Where The Line Is Drawn: Ordination and Sexual Orientation in the United Methodist Church
[Reposting from the wonderful Rethink Bishop blog. A collaborative post I wrote with friends. Went up yesterday. Enjoy!]
As an increasing number of United Methodist leaders openly challenge the idea of straight-only ordination, change to the Book of Discipline seems inevitable, albeit slow in coming. Deemed “incompatible with Christian teaching,” individuals who are “self-avowed practicing” gay or lesbian people cannot become ordained as clergy in the UMC. But what is it about sexual orientation that categorically disallows an individual the privilege of being ordained in our denomination? We certainly wouldn’t refuse baptism, communion, or membership to anyone based on sexual orientation (at least admittedly), so why draw a line at ordination? I asked a few people smarter than me to chat about it.
Bobby Ray Hurd: As I have seen, almost all of the reasons refuting gay ordination end with, "It is disordered because a gay couple cannot possibly produce biological children." It is true that the historic practice of marriage has generally been something where children must be welcomed into marriage/partnership. Thus, marriage is seen as a form of ministry taking part in the greater ministry of the Church (therefore it should be disciplined and have expectations placed upon it). However, we should be quick to point out that the common insertion of "biological family values" commonly used to refute gay vocation is actually something that makes the Christian understanding of baptism unintelligible; because, quite simply, the theological locus of baptism is not "the biological family" (as with most pre-Christian theologies) but the "adopted family of G-d" being built as the attestation of G-d's coming kingdom on Earth. Thus, the claim that ordination of a partnered pupil is contingent upon their ability to have biological heirs is immaterial, because biological family is not even included in our most basic understanding of Christian baptism (adoption).
Therefore, if one is to partner, and if they are to be recognized as partnered by the Church (whether matrimonial or even to have their civil partnership ordered by the Church), it should be reasonable that they be expected to welcome children into their partnership as a criteria for first serving the ministry of their partnership through adopting children. However, this has nothing to do with whether they are capable of producing biological heirs lest we begin to subvert the meaning from which baptism has its cogent theological meaning in the first place; which is an issue of "reproduction through adoption" being of greater theological emphasis than reproduction through biology.
Hannah Shanks: It’s very interesting, because our documents don’t even seem to agree on this. The Book of Discipline, as you point out, bars “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from all points in the ordination journey. Another relevant section of the discipline, as it applies to membership, makes the following statement of inclusion: “No conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, status or economic condition.” (BOD, Article IV, Inclusiveness of the Church)
If you’ll notice, “gender” and “sexual orientation” are not included on that list. If we want to see statements of inclusivity that reach across those bounds, we have to look to the social principles and book of resolutions, both of which denounce the heterosexism and homophobia and firmly state the equal human rights held by all persons.
While I am certainly not anything like a parliamentarian for the UMC, I do think the varied nature of our own governance documents point toward the denomination’s current uncertainty and slow movement toward full inclusion for folks of all stripes. As the documents are written right now, there is nothing in our statement of inclusion of members that would prevent a church from drawing the line on homosexuality at membership, much less ordination.
As for why the line has been drawn at ordination, and why now? My guess is that because clergy are called to a “higher standard,” drawing the line at ordination allows us to appease those who want us to be open and still maintain the status quo for those who wish to remain closed.
Kurt Boemler: Since leaving the UMC as both a member and a provisional Elder two years ago this past Reformation Day, I have seriously been rethinking what it means to be clergy, or ordained, or a pastor, or whatever. I think the root of the problem of ordination is not just in the UMC’s understanding of baptism, but in its entire theology of sacrament.
Sacraments for the UMC include both Baptism and Eucharist. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions count five more, which many Protestants, including the UMC, acknowledge as sacramental: Confession/Absolution, Holy Matrimony, Confirmation/Chrismation, Holy Orders/Ordination, and Anointing/Unction. Sacraments are the ordinary means by which God imputes grace through the action of the Church. In all seven acts, God is the primary actor, though all require words spoken, materia given, ministers, and recipients. For example, in the UMC, when someone receives the sacrament of Holy Baptism, it is God who is acting on the baptized, incorporating them into the body of believers through words spoken and the materia of water applied by the minister. Likewise, in the sacramental of Holy Matrimony, God joins the couple, who are both the ministers and the recipients of the sacrament; the words are their vows and the materia is their wills.
