I have been associated with a church that recently had the first of two votes, in effect, to disallow the ministry of gay pastors or the solemnizing of gay marriages.
The response of churches to people who are openly gay and who want to be part of a church community has been varied. These have ranged from active shunning of the gay person and also of his or her family on one end of the spectrum, to official endorsement of gay relationships on the other. Between these two poles there have been, I imagine, a range of other responses, often informal but also often clear and unequivocal. Churches base their responses to gay people on doctrine. Beyond the doctrine and religious ideas are individual and personal responses that can be quite emotional.
What are we to make of these strong responses?
I see a parallel to interracial marriages in the last century. For most of the 20th century, interracial marriages were rare but the emotional responses to these relationships could be strong. In a Sixties movie, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey play the parents in an upper middle-class family. They respond to the interracial relationship of their daughter to a black man (Sidney Poitier) with surprise and some pointed barbs at each other. As duelling parents they challenge each other, as these old stars of the screen could, in a prickly way about their attitudes and feelings. The transition from surprise to some understanding is the focus of the movie.
In the U.S. south until quite recently interracial marriage was unheard of but in the last decade interracial marriage has become more frequent sometimes causing families of the married couple to step back if not out of the relationship with their married child. I believe the struggle these families and sometimes communities have with these marriages is the breaking of a traditional and long-time taboo. Attitudes and views have been there for centuries and no amount of legislation can quickly change them.
Reviewing my own 30-year multiracial marriage and the multiracial relationship I am in now, since my wife’s death, I can attest to the experience that these relationships are not always accepted or validated. Societies and the church have had a history in excluding different groups from full participation. Reflecting on their history requires that churches and societies take an unblinkered look at how and why beliefs develop and exist.
For individual churchgoers, church attendance gives a sense of community, often a sense of clarity and truth to their lives and a clear sense of personal morality. Max Weber, a sociologist, saw churches as having a valuable and unique social function as no other organization does. Carl Jung, a psychiatrist, saw religious beliefs as offering people a vision and assisting them in grappling with challenges such as illness, suffering and death.
Whether churches realize their potential for good right across society and their communities will vary but the notion of being the yeast or salt of the earth is no shallow metaphor. Individual churches could evolve through deep renewal in acknowledging and validating gay men and women who they know and see, and what this means to a God they do not see.