They Pull Me Right Back In
As I wrote a few days ago, I really have no interest in being pulled back in to the United Methodist Church’s far-too-long argument over sexual minorities. In fact, my preference would have been to write out my ideas for my Advent Study using the music of Curtis Mayfield, looking for some general feedback. As the Connectional Table, an organization set up by the denomination at the 2004 General Conference to deal with long-simmering issues, particularly controversial ones, and propose solutions, has made clear it is preparing legislation for the 2016 General Conference, it’s like all the squirrels’s nuts buried this past winter were dug up and have decided to post their thoughts on the internet.
When I say that I’ve been dealing with this topic, at least on a personal basis, for a quarter century, I am being literal in this description. I remember the very first conversation I had on sexual minorities and ordination. It was in the winter of 1989, which would be 25 years ago. The specifics of the conversation are still very clear: a young woman, a friend of long-standing, who was in candidacy for ordained ministry, was speaking of the whole mystery of the call to ministry. The conclusion to which we both came, without a whole lot of effort, was the sexual status of the person called is irrelevant. District Committees on Ordained Ministry don’t go around asking candidates about their sex lives, nor should they. Now, the Book of Discipline insists that single persons should remain celibate, so it seems that DCOM’s should be asking candidates if they’re maintaining that part of the Discipline. Of course they don’t, nor should they.
Speaking of Discipline teachings on sexuality, any clergy who has attended any theological school or seminary will confess, with all honesty, that regardless of theological persuasion, political preference, or anything else, a whole lot of sex goes on within and among the student body. Pre-marital, non-marital, extra-marital – it’s there, it happens, and most folks know about at least some of it. Seminary communities are small, close-knit, bound by common goals, common interests, and the occasional spats that occur in small, concentrated communities. I’ve yet to see a single seminary student kicked out for violating the Discipline’s very clear strictures on celibacy in singleness. I’ve yet to read a single person denounce what is rampant violations of the Discipline among the very people training to lead our congregations. As a matter of fact, a pastor-mentor of mine told me back in the days when I was wondering where my own life was going, “Celibacy in singleness is a great ideal, more an aspiration than a rule.”
With all the huffing and puffing over sexual minorities, I think it only fair to bring up the utter hypocrisy of the our denomination sex police. I’m not arguing that the church and the committees and governing bodies inspect the sex lives of seminarians and clergy. With the exception of those who abuse their positions to harass members of their congregations or abuse children, which are already secular crimes as well as violations of church law, the sexual practices of our candidates for ministry, seminarians, and clergy should be left to the consciences of the individuals, as is practice now. Except, alas, for those persons who are attracted to members of the same gender. Then, what these people do in their private lives becomes matters of grave ecclesiastical, theological, and even socio-cultural concern. Which, to my mind, not only makes those within the system hypocritical, but more than a little pruriently voyeuristic.
If we’re going to have an honest conversation about the status of sexual minorities in the United Methodist Church, we should have an honest conversation about sexual ethics across the board. We should have an honest conversation about how we turn a blind eye to violations of the Book of Discipline, not only among our church members – again, I ask, how many clergy out there reading this have performed marriage ceremonies for couples who have cohabited, perhaps even have a child? – but among our candidates for ministry, seminarians, and clergy. The more we focus on the absurd language in the Discipline regarding “homosexual activity”, the less able we are to have a coherent conversation about sexual ethics. The more focus on such a small part of the population, the less able we are to approach sexual ethics in a loving, not to mention coherent, manner.
Which, yet again, shows that this isn’t really about sexual ethics at all. It’s about discrimination and power. Nor is it about “sound theology” but allowing our prejudiced, dehumanizing language in the Book of Discipline determine how we minister to all persons.