The senior pastor of the popular is asking members to consider reforming the church to a more theologically conservative congregation, following the Presbyterian Church’s (U.S.A.) May 10 decision to allow gay and lesbian members to be ordained as ministers, deacons and elders.
On Monday, Walnut Creek Presbyterian’s Senior Pastor Morgan Murray sent an email asking parishioners to consider starting a reformed body as an offshoot of the two million-member national church. In his email, he states, “I am grateful that after decades of debate, this matter has once and for all led to the type of clarity that will allow us to make a decision in support of the theology we believe. The denomination’s endorsement of ‘Amendment 10-A’ is by no means good news.”
Amendment 10-A refers to a change to the church's constitution that would allow gays and lesbians to become church leaders. Although supported by a majority of the 173 presbyteries (church regions) that make up the main church, it came after decades of discussion and battles, and caused mixed reactions from Presbyterian leaders across the country, including Walnut Creek’s Pastor Murray.
“We are calling for a change, and we don’t know what that will look like,” said Murray. “I believe we [WCPC] demonstrate as part of the national debate that the majority of Presbyterians are evangelical and we are committed to this cause because we believe Amendment 10-A draws the circle of action and behavior that excludes us, our core theological beliefs and our core values.”
Murray said he believes those core values are what has defined the Presbyterian Church for more than 100 years, and he is concerned that the main church is “desperate to find a way to be relevant in culture and this is the exact opposite direction from that.”
This would not be the first time that the Walnut Creek Church’s stance on gay and lesbian rights has brought on media attention. The church came under scrutiny following the 1983 suicide of Bobby Griffith, a 20-year-old from Walnut Creek who had grown up in the church and felt rejected by his mother and his church because he was homosexual. His mother, Mary Griffith, blamed herself for her son’s death, as well as her church’s view that homosexuality is “a sin and an abomination.”
After his death, she left the church, turned her back on her religion and became a nationally known advocate for gay rights as a member of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).
Inspired by Bobby’s tragic story, journalist Leroy F. Aarons wrote the New York Times bestseller Prayers for Bobby, which was adapted into an Emmy-nominated 2009 Lifetime movie of the same name starring Sigourney Weaver. Patch reported in December that the film had been released on DVD.
Mary Griffith, who still lives in the Walnut Creek home where she and her husband Robert raised Bobby and their three other children, praised the national church’s decision. “It’s sending a message out there. There are still kids who are struggling with their sexuality and killing themselves over it,” she said.
After she and her family joined the church in 1971, Bobby grew up hearing that homosexuality was a sin, said Mary Griffith, who taught Sunday school at the church and supported its teachings. As a student at , he constantly feared his secret would come out and dropped out two months shy of graduation, Joshua Kors, now an award-winning journalist, wrote for the school's paper The Page in 1995.
After Bobby told his parents that he was gay, Mary Griffith tried to get him to change, worried that being homosexual would “damn him to hell.”
“I will not risk not having my family together in the next life,” the Mary Griffith character says in the film during a scene depicting an all-night conference that occurred in real life after Bobby came out to his parents.
With guidance from the pastor and church leaders to “cure” Bobby from his “abominable sin,” the family continued with prayers and Christian counseling.
But Bobby wrote in his diary, quoted in a PFLAG biography, that he couldn’t change. “Why did you do this to me, God?” he wrote. “Am I going to hell? I need your seal of approval. If I had that, I would be happy. Life is so cruel and unfair." Riddled with guilt and self-hatred because of his family’s and the church’s intolerance, Bobby threw himself off a freeway overpass. He died instantly.
Pastor Murray disagrees with those who support Bobby Griffith and say that his church is not accepting of gays and lesbians.
“I have many gay congregational members,” Murray said. “They know our theological stance, and they are there every Sunday. They are embraced and loved by this congregation.”
But still, others who received Murray’s email, expressed dismay and disappointment. And one of those shocked by the pastor’s message was a Walnut Creek mother whose child is in the church's popular Christian youth program. She spoke to Patch on Wednesday but asked to remain anonymous.
She said she was very surprised to learn how conservative WCPC was for a Bay Area church located in a community with such a large democratic and liberal constituency. She said she hopes that not all the families in the church community are embracing Murray’s views on the ordination of gays and lesbians.
“I have enough information with the letter from the pastor to pull my kids out now, and if the congregation stands up to the pastor and supports the main church, then I would reconsider,” said the Walnut Creek mom, who has a master’s degree in theology and was once a seminarian. “I believe in a God of love, tolerance, understanding and compassion. I do not believe in a God of hate and bigotry, and I will not look the other way, just because someone prefaces such intolerance with the words pastor, church or god. A great deal of evil has been done in the history of the world by claiming that God is on one's side.”
Reverend Laird Stuart, president of the San Francisco Theological Seminary, said the passing of the amendment does not force a church to ordain anyone — gay or straight — to become church leaders. A candidate undergoes a long study of virtues, he said, and ultimately it comes down to the candidate’s “forbearance” —the ability to show tolerance and patience. He said he believes the amendment only creates the possibility that gays and lesbians can be ordained.
In the email, Pastor Murray states he will be addressing his congregation and will describe how “WCPC intends to partner with like-minded-congregations in our presbytery and in our denomination to deal with this issue.”
While this does not mean the congregation will leave the main church, that option remains a possibility if the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) continues to be oppositional to WCPC’s theological stance, said Murray. And if the governing board voted to break off from the main church, WCPC might need to secure a new home with a new name. According to Stuart, if a church decides to leave the presbytery, the question will most likely be “who gets to keep the property.”
“When the question arises, the prevailing law in California as of now will side with the Presbytery, because the historic ownership of properties is and has always been with the Presbytery,” Stuart said. “The people (WCPC) can’t just choose to leave the presbytery and rename the property, even if the majority votes for it. This would cause a great deal of struggle and controversy.”
In a phone interview on Wednesday, PFLAG’S National Executive Director Jody Huckaby said he was disheartened to hear about the Walnut Creek church's situation, especially given its role in the struggles and suicide of one of its young congregants.
“It is disappointing, especially in a community that should not forget the history where a tragic reality occurred, based on religious beliefs, and it was the major contributor to someone's decision to end their life,” Huckaby said. “It is easy to look at the history and look at the communities that have not taken beliefs of women's rights, interracial marriage and gay rights based on their holy scriptures, in hopes to justify discrimination. My hope is to take a look at the history and reflect on what has been done wrong.”
But Huckaby said he is hopeful. He feels the silver lining here is the dialogue that may happen among parishioners and community members. He said he hopes this raises the questions that need to be asked: “Is this what you believe? Is this what Jesus would do? What would I do?”
As long as the dialogue continues, he said, change may come, but gradually.