The Presbyterian Church of the USA (known as PC (USA)) took an historic leap towards marriage equality in June when the General Assembly voted to allow marriage equality within the denomination. The language in the church's Book of Order changed, describing marriage as now being available to "two persons," rather than "a man and a woman." Furthermore, the vote means that PC (USA) clergy will not be reprimanded by the church for officiating ceremonies in states that allow marriage equality.
At the last General Assembly two years ago, PC (USA) considered a similar initiative, which failed by just 30 votes. So, what changed between 2012 and now?
Alex McNeill stepped in, for one thing.
"There hadn't really be any other trans people leading a mainline organization like this," Alex told me—and he told More Light Presbyterian (MLP), too, when he was selected to become the faith-based, LGBT-affirming group's Executive Director in July, 2013. Alex is the nation's first openly trans leader of a mainline denominational organization, as well as the first openly trans ministry candidate from the church's Western North Carolina region. He is also the subject of the documentary, Out of Order, which follows LGBT Presbyterians working to become ministers. A graduate of Harvard Divinity School, Alex's background on the intersections of religion, gender, sexuality, and reproductive rights have led him to work with the Reconciling Ministries Network, Equality Maryland, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce, and Believe Out Loud. Now, as ED of MLP, his time is mainly spent leading a national network of Presbyterians working for the full inclusion of the LGBT community within the church.
He said he wanted to help MLP prepare for what could happen as they entered uncharted territory, but, one year into his role, Alex says, "it's been really positive. Being public about it has been an opportunity to have conversations about what it means to be transgender. I'm finding folks who are hungry to learn more and want that education."
Educating members of the Presbyterian community as a whole has been a key component of Alex's work. "There's been some concern, 'is this the right time [to approve marriage equality]?'… There's always concern about when and why." But Alex, seeing how close the initiative came to passing two years ago, dedicated himself to building unity around not only the language of the ballot, but around its mission "to ensure [Presbyterians] that we're not just in this to lobby for cultural change, but that it's really what God has called us to do as a denomination. It's not about win or lose."
Of course, many LGBT folks seek to educate people—friends, family, community members, legislators—with varying results, and accomplishments in these respects are rarely immediate. Alex's dedication to bring LGBT equality into PC (USA) has been qualified by patience, persistence, and love. "This is not an easy conversation to have…We need to be able to discern together, knowing that everybody cares really deeply about the conversation."
The Presbyterian Church has seen many instances of grassroots support from clergy and lay leaders for the LGBT community in recent years. From equality in scouting, to affirming the overturn of Prop 8, and beyond, advocacy has existed in congregations throughout the US. Along with voting to welcome openly LGBT clergy in 2011, approving marriage equality has been one the significant legislative moves towards churchwide inclusion.
"We could be having conversations across the country [about marriage equality] for the next year," he added. "The vision there is that we approach this conversation with as much love for each other as we can."
Such humility and openness infused Alex's conversation with me. Despite his humble attitude, Ann Craig, who has worked extensively with MLP, described Alex to me as "a budding star in the LGBT faith world," whose "leadership has been indispensable."
Indeed, Alex has a vision for the denomination, in which nearly half of all clergy members serve in parts of the country where marriage equality is acknowledged by the government, that extends far beyond the 2013 General Assembly, the subject of marriage, and the church itself.
"Presbyterians represent that middle voter," explained Alex. We're all stripes of political affiliations and backgrounds. To root that conversation in the church will absolutely have an effect on the civic piece as well as mainline traditions…If we're in a situation where we're having a more nationwide conversation in the denomination, I think that the conversations that we have in that experience will directly affect marriage equality at a state level, from Alaska to Alabama, Maine and Maryland."
In what Alex described as "the Massachusetts effect," though, his ongoing strategy includes showing the church community, "We got marriage and we didn't fall apart." This will enable stronger denomination-wide focus on international LGBT issues, on fighting against poverty and homelessness, and will also, he said, "alleviate fears and build hope… Marriage equality is important, and will really further the dignity of LGBT lives, but there's so much more to do be done to help our churches be real places of welcome and inclusion."
This idea of welcoming certainly pervades, and seemingly defines, Alex's ministry with MLP. He explained, "My ultimate vision for the denomination is that we continue to explore, examine, and discern how our congregations do welcome. What I want us to explore is what welcome feels like, because that goes to strengthen our churches in general – when you walk in and immediately feel welcome in that space…The key take away from this experience is that most people really want to do what's best for the denomination. It's only going to happen when we work together. "
In conjunction with Alex's ambitious and defined vision, his reliability, and his commitment to communal growth, what makes him successful as a trailblazer in faith and LGBT communities is his courage to share, to be vulnerable, and to build better, more welcoming realities for others:
"One of the things I've found people respond to in my story and in my narrative is that doing the hard thing, even if you're nervous or scared, that living with authenticity and integrity is worth it in the long run. It's the way we can honor God, who created us. I think that there's something about my story that people find courage from, in taking creative stands or naming who I am. I would hope someone can feel from hearing my story is the courage to do something brave in their lives too."