GLBT Equality Issues Continue to Roil Protestant Faiths

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Sunday June 5, 2011

Issues relevant to GLBTs continue to roil America's Protestant denominations, on questions from marriage equality to the role of gays in the churches.

In St. Cloud, at least 70 clerics belonging to the Minnesota United Methodist Church signed on to a statement that said they would perform marriage services for gay and lesbian families, the Associated Press reported on June 2.

The statement's mass signing comes in the wake of that state's Republican-dominated legislature approving a ballot initiative that will go before voters in the next election. If passed by voters, the initiative will amend the Minnesota state constitution and outlaw access to marriage equality by same-sex couples.

The clerics signed the statement while attending the Minnesota United Methodist conference, a yearly event.

"Reverend Bruce Robbins of the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis says initially had about a dozen of his colleagues signed the statement, but by Wednesday night, that number had grown to 40," the AP story reported. "The statement isn't part of the annual conference.

"Bishop Sally Dyck says the statement doesn't break church rules," added the article. "However, she says the church discipline forbids same-sex marriage, and clergy who perform the ceremonies could lose their conference membership, or clergy credentials."

"We joyfully affirm that we will offer the grace of the Church's blessing to any prepared couple desiring Christian marriage," the statement declares, reported the Christian Post on June 3. The statement is titled "Equality for All in Christian Marriage."

"We are convinced by the witness of others and are compelled by Spirit and conscience to act. We thank the many United Methodists who have already called for full equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the life of the Church," the statement added.

"We repent that it has taken us so long to act," the statement continued. "We realize that our church's discriminatory policies tarnish the witness of the Church to the world, and we are complicity. We value our covenant relationships and ask everyone to hold the divided community of the United Methodist Church in prayer."

The Christian Post article noted that a call to amend the denomination's constitution failed two years ago at the church's 2008 legislative conference. The church's doctrine still holds that a sexual relationship between two consenting adults of the same gender is contrary to Christian precepts, even if the individuals involved are in a committed relationship.

"Under the 2008 Book of Discipline, same-sex unions are not to be conducted by United Methodist ministers or in its churches," the article said.

Some denominations claim that homosexuality is a matter of personal choice and conduct. The Catholic Church recognizes that gays and lesbians do not "choose" their sexual orientation, but even so teaches that sexual relationships between persons of the same gender are "inherently evil." The Church also declares that God intends gays and lesbians to live in celibacy.

But some Protestant denominations are considerably more accepting of gays and their family lives. The Episcopalian Church -- essentially, the North American branch of the Anglican Church -- has sparked global discord and brought the Anglican fellowship to the brink of schism after elevating a gay man, V. Gene Robinson, to the position of bishop in 2003. International pressure from less gay-friendly branches of the church, including calls for the North American branch to "repent," led to a suspension on further gay and lesbian clergy being elevated to bishop, until the elevation last year of an open lesbian, Mary Glasspool, to the status of Suffragen Bishop in Los Angeles.

In at least one area of the country, gay and lesbian Episcopalian clergy are being instructed to marry their same-sex life partners, if they have any. The Chicago Tribune reported on June 1 that with the commencement of civil unions in that state, clerics who previously would have had no choice but to pursue their relationships outside of the ties of legal and religious marriage now have the option to enter legally recognized partnerships. Episcopal bishops in Chicago have issued instructions for gay and lesbian clergy to exercise that option. Lutheran bishops have done the same.

"Now with the possibility of civil recognition of lifelong unions, the blessing of unions from a Christian perspective will have a different character, where before it has been purely a pastoral matter," said Jeffrey Lee, a Chicago Episcopal Bishop. "I think the community is better off, I think the church is better off when the community can publicly pray for these relationships."

"Lutheran clergy who serve in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod may officiate at same-sex civil unions in consultation with the bishop, but they are barred from officiating civil unions for straight couples who want legal protections without getting married," the Chicago Tribune article said.

"If pastors start performing civil unions, it sets up a very confusing message about whether or not this church still holds marriage as the standard for how a man and a woman enter into a lifelong commitment with one another," Lutheran Bishop Wayne Miller told the newspaper.

"We're in an environment now where the ground is continually shifting under our feet," Miller added. "We're trying to respond in a way that is responsible and reasonable."

"Non-celibate gay ministers may serve in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ and most recently the Presbyterian Church USA, which changed its policy last month," noted the article.

In the case of the Presbyterians, that denomination altered its constitution in a manner similar to the way in which the Methodists declined to: Setting into canonical law provisions for GLBTs, in this case, making it possible for openly gay and lesbian members of the faith to serve as clergy.

Last month's constitutional change reversed an amendment from a decade ago that said that clerics would either have to remain celibate, or engage in monogamous heterosexual relationships, reported Virginia newspaper the Falls Church News-Press on May 31.

"Last summer, the national church opened the change to a vote among its 173 presbyteries, which comprise ministers and leaders as representatives from each national region's Presbyterian churches," the News-Press reported. "The deciding vote was cast May 10 by the Presbytery of Twin Cities Area in Minnesota, bringing the total number of presbyteries in support of the change to a majority of 87."

Falls Church Presbyterian pastor Jonthan Smoot called the issue of gay and lesbian clerics a "Presbyterian family quarrel" that had been going on "for about 30 years."

"It's just ridiculous to lift up sexual orientation as a primary criterion for that person's character or suitability for ministry," Smoot told the News-Press. "I hope this puts an end to it."

"Presbyterian Church representatives who have disagreed with the amendment often say that the Bible is clear in its language that homosexuality is a sin against God. But Smoot disagrees with that interpretation," the News-Press article said.

"It needs to be read in its historical context and not just used as a bludgeon," Smoot argued. "It needs to be carefully interpreted as the original writers meant. I would disagree with my conservative sisters and brothers that the Scripture is making definitive statements about sexuality."

That view has also given voice by Biblical scholar Jonathan Dudley, author of a recently published book that examines how political rhetoric re-casts the meaning of Biblical passages to serve church authorities. "Many conservatives use the Bible as a definitive source for why gays shouldn't be afforded the right to marry," Dudley told Northeast Texas newspaper the Gilmer Mirror in a June 4 article. "The problem is that there is very little in the Bible about same-sex pairings, and what's there can easily be interpreted in multiple ways."

On the other hand, Dudley noted, the Bible is clear and consistent on the issue of heterosexual divorce, condemning it many times over -- a fact that evangelical leaders all too often gloss over.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.