Charting the Future of Ministerial Ordination for LGBTQ People: When the Unthinkable Becomes Commonplace
(Note: This article first appeared in the Huffington Post on June 11, 2014. The original posting can be accessed here, and we encourage you to do so.)
A quiet revolution is taking place in once anti-LGBTQ denominational circles. Women and men who are widely known to be openly partnered and “practicing” queer people are being ordained as ministers in churches once ardently opposed to the ordination of gays and lesbians—and are being celebrated for it. The recently unthinkable is becoming commonplace, and none too soon.
Late May and June is prime ordination season, with Pentecost Sunday as the day of choice for many. Graduation Day has come and gone by then in seminaries, and Ordination Day approaches. In Texas, the storied “buckle on the Bible Belt,” this season I have watched as several recently authorized women and men knelt for the laying on of hands in their sponsoring congregations, and their same-sex partners have participated in the ordination of their beloved spouses as openly and joyously as any traditionally married partners would: attending the service, organizing the reception, and in some cases participating in the liturgy itself. Denominational officials presiding at these ordinations are seemingly as happy to carry out their duties at these LGBTQ ordinations as they are for those of their “straight” ordinands. What a difference a year or two makes!
Make no mistake about it: the genuine acceptance of LGBTQ candidates for ordination in traditional and mainline contexts is revolutionary. Though closeted gay men have been ordained for generations, and more recently closeted lesbians as women’s ordination came online, stigma often haunted any clergy person suspected of being a member of the sexual minority. Not long ago, authorizing boards were battlegrounds. Gay and lesbian candidates for ordination were rejected outright, and anyone already ordained by “don’t ask, don’t tell” systems who was perceived to be “different” was subject to church trial and defrocking. The bittersweet evidence of this sad history is on display at the Shower of Stoles Project, where over a thousand liturgical stoles and other sacred items of those defrocked and hounded into exile are archived in testimony to the injustice aimed at LGBTQ clergy. Today’s spirit of openness is unprecedented. Though some ordaining boards are still rejectionist, each year the evidence mounts that once-ostracized queer people are moving from the periphery of their religious groups into leadership positions. The outrageous, wasteful loss of gifted religious leadership based on heterosexist, homophobic, and transphobic prejudice may be finally nearing its end for many traditional Protestant communions.
Of course, there are exceptions, like the struggle now taking place in the United Methodist Church. But the prophetic leadership of the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalists, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Alliance of Baptists, and, of course, the Protestant Episcopal Church is demonstrating that just as women’s ordination caused none of them to collapse, just so, the ordination of LGBTQ women and men of faith strengthens the communions to which they belong. Even the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is coming on board quietly now, region by region. Though Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy seem unmoved by ordination developments among Protestants, their hierarchies are monitoring what is happening for queer folk as closely as they have watched the ordination of women, one of the great movements of the Holy Spirit in late 20th and early 21st century ecclesial life. Surely, the “Grandmother” of all LGBTQ ordaining bodies, the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Churches (MCC), must be smiling at these developments.
I wrote a book about ordination to Christian ministry in 2004 when the open ordination of lesbians and gay men was virtually unheard of, save in one or two denominations. The Bad Ol’ Days of secrets and ambushes over sexual orientation and gender variance were awful to live through. So much hurt and needless pain! Now, however, with the advent of a new day in ordination, anyone called by God and willing to prepare for a life of service in the church has a shot. Today, I celebrate what is coming to be, not what once was, and I live in hope of a clergy more realistic, faithful, and humane than I once knew. LGBTQ sensibilities have never been the most distinctive or predominant qualities of who queer clergy were, as important as sexual honesty and orientation are in anyone’s life. The “Otherness” of gay people is a gift to the church’s ministry, among the many gifts bestowed by the One Spirit, as L. William Countryman and M.R. Ritley said in their book, Gifted By Otherness. The obvious gifts of effective ethical leadership, compassion, courage, intelligence, skill, and devotion to God have always been what really counted in the formation of clergy. Now that the noisy clamor of bigotry in North American Protestantism and culture is dying down, the churches’ ordaining bodies are more able to discern how often LGBTQ people display the true ministerial character that the 21st century church so desperately needs. While we must never forget the struggles that have brought us to this new era, we do not need the distraction of placing blame for what has been. Instead, straight and LGBTQ people must chart the future of ordination from this time forward, together.
Today’s ordination of LGBTQ women and men, though officially unobtrusive, is a welcome antidote to the old toxic hatreds of the past. As these gifted ordinands take their places among their peers in ministry, the presence and witness of LGBTQ clergy will become less remarkable and more commonplace. Oh, how I welcome that development! But until the old has fully passed away, and the new is fully come, I cannot help pausing to reflect, to remember the pioneers who brought us this far along the way, and give thanks for the colors of the rainbow. For “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (1 Cor. 12:4-6, NRSV). ~ Stephen V. Sprinkle, Founder and Director of The Unfinished Lives Project
Topeka, Kansas – Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle has posted a new article on Huffington Post Religion. You can visit the original article here. Comments and shares from the Huffington Post site are appreciated by all the readers of http://unfinishedlivesblog.com.
