by Rev. Sanford "Sandy" Brown
People danced in the streets of my hometown last month when voters overwhelmingly approved Referendum 74 and granted full marriage equality to Washington State’s gay and lesbian couples. Without doubt a key element of the campaign’s success was the unanimous support of clergy and denominational executives of mainline Protestant churches. Hundreds of church leaders endorsed the campaign, making public their stand in support of marriage equality, and I was just one of several clergy who appeared in TV and direct mail advertisements on behalf of Ref 74. The ads proclaimed, "God is Love" and clergy and denominational execs from the Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal and United Methodist churches all gave public voice to the message. Though I was out of town on election night, my son tells me that Broadway Avenue, a few blocks from my home, was the scene of a mass election night celebration of young and old people, gay and straight, who danced in the street and sang their joy that Washington voters believe in love.
The glow of our victory turned to a grim acceptance of cold reality last week as I read Asbury Seminary president Tim Tennent’s blog post "Why the Church is So Concerned with Same-Sex Marriage and Homosexual Ordination. The post is a harsh reminder of the minority status of Washington and the ten other states where marriage equality is the law of the land. It's a sad moment for the United Methodist Church since so many of our clergy are trained at Asbury Seminary. But even more, it’s a reminder that our message of “God is love” hasn’t yet melted the iceberg at the heart of conservative, evangelical Christianity.
I’ve never met Dr. Tennent, but by his photos he looks like a perfectly friendly, generous and intelligent man. I have no doubt about his Christian bonafides – he’s a seminary president after all. But there are two things that surprise me about his post:
a) He never uses the word “love,” and
b) He never describes a personal relationship with any gay or lesbian person
You don’t have to mention love to be a theologian. However, a Christian theologian is unmoored from the teaching of our faith if he or she proposes an ethical framework that ignores the Great Commandment. How can a Christian leader describe Christian social interactions without, “Love thy neighbor”?
Likewise, any theology about homosexuality is dangerously adrift if it doesn’t include the stories of real gay and lesbian people.
I'm sure Dr. Tennent knows that in our United Methodist denomination we pride ourselves on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which helps us interpret scripture in the light of tradition, reason and experience. The timeless beauty of this theological process is that it carefully connects our scriptural roots with our brains and with an openness to learning from the daily lives of actual human beings. Without this connection theology becomes a mind game, a left-brain monologue about abstract concepts; the pulling of intellectual levers based on ideologies, laws or theories that never gets tested in the gritty reality of the here and now.
In my experience it’s no small thing that Tennent’s recipe for the church’s stand on homosexuality would exclude these two ingredients. I’ve discovered in 30 years of ministry that it’s precisely these two things that make all the difference in the world, because an informed and evangelical understanding of homosexuality must include love and listening.
Jesus’ call to love our neighbor (and our enemy) requires that we be in an attitude of compassionate service to those around us. There’s no point in even having a discussion about the Christian response to homosexuality if it is not in the context of loving our gay or lesbian neighbor.
Listening is the next step. Over the years I’ve learned that it takes a personal relationship with a gay or lesbian person for the average heterosexual to move toward acceptance. This is my story -- I never actually met an out gay or lesbian Christian until I was in seminary and it upset everything I knew about Christianity and sexuality. Because of Jesus’ requirement to love, I stuck with it and learned to love people who were different and, at least in my middle-America upbringing, I'd been taught to treat as outcasts. And then it wasn’t until more recently when I met and listened to caring and effective gay and lesbian parents and met their children that I fully accepted the concept of marriage equality. I “got it” only because of a commitment to love and it came through a process of listening.
The process is not unlike the transformation we see in New Testament leaders as they met, loved, and listened to Gentile converts. At first the church wanted all Gentiles to become Jews, to adopt the ancient dietary laws and the requirement of male circumcision. Peter’s famous dream (Acts 10) opened the way to include Cornelius and other Gentiles without requiring adherence to the Old Testament’s strict dietary laws. Paul makes clear over and again that circumcision is also unnecessary for entrance into the Christian faith. In fact, he commands us, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” The yoke Paul refers to is, of course, the Old Testament law. Circumcision and kosher food rules, along with the the law itself were jettisoned by the early Church in favor of a radical new openness to Spirit that would enable the church to be free and open in its Gospel of Love, where Spirit led us toward righteousness, not blind adherence to outmoded and unfeeling behavioral rules.
This freedom is a scary thing. The church’s fear of freedom perhaps has no greater contemporary manifestation than its fear of gay and lesbian Christians. Writers like Tennent devolve back to a pre-Christian understanding of law as central, not faith; obedience, not Spirit. It’s as though Paul never wrote Galatians – that’s how far fear has taken us from the free and loving heart of our faith.
To those who subscribe to the belief that gay and lesbian Christians should not be ordained and who believe gay and lesbian people should not be allowed to marry I have this to say: let yourself go into the arms of the God of love. Be the love. Don’t be afraid. God will walk with you. Christian history proves that love will surprise us in each generation. This is your surprise.
Because we now know that gay and lesbian people are gay and lesbian because of an irreversible genetic or developmental identity, we have no choice but to love. To Dr. Tennent: this is not about how many scripture verses proscribe homosexual activity. After all, there are plenty that require kosher eating and circumcision. This is about: will we become a New Testament church that entrusts the Spirit to guide us toward love, or will we be hamstrung with the older-than-Christianity tradition that drags us downward toward pride in our own righteousness and condemnation toward others and emptiness of heart toward the stranger.
I vote for a New Testament church, and in the next gay marriage celebration that happens out on Broadway you can depend on the fact that I and many other Christian leaders will join in the dance. Knowing God, there'll one day be a dance like this right there in Wilmore, Kentucky, too.
. . .
Rev. Dr. Sanford “Sandy” Brown is pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Seattle. Prior to his 2008 appointment to this historic congregation, Rev. Brown's ministry included leadership of United Methodist churches in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference and service as executive director of two local mission agencies, including the Church Council of Greater Seattle. He has served as an elected public school board member, led a high profile battle to overturn an illegal mayoral election, and helped found the Committee to End Homelessness in King County where he directed its advocacy efforts from 2006-2008. Rev. Brown graduated from the University of Washington in 1978 (B.A. History), and earned a master’s degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in 1982 and a Doctor of Ministry from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1997. In 2005 he received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Garrett-Evangelical. He is married to Dr. Gail Van Norman, a clinical medical ethicist and professor of anesthesiology and has two grown sons. In his spare time he enjoys long-distance walking and advising prospective pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.