The church and homosexuality [July 12, 2006 {0516}; An e-Review Florida UMNS Commentary by Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker]

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

The extreme of this thinking has taken more than one unfortunate person to the length of trying to exterminate all who do not fit his definition of the ideal person. So anything we can do to identify with one another and find common ground should help our situation. You point out that all people share a common humanity that is of sacred worth to God, i.e., that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, etc. This places all persons on a level playing field no matter what his or her ‘accident of birth,’ as does the protestant maxim ‘faith alone,’ ‘grace alone.’ This is an appropriately modest and humble stance in the face of a ‘nature’ that is more complex than any human has mastered to date. And you rightly point to the reality that each of us in the church is a person whose primary relationship is with God and that it is this relationship with God that defines us, not our sexuality. Yet, I fail to see how it matters which term you use as a qualifier to the term ‘persons.’ ‘Persons who experience same-sex attraction’ as well as ‘persons who identify as homosexual’ each put the emphasis on the reality that all human beings are persons first and of sacred worth, as you say so well. I am concerned that your choice of ‘same-sex attraction’ as a referent for all intimate love relationships between persons of the same sex and as a substitute for ‘homosexual’ fails to capture or communicate the complete human experience you seek to discuss. Sexual attraction is but one aspect of the love relationship between persons of the same sex, though it is an important component. The same is true in the complex love relationships enjoyed by men and women. The term ‘same sex attraction’ reduces this complex love relationship to merely one aspect, the erotic. Further, research has shown that many people, including persons who identify as heterosexual, experience erotic attraction to persons of the same sex. Even though a person identifies as heterosexual, his or her attraction to persons of the same sex contributes to the complex experience each of us knows as ‘loving and being in love.’ For example, the depth psychology of Carl Jung is predicated on the theory that all men have an unconscious ‘anima’ or feminine component that is critical in shaping each man’s identity and way of being in relationships. Conversely, all women have an unconscious ‘animus’ or masculine component. Most people’s gender identity is a complex play of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ dynamics. The same is true for persons who identify as homosexual. If Jung is correct, that persons who identify as heterosexual AND persons who identify as homosexual all experience some degree of same-sex AND opposite-sex attraction could be a major reason why the topic of homosexuality is so ‘charged.’ The stronger and more ‘unconscious’ a person’s same-sex attraction is, the more threatening it could be to the ego. This perceived threat could stimulate the ego to defend itself, thereby producing extreme and irrational reactions to persons who are openly, overtly and consciously homosexual. I see that your use of the narrow term same-sex attraction allows you to segregate ‘same-sex attraction’ from ‘erotic desire.’ I understand that this helps you further your argument. However, there are very few people who could actually distinguish ‘same-sex attraction’ from ‘erotic desire’ within their own human experience. Persons who could do this would be truly exceptional. And to expect this of the average person would be unrealistic. By contrast, the distinction between ‘being erotically attracted’ to someone and ‘acting on’ that attraction is more readily apparent. As a person develops impulse control, she or he cultivates the ability to make this distinction. However, the dynamics involved in moving from erotic attraction to acting on that attraction are indeed complex and are further complicated by the fact that part of this process includes ‘losing one's mind’ so to speak. That is to say that at some point in the consummation of sexual attraction, the erotic bypasses our rational mind and we surrender to a pure, direct experience. This experience is not unlike certain ecstatic spiritual experiences described by mystics such as St. Theresa of Avila. This erotic experience with another person is often an important part of opening to full and complete surrender to God and is the main reason why the mandate that persons who identify as homosexual remain celibate is such a serious spiritual issue. It is why some call this expectation an inordinate burden and even cruel. In other words, for most people the consummation of erotic attraction is a critical step in transforming eros into agape. I have a problem with your use of Henri Nouwen as, not only an example, but an ideal of how persons who identify as homosexual could transform eros into agape. Nouwen’s biographer, Michael Ford, paints a portrait of a man who suffered, who knew anguish as he struggled with himself and embraced the journey that was his unique life. Early in his life at Menninger, Nouwen wrestled with his homosexual leanings, which at that time he regarded as a disability and a cross to bear. During his time at Harvard, he was tough on students who were gay, telling them that homosexuality was an evil state of being. As his life unfolded and he became seasoned by the reality of his life, Nouwen opened himself to friendships with many persons who identified as homosexual. Some encouraged him to go public. Other friends cautioned that if he revealed his secret he would lose credibility as a spiritual mentor and authority on the inner life of the spirit among his Catholic following. This possibility of being rejected if people knew about his sexual orientation troubled Nouwen greatly. "This took an enormous emotional, spiritual and physical toll on his life and may have contributed to his early death," Ford says ("Wounded Prophet" by Michael Ford). Before he died in 1996, Nouwen became more vocal in his support of persons who identify as homosexual, saying they had a "unique vocation in the Christian community." I have never read that he lifted himself up as