Unfinished Lives

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Charting the Future of Ministerial Ordination for LGBTQ People: When the Unthinkable Becomes Commonplace

SVS Russell ORD47 (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.

Ordination: Celebrating the Gift of Ministry, by Stephen V. Sprinkle

Ordination: Celebrating the Gift of Ministry, by Stephen V. Sprinkle

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

June 27, 2014 Posted by | GLBTQ, Heterosexism and homophobia, Homosexuality and the Bible, Huffington Post, Huffington Post Religion Page, LGBTQ, LGBTQ clergy, LGBTQ Ordination, Mainline Protestant Churches, Shower of Stoles Project, Texas | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Charting the Future of Ministerial Ordination for LGBTQ People: When the Unthinkable Becomes Commonplace

Gay Student Condemned By Church Dies By Suicide

Ben Wood, 21, bullied by Church Youth Leader, takes his own life.

Ben Wood, 21, bullied by Church Youth Leader, takes his own life.

Asheville, North Carolina – William “Ben” Wood was 21 when he died on the floor of his dorm at UNC-Asheville.  Friends who found him said that he was drawn up in a fetal position on May 8, 2013, having slashed open his veins.  The loss of this sensitive, justice-seeking young gay man is a tragedy by most accounts–his friends and school mates say he was a fine student, but in recent months his grades and school performance had plunged.  The university junior couldn’t deal with the prospect of going back to his neighborhood in Asheville without being a student any longer, according to his mother’s account in the Reconciling Ministries Network Blog.  As a teen, he had been irreparably wounded by a Youth Leader at his home church as he prepared to go on a Mission trip with his friends from the United Methodist Youth Fellowship.

His mom, Julie Wood, recounts how the misguided Youth Leader singled out her son for being gay in front of his peers.  The leader said, You all know, we all know, that Ben is gay.  Who here is comfortable being around him?”  Demanding a response from each youth in the group, the Leader then said, “Do you understand that Ben is going to hell?”  Once again, the Youth Leader pressed each youth for an answer about Ben.  Crushed, exposed, and broken by the experience, Ben came home while his UMYF friends left on the bus for the Mission Trip.  His mother, who stalwartly contends that their home church is a loving and supportive place, says that this was the trigger experience she believes led to the suicide of her son a few agonizing years later.  Mrs. Wood writes:

“Ben was told that he was not worthy of going on the mission trip.  He had been shamed, humiliated, and betrayed.  He was told that he did not deserve to be a part of the group.  He was no representative of God. 

Out of our front window, I saw the goldish colored Caviler abruptly whip into our driveway.   Ben ran up the porch steps and stood in the doorway.  One look, and I knew, something horrible had happened.  The flushed sides of his cheeks quivered as did his lip.  His breathing was rapid and his eyes just about to spill over. 

The church bus was loaded with Ben’s friends to go on that mission trip while my betrayed and broken son, walked alone around Salem Lake.   He must have felt so very abandoned and isolated. 

While he never lost his compassion for others, I think that this was the day that he gave up on people and God.” 

Skeptics may argue that there is no clear correspondence between the suicide of a young gay man years after the shaming incident that took place in a church youth group in his teens.  Others will say that the church is basically a loving and supportive place, but is put in a hard situation by teachings like those of the United Methodist Church that send an ambiguous, essentially rejecting message about lesbians and gay people.  On the one hand, the social teachings of the church say that every person, including “homosexuals,” is of “sacred worth.”  On the other, the United Methodist Church stubbornly rejects homosexuality as “incompatible” with Christian teaching–denying ordination and marriage to LGBT people, and defrocking their clergy who carry out same-sex marriage ceremonies, or who live openly as lesbian or gay people.

So, who stands guilty of Ben Wood’s death?  The Youth Minister who was applying what he believed the teachings of his church on homosexuality to be?  Ben’s so-called “friends” who one-by-one (under pressure from an adult leader, of course) abandoned Ben to shame and broken heartedness?  The theologians and clergy of the church, who cannot seem to reconcile the love of God on the one hand, and social heterosexism and homophobia on the other?  And what of Ben’s own responsibility to transcend the suffering of his youth–though this latter argument is little more than blaming a victim for his own demise?

