Homosexuality and the Larger Debate
by Rev. Walter B. Fenton
It is no exaggeration to say that the ongoing debate over the full inclusion or exclusion of gay, lesbian and bi-sexual people in the life of the church is an issue that threatens to divide or at a minimum splinter the United Methodist Church. And while it is certainly true that the church has weathered other divisive issues, it appears to me that the current struggle is just the most poignant manifestation of a larger debate revolving around the fundamental role of the church in establishing and promulgating a unified understanding of Scripture and how that understanding, in light of the Holy Spirit's guidance, shapes our doctrine, polity and ethics. This larger debate is the one that truly threatens to divide the church.
At the first Theological Dialogue in Nashville Bishop Judith Craig succinctly and clearly stated the parameters of this larger debate in her description of two divergent world views, or ways of coming at reality. "The first believes that the Holy Spirit's activity is such that we continue to receive new revelation of God, while the other believes the Holy Spirit is active in helping us comprehend what has already been revealed."
But before returning to the challenge of this divide I would like to correct some of the current assumptions or arguments that are held by those promoting the full inclusion of gay, lesbian and bi-sexual folks in the church. By correcting such assumptions held on this particular matter it might help us see the true extent of the divide that Bishop Craig has spelled out for us.
First, some recent submissions to the Michigan Christian Advocate (MCA) appear to assume that science has confirmed a link between one's genetic code and homosexual behavior. However, this is simply not the case. Indeed, a recent study conducted by a team of Canadian researchers published in the journal Science (April 23, 1999) concluded that their results "do not support an X-linked gene underlying male homosexuality." As Dr. Kenneth Kendler of Virginia Commonwealth University stated, "There are now three reports that produce data relevant to this question, one strongly positive, one modestly positive, and one strongly negative.
This is raw science at this stage" (see Study Questions Gene Influence on Male Homosexuality by Erica Goode in The New York Times, 4/23/99). The appeal to stating that gay, lesbian and bi-sexual people are simply born this way is not currently grounded in science, and even if it were, it raises some serious questions. For example: would the church only affirm or reconcile itself to those gay, lesbian and bi-sexual people who could demonstrate that they had a gene that predisposed them to such behavior, or also to those people who choose such a lifestyle? Or more broadly speaking, how far should the church go in affirming or reconciling itself to human behaviors that are genetically triggered? These are difficult questions that demand thoughtfulness rather than closing off the debate with the assumption that we already know of a link between one's sexual preferences and our genes. This is simply not the case.
Second, many of the arguments for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian and bi-sexual people in the life of the church are based almost entirely on experience; either the experience of gay, lesbian and bi-sexual people themselves, or others' experiences with them. Often these experiences are compelling. However, as compelling and profound as these experiences are the argument for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual people must also be based on the traditions of the church and reason, all the while remembering that a canonical reading of Scripture is foundational for those of us in the Wesleyan tradition.
Third, the polemical edge to many of the submissions to the MCA should be dulled somewhat. Supporters for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual people have accused their opponents of being "hate filled" and "homophobic," but one would be hard pressed to produce a letter to the editor advocating that gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual people are to be hated. And the accusation of homophobia is a red-herring. Whether folks on the right are homophobic or not the issue still must be argued on its merits, and not by labeling one's opponents as being motivated only by fear.
And finally, the actions of those pastors who defiantly flaunt the The Book of Discipline, the authority of the Judicial Council and our Bishops should not be lauded as courageous civil rights heroes. Unlike the systematic and state sponsored suppression and coercion of African-Americans for much of our nation's history, ministers who violate their pledge to abide by the Discipline and submit to the authority of the church have not been, and are not being, oppressed or asked to do (or in this case not to do) anything they did not freely vow to do.
If they are so convinced that the church's position on this matter is so wrong that they are willing to violate a vow they freely made, they should have the courage of their convictions and remove themselves from the church. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that those advocating for a change in the church's position should leave (that is a necessary right), but when one sets oneself above the order and authority of the church then I think it is time for one to have the courage and the integrity to withdraw from a community they do not think should hold them (as it does others) to their ordination vows.
This last point brings me back to the larger issue I alluded to earlier, namely the current ability (or inability) of the church to effectively and coherently articulate a unified understanding of how the Holy Spirit guides us in an interpretation of Holy Scripture that both informs our doctrine, polity and ethics, and gains the assent of the faithful.
Bishop Craig is surely right in her articulation of the very different understandings of how this is to be done. The entire church must seriously contend with these two competing visions and frankly ask itself whether continued dialogue can ever bridge such a wide divide, or whether it is time to begin exploring how we can amicably divide?
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