Frustrated and broken-hearted over the acrimonious debates and shouting matches in our beloved United Methodist Church regarding the one issue of homosexuality, Dr. Steve Harper felt compelled to write ”For the Sake of the Bride: Restoring the Church to Her Intended Beauty”--compelled by the love of Christ. And, this spirit of love and grace pervades the book.
I have known Steve Harper for more than 40 years, and we have been "soul friends" for at least 20. I know his heart. I have seen the fruit of his ministry in the lives of scores, no, hundreds, of seminary students who have been shaped more fully into the likeness of Christ because of Steve's teaching and living. He lives and writes out of a deep sense of prayer.
In “For the Sake of the Bride,” Steve takes us with him on his journey through Scripture, our Wesleyan tradition and to the wisdom of his (and, for many of us, our) mentor, E. Stanley Jones.
Jones, a 20th century Methodist Christian missionary in India, used “Round Table” conferences where people from various religions and viewpoints were brought together not to discuss creeds or to argue positions, but to share what they had learned of God through personal experience. The objective was for participants to listen to one another in mutual respect, while being prepared to be open about what God meant to them personally.*
Looking for a way forward through the strident impasse that blocks the vision of so many on this one issue, Steve centers his reflections on the Round Table approach that helped "Brother Stanley" in his mission work in India.
Journeying with E. Stanley’s approach, Steve's book is an attempt to restore "Christlikeness to the Center" of everything--particularly the discussions around the topic of homosexuality--rather than various sides or factions or camps or culturally accommodated expressions of Christianity.
We come to the Round Table with faith, hope and love; faith that God is with us, hope that God will lead us to a better place together, and love that treats each one at the table with respect, grace and love.
And, meeting at the Round Table is done with the highest integrity and respect for each other and each other’s point of view. Each must be given the courtesy of being taken seriously, which Steve, indeed, does.
So, now, having "set the table," Steve invites us to engage in a Round Table discussion of seven questions, all related to homosexuality and the Church. Steve is courageous enough--and respectful enough--to state where he currently stands. This is vitally important for the Round Table approach to have validity: one must share openly a "current standing" in order to be truly open to the best presentations of the others at the table. Steve does this with grace; my prayer is that all the rest of us will, as well.
The seven key questions Steve raises in “For the Sake of the Bride” are THE questions of our day:
- Is homosexuality a sin?
- Can two people who are homosexual fall in love the same way that two people who are heterosexual do?
- Can there be such a thing as gay 'marriage'?
- Has the Christian church ever condoned homosexual marriage?
- Should clergy be allowed to perform same-sex marriages?
- What about ordaining homosexuals to be clergy?
- How are we to deal with the consequences of a North American decision in other countries and cultures?
The reader may or may not agree with where Steve comes down on any or all of the questions, but that probably isn't the point. The point is that the reader stays at the table, continues in respectful conversation with Steve and others, praying and trusting that God will lead us all--together, in the spirit of unity--to a way forward; and, just possibly, yes, even miraculously, to demonstrate to the world that the Church, after all, can function differently--in the most excellent way--than the world.
The temptation will be, especially with an issue as highly charged as homosexuality, to agree or disagree with Steve's position. Then, if one disagrees, to criticize or even vilify Steve, which is far easier than doing the hard work of staying at the table.
With Steve, I believe that schism and "amiable separation" are not of God, that unity is near to the heart of Jesus (John 17). Steve's book is a giant step forward in meeting at the Round Table and helping our United Methodist Church find a way to sustain the Spirit of Unity by living the Way of Love.
Rev. Dan Johnson is the senior pastor at Trinity UMC in Gainesville, Fla.
* Courtesy of E. Stanley Jones Foundation, www.estanleyjonesfoundation.com.