Rev. Fred Phelps, Founder and former Pastor of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, is dead at the age of 84. Pundits and regular people are busily dissecting the story and social significance of one of the most venom-filled ministerial lives in American history, as well as the hate-mongering “ministry” the Westboro Church became notorious for doing since 1991. What, however, is the spiritual and theological import of the life Fred Phelps lived and the religious leadership he carried out for better than two decades? What does Fred Phelps teach us about God, and the service of others in God’s name?
Dare we even speak of Rev. Phelps as a “negative saint,” the polar opposite of all Christ-like saints, given the carnage Phelps left in the lives of countless queer folk, slain service members, and cultural celebrities he and his flock picketed and condemned to eternal damnation? “Saint-language” seems blasphemous when we apply it to a man’s life so rabidly committed to eliciting the worst from the human spirit and the Christian faith. Nevertheless, every life lived has something to teach us about ourselves and God, does it not? How can we not speak of Phelps as we must speak of ourselves and all others who stand need of the amazing grace of God? Allow me to explain what I mean.
We remember the epithets Fred Phelps reveled in. He made “God Hates Fags” a standard feature of modern hate speech. We cannot erase from our minds the images of Matthew Shepard, Billy Jack Gaither, and Diane Whipple writhing in the animated hell fire that Phelps installed on his web site, complete with a background soundtrack of groans and screams to drive home the message that nothing he could imagine could be worse than to be gay and lesbian. We will never know the number of fanatics Phelps inspired by his vileness, nor the multitude of LGBTQ people young and old who felt his criticisms crush their self-esteem and cut into their souls like knives. But we have seen his kind before: Pharaoh, and Saul, Ahitophel, and Judas, to name but a few oldies but baddies. Or Roy Cohn, Senator Joe McCarthy, and “Bull” Connor to name some near contemporary bad guys. I am sure you have your own personal list. Nevertheless, Phelps and his bad seed still wind up serving God just like the best of us. That is the theological sense Fred Phelps makes. His “negative sainthood” shows us that the worst wickedness is, in the end, powerless before grace and mercy.
Karl Barth in his Shorter Commentary on Romans (SCR) and throughout the Church Dogmatics (KD and CD) teaches that the Pharaoh of the Exodus who held the Hebrew children in abject slavery with a hard heart ultimately found himself broken upon God, who uses the story of Pharaoh’s human darkness to witness to divine mercy, standing right alongside Moses who testifies to God’s liberating justice. Barth writes, “Therefore Pharaoh too serves ‘the power of God’ (SCR, 73). Barth struggled against anti-semitism and fascism with a theological strength we need to deal with homophobia and transphobia. Like the contrasting pair of Pharaoh and Moses, Barth talks about Judas Iscariot and Jesus. Barth writes that Judas, the “rejected man,” is the best pattern he can find of a person who rejected goodness, going so far as to pronounce judgment on himself, and joining Jesus in death. Yet every “rejected one” remains a witness to God, who in the end shows that the very amazing grace upon which the future depends is also there for the “rejected,” too. Barth declares: “The rejected man exists in the person of Jesus Christ only in such a way that he is assumed into His being as the elect and beloved of God . . . With Jesus Christ the rejected can only have been rejected. He cannot be rejected anymore” (KD II/2, 502; CD, 453). Fred, too!
So, does that mean that Pharaoh, or Judas, or Fred get a pass on what they do, thanks to some sort of weak-kneed universalism, the idea that God saves everyone regardless? Barth denied such a possibility: “The Church will not . . . preach a powerless grace of Jesus Christ or a wickedness of men which is too powerful for it. But without any weakening of the contrast, and without any arbitrary dualism, it will preach the overwhelming power of grace and the weakness of human wickedness in face of it” (KD II/2, 529; CD, 477). Fred Phelps and Joe McCarthy and Judas Iscariot must, in the end, answer to the same justice and grace of God their words and deeds rejected when they refused to treat all of God’s children with justice and love. The deeds of the “negative saints” of God are terrible, and it is only right that they should somehow suffer. No one knows what Fred Phelps had to face from his excommunication or upon his sick bed. But Fred and Joe and Judas depend upon and bear witness to the divine mercy, also—just like Moses and Mary and Martin Luther King Jr.
Even a “Nemesis Saint” like Rev. Fred Phelps is a witness to the divine mercy. “Saint” Pharaoh, too. And “Saint” Judas. For all the saints, pro and con, testify to the grace and justice before which we are all alike in utter need. No one I know shows the impotence of wickedness or the need of divine mercy more than Fred Phelps. And in that way, at the very least, “Saint” Fred shows me something mysteriously awesome about the amazing grace of God.