Let me do my best to summarize my personal experience with the Church’s current questions over sexuality.
My dad is a Methodist pastor, and so is my older sister. My younger brother and my mom are excellent non-pastor people. My mom is as fruitful in her everyday Christian ministry to the world as the rest of us combined. We had an awesome growing-up life in a uniquely loving household, and in Methodist churches all over South Carolina.
For our family, the topic of human sexuality was fairly ever-present. We didn’t casually chat about it over supper. But, from the earliest times, we engaged in the conversation in ways that most of our culture wouldn’t start to do for decades yet. For one, my grandmother’s brother, my Uncle Benjamin, identified as gay. After leaving home and going off to college, he excelled artistically and creatively; he was successful in ballet and fashion, he worked as a model for the Ford Agency. And he came out of the closet sometime in the 1960s. In those days, I understand it was met with the usual mixed reactions – parts of the family ignored or denied it, others doubted or disagreed with it, a few were supportive in different ways. I have very little memory of Uncle Benjamin, but I do remember being about five years old when my mom left for several weeks. She flew to San Francisco to be with him because he had contracted HIV. In those dark days of AIDS knowledge, he didn’t survive long at all, so she was there at his dying bedside. After his cremation, half of his ashes were buried in the family cemetery here in South Carolina. Benjamin’s partner kept the other half. I’ve had good talks over the years, especially with my grandmother who so adored her little brother, about his life and choices and sexuality.
Second, my parents’ other close family and friends always featured folks from across the sexual spectrum. As they tell it, nearly half of their wedding party consisted of persons who, at one time or another, wrestled with same-sex attraction. It just sorta happened that way. My uncle, my dad’s oldest brother, spent his whole life struggling with his sexuality. At various times in his life he identified as gay, straight, and bisexual. Many of my mom’s college friends had a similar experience. She attended Winthrop College at a time when it was at the forefront of the LGBTQ movement. This is all to say that, even from early childhood, my family was approaching the overall questions of human sexuality very personally, through relationships with real people. They talked about it with empathy and compassion, while also approaching things theologically and Biblically, trying to discern God’s leading.
Along with growing up in that household, like most of you I’ve had my own wide-ranging relationships with folks who identify as LGBTQ. From grade school, to high school and college, to today, I’ve had peers and relatives and co-workers who identify as gay. I’ve had dozens of LGBTQ friends and acquaintances in the churches where we’ve lived, and in seminary, and in every single congregation that I’ve served. Sometimes these folks were “out” to me, and sometimes they weren’t. Some were Christians and some weren’t. Sometimes they were sexually active, sometimes they chose celibacy. I’m trying to say that I don’t lack for exposure or investment in what we’re talking about here, including strong connections with the gay community. I’m thankful for it.
At the same time, as a child of the ’80s, mostly outside of my immediate family, I was exposed to more than enough of southern American culture. Its false teaching was that LGBTQ-identified people were repugnant, alien and subhuman, morally reprehensible, and to be ridiculed above all. A great deal of schoolyard insults were consciously or unconsciously anchored in homosexual references. Long before I knew what “faggot” meant, the tone and body language of someone wielding that word made clear that it was venomous. And then there was other more ubiquitous slang, the kind that we pretended was somehow less offensive; it lasted far into high school and beyond. I’m talking about how, when anything was out of place, displeasing, or worthy of scorn, it could always be easily qualified under the umbrella-phrase: “That’s just gay.”
Over the years I’ve used plenty of this sort of language, usually without so much as a second thought, more times than I care to admit. Too many of us have. Too many of us still do. It’s absolutely sinful and ridiculous. And that’s just the words that we use, never mind the other attitudes, actions, and systems that are far more sinister. I’m trying to say that I also don’t lack for some direct experience with the evil that so many of us have inflicted upon the gay community. I’m repenting of it.
My personal sense is that everyone’s sexuality is complicated and unique and nuanced. It seems to be shaped by all sorts of internal and external influences, some within our control and some beyond, some holy and some not at all. Our sexual attractions and orientation are formed in mysterious ways, and whether or not they’re pleasing to God depends on what we do with them. In bygone days of our culture, it was obviously never as simple as people claimed, when they thought all that needed saying was, “The Bible says homosexuals are an abomination.” In today’s environment, it’s also not as simple as people claim, when they say things like, “Baby, I was born this way…Love is love…Y’all means all….” and every other motto you can find to support the infinitely growing sexual spectrum.
I believe that redefining the basics of Christian marriage is a really, really significant step. I’m sure it has implications that we probably can’t even see yet. And, in all honesty, this cultural shift seems to align perfectly with the major flaws, the biggest blind-spots, in our current American zeitgeist. So, I think the onus, the “burden of proof,” lies firmly with progressive-minded folk to substantially demonstrate the truth in their ideas. As I’ve told every progressive friend or colleague I’ve talked to about any of this: I would love to join you in your perspective. I would love to find a way to get there with you. If you can help me get there, by all means, please do. If God can show me the way, I welcome that day. But having done as exhaustive a search as I know how, I still don’t know how to get there. And, honestly, I’m increasingly unsure how my peers have arrived there so definitively.
So, as it stands, I appreciate the United Methodist Church’s current teaching on sexuality. I think it reflects a truly honest reading of Scripture, faithfulness to our excellent Wesleyan/Christian tradition, sound reasoning and personal experience. I see the current UMC stance as properly moderate. It leaves no room for actual hatred or bigotry for LGBTQ-identified persons; it supports civil equality; it recognizes that every person is offered the full embrace of the grace of God; it invites anyone to join and serve in the life of the church. It just stops short in one way: we cannot find a way to conclude that God authored and/or embraces same-sex practice.
That’s where I find myself today. I don’t hold any phobia toward any person living or dead (that I know of). I treasure the fact that real hatred and bigotry have always been, and always will be, outlawed in my family and household. I’ll go out on a limb and wager that I’m probably as informed, educated, intelligent, and compassionate as any of you readers. Yet I continue to hold a traditional view of human sexuality and marriage.
As the words go: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” If you ever want to talk about it, I’m always down with that.