This post is offered by Betty Sivis, Senior Pastor of First Christian Church, Auburn, IN. This is not so much a letter, as it is a personal testimony….
There have been many reactions to Rev. Watkins’ pastoral letter on the issue of homosexuality. Some have praised the letter for its gentle approach and its attempt to exalt the highest values of Disciples tradition; the unity of the body of Christ, despite a disunity of opinion.
Others have railed against the letter in the manner that Civil Rights activists did in the past because of the perceived warning to “wait” for fearful church people to ease themselves into a more comfortable position before they can accept the principle of full inclusion.
For my own part, I did perceive her letter as being too weak, but not for the reasons many other authors have stated. This will not be eloquent. It will not be ground breaking. And very likely, what I have to say will disappoint, confuse, and/or rankle most people who read it.
That’s all right.
What I think Sharon got right in her letter was the implication that our identity as Disciples of Christ, gives us an edge in this conversation. Not that fluffy talk about welcoming all to the Table, at least not in the way some people use it. Don’t mistake me, I use that fluffy talk, but not because I believe it is adequate in this case. I use it because it calms people, it allows pastors to affirm peoples’ fears and misgivings so that they will be more open to reevaluating their beliefs on this issue. It is a kind of gentle manipulation that depends on the illusion of affirmation. I do not affirm the belief that LGBTQ individuals are unworthy of full inclusion in the church. But I will affirm for the moment, a person’s right to give in to their fears in that regard if it means the chance to lead them to a change of action if not a change of heart. This is a typical pastoral care tactic. And it works. Slowly, but it works. And the shrewd pastor would do well to use it to its greatest effect. This is what Disciples mean by agreeing to disagree agreeably.
I know very well the people who do not, and will never come around to supporting full inclusion. Some of them are hostile. Some are not. All of them are afraid. Terrified in fact. And I fully admit that at this point, I’m not particularly concerned about whether or not they remain in the church after all is said and done. My reason for this shouldn’t be mistaken for a callous “good riddance” attitude. Rather, I believe that people don’t leave their churches over a single issue. It’d be easy to assume that, just as it’d be easy to assume that couples divorce because of infidelity. But in both of those situations, separation occurs over time, and as a result of deeper problems that were present at the start of the relationship. The single issue is merely a symptom and in this case, most likely the final symptom of an irreconcilable difference.
So, why do I use the fluffy talk? Because God’s grace has a way of redeeming even the most stubborn minds and hardened hearts. Even if I am convinced that some of my own members will never change their minds about homosexuality, I’m going to invite them to sit at the Table regardless. I’m going to approach them with an open hand, and not with a flaming torch. Whether they choose to sit and converse and work through the fear that keeps them from accepting their gay or lesbian neighbors, is entirely their choice. But as their pastor, I will give them the chance, and I will pray that God’s Holy Spirit empowers them to make the right choice. That is where I feel particularly called.
I cannot and will not force people to agree with my opinions. And I think that is what Rev. Watkins was getting at. I think most Disciples who appear to some to be too moderate are just as firmly set as their more vocal counterparts in their opinion that full inclusion is the only Christ-like course of action. But I also think that many of us are not called to fight this fight in the same manner or with the same tools as others. Some do well and have a particular vocation to brandish the sword of justice and the torch of enlightenment and to take the greatest risks in doing so. Others are called to be, well….more passive aggressive.
Most of you who know me won’t be surprised to read these words. Others will be incensed that a minister of the Gospel should buy in to such a cop-out. Either way, I’m not terribly concerned about the judgment of others. I feel strongly that I have been called to extend my pastoral hand to the person with whom I can never agree and to welcome them to sit beside me. If they slap my hand away and leave, it will hurt, and it will throw the church into distress and confusion. But we are called so often in Scripture to let go when the time comes, to shake the dust from our feet and to move on. I may do that with some resistance, but do not mistake that resistance for inconstancy or hesitancy.
As ever my constant prayer is that those who oppose full inclusion will be empowered by faith to soften their resolve and to discover the radical truth that God’s love will always transcend our prejudices.