Bens’ obituary says he was a genuine, complex, and worthwhile human being.  The Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel  records that Ben “was a member of Sedge Garden United Methodist Church and was a Junior at UNC-Asheville. Ben had a kind and loving soul, with a great sense of humor. He was particularly compassionate to the needs and struggles of others more than himself and was a great journalist. To his younger sisters, Ben was a great big brother who shared lots of walks in the creeks and scavenger hunts with their stuffed animals.”  The obituary goes on to say that three clergy spoke at his funeral, and that his own maternal grandfather was a clergyman.  But Ben found so little hospitality and comfort from the churches around him and the clergy who served them that he could not and did not reach out to them in his darkest hours.  So, a sensitive, socially conscious young man, who happened to be gay and Christian, took his own life.

Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle, Professor of Practical Theology at Brite Divinity School, and a native North Carolinian himself, issues this opinion and prayer for other young LGBT persons: “The churches and their leadership have much to answer for in the deaths of young people like Ben Wood.  While we may not be able to point to a smoking gun linking the suicide of young persons condemned by church teachings to the culpability of the churches, there is no doubt that Christian heterosexism and homophobia contribute to the climate that denigrates LGBTQ people and creates undue suffering in their lives.  Indeed, there are progressive and welcoming churches and clergy, and for them we give thanks.  But they are too few, and the silence of church people about the prejudice condemning LGBTQ folk is a major contributing factor in the horror of spiritual violence against them.”

Dr. Sprinkle concludes:  “Let us be crystal clear about this: the heterosexism and homophobia Ben Wood experienced in his life is a Christian heresy–one the churches and clergy of every stripe must find the courage to repent of and repudiate.  And we must do everything we can to make amends to youth like Ben, and to their families.”

February 7, 2014 Posted by | Anglo Americans, Anti-LGBT hate crime, Brite Divinity School, Bullycide, gay men, gay teens, GLSEN, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, Homosexuality and the Bible, LGBT teen suicide prevention, LGBTQ, LGBTQ suicide, North Carolina, religious hate speech, religious intolerance, United Methodist Church | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Gay/Lesbian Inclusive Nativity Scene Vandalized at Southern California Church

Gay/Lesbian Inclusive Nativity Scene Before Vandals Attacked (image courtesy of the church)

Claremont, California – Gay and lesbian images and a Star of Bethlehem were vandalized on Christmas at a local Claremont church. Between 11 a.m. on Saturday, Christmas Eve, and 9 a.m. Sunday, Christmas Day, vandals overturned two six-hundred-pound light boxes depicting same-sex couples in silhouette, leaving them face down on the lawn of Claremont United Methodist Church. A third light box depicting a heterosexual couple was left undisturbed.  Police are investigating the vandalism as a hate crime.  Because of the size of the panels and their weight, it is believed that a single person could not have carried out the crime. Over $3,000 worth of damage was caused to the installation.

The pastor, Rev. Dr. Sharon Rhodes-Wickett, says she and the church leadership have no doubts they did the right thing by displaying the controversial images.  The church has been a “Reconciling Ministries” congregation, welcoming LGBT people into the full life of the church, since 1993. She said that in view of the attack on the gay and lesbian panels of the display, the gay inclusive nativity exhibit was “exactly the right scene to put up,”  according to ABC 7 News.  CUMC is known for taking controversial stands on contemporary social issues, and they have displayed exhibits on the lawn concerning poverty, war, and illegal immigration in the past, for example–but this is the first time any scene at the church has been disturbed.

While no graffiti was left on the light boxes, the message was clear in the selection of which panels to turn over.  Sgt. Jason Walters of the Claremont Police Department said to the Daily Bulletin“It’s a hate crime based on it being church property as well as the wooden box knocked over that depicted two males holding hands.”  Police are reviewing surveillance video of the area to identify the perpetrators.  No suspects have been identified as of yet.

The artist who constructed the 6-foot-by-8-foot light boxes, John Zachary, was not surprised that the vandalism occurred. He said to ABC 7, “I think that it troubled a lot of people.”  Still, Zachary believes the display achieved its purpose by creating dialogue. “What I’ve tried to do is to include the people who’ve been disenfranchised from the church and from the process,” he said. Local residents range in opinion from support for the displays to disapproval of the subject, some of them saying to reporters that the depictions of same-sex couples for Christmas outside a church were “in poor taste.”

