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The Presbyterian Church (USA) and homosexuality

"Shower of Stoles" project
& Women of Faith award

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"Shower of Stoles" Project

In 1995, Martha Juillerat was a Presbyterian minister who had concealed her lesbian sexual orientation. She resigned her ordination at a meeting of her fellow pastors in Kansas City, MO. Before resigning, she made a request of other gay or lesbian ministers and ministerial candidates who have been denied ordination, been forced to leave the church, or been required to keep their sexual orientation secret as they remained ministers. She asked them to send her their stole. (A stole is a band of cloth that ministers wear around their neck). She expected perhaps a dozen. She initially received 80 stoles. She hang them around the room where she gave her farewell speech. "It moved people to tears. It made it obvious that we weren't just talking about me. We were talking about hundreds of folks who are denied the opportunity to openly serve their church." 1

Her collection has since grown to a "Shower of Stoles", totaling almost 800 stoles from 13 different denominations. She displays them at annual and regional meetings of various faith groups, to promote discussion of the ban on lesbian/gay ordination. She commented: "Seeing the stoles is like seeing the Vietnam Memorial or the AIDS quilt. It helps take this issue out of people's heads and into their hearts. It makes it very real and very human and, to a certain extent, de-politicizes the issue."

Ms. Juillerat felt the call to ministry as a teen. "The church meant the world to me. I made a decision to follow the party line and be single and celibate. I guess what I never anticipated was the terrible oppression of living a double life and of never having anyone to share it." She met a woman who would become her partner in 1986 at a support group for women clergy. They dated in secret. They invited only four friends to their ceremony of holy union. For security, they had to cover the windows of the church. Her partner had a serious bicycle accident in 1993 which nearly killed her. The next day, Ms. Juillerat had to conduct a service without being able to tell anyone about the incident. "After that, we decided we just could not stay hidden anymore. We decided this was a sick way to live...Leaving the ministry was the hardest decision I ever made in my life. I love to preach and I miss it terribly. But it was like the weight of the world was being lifted off our shoulders. For my own sanity and peace of mind, I needed to leave."

She took 340 stoles to a national convention of More Light churches; she took over 300 to the 1996 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA); almost 400 were on hand at the 1997 Assembly. There was no place to hang the display so she asked volunteers to wear them. "It became a way for people to find a voice. I offered the option of people sending them to me anonymously. For those people especially, it was the one opportunity they had of letting the church know that, 'Hey I'm out here.'" Rev. Bill Chadwick, co-pastor of St. Luke Presbyterian Church in St. Paul said: "It was so moving to see all of them. I went around looking at them by myself and just sobbed at the heartbreak of those who had received the same sort of call from God that I did, but were unable to fulfill it."

The Shower of Stoles is now a nonprofit organization with a board of directors.

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Women of faith award:

In 1999-APR, three women were unanimously selected from a field of 59 nominees to receive the 13th annual prestigious "Women of Faith" award. These awards honor "the gifts of clergywomen, educators, songwriters, poets, campus ministers, theologians, lay pastors and authors who have witnessed as reformers through the Word." The 1999 recipients are Elder Jane Dempsey Douglas, a retired professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, Elder Letty Russell, a professor at Yale Divinity School in Connecticut and Rev. Jane Spahr Spahr, a minister at the Downtown Presbyterian Church in Rochester NY. Spahr leads the "That All May Freely Serve" ministry within the Presbyterian Church; it seeks equality for gays, bisexuals and transgender people - in her words: "people who have been hurt and violated."
Although the names of past award recipients had  never been submitted for approval to the National Ministries Division (NMD) of the General Assembly Council, that committee decided to veto the selection of Jane Spahr. The committee stated: "...The action was taken because the committee felt presenting the award to Dr. Spahr would make it appear that an entity of the General Assembly was endorsing a position that runs counter to existing General Assembly policy. Entities of the General Assembly are obligated to uphold the policies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and should not be put in the position of appearing to compromise them in any way. The determination of the Steering Committee was that presenting this award to Dr. Spahr placed the division in conflict with that obligation." There was talk of canceling the traditional annual award breakfast. 

The Rev. Cathy Chisholm, chair of the General Assembly Council defended the vetoing of the selection committee's decision. In a communication to the church-at-large dated 1999-APR-21, she wrote: "... the choice of a woman  who is closely associated with advocacy for the ordination of gay and lesbian persons was  likely to be interpreted by some as endorsement of that position. To simply proceed with the public announcement of the awards without consideration of the potential impact would have been  an abuse of  the goodwill and trust of the church at large."
On APR-26, the Executive Committee of the General Assembly Council of the church voted 9 to 2 to overturn the NMD's veto and allow Rev. Spahr's selection to proceed unhindered. They also voted to "establish a task force to review all policies and procedures regarding the full range of awards currently within the scope of the work of the General Assembly Council." 2 This decision was confirmed by the General Assembly Council itself on 1999-JUN, by the narrowest of votes: 41 to 40 with 6 abstentions. In their pastoral letter, the Council commented: "We know that many will not agree with our decision, will be hurt and angered by our action. We acknowledge the disagreement, hurt and anger and regret it. But we also thank God that we are able to disagree, strongly and vigorously, and still hold on to one another in Christ.  We even dare to believe the Holy Spirit is leading us and teaching us how to be one body in spite of our differences and conflicts." 3

Author's personal note: There appears to be a logical dilemma here. On one hand, the award is given to those women "...who have witnessed as reformers..." and are promoting change within the church. On the other hand, the Rev. Chisholm and the NMD are implying that some church reformers should not be considered for the award because their selection might be interpreted as promoting change in the church and giving approval to the reformers' activities.

I wonder if the program should have been terminated after the 1999 awards are given. Its selection process is fundamentally sexist. Every male reformers within the church is automatically excluded from receiving the award. Should the church be promoting an award that gives special privileges to one gender?

Internet and media references:

  1. Maja Beckstrom, "Stolen Identities", St. Paul Pioneer Press, 1997-JUL-12
  2. J. Filiatreau & J. Van Marter, "GAC Executive Committee Allows Women of Faith Award to the Rev. Jane Spahr to Go Forward",  PCUSA NEWS, 1999-APR-27
  3. PCUSA News release, 1999-JUN-20 #5372.

Copyright © 1996 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. 
Latest update 2008-JUL-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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