As part of my letter of call, my congregation called me to speak for justice on behalf of the poor and the oppressed, and to guide the congregation in proclaiming God’s love through Word & deed.
This central part of the call of a pastor is not always easy. Working for justice on behalf of the oppressed is not always easy. In this post I indicate why I perform same-gender blessings (and marriages if and when they become legal in Arkansas). I feel I owe it to everyone, especially those for whom I hope I am an ally, to describe what I believe on this topic, and why I move forward in ministry energized by it as I do.
When the church is in error, even if it is a long-standing error with considerable historical precedent, it is called to repent and change. For too many centuries, the church has been complicit in the hurting and shaming of families in same-gender relationships, and those whose sexual identity differs from heteronormativity.
In fact, when the church discovers it has sinned at this systemic of a level, it is called to take every action it can in repairing the harm it has done to oppressed communities, rather than continuing it. It should avoid any actions that might tend in the direction of continuing harm and exclusion.
Many congregations, now that marriage equality has been established in something like 30 states across the country, are at a crossroads. They will feel compelled to act. One of the worst steps any congregation can take at this juncture is to put such relationships, or the blessing of them, up for a congregational vote.
First of all, the pastoral ministry and its extension to all peoples should not be a matter of vote. When we vote to not bless same-gender relationships, we are considering denying to members of our own congregations the blessing and support so many others freely seek in our congregations. We call into question the validity of blessings already conducted. And we alienate both the members of the congregations who are LGBTQ, and their allies.
I fully understand that some others in Christian congregations feel they are hurt by the openness of church leaders or churches to begin blessing families previously denied such blessings. It’s hard to acknowledge our complicity in sin and oppression. It’s hard to change. But the pain somebody feels because their beliefs about what others should receive as a blessing is of a different order of magnitude, and is of a completely different sort, from the pain people legitimately experience when they are discriminated against on the basis of their age, race, gender, or sexual orientation.
So I promise, as a pastor in this church, that whenever any couple approaches me for pastoral care and preparation for the blessing of their relationship, I will treat them in exactly the same way, whether it is a heterosexual couple, a same-gender couple, an elderly couple, divorcées, a poor couple, or an inter-racial couple. I will prepare them for marriage or blessing using the Prepare-Enrich resources I always use to counsel families as they prepare for life together. Everyone has a guarantee from me that they will not be excluded or turned away.
On the specific issue of voting about this at congregational meetings, or voting on it at all. Not only do I not believe it is good or right to vote about relationships, I also believe it is perhaps even inappropriate to gather for such a vote in the first place. It sets a bad precedent for congregations to begin taking votes on who in the congregation the pastor or other leaders can be available for for blessing and support. As much as I love the social statement our denomination adopted in 2009, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, I think it failed at this critical moment, it put relationships to a vote. I was at that time and still remain in agreement with dissenting position 2 of the social statement, which argued for more unequivocal statement of full inclusion for LGBQT persons in the life of the ELCA.
If I do not believe congregations should vote on the blessing of same-gender marriages, what is the alternative practice we should engage in? If we are to take any actions as a Christian communities to repair the heterosexism so long rampant among us, we should simply adopt a wide statement of welcome, like the following:
Our congregation embraces Jesus' message that God loves and accepts every person. We practice acceptance, belonging, caring, compassion, and spiritual growth. We believe in creating space at the Lord’s table for all God's children to transform our church and world into the full expression of Christ's inclusive love.
We respect the inherent and valuable contributions each member makes to the Body of Christ. We celebrate our diversity and recognize the sacred worth and dignity of all persons regardless of sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, race, age, ethnicity, physical or mental capacity, education, or economic or marital status.
As we journey towards reconciliation, we proclaim this statement of welcome to all who have known the pain of exclusion and discrimination within the church. We welcome all persons to full participation in the life and ministries of our congregation.
At the same time, we recognize that there remain differences of opinion among us. We do not seek to erase our differences. We welcome all in our journey together in faith toward greater understanding and mutual respect. As a Reconciling congregation, we invite all people to join us in our faith journey toward greater love, understanding, and mutual respect.
As this is from God, who reconciled us . . . through Christ, and who gives us the ministry of reconciliation. II Corinthians 5:18
If this were on the agenda of council meetings across the country, or at upcoming congregational meetings, I would be fully in support of it, and believe it to be commensurate with the call extended to me when I began ministry as a pastor in Christ's church. It would be the church joining wholeheartedly God's heart for justice.
For further reading, consider the following:
A recent article in Christian Century: http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2014-10/what-marriage-now
An older article in Christian Century: http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-04/same-sex-complementarity