In July of 2011, Rev. Dr. Nancy Petty, pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, took a stand that few other pastors have taken. She refused to sign marriage licenses for heterosexual couples until same-sex couples can legally marry in her state of North Carolina.
With Rev. Dr. Petty’s leadership, the congregation voted unanimously in November of 2011 to affirm this prophetic statement:Pullen Memorial Baptist Church has a longstanding tradition of supporting the rights of all citizens to equal protection under the law. We find that current North Carolina law and the proposed amendment to the North Carolina Constitution that “Marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state” discriminate against same-sex couples by denying them the rights and privileges enjoyed by heterosexual married couples. As people of faith, affirming the Christian teaching that before God all people are equal, we will no longer participate in this discrimination. Consequently, the members of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church affirm the following: 1. Marriages between same-sex and opposite-sex couples will be treated equally, and marriage ceremonies conducted at our church will reflect the spiritual nature of the solemn commitments between two people in a loving relationship.
2. To obtain legal sanction for their union, heterosexual couples may obtain their legal marital contract from another source such as a local magistrate until such time as the State of North Carolina recognizes the legal union of both heterosexual and same-sex couples.
This stand for marriage equality is only one of many prophetic stands Rev. Dr. Petty has taken. She partnered with Rev. Dr. William Barber, president of the NAACP of North Carolina and pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church, to oppose the Wake County school board’s plan to dismantle the district’s policy designed to promote school diversity and to move to a community-based system of student assignment. For participating in sit-in protests at school board meetings, Revs. Petty and Barber have been arrested several times.
In an article in Raleigh’s News & Observer, Rev. Petty wrote: “We must not fool ourselves by thinking that the issues at hand are not issues of race, economic status, privilege and power. If we allow our elected leaders to return us to a place of segregation and intolerance within our schools—a place where the gap between the haves and have-nots is widened rather than closed—it is ultimately our children who will suffer.”
Balancing her prophetic and pastoral work proves challenging, Rev. Petty says. “Change takes time, but my preference is to move forward when I see something that needs to be done. I go back to Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail,’ which is a significant piece of writing for me and how I see my ministry. King writes about being ‘disturbers of the peace and outside agitators.’ That’s what the church is called to do, and that’s what we as ministers are called to do.”
Rev. Petty applies King’s statement to inclusive language and imagery in worship. “I know that I need to agitate people about including Divine Feminine language and visual imagery, that it’s not about trying to comfort people. At the same time it’s important to meet people where they are and to try to understand what it is within them that’s resistant. That delicate balance of being pastor and prophet is a constant challenge.”
Rev. Nancy Petty started a women’s group called Ruah (Hebrew word for “Spirit”) at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. This group has the vision of changing the visual imagery in the sanctuary to include the Divine Feminine and to include diversity in race and sexual orientation. In this church, Nancy says, there’s more resistance to inclusive visual imagery than to inclusive language:
“We have people who don’t want anything in the sanctuary to change. It’s hard to know if it’s because they don’t want the feminine imagery in there, or if they truly feel that this space was designed for the purpose and they don’t want it to change. My guess is that it’s both. Some people ask, ‘Why do we have to bring feminine imagery in? We have a woman pastor, and we know what we believe. Why is it important to put stuff on the walls?’ I keep saying, ‘Because it’s theologically the right thing to do.’”
Rev. Petty gives credit to Rev. Larry Schultz, minister of music at Pullen, for helping the church implement language and imagery inclusive of the Divine Feminine. “Credit goes to Larry for including feminine divine names. We sing about God as Mother Eagle, as Mother, as Spirit, Ruah. Also, Larry has helped us to use images that celebrate the feminine and masculine within each of us and to use images of God beyond the human, like God as sky, as eagle, as rock—all of those rich biblical images. It makes a big difference to have someone on a church staff other than the pastor who’s carrying some of that message and vision, because people get tired of hearing it from the pulpit. And coming from a man makes a huge difference, because they can’t accuse Larry of being an ‘angry woman.’”
Inclusive language, leadership, and theology can liberate men as well as women, Rev. Petty believes. “I don’t think it’s just women who’ve been oppressed by our patriarchal culture and church. Men have been oppressed too, because they’ve had to carry this load and power all by themselves and have been cut out of being able to nurture and care and connect on a different level.”
Rev. Petty believes that women ministers and theologians make a powerful statement on women as equal images of the Divine. She saw Dr. Elizabeth Barnes, one of her seminary professors, as the face of the Divine Feminine. “I go back to how significant it was in my own experience to have that encounter with Dr. Barnes, to see a woman and hear a woman’s voice. Representing the Divine Feminine is really important to me because I know how much Dr. Barnes meant to me and how she changed the way I see myself as a theologian and as a pastor. And a number of women have said to me, ‘You don’t know what your presence means; I can look up there and see myself there.’ Over the years I’ve continually listened to women tell me what a difference it makes to have a woman in the pulpit, that it in some way symbolizes their story, their experience.”
Rev. Dr. Nancy Petty articulates an expansive vision for the future of the church. “As I think about my vision for the future of the Divine Feminine and how we talk about our faith, it’s my hope that the church can represent all people as equal. I want both our girls and our boys to know that when we say we are made in the divine image, that means all of us. It doesn’t matter what gender you are, what your sexual orientation is, what color you are, how well you’re educated or not educated. Everyone has gifts to offer. If there’s one vision that points me in my ministry, it’s that we are all equal. My vision is for the church to live into that and believe it in a way that’s counter to our culture. I don’t think our culture will ever really understand that, because there are systems in our culture that require that hierarchy of leadership. Instead of the church reflecting the culture, it’s my hope and vision that we can represent something different and be a different voice in the world.”
The prophetic ministry of Rev. Petty and Pullen Memorial Baptist Church are contributing to making this vision reality.
To read more of Rev. Dr. Nancy Petty’s story, see: https://wipfandstock.com/store/Changing_Church_Stories_of_Liberating_Ministers