Gay Clergy: God's Spirit at Work?

My friend Susan, whose religious views encompass Buddhism and good old-fashioned Southern progressivism, shot me an email late last week asking if I had a few minutes to talk with her about a theological issue.

She wrote that she'd been having a discussion with her cousin about the recent vote by delegates to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to allow non-celibate gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as clergy. And she wanted some advice before she responded.

When I talked with her that evening, Susan explained that her cousin was a sweet, good-hearted woman who belonged to a Presbyterian church. She was concerned that the vote -- which still must be approved by a majority of the 173 U.S. presbyteries before it goes into effect -- was unbiblical. Her husband, a conservative in politics and religion, was giving her grief about her "liberal" church.

Since I am a seminary graduate and the producer/host of the "Day 1" radio program, which features ministers from all the mainline denominations including the PCUSA, Susan hoped I could help her explain to her cousin, once and for all, why gays and lesbians could be ministers.

"Is there any verse in the Bible that prohibits gay clergy?" Susan asked, hoping that that omission would settle the issue.

No, I said. But there are a few that say that church elders or bishops or deacons should be "the husband of but one wife" (1 Timothy 3), which would indicate a traditional male/female marriage was expected of church leaders. But then, there are a number of divorced and remarried straight pastors today even in conservative churches. And there are even a few women in leadership roles of such churches, which would apparently also break the rules.

But, I told Susan, the fact that there is no overt prohibition of gay clergy wouldn't stop opponents, who would hold up the handful of verses in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament Epistles that purport to "clearly" denounce homosexuality itself as an abomination to God, among other very bad things. A good number of books have been written that parse these verses, revealing that they really aren't talking about committed gay relationships, but about pedophilia, rape, or temple prostitution.

I recommended to Susan that she refer her cousin to Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church, written by Jack Rogers, a Presbyterian pastor and former PCUSA moderator, who has been quoted as saying he agrees with the conservatives in his denomination on nearly everything except this issue.

It's difficult, however, to have a satisfying discussion between conservative and progressive Christians that would lead to any resolution on this topic, because their views on the meaning and historical context of the Bible are so vastly different. Progressive Christians believe in the Bible, but not in the same way as their more conservative brothers and sisters. So one side points to those Bible verses as settling the matter, and the other side points to the verses that say God is love and "judge not lest ye be judged," adding that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality.

We progressives clearly need to keep working on how to communicate our views on this issue in a way that a broader audience can understand them. Even so, one by one, the mainline denominations are coming to a consensus:

  • Last year, after studying and debating the issue for years, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America also voted to allow gay clergy in committed relationships.
  • Some years earlier, The Episcopal Church made the leap by electing and consecrating a gay bishop, the Right Rev. Gene Robinson.
  • And way back in the 1980s, way ahead of their time, the United Church of Christ affirmed LGBT clergy among their ranks.

(In my work with "Day 1," I attended the 2003 Episcopal General Convention that ratified the election of Bishop Robinson, and found the mood there deeply somber and anxious; two weeks later I attended the UCC's General Synod in the same Minneapolis Convention Center, and was struck by the joyful freedom and vibrant mission focus of a denomination that had already, much earlier, decided the issue.)

Needless to say, in every case the ramifications of these denominational decisions have continued to reverberate both in the U.S. and around the world. In their wake churches have split and some have left their denomination. New conservative groups have sprung up to absorb the disaffected.

And yet it seems that once this issue has been resolved, usually after decades of wrangling, the denominations (or what's left of them, anyway) begin to experience a new freedom and energy to pursue their mission to serve the world in Christ's name -- they can actually focus on the desperate physical and spiritual needs all around us. Their churches are able to offer a welcoming place for all to come to worship together, grow in the faith, and minister enthusiastically to their community and their world.

We have witnessed the effective, authentic ministries of gay and lesbian clergy such as ELCA pastor Bradley Schmeling and newly approved Episcopal Bishop Suffragan Mary Glasspool.

We have come to understand that the Spirit of God is moving in fresh, trustworthy ways -- just as in the case of slavery and women's leadership in years past. (Is it ironic that Susan's cousin, a woman, was recently installed as a deacon in her church?)

And as more and more people realize that they know and love LGBT folks in their families, communities, and workplaces -- 77 percent of the population acknowledged that in a recent poll -- it's only a matter of time before we all catch up to the work of the Spirit of God moving us forward in the love of God.

Even Susan's cousin. And maybe someday even her husband.