Sunday, December 20, 2015

Are LGBTQ clergy fit to serve in the church?

Are people who as identify lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer fit to serve as leaders of the church in the world?

Before you stop reading because I am asking in this question, first know that I identify as a member of the LGBTQ community and as a member of the clergy of the ELCA, so for me, the answer is an absolute YES.


But I am asking this question to try to get to some sort of understanding for myself about why the in the world we are still even having this conversation.

This post was inspired by some ongoing conversation in the social media world by other Lutheran clergy who note that it is still extremely difficult for LGBTQ folks to find congregational calls to live out their vocation to serve God and neighbor through the ministry of Word and Sacrament.  It is clear that the system is broken and undoubtedly favors heterosexual white men, just like nearly every other institution.

I am absolutely enraged that this is still up for debate. But in conversing with others online, I am beginning to realize that we are often not communicating about the same thing using language that both sides can understand.

First, I think it is important to begin with looking at what sexual orientation means.  For me, it is an immutable, unchanging, part of who I am and who I was created to be. It is "against nature" (my nature) to attempt to be heterosexual. I know this because I tried it and I was downright miserable for many years. Sexual orientation is not a choice.  However, much of this debate begins with a misunderstanding of this very critical point. In order to have a productive conversation, we need to begin with this mutual understanding. With this understanding, it is just as offensive to ask if an LGBTQ person is fit to serve the church as it is to ask if a person of color or a woman is fit to serve.  This is atrocious.

Next, is the sexual orientation of one's pastor a hindrance to completing the essential functions of the role of pastor? Does the gender expression of the pastor's partner have anything whatsoever to do with the pastor's ability to preside, hold the office of the keys, and tend to one's congregation in a pastoral way?  It seems really quite ridiculous to me to ask this question. My wife is an engineer.  She has received extensive education, passed several licensing examinations, and received training in the workplace to do her work.  The fact that she is married to me has no bearing whatsoever on her ability to be an engineer. I have received extensive education, completed the candidacy process, and completed an internship in a congregation. I have answered God's call to ministry and that call has been affirmed externally by a number of stakeholders including my congregation, my synod, my candidacy committee and faculty of my seminary. The fact that I am married to a woman has no bearing on my ability to serve God and God's people.

Also, is this a moral/theological/ethical issue?  Of course not.  But there are people out there who believe that I am living an immoral life, that I am living in such a place of sin that they cannot possibly hear the Gospel from me. I am living in sin, just as any one else is living in sin.  I sometimes hurt the people I love through my own stupidity or my sharp tongue.  I tend to think that I can fix everything on my own and I don't need help from anyone else. It is hard for me to admit when I am wrong. But what is not sinful is that I am in a loving, respectful, publicly accountable relationship with another woman.

So where does this leave the debate?  I find that most of the discomfort with a gay pastor can be reduced to what I will call the "ick factor."  For many people, it's icky to think about sex. This is a problem in our churches. And because of deeply entrenched heteronormativity, we don't automatically think about sex when we see a straight couple.  But same gender relationships are far too often just reduced to sex and this is beside the point.  What consenting adults do behind closed doors is no business of anyone else. How they live out their commitment to one another by being part of a congregation, by serving their neighbor, and how they live into the vocation of family is what is important.

Finally, the question of whether or not LGBTQ clergy are fit to serve the church is often based in fear of the unknown.  Public acceptance of same-gender relationships is still evolving, and same-gender couples are still working on feeling safe enough to be public about their relationships. Some people simply do not know any LGBTQ people (or perhaps more appropriately, do not THINK they know any LGBTQ people, but statistically they do).  There is fear that the gay pastor will shove some sort of gay agenda onto them.  That by calling a gay pastor, they get a one-person gay pride parade. That a gay pastor will be primarily GAY, and only after that, then a pastor. This could not be more false.

LGBTQ people are everywhere. We aren't scary. We aren't going to corrupt the children. We just want to live our lives in the way that we have been created to be.  We want meaningful work. We want to live and love and be part of our communities.  Some of us have been called to be clergy.

Of course LGBTQ clergy are fit to serve in the church.  And God has called us to serve one another and love one another, and we have work to do to care for our neighbors in need.

The tyranny of literal interpretation

NYC, 2014. A. Hanson
As I reflect recently upon the barrage of gun violence in the news recently and the varied arguments for and against control, I am struck by the comparison between a fundamentalist interpretation of the Second Amendment and the biblical scriptures.

The Second Amendment states, "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

Being that I am not a constitutional scholar, nor an attorney or supreme court justice, this comparison is imperfect, but bear with me.

At the time the US constitution was drafted, there were a few    important contextual things of which to be aware.  First, the US was a country in its infancy and did not have its own organized armed forces.  A militia was necessary to defend the infant United States from the British Empire in the war of  Independence. Next, there was no possible way that those who drafted the constitution would have known about the level of sophisticated weaponry that we possess now. Guns at the time were muzzle loaders and the bayonet (essentially a pokey appendage off the top of a gun used for stabbing other people) was still a viable option for wartime.

It is dangerous and foolhardy to assume that the second amendment could apply categorically to every situation that we could encounter now.  We do not need a militia, because we have one of the largest and most well-armed military in the world.  The average person does not need military grade weapons. Also, the semi-automatic guns that can fire a barrage of bullets in seconds are in an entirely different universe than the guns that were possessed by the founding fathers.  It is just not  fair comparison.  The Second Amendment captures a specific need in a moment of time.

All of this fundamentalist interpretation of the second amendment got me thinking about the tyranny of literal interpretation of the Bible as well. The Bible also captures a specific moment of time and its directives simply cannot be directly translated into being applicable for every single situation that one might encounter many hundreds of years later.

It is my theory that a literal interpretation of scripture is usually rooted in fear. Fear that if some part of the biblical canon might not make sense anymore, it all suddenly falls apart. If some part (such as a discussion of how LGBTQ folks are portrayed in scripture) requires more careful scrutiny and midrash (imaginative wrestling with sacred texts to find a new faithful interpretation), those who would interpret scripture literally would suddenly lose their footing and everything they have believed is wrong.  This feels tyrannical, and in my opinion, not how God would have us live at all.

I think that a literal interpretation of the Second Amendment is also rooted in fear. Fear that rights might be taken away, that there would be no way to defend one's self from a vague and unspecified threat, and so on.  It is an interpretation that comes from an individualist perspective rather than a collectivist perspective. That if one small portion of the canon of laws of the United States was critically reexamined for contextual suitability, the tyranny of literal interpretation would predict that anarchy would ensue.

I think that anarchy with regards to gun rights is already here. Even the smallest and most reasonable of restrictions (background checks or waiting periods for gun purchases) is protested vehemently. Even though a majority of citizens support such sensible gun control measures, a government propped up by funding from the NRA, completely ignores the will of the people and chaos continues.  If that is not anarchy, I am not sure what is. Killing one another in gun battles that play out in the streets or in schools or movie theaters or clinics is not how God would have us live.

Now is the time to critically reexamine literal interpretations of the Second Amendment. This charge can be led by people of faith who understand the importance of looking at things in context and who understand that we belong to each other in this crazy and broken world.