Sprague keynote address
Homosexuality: The Practice of the Love Ethic of Jesus in Contradistinction to the Abusive Positions and Behavior of The United Methodist Church
Bishop C. Joseph Sprague
Church of the Village
MIND forum on marriage equality
November 10, 2007
Hanging above the entrance to my study is an inexpensive, but invaluable, framed print of an almost surrealistic human figure. My sister gave me this ordination gift forty-two years ago.
The print depicts a stark figure with feet set in the miry clay and both arms outstretched to heaven. This vivid image suggests the correlation of the ideal/real, the theological/political. It also serves to frame the content of what I intend to discuss today. Namely, the ideal theological love ethic of Jesus in contradistinction to the very real and blatantly political positions and behavior of The United Methodist Church in regard to homosexual human beings. That is, the love ethic of Jesus, with arms outstretched to heaven, is the stuff of the reign of God, announced and incarnated by Jesus, while the treatment of LGBT people by our church , with its ecclesiastical feet stuck in the miry clay, is the epitome of the dirty work of the powers and principalities of this present age.
1] CONSIDER THE THEOLOGICAL IDEAL
A. As a former jock, an inner city youth, who lived in the projects for a few years, a straight white male, with all the privileges pertaining thereunto, who has been married to the same woman for forty-eight plus years, I did not choose this issue; it chose me.
Pastoral work in a university community and preparation for the 1984 General Conference prompted me to correlate, quite intentionally, the subject of homosexuality with the Wesleyan Quadrilateral [Tradition, Reason, Experience and Scripture]. What emerged is that, while we might debate the weight of Tradition in addressing this emotional issue, Reason was/is crystal clear: Since we United Methodists affirm that God’s creation is good, and since homosexuality is the inherent sexual orientation of a significant percentage of the human population, part of God’s creative process, then it follows that homosexual persons are not evil or needful of a sexual transformation, but gifts of God’s mysterious, wondrous process of creation.
Many pastoral experiences with gay and lesbian human beings taught me that one’s sexual identity is not a matter of choice, but of inherent orientation. Experience also has demonstrated to me that innumerable lesbian and gay Christians have much to teach heterosexuals about both discipleship in following Jesus and fidelity in sacred relationships. For those heterosexuals willing to practice, open hearts, open minds and open doors”, Experience dictates that homosexuality is not a choice to be feared or altered, but a gift of God to be cherished.
Given our church’s advocacy of the primacy of Scripture among the four variables of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the seven biblical texts traditionally employed to condemn homosexuality must be taken seriously when correlating homosexuality with the Quadrilateral. These texts deserve the scrutiny of careful exegesis. I did such work carefully across several years, articulated my interpretations in many presentations, and finally published the conclusions in the 2002 book, “ Affirmations of a Dissenter. “ I need not spend time with this audience explicating these passages. Suffice it to say that there is NO bias against homosexual orientation recorded in Scripture. There are verses in the Bible that condemn certain sexual practices; practices which few among us, whether homosexual or heterosexual ,would condone, let alone practice.
Thus, for more than a quarter-century, along with many other progressive United Methodists, I have been utterly convinced that The United Methodist Church is dead wrong in our positions and practices regarding homosexual sisters and brothers. I have long believed, and stated widely, that it is not sexual orientation which matters, but how we use/misuse the gift of our God-given sexual orientation that really counts. Hence, my advocacy for same sex holy unions, marriage if you please, so that homosexuals might know the same joys and privileges, responsibilities and blessings, and share the same status in church and culture, while being held to the same standards of sexual morality, as their straight sisters and brothers.
B. Key to the much needed transformation of The United Methodist Church’s abusive positions and practices regarding LGBT persons is the recovery and application of the love ethic of Jesus. At a time when rigid, wrong-headed thinking and plain hardness of heart misuse Scripture, discard Reason, and denigrate Experience in order to continue to pressure the institution to mistreat this minority group, as it once mistreated black people and women, it behooves the church to recover the love ethic of Jesus and to apply it to its treatment of these sisters and brothers, who have been for far too long abused by ignorance, bigotry and the sheer will to power of the Religious Right.
What would Jesus do? With whom would he stand? The marriages of whom would he condone and celebrate? Which weddings would he attend? The record of the church’s understanding of Jesus and his ethic is crystal clear: Read the Second Testament; emulate his example; follow in his steps, United Methodist Church. Recall a Waiting Parent welcoming the outsider; the Good Shepherd seeking the lost sheep beyond the confines of home; the Diligent Woman dispensing the clutter until the lost coin is found. Remember Jesus’ acceptance of supposed outsiders ,like hated Samaritans, wizened tax collectors, women on the margins, despised lepers, convicted felons and all those supposed superfluous people adjudged by the status quo to be inferior. The United Methodist Church would be well served to quit venerating its makeshift Christ and to follow the Authentic One ,who practiced and taught non-violence, peacemaking, gracious hospitality and inclusive community. Jesus the Christ, whose vulnerable authenticity prompted his followers to record, “ There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”[ Galatians 3:28] “ Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. [Romans 13: 8.] “ Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” [I John 4: 7-8.]
