Can we agree to disagree about homosexuality?

May 2, 2008 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

One of our moderator candidates, Bruce Reyes-Chow, confronts the elephant in the room in his blog post.

He asks the question of whether or not we can “be engaged in a community where the position is held in the contrary?”  If you feel that homosexuality is not a sin, can you stay in a denomination that declares it to be a sin?  If you feel that homosexuality is a sin, can you stay in a denomination that sometimes allows people to hold responsible positions who are homosexual?

Some people have voted with their feet.  (And that’s just a few)

I’ll start with me.

I am a strong supporter of gay marriage and gay ordination.  I do not feel that homosexuality is a sin, provided that it is exercised (“practiced”) within a two-person long-term committed relationship.  I would define marriage as between two people of legal age who truly intend to love each other and share each other’s lives forever.  If that happens to include God as part of the relationship, good, but I’m not going to say that non-church marriages aren’t valid.

I grew up with my parents telling me all sorts of things about gay people.  How they were all dirty, how they all had sex with multiple partners in bathrooms, that they did illegal drugs, and how most were diseased.  I remember one particular conversation with them so vividly that I can tell you that we were riding in the 1974 Ford Gran Torino station wagon southbound on Tenafly Road between Oak Ave. and Ivy Lane in Tenafly, NJ in approximately the year 1980.

Then I got involved in church beyond the local congregation.  I was a YAD to Synod in 1985, and subsequently the youth member of Synod Mission Council for 2 more years.  I went to the Youth Triennium in 1986.  At all of the big events, PLGC had a presence.  I bought the “Presbyterians Do It Decently and In Order” T-shirt mainly because it was a cool saying (and I bought it in lavender because pink was too girly), but while I was doing so I met the folks who staffed the booth at Synod.  I found some of them and some others at Triennium.  I discovered that the stereotype of gay people that my parents professed was not true.

Later, I left the church because of some negative experiences with judgmental people.  After that I started working with PLGC as their Presbynet coordinator.  About 5-6 years later I left PLGC because I was called homophobic when I dared to disagree with a particular strategy.  I’ve seen the ugly from both sides of this particular issue.

I have to note that my personal beliefs on this issue have remained the same for about 20 years.  I have read the interpretations of Scripture on the issue from both sides and I find the pro-gay interpretation more compelling and more in line with Jesus’ message of love.

Now the church.

This question really comes down to one big question – can we stay together and hold different beliefs?  This is nothing new – if it wasn’t homosexuality it would be something else.  In the early 20th century it was all about the virgin birth and other essentials.  Before that it was subscriptionism vs. experiential religion.  The history of the Presbyterian church in the USA (that’s not a denomination name, it’s a description) is littered with schism and reunions.  The schisms come from differences of opinion on what we today see as either no-brainer decisions (like women’s ordination) or nit-picky issues.  A review of history shows that the one lasting question is this:  Do Presbyterians need to universally subscribe to a well-defined list of doctrine elements, or is there room for variation in belief and practice?

Today the pro-homosexual folks are on the variation side.  Conservatives point out that if they are successful that we could someday reach a point where ministers are required to participate in ordinations of gay people just as they are required to participate in ordination of women.  That would put the pro-homosexual folks on the subscriptionist side.

Today the anti-gay folks are on the subscriptionist side.  That makes sense – the subscriptionist side is usually populated by people who feel most strongly about inerrancy of Scripture (as opposed to new interpretations of Scripture, as we had with slavery and women’s ordination) and more conservative beliefs.  However there are still bits of variation desired – witness those who are still complaining about women’s ordination years after it was settled.

I believe that our denomination is divided into 3 groups:

  • The right – folks who are traditional and want belief and practice to stay the way that they are today (or earlier).
  • The left – folks who believe that we are not seeing the new truths that God is revealing in our day and who feel that we are too strict in our interpretations of Scripture.
  • The middle – folks who just want to keep doing the work of the church and who want gradual change.

The middle is much larger than the other groups – probably bigger than the left and right combined.  They are also largely quiet – they are focused on doing the work of God.  They see the left and right as distractions who get all the attention and spend all of the energy of the higher-level governing bodies while causing people to turn away from the PC(USA) and church as a whole, and who spend all of the money fighting each other.

One of the things that was talked about a lot at the Moderator Meet and Greet last week in Lawrenceville, NJ was the loss of our young.  We lose our youth from the church when they graduate from high school (one person said “immediately after confirmation”) and the conventional wisdom has always been that they’d return when they had kids.  That’s not happening.  Our denominational average age is about 58 and climbing.

