As a Presbyterian minister, I believed it was a sin. Then I met people who really understood the stakes: Gay men
A recent poll shows a huge shift in American attitudes toward gay marriage, from a 32 percent approval in 2004 to 53 percent today.
I am one of those people who changed their minds.
In 1989 when I was ordained as a minister to serve a small church in North Carolina, homosexuality was an invisible issue. Gay rights were barely on the radar of mainstream churches. The idea of an openly gay pastor was beyond the pale. I knew there were “gay churches,” of course, but I did not believe one could be a practicing homosexual and a Christian. The Bible was straightforward on this issue. It all seemed incredibly obvious to me.
But over the next five years, homosexuality not only became an issue — it became The Issue. Sides were drawn, and those of us in the middle were pulled to either end. I was a biblical Christian, of the “hate the sin, love the sinner” crowd. And so it seemed clear that I could not fully accept, ordain and marry gays. If I was going to be forced to choose a side, that was mine.
The truth is, I was put out that this was an issue. Feeding the hungry, preaching the gospel, comforting the afflicted, standing up to racial intolerance — these were the struggles I signed up for, not determining the morality of what adults did in their bedrooms.
But the debate would not go away. It came up, again and again, year after year, pushed by activists on either end. Each time, I grudgingly voted to hold the traditional line and limit the role of gays in the church. But I felt increasingly uncomfortable. What I believed was biblically correct began to feel less and less right in my heart.
While the church was fighting it out, I was going through my own battle. I moved to Alaska in 1996, but the debate followed me. And three major things happened which started to crack the wall of my complacency.
First, I had a long, online conversation with a gay Christian man who had wrestled with his sexuality and finally decided, as he put it, that God was more concerned with his pride than his sexuality. He was hesitant to talk about the subject when I first broached it, partially because every other pastor he’d talked to wanted to convert him. But in the end, he’s the one who taught me. He surprised me by saying he did not know he was gay until he was in his early 20s. (He just thought he had an extraordinary respect for women.)
Next, a parishioner asked me to do an exorcism for him because he was gay. He had tried everything else he could think of — therapy, prayer, will power, alcohol, support groups, marriage — and nothing worked. It was a heartbreaking situation. As a minister I may have questioned the sinfulness of his actions, but I absolutely knew he was not demon-possessed.
Then I met a woman whose husband had left her for another man. They were a clergy couple, serving a small-town church. She had every right to be angry and hurt, but I was awed by her grace. She told me he was the best minister she had ever known. (From his work record, I would agree.) He simply got to the point where he could no longer live the lie of his sexuality. Of course he had to leave the ministry once he came out. It must have been a hideous choice: Pretend to be something he was not, or leave his calling because of the person he loved.
These experiences shook my worldview. It became clear to me that none of these men had chosen to be gay, just as I had never chosen to be heterosexual. How could I condemn someone for something that was really not their fault? Meanwhile, I was experiencing the slow disintegration of my own marriage. Needless to say, it was hard for me to condemn anyone else for their relationships when mine was in such bad shape. I began moving closer to the center. If homosexuality was a “sin,” I wanted to add an asterisk to it.
Toward the end of my parish ministry, I was approached by five individuals who demanded that I do a sermon to come out strong against any acceptance of gays and lesbians in the church. They wanted to hear what the Bible said on the issue. The funny thing was, all five of them were divorced and remarried. Had I done a sermon on what the Bible said about divorce, every one of them would have left the church in a huff.
I did that sermon, however, and it was not my best hour as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. In my research, I found that the Bible was more nuanced about the issue than I previously believed, and I tried to convey that, but ultimately I still came out against acceptance of homosexuality. Now, I wish I’d been more upfront about how my own views were transforming, but I took a back-door approach to the subject. I talked about all the sins according to the Bible, and said if we were going to start throwing out sinners from our church, I wanted to start with the gossips.
Looking back, I see how much my own opinions had been formed by the fact that I was representing a split congregation. Our church, like so many, was divided. And while the people who believed it should be accepted were not going to leave if we maintained a position of non-acceptance, those who felt it was a sin would bolt in a heartbeat if we ever allowed gay clergy or gay marriage. If they bolted, half our budget would go out the door. I knew the issue could tear the church apart. What I didn’t realize was how it could tear apart the people in the church as well.
Every year we send young people to our national meeting as youth delegates. In a year when gay ordination was going to be discussed (again), I sat down with our selected delegate to share some of my own thoughts on the topic. Later, the person declined the position. I was given reasons, but none of them made any real sense until I learned, many years later, that the person had come out of the closet. What had I said back then? I couldn’t remember exactly, but I am pretty sure it boiled down to the idea that there was no place for homosexuals in our church.
In 2005 I left the parish ministry to work as a hospital chaplain. Part of the reason for leaving was my separation. But also, I was tired of trying to live up to standards that I did not fully agree with.
With distance, I could see the mean-spirited nature of the anti-gay movement, and the naked way large Christian organizations used the “gay threat” to raise money. Free from the constraints of a congregation, I could spend more time actually looking at the biblical texts that deal with homosexuality, and I was surprised to find they were not as clear as I had supposed they were. At this point, I have done a 180 on the topic. And I believe it’s a change for the good.
So why had we singled out homosexuality as a litmus test for True Christianity in the first place? Why had it become such a lightning rod for self-righteousness?
One reason, I think, is that it’s easy to condemn homosexuality if you are not gay. It is much harder than condemning pride, or lust or greed, things that most practicing Christians have struggled with. It is all too easy to make homosexuality about “those people,” and not me. If I were to judge someone for their inflated sense of pride, or their tendency to worship various cultural idols, I would feel some personal stake, some cringe of self-judgment. Not so with homosexuality.
Now I am wondering why, if two gay people want to commit their lives to one another, they should ever be denied that chance. No church or pastor should be forced to perform those ceremonies, and they can choose not to recognize gay marriage for their adherents. But the constitution of the Presbyterian Church does not explicitly forbid a pastor from being a thief, a murderer, or an egotistical jerk. It is not designed to do these things. It does prohibit a gay person from becoming a pastor. All I can ask is: Why?
Murray Richmond was a Presbyterian minister for 17 years and a hospital chaplain for three years. He is currently a legislative aide in the Alaska State Senate. More Murray Richmond.
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