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by Rev. / Chaplain Kent L. Svendsen
In the on-going denominational war over the issue of homosexuality we tend to fight for principles, which can be rigid and unyielding. We take our stands and wave our battle flags calling on individuals to "join our righteous cause". We can easily become angry at those who oppose our efforts to "do what is right" since what they think is right might be in opposition to our cause. This anger can move us to the point at which we begin to see each other as the enemy to defeat at all costs regardless of the damage it might do to the body as a whole. For the individual this often results in what can be best described as a "fight or flight" mentality. The "fighters" charge after the "enemy" while the rest run for cover not wanting to be hit from the "friendly fire" coming from either side.
The rules of war are really very simple. If you cause your enemy enough damage then victory can be won. You use the most powerful means available to attack the enemy, causing them to either be eliminated (in this case leave the denomination) or defeated (either by legislation or the refusal by our leadership to hold violators accountable to it) . The winners celebrate and share the plunder while the losers suffer in pain. I find it rather ironic that in comparing my military service with that of my denominational service the military actually seems to offer more compassion for its wounded and respect for its opponents from within.
With all this said, might I suggest another approach which puts aside for the time being the "political campaign" and looks closely at the individuals involved. As we approach the issue of homosexuality or "same gender attractions" as it is sometimes called, lets divide it up into different categories and look at ways we can best be in ministry to each separate group.
Besides being a church pastor and an Illinois Army National Guard chaplain, I am also a Christian counselor. Over the years, I have studied closely the different groups which have attempted to be in ministry on both sides of the issue. As a result, I have become aware of the tremendous complexity of this issue and have come to the conclusion that both sides are doing things which can be harmful. I have actively pursued dialogue with the homosexual community and in doing so quickly discovered that because I support the United Methodist viewpoint that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching" I was seen by many as the enemy. In fact, I had to go outside of my conference and even outside of my denomination before I could find any good opportunities at open dialogue. (I volunteered to be on a conference task force which held views contrary to our official stand and they politely refused my offer. I also wrote numerous letters wanting to be in dialogue and asking sincere questions. The responses were very discouraging and basically those in any official status refused to answer any of my questions.)
At present I am a member of NARTH which is an acronym for the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality http://www.narth.com/menus/about.html. I have recently been asked if I was interested in serving on their "Committee On Theological Concerns".
NARTH is a organization which resources and offers support for the many different counselors who use reparative therapy as a course of action with those who come to them for help concerning "same gender attractions" and the way those attractions are adversely affecting their lives.
One of the most important questions we need to ask ourselves is this one: Can sexual orientation be changed? After all, the moral and theological concerns we have as a denomination must address the realities of life! This question is one that defines in many ways the division that exits between the sides on this issue. I will attempt to answer this question but must warn you that it isn't as simple as saying "yes" or "no". Here is a typical response which is given to clients of NARTH members when they ask if orientation change will take place as a result of receiving reparative therapy. "Among motivated people who persist in therapy for at least 2 years, about one third experience no substantial change in unwanted attractions or behaviors; one third substantial freedom from unwanted attractions and compulsive behaviors (but no substantial shift to heterosexuality) and one third become functionally heterosexual and are freed of most (but typically, not all) of their homosexual attractions."
This tell us that there is more to learn about same gender attractions and more research to be done. It also shows our need to offer strong support for the "strugglers" who may have to continue their battle with unwanted feelings and desires possibly for the rest of their lives. This is a reality we must take into account and try to understand. However, understanding the fact that some things many not change does not deny the responsibility we have for the actions we take which is a conscious choice.
In this regard, we are now seeing some positive shifts in organizations like Exodus International (The largest and most well know ministry for those seeking to leave the homosexual lifestyle and change their orientation.) who has recently pledged to continue support and ministry to those who find orientation change as something that cannot be accomplish. And it should also be recognized that within some "religious based" organizations, the position that orientation change is not possible for some, may not be an acceptable alternative for their continuing to be in ministry to the individual. This is perhaps one of the biggest factors in the strong opposition to reparative therapy coming from a grouping of individuals which can best be described as "angry ex-ex-gays".
