“When you suffer, the whole body of Christ suffers”

There’s been a new contribution, from North America, to the long-running and still ongoing discussion of the place of same-gender attracted people within the church. It’s from the the Bishops of the United Methodist Church (USA). (See http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/council-of-bishops-letter-to-the-global-lgbtq-community)

But first, before considering this, let me say something about the Uniting Church in Australia. Specifically, about the proposal made in the middle of last year, when the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church had on its agenda a proposal to prepare an apology to LGBTIQ people from the church.

The proposal was never debated, largely because it was overshadowed by the energy and time devoted to the proposals relating to the marriage of people of the same gender. The Facilitation Team (of which I was a member) did recommend that this proposal be considered before, and apart from, the proposals relating to marriage. 

In the end, the proposal was put to one side as the focus on the marriage debate intensified throughout the week, and it remained as one of the matters not concluded at the end of the week that Assembly met last July.

The proposal that did not receive attention from the Assembly was to to request the Standing Committee to:

(a) appoint a task group to consult widely with LGBTIQ and other members of the Church in order to develop the wording of an official apology from the Uniting Church in Australia to LGBTIQ Australians for the Church’s role in the silence, rejection, discrimination and stereotyping of LGBTIQ people; and

(b) bring a proposal regarding an apology to the 16th Assembly.

It looked like a reasonable proposal which, in other circumstances, might well have received strong support. On this occasion, however, it did not even receive consideration.

So I have read with interest a statement from the Bishops of the United Methodist Church (USA), who have published a pastoral letter addressed to LGBTQ people from that church. (Unlike in recent UCA discussions, the UMC Bishops have not included Intersex people in their grouping, for reasons that I’m not aware of.)

The UMC (USA) is one of many denominations which, in recent years, have experienced the same kind of debate and division as the Uniting Church in Australia, in relation to matters of sexuality. The UMC letter is being published in advance of a Special Session of their General Conference, to be held in February 2019, to discuss and determine “whether, how and which churches within United Methodism will allow openly gay clergy and same-sex marriage rites, and whether homosexuality is ‘incompatible with Christian teaching’.” (See https://religionnews.com/2018/08/02/united-methodists-debate-lobby-and-worry-in-advance-of-lgbt-decision/)

Quite significantly, the Methodist Bishops declare to LGBTQ people that holding this special session “creates a time and space of harm for you and members of your family. To be the focus of attention, discussion and debate is hurtful.” 

This, certainly, has been the experience of same-gender attracted members of the Uniting Church over the past year, as they have felt in the centre of an ongoing maelstrom: first, in public debates relating to the 2017 national plebiscite; then in discussions leading up to, and in the course of the meeting of the UCA’s 15th Assembly in July 2018; and then in the months after the Assembly, as some people and groups within the UCA have attempted to reverse, or at least delay, the implementation of the Assembly decision, by asking for further consultation on the matter.

You can see something of the impact of these events in the recent Statement by Uniting Network at http://www.unitingnetworkaustralia.org.au/uniting-network-australia-express-great-relief-that-marriage-will-continue-to-be-available-for-lgbtiq-people-within-the-uniting-church/

This Statement refers to a “cumulative effect … that continues to impact the mental and spiritual health of people”, notes that many people “are feeling tired and broken in our church right now, especially those who are LGBTIQ”, that there continue to be “stories of profound pain and angst” being shared, and specifically requests that the Church “publicly acknowledge the human impact of these processes and reflect on how this can be better handled in the future”.

The letter of the American Methodist Bishops makes some clear statements and offers both a confession of past actions and a commitment for future actions. It does, however, fall short of providing a direct apology. 

The Bishops note that “Demeaning and dehumanizing comments and attacks on LGBTQ persons … are a great tragedy and do violence to hearts, minds, and spirits.” Addressing such people directly, the letter alludes to Paul’s writing to the Corinthians, affirming that “when you suffer, the whole body of Christ suffers.” This is one of many verses in letters by Paul that might be drawn upon to indicate the tone of conversation that should be taking place. (See my musings on this, at https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/11/17/let-your-gentleness-be-known-to-everyone/)

A commitment for future work is made by the Bishops: “Together, we need to work to resist hate, violence, and oppression of persons. In these attitudes and actions, great harm is done throughout the community, to the offended and the offender.” 

Referring to the upcoming Special Session in February, they note, “As leaders of the church, we are brokenhearted by conversations that dishonor, objectify and dehumanize. We confess … that our actions and words have not always been life-giving or honoring of the LGBTQ community.”

This confession, as honest as it is, still falls short of being a direct apology to the LGBTQ people being addressed by the American Methodist Bishops. Rather, the letter moves swiftly to an expression of commitment for future words and actions:  “Amid our sorrow, we seek to learn and grow in grace. To that end, we commit ourselves to helping people who disagree with each other to have conversations that include, honor, and respect people with different convictions.”

The Presbytery of which I was a member last year, considered the ways that we talked about this issue. Our decision focussed on the importance of a pastoral response to those who were feeling unhappy or uncomfortable with the decision of the 15th Assembly. (You can read my reflections on this discussion at https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/10/16/recognising-pain-working-for-reconciliation/) We need to ensure that the same pastoral care is offered to LGBTIQ people in ongoing discussions.

It is noteworthy that the conclusion of the UMC letter identifies this pastoral commitment as coming from leaders across a range of theological perspectives: “We are a diverse group of leaders—conservative, centrist, progressive—however, we are unified in our commitment to work together in ways that will give you and all God’s children strength, comfort and hope for better and more merciful tomorrows.” That shows real, honest leadership across the spectrum!

I think that there are some lessons that the UCA can take from this.

The clearest message that I hear, is that fostering honest and respectful relationships needs to take priority over arguing about the finer points of doctrine. Instead of debate about what is or is not sinful, how holiness is to be manifested, what repentance requires of us, where the boundaries of orthodoxy lie, and what constitutes apostasy, the letter remains focussed on relationships. 

The Bishops distance themselves from actions and words which dehumanize, objectify, and oppress. Instead, the Bishops speak of grace, respect, and honour—the qualities which, they hope, will mark the ongoing discussion of the matter. That is a pathway that we in the UCA would do well to follow.

The letter reminds us that caring, compassionate pastoral care can be offered—and should be offered—even as the requisite process take place. The UMC is still going to have a debate about the issue at its Special Session, but the Bishops are urging all participants to have that debate in ways that do not perpetuate old patterns of argument. They are seeking a debate that will value difference and demonstrate grace. 

We can only hope that this becomes the reality for the UMC. And that people in the UCA will similarly ponder how to converse in this way. Goodness knows, our leaders have urged us to do this over recent months (see https://uniting.church/pastoralletter/ and https://crosslight.org.au/2018/12/25/uca-presidents-2018-christmas-message/)

These conclusions are as pertinent for the UCA as they are for the UMC.  And it seems to me that, should the Uniting Church get to the point in the future where it might be able to an apology along the lines proposed to the 15th Assembly, such an apology will need to be grounded in this honest, relational language, and not venture into the interpretive minefield of hermeneutical, theological, and doctrinal disputations.

An apology directly to LGBTIQ people would be historic and groundbreaking. The UCA has already shown that it is willing to offer such a groundbreaking lead, with its decision about marriage. The offering of an apology would be another such possibility. 

Let us hope and pray ….

 

See also https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/13/affirmations-we-can-make-together/ and https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/11/a-prayer-for-the-uniting-church-in-australia/

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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