are extremely helpful and I, a layperson with no formal training in theology, read them with great respect. Our culture is very different in many ways from the ancient cultures in which these texts were penned, so we need the educated voices to help us see what God was communicating to God’s people in those days and today.

What I hope to offer to you are a few lessons from 37 years of ministering in San Francisco. As I read the amendments, my experience leaves me ill at ease. I remember Mencken’s famous quote from 100 years ago: “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is neat, simple and wrong.” I fear that we have fallen into the trap of finding a simple solution to a complex issue and that our solution will cause more problems and more harm. I have no standing to vote in this Presbytery meeting, but I encourage you to vote against this simplistic solution to a complex question.

I fear that if we adopt these amendments, we will lock out from leadership some of the people we most want leading our church, those that have a vibrant, humble and deep relationship with our God because they have struggled with who they are and how they fit in God’s creation.
When we begin to talk about sexuality, we need to consider our starting point. I encourage all of us to approach the conversation confessing that we are all sinners in this area regardless of our orientation.

Our society is a mess when it comes to sexuality. We use sex to sell most everything and the mixture of sex and commerce leaves us with no place where we can escape the constant stimulation of our reproductive passions. Fr. Ron Rolheiser describes sexuality as a fire that burns within. We must respect the power of our hormones. We must also recognize that persons in our society exert power through sexuality. We have churches full of stories of persons abusing others using sexuality. These stories I hear are not exclusively man on woman, but the majority are not related to LGBTQ identifying persons. We can’t scapegoat LGBTQ identifying people when we have logs in our own eyes.

When the Cumberland Unified Committee on Theology and Social Concern held listening sessions, in 2019, the committee (I was not yet a part of it) heard heart wrenching stories of things that persons who identified as LGBTQ faced from their Cumberland brothers and sisters. There was, it turned out, a significant amount of Cumberland on Cumberland violence. People were threatened with losing their work, their privacy and even in a few cases, physical harm. I cannot substantiate any of these claims as we would in a civil or criminal court, but in my travels since, I’ve heard repeated themes that confirm these stories. The statement that we passed at the 2021 General Assembly decrying violence against persons based on their sexual or gender identity was necessary. We carefully crafted that language to agree with the Confession of Faith.

When you minister in San Francisco, you cannot escape the LGBTQ community. Many young people come to San Francisco seeking freedom from their childhood community for many reasons. Some identify as LGBTQ. Despite our location, our congregation tried for many years to avoid the subject of gender and sexuality in general. While we had LGBTQ members, they stayed silent. We had strong anti-LGBTQ voices and they spoke loudly which created an environment of fear. We didn’t challenge the fear and learn to talk frankly with each other so we had no tools for handling a sexuality crisis when it came, though that crisis had nothing to do with LGBTQ persons. We were like Californians ignoring the possibility of an earthquake. Because we were unprepared for the crisis when it came, it did great damage. My first lesson then, is that we need to learn to talk about this subject in all its forms and not romanticize it. The health of our congregations demands it.

For many years, I participated in various ministries in the neighborhood – tech worker by day, gang kids, police reform, shelters, nightwalks, and the work of elder in the church. What confounded me then and now is the number of LGBTQ identifying people who I found working in every one of these places. Many people come to San Francisco looking for freedom or looking to escape an oppressive environment. Alone here, people search to escape loneliness, to salve the pain of rejection or discrimination, and to find community in our oversexed consumer society, people get involved in what the world offers. But God is alive here and many people find God in new ways. This is true of many folks including LGBTQ identifying people who have often faced rejection in the church. For those who have faced rejection at the hand of God’s people, finding God is often a powerful experience with which they have to struggle. As a rabbi friend told me, she is LGBTQ and called to be a teacher of the law. She cannot ignore Leviticus. But what she must do is to be Israel, to struggle with God, to ask why God made her this way and to find her identity in his love. When people find their identity in God they often turn to help others along the path. It is beautiful to see God’s hand at work.

There are many Christian leaders here like her, people who have struggled to understand their sexuality and gender in light of God’s word. While they may have chosen a marriage or a family situation which we do not understand, God has nonetheless captured their hearts and drawn them to himself. To tell them that they can become leaders in the church only if they give up their spouses or children strikes me as something Jesus might question. Like Peter standing at the door of Cornelius’ house in Acts 10, we too must struggle with the complexities God is showing us when God works through people who don’t fit our paradigm. My second lesson then is to get involved in what God is doing and to struggle with what doesn’t align with the law as you understand it.

I don’t think we’ve struggled enough with sexuality to accept these amendments, which I’ve called simplistic. To seek clarity is a natural human tendency to avoid tension, but sexuality is a messy topic laden with centuries of shame and guilt. Under no circumstances could I imagine nominating an elder or pastor who practices promiscuity, but our Preparation for Ministry committee and our Sessions should remove such people from consideration without the need for these amendments. Likewise, I wouldn’t support nominating someone just because they practice sexuality differently. The question is what God is doing through them. What I do see, even if I don’t understand it, is solid Christian leaders, practicing a deep faith, struggling to find their identity in Christ, and sometimes practicing a covenant relationship that is foreign to me. It would be a shame to bar such persons from ordination when they’ve shown great faithfulness and through their experience are able to lead our people through their own difficult struggles, whatever they might be.

I look forward to seeing you all at the upcoming meeting and pray for you as you consider your position. May you be filled with a Spirit of humility, grace and compassion that reflects our Father’s love.

John Talbott

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