In reviewing the United Methodist Book of Worship, the epiclesis (the words of invocation) are the same:
- Eucharist - pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine…. Through your son Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit in your holy Church, all honor and glory is yours, almighty Father….
- Baptism - pour out your Holy Spirit to bless this gift of water and those who receive it…. I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
- Holy Orders - pour upon this person your Holy Spirit for the office and work of a diaconal minister/deacon/elder (ministry of a bishop in your Church) in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
- Matrimony - Bless and sanctify with your Holy Spirit these two who come now to join in marriage…. I now announce to you that they are husband and wife in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
- Healing - pour out your Holy Spirit on us and on this gift that those who in faith and repentance receive this anointing may be made whole…. I anoint you with oil in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
- (Confirmation is excluded as it is the continuation of the work started in Baptism, and Confession and Absolution are a part of preparation for all other sacraments/sacramentals.)
There’s no significant difference between the words of communion, baptism, ordination, marriage, or healing. So why does the church make a distinction between who can receive God’s grace through the sacrament/al of ordination and the others?
It’s because ordination is tricky. And we made it tricky, because I believe we’ve made it something beyond what it should be. The oldest offices of the Church are deacons (those who serve), bishops (those who oversee/protect), and proestos (the one who stands in front while ordering worship, found in the Didache). Among those are all sorts of callings such as apostles, teachers, prophets, evangelists, and shepherds/pastors. Then there are those given specific spiritual gifts, like encouragers, leaders, healers, miracle workers, helpers, administrators, and speakers. However, the UMC, as well as most other Christian tribes, have rolled all/most of these things into a superbeing the church calls clergy who are then “set apart” from the laity (laos), which just means “people.” But in 1 Peter 2, the writer states that all members of the church (presumably baptized), are made priests. Everyone.
The church shouldn’t ordain those who identify as LGBTQ. Or anyone else for that matter. Baptize and confirm everyone so they can be a part of the priesthood of all believers in accordance with the gifts God gave them. Then the UMC will have to start getting serious about what it means when it baptizes.
Kenneth Pruitt: At the end of the day, I don’t think our denomination has much more to stand on than the “icky factor.” In other words, “Yes, it might be arbitrary to draw the line at not ordaining folks who aren’t straight, but it’s just so...icky.” To be sure, we ordain self-avowed practicing sinners at every single annual conference every year. That’s the power of the Spirit’s work in us. We are powerful on behalf of our God because we realize our brokenness and can then serve accordingly by pushing our ego further and further out of the way. When our identity as leaders is tied to a cultural norm around our sexuality, we’re just placing random obstacles in front of those whom God may call.
What do you think, Rethinkers? Will change or compromise come soon, or is a split inevitable? Does this make you think of the trial controversy in Pennsylvania around gay marriage?
Bobby Ray Hurd is pursuing an MDiv at George Fox Evangelical seminary in Portland, OR, lives in Saint Louis, MO, and contributes to the life of a house church only known as Simple Church. He cares for people with disabilities by day and aspires to one day transition into the pastorate. He enjoys heavy metal, community, Karl Barth, time with his soon-to-be- wife Shawna, and beer.
Hannah Shanks is a called layperson at Centenary UMC in downtown St. Louis. She trains congregations and faith-based agencies on effective outreach and volunteer management in her day job. After work, you can find her at the local pub or at home, playing board games with noisy people.
Kurt Boemler is a former UMC Provisional Elder and an alum of Perkins School of Theology. He started a house church called simple church where he serves as proestos, which means "the one who stands in front," even though they worship while sitting in a circle. He blogs in the first person about churchy things and not-churchy things at kurtboemler.wordpress.com.