Living Theology in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod
Volume 8, Number 2
Human Sexuality in the ELCA:
Perspectives on the Struggle
Recognizing God’s Blessings: Holy Unions and the Ordination of Women and Men in Same-Sex Relationships
In 1991 the ELCA voted to welcome all people regardless of their sexual orientation into membership in their congregations. This was reaffirmed in 1995. In 1993, the Metropolitan Chicago Synod became a “Reconciling in Christ” Synod, by affirming that “gay and lesbian people share with all others the worth that comes from being loved and forgiven children of God; that gay and lesbian people are welcome within the life and ministry of this Synod upon making the same affirmation of faith that all other people make; and that gay and lesbian people are expected and encouraged to share in all aspects of this Synod’s ministry.”1 The Synod has also affirmed the practice of some of its clergy blessing the commitments of same-sex relationships at “holy union” services. Yet it is still difficult for many faithful Lutherans to understand the rationale of naming the committed, faithful, long-term relationships of same-gender couples as holy anything, and even more difficult to accept the practice of Lutheran clergy bringing the blessings of God to those unions in the same way that we bring the blessings of God to committed, faithful, long-term relationships of opposite-gender couples. Furthermore, although we affirm that we are blessed, promised the gift of grace, and set apart for service in our baptism, some Lutherans are not comfortable with the idea that this calling is something shared by everyone, regardless of sexual orientation and relationship status.2
How can these relationships be holy?
In Genesis 2:7, God creates a being (Hebrew: adam) from the earth (Hebrew: adamah). Traditional and contemporary translations have missed the Hebrew play on words; I would like to suggest that we think of our earliest ancestor as an “earth-being.”3 God gives that first earth-being a beautiful garden in which to live and plenty to eat and drink (Gen 2:8-15), but becomes concerned that the earth-being seems lonely. God thinks, “It is not good that the [earth-being] should be alone,” and sets about creating other creatures to be a proper companion (Gen 2:18-20).
One can imagine the delight of encountering and naming such delightful creatures as birds, dogs, and horses, the wonder at seeing for the first time porcupines, giraffes and penguins, and perhaps the horror of coming face to face with a shark or a charging rhinoceros. But at the end of the day, it is clear both to God and to the earth-being that none of these creatures is the right kind of partner. Only when a second earth-being is created does the first one feel complete and completed, and the cry “this at last!” reflects the profound joy of encountering one’s mate. To be sure, there are those who insist that this text is only about opposite gender people being created for one another; but it is also true to the text to see that it is about God not wanting us to be alone, and that other humans, not animals are created to be our partners.
The next question might be whether God has created gay and lesbian people as they are, or is there some element of choosingbe attracted to humans of the same sex. I can’t help thinking of the “heteroseuxality test” which you may have seen or heard of. Questions such as, “When did you know you were a heterosexual?” “Have you tried to have a relationship with someone of the same gender? Perhaps you haven’t met the right man or woman yet!” or “Well, of course it’s perfectly ok for you to be a heterosexual, but you must remain celibate for the rest of your life” allow us to laugh a bit at what it means to assume that all people are created heterosexual, but the underlying reality is important: most people who are gay or lesbian knew from a very early age that they were “different” from other children, and by puberty were aware that they simply weren’t attracted to people of the opposite sex. Because of often intense social and religious stigmatization, many lesbian and gay people report trying all sorts of ways to change their primary attraction with little or no success.4
As recently as twenty-five years ago, when being a homosexual was many more times taboo than it is today, people who knew they were different, who knew that they were attracted to people of their own gender, did their best to bury those feelings and often married someone whom they liked or perhaps even loved, but with whom they did not have that “this at last” feeling that is so well described in Genesis. The tragic result of these societal taboos becomes clear when we witness twenty and twenty-five year marriages breaking up because one partner can no longer pretend not to be a homosexual. All parties have been hurt: the gay or lesbian partner because of years of inability to truly be themselves, their wife or husband who truly loved their partner, never knowing the truth or perhaps hoping that they had been able to “cure” their spouse of their homosexuality, and of course the children, who not only face the trauma of divorce but are forced to deal with issues of sexuality in the highly charged atmosphere of their parents’ relationship falling apart.
I am grateful that I live in a time in which increasing numbers of gay and lesbian people feel free to live and love those for whom they not only feel emotional affinity, but physical attraction, too. I believe that God not only gave us one another to love, God also gave us hearts and minds and spirits and bodies with which to express that love. I absolutely agree with all those who hold that sexual intimacy is a gift from God, and a gift that must be carefully stewarded. We are not called to share our bodies indiscriminately, nor are we to use them as weapons of power or control over another. All those who are united with the one they love know what I mean when I suggest that sexual union can only be the spiritual union it is created to be if one is sharing one’s more intimate self with one to whom one has pledged one’s love and faithfulness.