A typical "angry ex-ex-gay" is an individual who made sincere attempts at orientation change only to have failed even after many years of therapy. Many feel abandoned, rejected, and injured in other ways because of this experience. They feel as if the organizations they went to for help blamed them for the lack of change taking place in their lives, usually because they either didn't work hard enough or believe strongly enough. In this regard, the feelings of rejection and alienation (which are already common issues among those who have "same gender attractions") are aggravated and intensified. In order to avoid loosing their support system, some even pretend to have changed, convinced that if they acted as if it had already happened that it would eventually become a reality. This fact only adds support to the false myth offered up by the "anti-reparative therapy" detractors that change is not possible and that those who say they have changed either are fooling themselves or were not really homosexual.
Reparative therapy is in its adolescent stage. I won't say infancy, because I believe most groups have matured to the point that they have seen the damage which has been done in the past and are developing empathy for the "angry ex-ex-gays" who are out there. I know of several friends who after many years of attempting to change orientation without success have chosen instead to follow the celibate lifestyle. This is one category of individuals in which much support and encouragement is needed. I also have friends who have settled for a "monogamous same sex relationship" of which I am accepting but not affirming. They know my position, which is based on what I believe are clear scripture imperatives, and we simply choose to talk about other things and love each other without conditions. (Some within the "gay sexuality affirming community" cannot find this acceptable. A fact that causes a divide between us which cannot be bridged.)
In taking all these things into account, what should be our attitudes concerning the subject and what form should our ministry take? Well, first lets look at the issue of "change". I will assume that by "change" one might mean a complete removal of any "same gender attractions" to that of having only "opposite gender attractions". But a more realistic perspective would be one that accepts the fact that everyone can experience some changes and benefit from counsel but many cannot experience a complete transformation. It is a sliding scale (so to speak) with different individuals experiencing different results. The goal of the counsel is aimed at improvement of the individuals quality of life, the alleviation of self-destructive lifestyle activities, and resulting in the individual ending up in better shape mentally then when they entered into counseling. The success or failure of the therapy is based on quality of life and not a complete ordination change.
We also need to address the issue as to what causes "same gender attractions" and what differences there are between various categories? For instance, evidence shows that there is a very significant difference between those who identify themselves as "gay" and those who identify themselves as "lesbian". And even within these two different categories there are a significant number of variables.
The psychopathology (i.e. personality) design combined with experiences / stimulus that an individual receives in their early life are very significant factors. Also, there is no scientific evidence which has shown that "same gender attractions" are genetic in origin (i.e. there is no "gay gene"). In fact, there is good evidence that genetics plays only a small part in the process. While there may be genetic factors involved it is in reality a combination of genetic pre dispositions combined with nurture (learning, training, social expectations, experiences etc.) and the very important issues of any abuse (physical, mental, emotional, sexual), neglect, and/or abandonment. These things combined with the personality design all work in conjunction with each other. There will probably be even more factors discovered as the research continues.
The question has been asked: Does one need not be a conservative Christian in order to change orientations? In other words is religious belief the factor that brings about change? There is a tendency today to equate "conservative Christian" with reparative therapy and such a view is inaccurate. One need not have their organization based solely on "faith healing by divine intervention" in order to believe that change is possible. NARTH is not a religious organization and has therapists who have various levels of religious belief or lack of the same. They have recognized that the science of the mind and scientific practices which affect the way the mind functions is the basis for change. However, they do accommodate religious expression and see its great worth as a tool for the client of faith. Although I realize that many secular organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association have some outspoken members who would lead one to believe that anyone basing their therapy on science would be against reparative therapy, that is not the case. In fact on May 9th, 2001, Dr. Robert Spitzer will be reporting to the American Psychiatric Association a study he has concluded which "shows a substantial change in sexual orientation which has lasted five or more years".
If is my hope and prayer that somewhere within all of this struggle we can emerge with a ministry to all persons regardless of their circumstances. By remaining in the present "war mentality" regardless of which side wins the war the result will be a loss for everyone.
I would like to conclude with a prayer influenced in part by the book "The Prayer Of Jabez". Lord, help us to offer counsel which will bring healing and hope to those to whom we minister. Protect us from any pain or harm others would cause us for the work we do. But most importantly, protect our parishioners from any unintentional pain or harm we might cause by our counsel. May your will be done. Amen.
Rev. / Chaplain Kent L. Svendsen