Whatever we do, gays and lesbians, as well as bi-sexuals and trans-gendered people are part of the social fabric in Canada and throughout the world. They will become more visible. Provincial governments are beginning to turn to the courts to determine the constitutional and civil rights of such minorities. Privately or publicly, we will all have to decide how we will relate to this group of people who are not out there, but right here, beside us in our pews.
It is to be hoped that the church could provide some leadership in this matter. What sort of leadership might that be if the church cannot even achieve consensus within its own ranks?
Democratic secular government is built on the conviction that a country is better off when there is an effective loyal opposition in parliament. People are better served when the minority position is valued and taken seriously. When brothers and sisters honestly express their disagreement and work together for the good of the church and the world in spite of their differences of convictions, can we see this as a sign of health in the church, too?
Paul celebrated the diversity of the members of the body. Hands and eyes and feet and ears need each other for the healthy functioning of the whole. Can this concept of diversity be extended to cover a healthy diversity of convictions? Is it possible for people of opposing convictions to not only co-exist, but to love one another as Christ loves them all? What would such a church look like? Let us brainstorm.
Could a church such as the ELCIC recognize that there is considerable division in this church regarding matters such as homosexual behaviour, and yet affirm that in this church people of divergent persuasions are accorded equal dignity, realizing that we all fall short of the glory of God? Can we say that in this church, sinners of every persuasion are not only welcome, but are regarded as an integral part of the whole?
Living with diversity may become a present necessity rather than a future possibility. Lutheran churches in Europe, notably the Lutheran Church of Denmark and the Lutheran Church of the Netherlands, recognize and bless same gender relationships.
Closer to home, as of June 2000, 17 synods in the ELCA had declared themselves as Reconciling in Christ (RIC) synods. At least two ELCA synods support same-gender union blessings, but do not require their pastors to perform them. Some ELCA synods requested their church to develop a rite of blessing for committed relationships and even to allow gay and lesbian clergy to live in committed same-gender relationships, despite the fact that the ELCA does not allow the ordination of sexually active gay and lesbian candidates.
Diversity is here. How can we best live with it, and how much of it can we tolerate?
Timothy Lull laments that our Lutheran church seems to be out of practice in dealing with thorny theological and ethical problems. He says we need the ability to live with freedom and order, unity and diversity, and the skill to make decisions about deeply divisive issues without splitting the church.
There may be something in our not too distant past that can give us a clue about how such issues can be handled. Perhaps in 2001, we are at a point with the subject of homosexuality where we were with the subject of the ordination of women not so long ago.
In our church at that time, there were considerable differences of opinion regarding the ministry of women. Conflicting theological and biblical mandates were brought forward to support opposing positions. Some read the biblical passages in one way, others in a diametrically opposite way. Some quoted Luther and the Confessions in support of the ordination of women. Others quoted the same sources as grounds for rejecting the ordination of women. Some focused on some texts, others on others.
At the Saskatoon Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada (ELCC)in June 1976, the matter came to a head when the question was asked, "If we vote for the ordination of women, does that mean that every congregation must be willing to accept a woman as their pastor?" The answer given was a clear "No." While the church would authorize the ordination of women, it was explained that each congregation calls its own pastor. Church authority and congregational autonomy can co-exist.
This willingness to live with a reconciled diversity enabled the church to take a bold step forward. With a comfortable majority, the church convention decided to ordain women without forcing individual congregations into a straight-jacket.
Subsequent experience of the gifts which many women pastors have brought to the ministry of the church has led most of us to conclude that the Holy Spirit has indeed guided our church to embark on a new venture. The Holy Spirit has blessed that work. Our church is blessed with effective female pastors. Yet congregational autonomy is upheld. Congregations which have theological reservations are not obliged to call such a pastor.
Of course, there are people in the church who are unhappy with the fact that women are not always equally welcome everywhere. There is even some serious question whether the rejection of qualified individuals on the basis of gender does not constitute discrimination and injustice. Diversity can be uncomfortable, even when it is a reconciled diversity. We live in uneasy tension with those differences, but we do live, and we are committed to one church, one ELCIC.
Can a church with that experience now risk welcoming lay people and pastors who promise to live in a monogamous committed same-gender relationship, and to pattern their life and ministry on the Christ who gave himself for us all (cf. Philippians 2:1–5)? And can such a church allow each congregation to follow their own consience in such matters?
It needs to be noted that Richard Hays and others object to the suggested parallel between the women's ordination question and the toleration of homosexuality in the church. They argue that the ordination of women is not explicitly prohibited whereas homosexual behaviour is.