God has called us into relationships of love, honor, respect, and faithfulness. When two people find the “other” to whom they can give that love, honor, respect and faithfulness, it is appropriate for the couple to believe that their relationship is holy, regardless of the gender of their partner.
Why should we bless them?
I always enjoy the moment in a wedding rehearsal when, after one member of the couple has practiced saying their vow, I stop the other from saying theirs, explaining, “Don’t speak yours yet. If you do, you’ll be married!” The principal actors in a wedding are the couple themselves, and the action that makes the union binding is the speaking of those vows, what makes it legal is a state-authorized witness. I am clear that when I preside at a heterosexual marriage, I am filling two shoes: as an authorized representative of the state, I witness the couple’s vows to one another, and as a pastor (and authorized representative of the church), I call upon and offer God’s blessing on their vows and life together. Frankly, I think the latter role is more important, and, like many other clergy, I am not particularly interested in presiding at weddings of couples who have little or no idea why they want to be married in a church except for social custom and, as is often the case at Rockefeller Chapel, because the church is pretty. These days, I handle this by telling a couple up front that unless theirs is an interfaith marriage, I reserve the right to use specifically Christian language, and in any case, I will declare the importance of God’s presence and blessing upon them. Instead of my deciding whether they are religious enough for me, I let them decide if I am too religious for them. Over the years, I have had several couples respectfully ask if I could suggest another clergy person who wasn’t so “religious.” I have always been happy to do so.
It is a different thing entirely when a same-sex couple asks me to bless their relationship. Unlike many of their heterosexual counterparts, when they come to me, they are very clear that they specifically want and deserve God’s blessing, and they know why! I have been so often moved by the faith of these couples who are quite clear that they need God’s presence with them daily in order to live out their calling to love one another. Same-sex couples do not approach saying their vows in a church lightly, and it is, frankly, a blessing to me to be asked by a couple who know why they want a pastor to witness their vows.
I believe that as a church we should bless these relationships because, like their heterosexual counterparts, they need God’s blessing to thrive. Same-sex couples need the same kind of support of the community as they seek to live out their vows as opposite-sex couples. If we are serious about wanting to support and promote relationships which are faithful, long term, and monogamous, then I believe we should recognize the validity of same-sex relationships and stand ready to be as supportive of them when they hit rocky times as we are with opposite-sex couples.
People who are indiscriminate in choosing their sex partners, whether they are same or differently gendered, may never have heard anyone tell them that their bodies are holy and that they can make sacred choices with how they choose to use their bodies and with whom they chose to share them. As a church I believe that we should be about the business of admonishing all people to wait to share themselves intimately with those to whom they are committed to love and be faithful. And when they come to us for a blessing, we should acknowledge that no matter what the gender(s) of the people who present themselves, God does indeed bless their love and faithful commitment to each other.
And what about ordination?
When we baptize a child into the church and the Body of Christ, the entire congregation says together, “We welcome you into the Lord’s family. We receive you as a fellow member of the body of Christ, child of the same heavenly Father, and a worker with us in the kingdom of God.”5 We ask the parents to raise the child with the prayers, creeds, and faith of the church, and when they are confirmed, we call upon the baptizands to full responsibility and participation in the life of the church. We hope and expect that all baptized members will take on some position of leadership within the community, believing that our baptism prepares us to live our lives deliberately as children of God, blessed by God’s grace and dependent upon God’s love.
As one who wrestled with God about whether or not I was called into the ministry (I did not think it was a good idea at the time), I can attest to the fact that being called into ordained ministry is not something one chooses, any more than one chooses who one is attracted to. My experience was rather one of being chosen - both by God and by the church. Deciding to say “yes” to the call involved reshaping my assumptions about what kind of life I would lead, my expectations for where I would find a social life (previously I had found my friends at work and at church; as a pastor I am called to find my friends elsewhere), and wondering whether I would ever be able to have a successful marriage. Saying “yes” to the call in 1986 involved significant sacrifice, particularly for women, yet I can attest that in my 16 years of service, no matter how difficult things have been, I never doubted its validity.