Associate Minister Dan Lewis told the Daily Bulletin, “We have members of our church who are gay and lesbian who it sends a very personal message to. I tried to say in worship on Sunday morning that we will not let it trouble us.” An interfaith community vigil in support LGBT people is planned at the site of the installation for Thursday at 7:30 p.m.  Still, one of the more disturbing aspects of the incident is that few of the residents of the area seem to care about the vandalism much at all.  One member of the LGBTQ community opined that it is easier to talk about being a liberal community than it is to do anything substantive about it.

December 29, 2011 Posted by | Anti-LGBT hate crime, California, gay men, GLBTQ, Hate Crimes, Lesbian women, LGBTQ, Social Justice Advocacy, Unsolved LGBT Crimes, vandalism, Vigils | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Gay/Lesbian Inclusive Nativity Scene Vandalized at Southern California Church

Buckeye United Methodists Embrace Gays and Lesbians, Buck Homophobic Church Practices

Central's Bold Electronic Billboard (photo courtesy of the Toledo Blade)

Toledo, Ohio – “…We Believe Being Gay is a Gift From God.”  So reads the electronic billboard posted by Central United Methodist Church of Toledo.  According to Box Turtle Bulletin, Central lit up the massive billboard on April 25, and hopes to collect enough money to keep it displaying its message of inclusion to the city for next month, as well.  The sign is stirring up a range of responses throughout Toledo, from delight to outright hostility.  Ohioans have expressed concern that the billboard will be vandalized by anti-gay partisans who disapprove of a Christian church proclaiming that LGBTQ people are fully loved and accepted by God and the church.  Central UMC, a member of the United Methodist Reconciling Ministries Network, is not about to back down on something they see as fundamental to the faith of Christians.  The campaign is, in the words of the church’s web site, “a prophetic call to the Church to get out of the business of marginalizing gay and lesbian persons from the Church, and to welcome them as full members.”  Being Gay is a Gift From God, they say, is a simple declaration “intended to be a gift to those who have experienced hurt and discrimination because of their real or perceived sexual orientation.  The Church seeks nothing less than the healing of the world, and Central UMC wants to offer words and acts of healing to those hurt and marginalized.”  Illuminating the sign at the corner of two busy metropolitan streets, Sylvania Avenue and Monroe Street, was the official launch of Central’s effort to change the conversation concerning gays and lesbians in faith communities.  In addition to the electronic sign, the church has developed a whole line of  products to support their campaign, available for purchased online, such as bumper stickers, campaign buttons, ball caps, coffee mugs, and full color posters.  A speakers bureau is listed on the web site, with encouragement to contact the church to secure speakers for events and interest groups. For the next month,classes are planned on the so-called “clobber passages,” texts from the Bible adversaries have used to marginalize and browbeat LGBTQ people. The congregation, pastored currently by the Rev. Bill Barnard, a 20-year resident of Toledo, was founded in 1896, and has been a champion for LGBTQ human rights since the late 1970s.  Central is a racially-diverse, multi-orientational church with a significant outreach on the issue of economic justice.  Worship space and offices of the congregation are housed in the facilities of Collingwood Presbyterian Church in a newly remodeled and updated building. Their mission statement reads, in part, “We seek to reflect the diversity of God’s creation, which means that we invite all persons – regardless of their age, race, disability, marital status, or sexual orientation – to participate fully in the spiritual journey of Christ’s faith community.”  What a refreshingly odd thing it is when a Christian church actually emulates Jesus Christ!  The Unfinished Lives Project Team congratulates Central UMC.

May 7, 2011 Posted by | African Americans, Anglo Americans, Being Gay is a Gift From God Campaign, Bisexual persons, Central United Methodist Church Toledo, gay men, gay teens, gender identity/expression, Gender Variant Youth, GLBTQ, Heterosexism and homophobia, Homosexuality and the Bible, Latino and Latina Americans, Lesbian women, LGBTQ, Ohio, Public Theology, Queer, Reconciling Ministries Network, Social Justice Advocacy, transgender persons, United Methodist Church | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

   

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