Friday, July 30, 2010

In support of Earl's sermon

by Nick Miller Kauffman

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.


Matt said...

I suspect fundamentalist is the correct, or at least relatively accurate, word in this case.

Well said, Nick

MattMc said...

You speak my mind well, Nick. It's as if we had a long conversation about this while riding in your car home from Annual Conference ;-)

Joking aside, I agree that it's damaging and disappointing (or sad, in Earl's words) that we're not all on the same page on this issue, but in the meantime the most faithful thing we as a denomination can do is to make space for those who are moving in the direction of inclusion and welcome. It is a patter true to our heritage, history, and faith. May the Spirit continue to move our hearts (which are frequently too hardened)and our denomination toward grace-filled forbearance as we continue to move toward being what Christ is calling us to be.

Nico said...

Thanks for the comments, Matts. And yes, I find long conversations to be crucial for figuring out what I think about something. Hopefully I didn't steal too many of your ideas :)

Andy said...

Thanks for this, Nick. I feel like the biggest flip-flopper ever on this whole issue over the past 10 years. I mean I have been ALL OVER the spectrum, swinging back and forth. I do not know why I never considered "forbearance" as the solution to the official statement itself. I considered forbearance the path to the solution, the means, not the end. However, you have convinced me that forbearance could just be the end (of this political debate, that is). Surely the conversation will and MUST continue, but why not confessor brokenness in official documents. Its not like honesty about our unified confusion is unwelcome by God. I think God would be more angered at any attempt of ours to declare a position that is falsely represents who we are. We are broken. We need help. We are not home yet. If we were, we'd be God (I think we all know that's not the case). :)

Anonymous said...

2/3 Majority is not a slim majority. It will take a 2/3 majority to change the position of the Church of the Brethren.

It is apparent that the Bible-believing people in the COB give you progressives reason for being, if you cannot find enough cohesion to organize a new denomination.

And, if the COB does become a "shattered denomination" what is it to you? You obviously don't agree with where the church is on several major issues, why have the pretense of being "Brethren"?

Nico said...

Hi Anonymous,

Sorry for not offering you a response earlier. I've been neglecting FWFS and only just now saw your comment.

Your juxtaposition of "Bible-believing people" and "you progressives" raises a flag for me. I believe in the Bible, though what I mean by that is no doubt different from what you would mean by the same statement. You imply that because "we progressives" interpret the Bible differently in some areas, we aren't "Bible-believing." I think that's a dangerous road to go down. I presume I would disagree with you on important matters of faith, but never would I accuse you of not believing in the Bible, being a Christian, etc.

It is *because* of my reading of the Bible, not in spite of it or out of a disregard for it, that I am a progressive. A mutual understanding of the roots of our beliefs is crucial for conversations as a Church.

Also, I assure you I care very much about the Church of the Brethren and its survival. I disagree with some annual conference statements, but find that the spirit and culture of the denomination reflects my faith and thinking in ways I doubt I'd easily find elsewhere. Luckily for me--and likely for you!--the Church in which these statements are drafted emphasizes no force in religion, and does not claim or require that all members believe what is issued from the conference floor.

Besides, I disagree with some of my relatives on several major issues, but I'm not going to disown them.

Also, though I cannot resist the temptation of engaging in conversation, I would strongly encourage you not to participate anonymously. Names are important when having such meaningful conversations.