The ELCA sets appropriately high standards for those whom we would ordain into the ministry. While understanding itself not to be a juridical standard, the document Vision and Expectations states clearly:
An ordained minister of this church shall be a person whose commitment to Christ, soundness of faith, aptness to preach, teach and witness, and whose educational qualifications have been examined and approved in the manner prescribed in the documents of this church; who has been properly called and ordained; who accepts and adheres to the Confession of Faith of this church; who is diligent and faithful in the exercise of the ministry; and whose life and conduct are above reproach. (http://www.elca.org/dm/candidacy/vision_ordained.html)
Throughout the document, Vision and Expectations refers to the call of the Holy Spirit as a vital part of a pastor’s call. I can attest to you that the Holy Spirit has not been paying attention to the sexual orientation of those whom she has been calling! The document says: “The expectations of this church regarding the sexual conduct of its ordained ministers are grounded in the understanding that human sexuality is a gift from God and that ordained ministers are to live in such a way as to honor this gift,” yet throughout the country, congregations and institutions have been faithfully served by gay and lesbian pastors who, unlike their heterosexual colleagues, have not been free to honor the gift of their sexuality. Some have stayed “in the closet.” Some have chosen to accept the ELCA’s current requirement of abstaining from same-sex relationships. Some have tried to maintain a relationship with a partner while hiding the nature of that relationship from their congregation. Others have refused to accept the double standard imposed by the ELCA and have left the ministry. More times than I care to count I have met gifted men and women who have left the ministry because even as they knew that God had called and blessed them with gifts for ministry, they also affirmed that God had called and blessed them with gifts for intimate relationships, in their cases with people of the same gender.
What kind of example can a homosexual clergymember be?
In its outline of what is required for a person to serve as an member of the clergy, the ELCA has upheld the importance of the role of the ordained minister “as person and example.” (Visions and Expectations) In its section on sexual behavior, that same document rightly notes that “ordained ministers are expected to reject sexual promiscuity, the manipulation of others for purposes of sexual gratification, and all attempts of sexual seduction and sexual harassment, including taking physical or emotional advantage of others.” It would be foolish for any of us to claim that all Lutheran clergy live up to these high standards, but it is a terrible mistake to suggest that gay and lesbian clergy cannot do so simply because of their sexual orientation.
I know that there is still a lot of fear among the good people of our synod and many of the clergy who diligently serve them- but it seems to me that much of this fear is based in the faulty understanding of homosexuality as a sin. If we can acknowledge that all sexual orientations are gifts from God, and that full expression of sexual orientation in faithful relationships is not limited to opposite gender couples, we would not, for instance, be worried that a lesbian pastor would somehow be a bad influence simply because of her sexual orientation. A lesbian pastor who has been with her partner for 15 years can provide the same sort of relationship modeling as a pastor who has been in a heterosexual marriage for the same amount of time: each can attest to the joys and difficulties of sharing a life with the one they love. We should be concerned that all our clergy, whatever their orientation, model what it means to have healthy and holy relationships so that the young people in our congregations who are straight or lesbian or gay can have mentors to whom they can go as they begin their own relationships. A clergy member’s healthy expression of her or his sexual orientation is an opportunity to be a model for all our people of what it means to honor the gift of our sexuality.
I know that even though many of us have gotten to the point of acknowledging that people in same-sex relationships are not only good people but are welcome in our congregations, and some of us are quite comfortable with acknowledging that same-sex relationships have the same troubles, trials, delights, and sacredness as opposite-sex relationships, it is still difficult to imagine not caring what the gender of our pastor’s partner might be. But I believe we will get there. My prayer is that as a church as we move forward toward full acceptance of our gay and lesbian clergy members, we continue to acknowledge the very real concerns, fears, and anxieties of those who aren’t ready to do so, and honor the sincere desire to be faithful followers of Jesus of those who believe that same-sex relationships are sinful.
God has given us many gifts, and perhaps the most mysterious, funny, messy, profound and holy of them is the gift of our sexuality. God has called us to be whole beings in our relationships with ourselves, with our community, and with God. The full welcome and acceptance of our gay and lesbian sons, daughters, cousins, neighbors, teachers, colleagues and clergy will come when we can acknowledge that we all share this calling together. In the meantime, I pray that we may continue to listen and learn from one another.
Associate Dean of Rockefeller Chapel
University of Chicago
1This is a paraphrase of the boilerplate “Affirmation of Welcome” of Reconciling in Christ congregations, organizations and synods. See http://www.lcna.org/ric.shtm for the exact wording.
2It is important to include “relationship status” in these conversations, since the ELCA currently does ordain openly gay and lesbian persons. Unlike their heterosexual colleagues, however, gay and lesbian clergy are required to be celibate for the rest of their lives.
3Thomas Troeger likes to refer to that first being as a “mud creature.” He did this during one of the “Wardlaw lectures” at LSTC: June 27, 2001.
4When statistics of “success” of so-called reparative therapies are carefully examined, it is clear that their “results” are based on changed behavior, not affectional orientation.
5”Holy Baptism,” Lutheran Book of Worship, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1990), 121