Does the church's experience with the ordination of women provide a model for dealing with homosexuality? Why or why not?
How can we deal in love with this potentially divisive matter? Responsible church leaders of the stature of Timothy Lull and Wolfhart Pannenberg have warned that the threat of schism looms ominously over the church. Pannenberg writes, "Whoever pressures the church to alter the normativeness of its teaching with regard to homosexuality must be aware that that person promotes schism in the church" ("Maßstäbe zur kirchlichen Urteilsbildung über Sexualität").
While these words must be taken with utmost seriousness, there is another side to be considered. What do we say about those Christians—many of the youth of the church—who are leaving the church because they do not find in it the affirmation that they are accepted on the same basis as all the other Christians are, as sinners who have been forgiven for Christ's sake? These are people who have received the promised Holy Spirit in their baptism and who are eager to share their gifts with the church which has nurtured them.
Are we caught between the threat of one schism and the reality of another?
How can we live up to Paul's ideal to be all things to all people for Christ's sake?
Theology is inseparable from pastoral care. Christian people are encouraged to stand up for what they believe, but they also know that they are fallible human beings and that even their most dearly held convictions may become the cause of injury to a neighbour, and thus may not be in accord with God's will.
With this in mind, Christians not only act boldly, they also pray humbly for forgiveness in case their theological convictions may lead them to wrong their neighbour either willfully or inadvertently. Such a neighbour may be a gay or lesbian person as yet unknown to you, or a member of this study group who adamantly champions an opinion in conflict with yours.
Every pastor knows that ministry does not give one the luxury of dealing with things as they should be. One has to work with what is. It is fine to tell people that premarital sex is immoral. But every pastor has to deal regularly with couples who come to be married after years of sharing the same address. Timothy Lull writes "Here the gap between church teaching (or silence) and behavioral reality is staggering."
Theologians need to do a reality check now and again. An impeccable theological argument or a faultless exegetical piece of work may lead us to conclusions which drive people into despair.
What about divorce, sexual abuse (even by clergy!) domestic violence, and all the rest? Having to deal with such issues in society can make your head swim. "No wonder many pastors feel a tension between the firm ethic that they preach and teach and the more flexible pastoral care that they provide in this realm," writes Lull.
Robert Benne, who has called for "heroic" abstinence on the part of queers, acknowledges "It would be naive to argue that this can be the church's only response." Rather, the church must face the reality that some Christians of homosexual orientation will almost inevitably engage in same-gender sexual relations. As a sort of concession to that reality, Benne suggests that the church "discreetly support those who try to maintain the bonds of fidelity."
Many will be unhappy with this suggestion. To some it will seem like a two-faced approach, appearing to uphold high standards on the one hand while caving in to cultural pressure on the other. Gays are asked to act in heroic fashion and abstain from sexual relations—if they can. But if they cannot, then the next best thing, namely a commited relationship, will be acceptable.
But is not this precisely how Paul discharged his ministerial role? On the one hand, he encouraged his parishioners to refrain from marriage, but if this proved impossible for any one of them, Paul would encourage such a one to marry. And did not Jesus do the same in relation to the divorce question? God's intention is that there be no divorce. Yet for those who encounter marriage breakdown, there is a message of grace and there are provisions for a new and more faithful relationship to flourish.
Over the course of its history the church has learned to live with human imperfection. Says Benne, "The church accepts many less-than-ideal arrangements among its members—divorced clergy—for example." Maybe now the time has come to give pastoral support to those gays and lesbians who are willing to commit themselves to a loving and monogamous life style. Benne thinks that it should be possible in this way to uphold both the normative tradition of the church and the dignity of gays and lesbians who enter a covenantal same-gender relationship.
This option, both Benne and Jersild agree, would be preferable by far over what is presently in place. A bond of same-gender fidelity "is certainly a lesser evil than the promiscuity practised by part of the homosexual community," writes Benne.
Given the fragile nature of humanity and the pervasiveness of sin, the choice in pastoral ministry is rarely between what is right and what is wrong. Usually it is a matter of deciding what is the lesser evil and the greater good.
So here we are, ministers of the gospel, trying to bring healing. Whatever we do as a church in relation to queer and straight, conservative and progressive, offender and victim, our response must come from a pastoral heart.
On the basis of what you have learned in these studies, what are the possible pastoral responses that can be made to those who are seeking pastoral care because of homosexuality?