an ideal of how persons who are homosexual should order their lives. I have read that he understood celibacy to be a calling, just as is priestly ministry, and not for everyone. In light of the anguish and inner turmoil that an exceptional person with a superior spiritual capacity like Henri Nouwen went through as he sought to come to terms with the reality of his own psysio/psycho/spritual being, why would you assume that God would ask celibacy of a whole group of people who most certainly do not all share his spiritual capacity? Surely you would not suggest this just because they happen to share in common an erotic attraction to persons of the same sex. Is this not an unreasonable and unrealistic expectation and does it not act as a stumbling block to such persons’ spiritual unfolding? I am reminded that Jesus warned the experts in the law to not put burdens on people too heavy for them to bear because God does not do this. One of the experts in the law answered Jesus, "Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also." Jesus replied, "And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help the,” Luke 11:45-46. Wouldn’t expecting all persons who are homosexual to be celibate be as contrary to Christ’s teachings as it would be to expect all persons who are heterosexual to be celibate? Celibacy is not only an inordinate burden for those who are not called by God to it, but it is also a stumbling block to spiritual growth. Further, by reducing the purpose of marriage to procreation, you fail to appreciate the important role marriage can play in a person's spiritual unfolding. It is my understanding that from a spiritual perspective marriage is a full and complete relationship between two people, the center of which is Christ. Each person’s primary relationship is with Christ and the relationship with another serves: 1. as a vehicle to communicate God’s pure, unbounded love to each other 2. as a starting point for the couple to be in service to the world, beginning with their children, if they have children 3. to help identify and reduce selfishness and self-centeredness in each member of the family, which can be understood to be the root obstacle that blocks the pure and simple light of God from shining through one’s life. A lifetime of intentional relationship with another human being can do much to expose and free one from this obstacle and help each one bear witness to God’s love and power and way of life. So, if the expectation that all persons who are homosexual should be celibate can properly be understood to be an inordinate burden for those who are not called by God to celibacy (that celebrated pragmatist, St. Paul said that it is better to marry than to burn), what would it mean to ‘lift a finger to help them?’ I have been convicted for years that the church is remiss for not providing a means by which the relationships of person who identify as homosexual can be understood as a vehicle for spiritual growth and ordered within our community of faith in a way that reflects the relationship between Christ and the church. This is our spiritual duty. We have failed in this duty to date. Following the pragmatism of St. Paul, it is a fact that relationships between persons of the same sex do exist against all odds and at great personal cost to most.* Such relationships existed long before cultural acceptance was even an option. Many such persons are crying out to be treated humanely and with dignity by not only the culture, but by the church. At the present time, such persons receive no spiritual guidance from the UMC that recognizes their reality. There is dissonance within a church whose doctrine excludes persons who are homosexual but whose Episcopal teaching advocates inclusion at the level of the local church as you have done. This again divides the faithful into two classes of the baptized and leads to no good for anyone. I know that some relationships between persons of the same sex ARE defined solely by erotic attraction and sexual activity. Such relationships reinforce selfishness and self-centeredness, just as do similar heterosexual relationships, and they should be recognized as such by the church. However, it is important to acknowledge that many love relationships between persons of the same sex do not reinforce bondage to self but serve as a proximate means to spiritual liberation as I have described earlier. If the church would ‘lift its finger’ and provide guidance to all persons who are homosexual, as it does to persons who are heterosexual, and make available to everyone equally the means of grace and the love and support and encouragement of Christian community and give realistic and reliable spiritual guidance to those who are seeking this from the church, then could we not trust God with the results of each person’s transformation in God’s time, in God’s way? Couldn’t we trust God with whatever is good and right and possible for each one? And could we not refrain from acting as though we know what that would look like for each person? And could we not refrain from judging the value of such transformation and learn to celebrate each transformation as a work of the Holy Sprit in each person’s life? Shouldn’t we be comparing ourselves to ourselves within the light of Christ instead of comparing ourselves to some ideal that leaves most, if not all of us defensive and in a state of not being ‘good enough’? How can it be ‘good news’ for a person to know that her or his love relationship is reason to be denied full inclusion in the life of the church? If we spent as much time seeking the spiritual gift of ‘discernment’ as we do making church laws that marginalize persons who identify as homosexual, we would be quite well equipped to recognize the powerful and fresh liberating work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the faithful, no matter what her or his sexual identity. * The argument that is usually offered here is that murderers exist but we don’t condone murder. A murderer is one who has deprived another person of their life by killing them. A person who loves another person of the same sex shares nothing in common, by virtue of their sexual identity, with a person who has killed someone. Such logic does not hold.

Annette Jones
St. John's on the Lake First United Methodist Church

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