Since we're talking about it, the text to Earl Fike Jr.'s sermon is here.
Ironically, before Earl Fike Jr.'s sermon, I commented to my friends that I'd sure like someone to actually say something prophetically risky from the pulpit during Annual Conference.
I have to confess a feeling of bored dread as I listened to Earl's message. At the outset, it seemed to me it was going to be a drab, slow-paced sermon.
I was in for a surprise.
Being extremely frustrated with the climate of church politics relating to LGBT issues, when I heard Earl say, "But as [Jesus] moves amongst us, we see him look into a nearby tree at a person who wants to know him and be known by him; a person whom many find unacceptable," and I made a comment to those next to me about how the exception to this would be a queer person. Because we, the Church of the Brethren, having created God in our own image, were not about to tell ourselves a parable that critiqued our treatment of queer people.
Maybe if I knew Earl Fike Jr. I would have known better. But I did not, and so I sat like a deer in the headlights while, as if deliberately proving me wrong, he went on to say:
And Jesus says, "come down, I’m going to your house for dinner today." And the response of the crowd, our crowd, is painfully familiar. "Look, he has gone to be at the home of a homosexual sinner."I was floored. This was the prophetic sermon I was looking for. As I silently cheered (and occasionally vocally "amen"ed) he went on to deliver a scathing indictment of the Church of the Brethren's treatment of LGBT individuals.
For those who didn't hear or read the sermon, the solution Earl offered was forebearance. Let's just give each other room, he said, to disagree about this, and meanwhile accept each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
It's in no way surprising I was a fan of this sermon; Earl said pretty much exactly what I had been saying for the last few days. "I don't need conservative churches to have gay pastors or perform same-sex covenant ceremonies," I said over beer at the Churchworks Brewery. "I just need them to back off everyone else."*
Before I continue my argument, I want to address the two obvious criticisms of the sermon. The first is that it identifies homosexuals as sinners, and the second is that it does not call for the denomination to be open and affirming.
I agree that any language that call homosexuality a sin is problematic. It stems from harmful theology, it marginalizes queer people no matter how much we call for their acceptance, and it should, as a rule, be challenged. I absolutely do not identify with such language. But for the most part, it wasn't me Earl was preaching to when he said that.
The bottom line is, no sermon is going to convince fundamentalist** Christians that homosexuality is not a sin. I'm not saying minds can't be changed, but I really don't see it happening from the pulpit; if Earl had taken this approach, he might have gotten cheers from those of like mind, but in his effort to change anything he would have been shouting at the wind. His purpose was to move people to a position, and to accomplish that he had to try to speak to their theologies.
As for the criticism of what it was that Earl was calling for, this one is difficult for me. I do not want to accommodate beliefs that are harmful and oppressive for the sake of unity. In Proverbs of Ashes, Rebecca Ann Parker describes the board meeting at which it was decided her church would become open and affirming. One man said, "If we do this, some people will leave our church. We will lose our relationship with them. But if we do not, we will lose our relationship with Jesus Christ."
Yet the Church of the Brethren is not, and should not be, a top-down, disciplinarian church. We have no doctrine of infallibility for Annual Conference. I hate--absolutely hate--that a slim majority decision from over twenty years ago is interpreted as instructive in such a way that a beautifully gifted friend of mine saw her license to ministry revoked for coming out as a lesbian. I hate that a slim majority can cast my entire church in such a bad light, for though nearly half the delegates involved did not vote for the amendment, I must confess to outsiders that my church says same-sex relationships are unacceptable.
It is in light of these feelings that I say I cannot speak for others. Annual Conference statements are not law (after all, there are plenty of congregations that won't accept a female pastor), and so they frankly need not be decisive.
What should our language on same-sex relationships be? How about, "We are not of like mind, but we strive to love one another as the conversation continues." What's wrong with that? No statement will make gays and lesbians magically straight, nor will any statement make all congregations open and affirming. We cannot force agreement; why must we pretend to have it?
I'll up the ante here by illustrating just how urgently I think we need to adopt this position: the Church of the Brethren cannot survive a forced and false show of unity on this issue. If a 51 percent vote turns us overnight into an open and affirming denomination, we could well see a conservative split. I'm fairly certain I read a threat of such in BRF literature at one point. Yet if we maintain our position against same-sex relationships, we will die. The progressives in our church may not have the cohesion to effect an organized split, but they will definitely leave, and our church will lose its relevance. We will become yet another shattered has-been, for history always marches in a direction that grants rights to previously disenfranchised groups.
I believe the affirmation of same-sex relationships would be good and right, but as a reflection of where we stand as a church it would not be true. Nor is our current position an accurate representation of what we believe. What we need to do is just say, without fear, that we do not agree. I'm with Earl on this one: forebearance is a step in the right direction, and it's the step we need.
But that step needn't mark the closing of the book. We can (and will) continue our witness, not through the tyranny of the majority, but through honest and loving conversation.
*This is not actually what I said, but I think the point gets across just as well without swear words.
** Apologies if this is too loaded a word; I know both "conservatives" and "evangelicals" who are allies, so those words were out.