Jesus and his radical ethic of love, so central to all that it means to be church, with arms outstretched toward the reign of God , challenge, yea refute, the positions and practices of The United Methodist Church as regards LGBT human beings. Why then such tenacity, such an irrational unwillingness to let go of that which is abusive and just plain sinful, on the part of a denomination historically steeped in positions and practices of love, justice and inclusive community? In order to respond, as needed, to this vexing query, let us:
2] CONSIDER THE REALITY OF CHURCH POLITICS
1. That is, let us examine the muck in which our ecclesiastical feet are mired. To do this, it needs to be acknowledged that in the past many within the church simply were not aware of the serious nature of this subject. Until recently, they were not knowingly engaged in conversations or everyday life experiences with LGBT persons. Their opinions, when voiced, usually were a reflection of the prejudices of the culture. These stereotypes of queers and fags were not countered in the church by informed biblical and theological thinking attendant to this subject. Tragically, few clergy demonstrated the courage, had the experience or possessed sufficient understanding to help laity grow in their understandings of what became a delicate matter.
And then, along came the Religious Right. Within United Methodism well-funded, highly organized groups, like Good News and the Institute for Religion and Democracy, have made homosexuality their stalking horse issue for some two decades. The issue was highly politicized and the rank and file forced to take a position, often without balanced and informed biblical and theological information. Having lost on race and gender issues within The United Methodist Church, the Religious Right pressured the church to adopt increasingly abusive policies and attendant practices pertaining to matters and people homosexual. For too long, the progressive voice of the church failed to challenge this hostile takeover. But recently, especially since the debacle that was the 2000 General Conference in Cleveland, the progressive voice, led by the Reconciling Ministries Network and the Methodist Federation for Social Acton, has begun to speak from head and heart to United Methodism. This, coupled with the growing disdain for the Religious Right within church and culture, suggests that the long season of exile for LGBT persons may be drawing to an eventual close within the church.
However, while the influence of the Religious Right is waning, there has emerged at all levels of the church a managerial, middle-of-the-road, unity-at-all-cost style of leadership. The mentality of such wind-sock leadership is far more committed to institutional growth than prophetic ministry. Such an unfortunate intrusion undoubtably will delay, but not abort, the coming of that day of jubilee when LGBT United Methodists are welcomed home through open minds, open hearts and open doors.
Therefore, while our arms are raised in the direction of God’s reign, it is apparent that we have miles to go before our institutional feet are no longer stuck in the miry clay of the expedient politics of The United Methodist Church.
3] WHAT THEN SHOULD AN ORGANIZATION LIKE‘MIND’ AND ITS ALLIES DO?
A. Organize, organize, organize----especially within that broad middle of the church, which is growing sick of the divisive politics of the Religious Right and which has always had a heart for the weary and down-trodden in our midst. The 2004 General Conference was touched positively and profoundly by the Reconciling Witness. Let the healing, initiating waters of reconciliation continue to flow.
B. Create opportunities for straight Christians to experience the spirituality of LGBT United Methodists and to ‘feel’ the joys and pains of committed same sex couples. A picture is worth a 1000 words. Let them see who you really are!
C. Seek to build bridges to the African and African-American delegates to the 2008 General Conference. The obvious[ to me] similarity of this struggle to that of the Civil Rights Movement has not been made convincingly in the African-American church community. And while a multitude of sexual issues plague the church in Africa, leadership there has not been asked to consider this issue from a US justice perspective, while it begins to face the myriad of sexual issues confronting the church on the Continent. The Religious Right is exploiting these communities on this issue. You have a story to tell that is not unlike their stories.
D. While some of MIND’s allies do not see ‘gay marriage’ as winnable in the church today, stay on the case. Homosexual marriage is theologically justifiable and ethically ideal. Keep your arms stretched toward God’s reign so as to make it easier for others to get the institution’s feet out of the mire of “ incompatible with Christian teaching...”,” homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed...”, “unions shall not be conducted by our ministers...”, a decision of a Dr. James Holsinger-led Judicial Council ruling that a pastor can bar gays and lesbians from church membership, and, clergy of our church can be taken to church trial on charges of “ being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions...”
E. Continue to expect and request pastoral and prophetic leadership from bishops and the Council of Bishops in eradicating the abuse that is being heaped on LGBT Christians within The United Methodist Church. Bishops want to lead; they need help in doing so.
The most vexing question asked of me by lesbian and gay colleagues, when I was an active bishop, was, “ Given the abuse we suffer at the hands of this church, why should we remain within The United Methodist Church?”
This heartfelt query always brought me up short. What right did I have, as a white, straight male, in a power laden position, to tell lesbian women and gay men why they should remain within a church that was/is clearly abusive of them? I did not and I do not have that right. But, with my episcopal feet stuck in the miry clay and my yearning arms stretched toward God’s realm, I can say that, if you choose to stay and continue to keep-on keeping-on, the church is the more faithful for your presence, some of your straight allies far better fortified to continue the struggle and all of us ushered by grace just a tad bit closer to that day when with unstuck feet and pumping arms we will run toward the actualization of God’s reign in which ALL are made ONE in Christ Jesus, our Liberator. Amen.