In a piece from Wasilla, Alaska at the Wat-su Valley Frontiersman, the evangelical pastor Howard Bess laments that in the struggle for gay inclusion in church, the end is not in sight:
“is the end in sight of all discrimination and rejection of people because of their sexual orientation?” I feel strongly about the subject. I ask the question because it has played a major role in my professional life as a minister. There are some hopeful signs, but I confess I do not see the end in sight.
Now, reading quickly as we tend to do, you may have missed the significance of this statement. I repeat it, with some added emphasis and notes.
In a piece from Wasilla, Alaska (that’s right, Wasilla, home of you know who), at the Wat-su Valley Frontiersman, the Baptist pastor Howard Bess (not a trendy Episcopalian, and also not himself gay) laments that in the struggle for gay inclusion in church, the end is not in sight.
The end? He’s right, of course, but many people would be surprised that the journey has even begun, so convinced are they that homoerotic sexuality is inherently and “obviously” sinful. Of course the end is not in sight – but I prefer instead to note how rapidly we are making progress. The simple fact that somebody like Howard Bess could be writing on this theme from Alaska, and that others should be discussing the church and gay marriage in Utah, is a striking example of this in itself. The end is not in sight, but the journey has at least begun.
Bess is right to remind us though of how much remains to be done. There are numerous battles to be waged simultaneously in this struggle. In his article, he argues that one major one is to persuade gay men and lesbians themselves to come out in church. Visibility, he says, is the best way to break down prejudice and promote acceptance in church. This is something I have frequently argued myself, but he goes further. It is not only LGBT Christians themselves who must come out in Church (many of these will have already left the Churches in despair), but also their friends and families.
The progress that has been made toward the full acceptance of gay and lesbian persons in our churches is based on people speaking up and telling their stories. As important as gay and lesbian persons telling their own stories has been, I believe the most powerful force for acceptance has been the story telling that has been done by family members.
For years the storytelling was dismissed by some as the domain of liberals, leftists and Democrats. Not so any more. The communication networks are exploding these days with stories of Republican political figures and Evangelical preachers coming out of their closets.
The news networks are still reporting on the more public issues of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” same sex marriage and ordination of openly gay ministers. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will disappear in the next few months. The military will adjust with amazing rapidity. Same-sex marriage may make it under court order in the next few years. I hold little hope for legislative approval of gay marriage. When the courts force the issue, the visibility and hopefully acceptance of gay families in our neighborhoods will accelerate.
Is there any sign of hope? One thing would change everything. If all gay persons left their closets and told their stories, and if every parent, family member and friend told their stories, enormous change would take place. It is then that the end would be in sight.
For several years, I was very active in PFLAG, which stands for Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. With hundreds of local chapters spread across the country, PFLAG is at the forefront of the gay acceptance movement. At local chapter meetings, people told their stories. It was not gay and lesbian people telling their stories; it was the parents, families and friends of lesbians and gays telling their stories. As I became active in the PFLAG movement regionally and nationally, I heard an incredibly diverse group of people telling their stories about their journeys to complete acceptance of their gay children. Their stories included acceptance of gay partners and of the children of their gay children and their spouses.
I found in PFLAG friendships with Southern Baptists, Mormons, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Methodists, Lutherans and every stripe of Evangelical Fundamentalists. Having gay children knows no denominational lines. They all were quick to tell of their despair in their own churches because of the bigotry that was prevalent in most of their churches.
Meanwhile, the Presbyterian pastor John Shuck at Shuck and Jive has written of another important element in the struggle – perseverance and organizing to change regulations. Ten years ago, he observes, he wrote a article advocating for a change in the regulations on the ordination of gay and lesbian pastors. In the years since, the theme has been a hardy perennial at Presbyterian General Assemblies. The detail and wording of the resolutions has changed, but essential import remains the same – the need to welcome all in the call to serve. There are some hopeful signs: GA this year once again passed an enabling resolution, and also elected as Moderator a strong advocate for inclusion. But GA has passed similar resolutions before, only to have them fail in the requirement of ratification at local level. But here’s the thing – the struggle continues. If the required amendment is not passed he says, he will continue his efforts, and if necessary will republish his article once again in 2020, just as he did in 2000, and does again now in 2o1o.
Now note please that John Shuck, just as Howard Bess, is not himself gay. Both are among the rapidly expanding band of straight allies in church.
The second feature that I like in Shuck’s argument is that he reaches his position not in defiance of Scripture, but precisely because of his respect for it. But precisely because he respects it so much, he says that he cannot simply rely on a simplistic, literal reading. (In this, he is in full accord with the Catholic Pontifical Biblical Commission, whose advice on interpreting Scripture should be studied carefully by anyone wanting to use a knee-jerk application of Scripture to attack “homosexuals”).
Here’s what John Shuck says:
I highly value scripture. On the whole I hear it as God’s Word of boundless love and enduring hope for creation. I preach from scripture week by week. I believe that our church should be ordered from the message of scripture. This message is ultimately embodied in the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. I take scripture so seriously that I cannot take it literally. I always wrestle with what my beloved New Testament Professor, the late J. Christian Beker, called coherence vs. contingency. What is the coherent, central and timeless message of scripture and what aspects of scripture are contingent upon context, culture and ideology?
As fallible interpreters, we will often mistake the contingent details of the Story for the coherent Message of the Story. No one is immune from this tension. That is why we need each other. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a diverse community to interpret God’s Word. It is even trickier to apply our interpretations of various texts to current situations, issues and people. It seems to me that we must have a clear, fair and intelligent understanding of contemporary problems in order for the Message of Scripture to speak with any authority to them.
This is just a short extract from the current blog post, which in turn is only the middle section of a much longer original. (Read it in full at Presbyterians for Justice). My interest today is not to explore the detail of the scriptural or theological grounds for inclusion, but simply to illustrate how the present struggle for sexual justice in the church is a real one, with many important allies. One further indication of this is contained in a single sentence of John Shuck’s post:
Prior to the last General Assembly over half of the biblical studies faculty at PC(USA) seminaries called the scriptural evidence of denying full participation of gay and lesbian people in the church into question.
The end is not in sight, but it will be reached. The journey has begun, and we must continue tirelessly, one step at a time, in company with our straight allies.
- Discussing sexuality with parents – ViewPoint (shuckandjive.org
- a journey to self acceptance (parwatisingari.wordpress.com)
- Magisterium and Scripture
- Biblical Perspectives on Homosexuality (Religion On-line)
- Queer Inclusion in Church: Evangelicals Ask, “What Would Jesus Do?” (queertheology.blogspot.com)
- New PFLAG Chapter for Southwest Virginia! (shuckandjive.org)
- GLAAD’s Religious News Round-up: Highly Recommended (queeringthechurch.wordpress.com)
- Same-Sex Church Weddings Inch Closer in Finland (queeringthechurch.wordpress.com)
- Oh, the humanity! UPDATED (theliberalspirit.com)
- Rev. Jeremiah Wright Preaches: What He Said, What I Heard (opentabernacle.wordpress.com)