Friday, 1 April 2011

Presbyterian Minister Repents - of Preaching Against Homosexuality

Queer Christians are familiar with being told by religious leaders that they must repent. Recently though, I have been seeing a number of stories of a different kind of repentance: of pastors, theologians and Biblical scholars who are beginning to repent for the error and harm done in their previous preaching against homoerotic love. One British pastor has engaged on an extended walk of repentance. At Salon, Murray Richmond has written of his  experience as a US Presbyterian pastor who fuelled prejudice from the pulpit, and of his journey to current repentance.

Richmond 's story has particular interest, as this personal journey neatly illustrates the wider journey of the Presbyterian Church of the USA towards the acceptance of openly gay or lesbian candidates for ordination.  As  he notes, this is a topic that Presbyterians have been discussing, studying and praying over for years. As they do so, many more are concluding, as he has done, that past teaching and practice was wrong. (The current raw voting figures show that support for opening the doors to LGBT ordination is now 5% stronger than it was just a year ago). The PCUSA process in turn, is indicative of the much broader movement transforming Christian responses to homoerotic love across the entire gamut of Christian denominations. From a position of near universal rejection a few decades ago, some degree of acceptance of openly gay and lesbian candidates for ordination, and same sex couples for church blessing or full weddings, is rapidly becoming the mainstream position.

Conservatives insist that making adjustments to church teaching on sexuality is simply bowing to secular pressure in a sex-obsessed society. Richmond shows an entirely different picture: that prayer and study were leading him to revise his views many years before he admitted the truth publicly, but that he was reluctant to speak up for truth, out of fear of losing financial contributions for the church.
Looking back, I see how much my own opinions had been formed by the fact that I was representing a split congregation. Our church, like so many, was divided. And while the people who believed it should be accepted were not going to leave if we maintained a position of non-acceptance, those who felt it was a sin would bolt in a heartbeat if we ever allowed gay clergy or gay marriage. If they bolted, half our budget would go out the door.
In large, conservative institutions like a major church, there is always a certain built-in inertia working against institutional change - which makes the movement in favour of ordination even more noteworthy. It is worth noting the specific factors behind this personal journey, as they are no doubt repeated in varying combinations for countless other individuals who are making the same journey.

Meeting with, and attentive listening to, Christian gay men and their families.

These included extensive on-line conversations with a young man who had made strenuous attempts to live within the conventional church teaching before concluding that "God was more concerned with his pride than with his sexuality"; with another who asked Richmond to perform an exorcism to rid him of his homosexuality - and Richmond recognized that what ever the morality of gay sexuality, this young man was not possessed by demons; and the wife of a fellow pastor who had come out as gay and left her for a man. Both she and Richmond knew that this man was a devout man of God, for whom coming out was not a matter of sin, but of living in honesty.

The experience of his own marital breakdown, leading to separation from his wife.

This confirmed for Richmond  a view he had been forming when listening to these personal stories, that there was a double standard being applied. Gay men who were seen to be transgressing the rules were automatically condemned and rejected - but heterosexuals who failed to meet the required standards of marital fidelity were treated with understanding and compassion.

Study of the Bible.

At one point he was directly asked by a group of five parishioners to preach against homosexuality "as the Bible teaches". (Ironically, all five had divorced and remarried). When he studied the Bible though, he found the evidence much more nuanced than he had expected it to be, with the generally accepted case against very far from clear.

Distance from the institutional church, after leaving active parish ministry.

With hindsight, Richmond could see that inside the framework of ministering to a congregation, he was caught up in the politics of the situation, aiming to keep the peace and avoid a split.  After he began to work more independently as a hospital chaplain, he began to see more clearly the reasons for the strong resistance to change - and they were not, as claimed, about fidelity to Biblical teaching:
With distance, I could see the mean-spirited nature of the anti-gay movement, and the naked way large Christian organizations used the "gay threat" to raise money. Free from the constraints of a congregation, I could spend more time actually looking at the biblical texts that deal with homosexuality, and I was surprised to find they were not as clear as I had supposed they were. At this point, I have done a 180 on the topic. And I believe it's a change for the good.
So why had we singled out homosexuality as a litmus test for True Christianity in the first place? Why had it become such a lightning rod for self-righteousness?
One reason, I think, is that it's easy to condemn homosexuality if you are not gay. It is much harder than condemning pride, or lust or greed, things that most practicing Christians have struggled with. It is all too easy to make homosexuality about "those people," and not me. If I were to judge someone for their inflated sense of pride, or their tendency to worship various cultural idols, I would feel some personal stake, some cringe of self-judgment. Not so with homosexuality.
Now I am wondering why, if two gay people want to commit their lives to one another, they should ever be denied that chance.
Murray Richmond's story is much more than just another person changing his mind to fit in with popular trends. In his reflection on his personal journey and observations on his congregation, he has highlighted important trends that have been widely repeated elsewhere with the churches and individuals that are reconsidering their previous stances. On the one hand, the movement in favour of change is frequently emerging from extensive engagement in study of Scripture, prayer and careful listening to those affected. On the other, at least a major part of the opposition is rooted in double standards, scapegoating "the other", to deflect attention from the transgressions of the majority.
But the most important part of this story is that this journey did not come out of finding that he is gay himself (he is not), or from support for a family member, or from long-held liberal views on sexuality. This is a man who once once implacably and automatically opposed to what he assumed was the "sin" of homosexuality, who has been led by the Holy Spirit through study and reflection to transform his previous views. There are countless more like him. This is most conspicuously so in the Protestant churches of Europe and the US Mainline Protestants, but is also starting to become evident in other denominations, including Catholics, Mormons and Evangelicals. With the continued help and guidance of the Holy Spirit, the process will continue.
Before too many more decades are out, the Christian Church as a whole will be repenting of past sin: not the sin of homosexuality, but, like Murray Richmond, of the sin of past homophobia.
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