What isn’t being talked about is the effect that our infighting is having on potential members.  I know that I took a LONG HARD look at the church when I considered returning about 2 years ago (after almost 20 years outside).  I remembered church to be all about control of belief and action by a small group.  That’s really what the current fight is about – the control by those who believe in a well-defined set of essential beliefs AND practices of the membership at large (and the expulsion of those who fail to meet the standard – from leadership at a minimum).  I’m still wrestling with issues of control and “in-groups” within my congregation.  What I do know from talking to friends and co-workers is that Christianity as a whole has a bad reputation – it is increasingly seen as hypocritical and judgmental.

Additionally, there are signs that this question of homosexuality and subscriptionism are just the last gasps of the Modern world.  I work with youth, and have written previously about how I see homosexuality being perceived by those youth.  I believe that the church of the future will be somewhat different from the church of the present in ways that we’re just starting to understand, and that in that church homosexuality will be a non-issue – accepted by all.  It’s just a matter of time, and a matter of the Modernist leaders of today to retire and/or die off.  The acceptance of ambiguity and disagreement on little things is coming.

I am increasingly convinced that the fighting must stop.  But how?

Two options

We can stop the fighting in two ways.

One option is to agree to disagree.  That would require both the left and right to call a truce, and to wait for the Spirit to build a consensus on homosexuality.  There’s only one problem – this option would require that there be pockets of inconsistent practice for some time – some churches and presbyteries would ordain gays and other would refuse to.  The left is somewhat OK with this (they’ll rail about legalized discrimination in the “anti-gay” presbyteries) but this solution is anathema to the right which requires universal subscription to a set of rules.  Again, it really doesn’t matter that the current division is about homosexuality – even if we agreed today that all gays are to be excluded from the church (unlikely) we’d start fighting over something else – maybe the use of collection plates vs. baskets.

The other option is to separate.  To a certain degree this is in progress – The Layman maintains a scorecard of congregations leaving.  It’s important to note that there are only 55 congregations listed out of something like 10,000 – a rate of less than 1%.  The only question is how do you separate?  Normally (not that any separation is normal but this is the usual way) we separate by one faction breaking away.  We haven’t really tried a graceful separation yet.  The middle generally ends up remaining with the “non-leaving” side through inertia.  With a non-graceful separation each congregation has to decide whether or not they are upset enough to leave based on the issue of the day.  This process gives a lot of power to pastors – they have a ton of influence on their congregations and are often the only source of “what’s going on nationally” for their local membership.

A graceful separation would be harder.  That would require the national church (the General Assembly) to determine that there is an issue that we just can’t agree about.  Then each congregation would have to vote to decide which side of the issue they fall on.  This will in turn cause schisms in some congregations.  After the local votes the national makeup of the denomination would have to be rebuilt – some presbyteries would be absorbed into others and some would split down the middle.  We’d end up with two denominations.  Even so, some congregations and perhaps whole presbyteries would prefer to be union churches – being members of both sides.  If we’re going to separate, I think this is the more honest and faithful way.

Either way – separation is painful and debilitating to the denomination and it’s work.

So answer the question, Mark

OK, I will.

I don’t think we can agree to disagree about homosexuality.  I believe that the church will continue to decline for another 15-20 years, until Modernism mostly dies out with the baby boomers.  I also think that the world is headed for some huge upheavals in the way that we provide energy and food and how we feel about population growth, and that in a world where feeding yourself and others is in question the issue of homosexuality will be seen as an unimportant distraction.

Our religion has evolved over the last 2000 years.  We have moved from consensus (what really happened with Jesus?  Were you there?) to Authority (the iron will of the Catholic Church) to Intellectual Faith (from the Reformation) to Modernism.  We moved from “What is the faith?” to “We’ll tell you what the faith is” to “Let’s figure out what the faith is really about, in minute detail” to “You have to decide what the faith is yourself, but if you want to be part of us you have to match us on X and Y and Z”.  The next step is Individual Faith, where each person builds their own faith and the church is a resource for doing the work of faith (including bringing others to it) rather than the owner of faith.  That’s scary to Modernists, because it implies a loss of control over others’ faith.  That’s brilliant to Postmodernists, because it implies a gain of control over one’s own faith.

But we aren’t there yet.  We’re gonna continue to fight until we make ourselves irrelevant.  The only question in my mind is whether or not there will be a PC(USA) denomination in 20 years or whether it will have collapsed through an inability to accept each other’s uniqueness.  If there isn’t a PC(USA), there will be something else – God always provides.

So if you were going to the General Assembly, what would you do?

I’d do what everybody is going to do anyway – vote their conscience.  Look at the trends and listen to the younger folks there who can tell you what the church of the future needs to look like as they understand it today.  Fight if you must, compromise if you can, and try to reconcile with your brother (sister) when you grow apart.  Have faith that God is still in charge and that these things are happening for a reason, and that He’ll sort it all out at some point out of our control.