Last Sunday, the church I have been a part of for over 40 years made a momentous decision. The national Synod assembly which meets every four years passed a resolution permitting persons who are in a same-sex committed relationship, to be ordained and serve as pastors. (This assembly was about 250 lay and clergy delegates from around the country.)
That 40-year number is significant for me. It was exactly 40 years ago at another of these Synod meetings that I began my journey as a pastor in this church. And it was at that Synod that a ground-breaking-for-its-day resolution was passed which did not condemn homosexuality but instead called the church to be open to pastoral ministry for all who might be gay.
This was 1974. For those too young to remember that was only five years (5 years!) after what has since been known as the "Stonewall Riots."
Early on the morning of Saturday, 28 June 1969, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning persons rioted following a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar at 43 Christopher Street, New York City. This riot and further protests and rioting over the following nights were the watershed moment in modern LGBT rights movement and the impetus for organizing LGBT pride marches on a much larger public scale.For gay rights, 1974 was almost prehistoric. Harvey Milk had barely arrived in San Francisco and was still figuring out how he would make a difference.
In 1974 many people would say they knew no gay people. That was simply because most gay people didn't let people know. It was too dangerous. Any gay clergy in our denomination were well hidden. For the church to say that it was okay to minister to them without also adding that they were sinners in need of redemption was a truly forward thinking idea, perhaps way ahead of its time for a small, mainline, every-day Protestant denomination.
In 1974 there were no women clergy in our denomination, though the first was about to finish her seminary studies and, within 6 months, be ordained. There were those at Synod that year who strongly disagreed with what was about to happen. They said it was going against God's Word and God's Will. We were starting down a very dangerous path, they insisted. Most of these did not attend the ordination of our first woman pastor a few months later. They were conspicuous in their absence.
Fifteen years later I was still getting comments from time to time about how women should not be ordained. (I even heard it again recently!)
In 1974 clergy were expected to get permission from their Board of Elders if they were going to perform a wedding where one of the persons was divorced. (Many ignored it, or with the general acceptance of their Board just went ahead without that permission.) A few years later when a divorced pastor was elected to a major office, several people commented to me that this was just wrong.
I mention these two issues because they are gender and marriage-related as well as to show how times have changed. To me this seems like a very short period of time- yet it was so long ago!
Over these past 40 years the church has wrestled long and often with the questions and theology surrounding gay pastors, gay care, gay acceptance. The international church even called on all Provinces around the world to have a moratorium on the issue and associated resolutions, which we in the Northern Province followed. But the questions remained. The biggest was the "internal" church-related question- what about gay men and women in relationships or, where allowed, married?
The church accepted non-practicing (i.e. celibate) gay persons as pastors. Sort of. Some ordained pastors left the church to go into a committed relationship or to get out of the congregational spotlight. Other gay people had their faith strained to the breaking point by not being allowed to become pastors become of their sexual orientation.
Some pastors with gay children were left wondering what they could- or should- do about it. Some were left in anguish. Others became activists.
Even during the first decade of the AIDS/HIV epidemic the church talked about- and cared for- many HIV-positive individuals. But they often avoided the underlying difficulties of homosexuality. During those years I worked with the Wisconsin Conference of Churches AIDS Task Force and wrote our denomination's social issues study guide on HIV. Even then, in conferences and workshops, it was often difficult to keep the issues from impacting each other when talked about out in the churches. Someone always wanted to shift the topic from caring for persons with AIDS/HIV to sin and homosexuality.
Slowly things changed. We learned of more gay persons in our congregations; we saw shifts in public perceptions; a younger generation which has grown up in these past 40 years often wondered what the big deal was.
Four years ago our Province started, again, down the road of discussion and decision-making on the ordination issue. With great leadership and tact on the part of our Provincial boards, listening and discussion meetings were held. People were given many opportunities to hear and speak. It was not easy. They handled it, I believe, superbly, always insisting on our motto: "In all things love."
Last Sunday the resolution was passed, 181 - 62- not an insignificant margin. While the votes were being counted the delegates stood in a circle, holding hands, singing. People on different sides of the issue were moved by the "unity in non-essentials" that this showed. One of the bishops commented that it was the witness of unity that was the big message of the day.
The problems and issue haven't gone away. More questions were raised. More will be discovered. The feelings of the rank-and-file have yet to be heard and considered. The move was made, aware of the potential for divisiveness, but with many prayers that sometimes it is more important to do the right thing.
Several personal reflections have come to me in the past week.
1) It is humbling to see the whole arc of this story from my first Synod 40 years ago. While I was not physically at this one, there was a spiritual connection I felt (and others as well) through Facebook and other social media. My prayer presence was powerful. I have yet to absorb THAT aspect of it. It is also exciting to see the fruits of labor begun 40 years ago begin to become reality.
2) I am reminded of kairos (God's time) vs. chronos (linear time.) In the proper time things happen, not on my time schedule. That does make it very frustrating and even painful to those waiting in linear time. Why didn't this happen sooner? What about those who have been disenfranchised in the past 40 years? We can, of course, ask their forgiveness and then move on together. But to have pushed this on our time schedule and agenda would perhaps have been even more devastating. Plus, all we have is today to do what is right. The past is gone.
3) This is not the first (or last) time that the church has had to deal with difficult issues that are quite divisive. People have left the church, calling it heretical and dead wrong, over many issues. To name a few:
- baptism of infants vs believer's baptism
- slavery and civil rights
- ordination of women
- liturgy in the common language of the people
- wine or grape juice in communion
- music in church
- the type of music in church
- and on and on and on
That is probably the most important reminder I have gotten out of the struggle on this over the past 40 years. It is important and I think we need to take ourselves a little less seriously on many of these concerns. Let go of our grandiosity, our human tendency to want or think we have all the answers. to be open and listen and continue in fellowship with others.
At the end of the day I am honored to have been a small part of this movement over these 40 years. I am excited by what happened last week and pray that we can all find the joy of our Lord's presence in this work. I am sure he is with us and will continue to be so as we work out the wrinkles and concerns that still exist.
And once more, to the leadership of our Province- thank you for a job very well done!