Today I pass over the Pastoral Staff to my successor and enter a very active “retirement.”God is good, all the time!
— Bishop Gene Robinson (@BishopGRobinson) January 5, 2013
“Death threats, and the now-worldwide controversy surrounding your election of me as bishop, have been a constant strain, not just on me, but on my beloved husband, Mark, who has faithfully stood with me every minute of the last seven years, and in some ways, you.
“While I believe that these attitudes, mostly outside the diocese, have not distracted me from my service to you, I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that they have certainly added a burden and certain anxiety to my episcopate.” – Gene Robinson, November 2010
Pope Leo IX of the Roman Catholic church imposed a ban on married clergy in 1039 which was only slightly relaxed in 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI. The Eastern Orthodox Church does not allow a marriage after ordination, but a married man may be ordained as a priest – though to be consecrated as a bishop, a priest must be unmarried or a widower. But in the Anglican Communion, created by Henry VIII and Thomas Cranmer, there is no ban on marriage for priest, bishop, or archbishop – which was the reason for Pope Benedict’s 2009 relaxation, to let married Anglican priests who wanted to leave the Church of England for the Catholic Church.
In the 1950s, an old hillbilly preacher invited Jordan to come and speak at his church in rural South Carolina. Jordan arrived to find, to his surprise, a large, thriving and racially integrated congregation — a remarkable thing in that time and place. (Sadly, it’s actually a remarkable thing in any time or place.) So Clarence asked the man how this came about.
When he first got there as a substitute preacher, the old man said, it was a small, all-white congregation of a few dozen families. So he gave a sermon on the bit from Galatians where Paul writes: “You are all children of God … There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Then the old preacher tells Jordan that this text, and his preaching, really bothered the deacons of the church, and they told the preacher afterwards that he wasn’t to do it again. And then….
“Well, they never hired me,” the old preacher responded. … “Once I found out what bothered them people, I preached the same message every Sunday. It didn’t take much time before I had that church preached down to four.”
There are Anglican churches where neither congregation nor clergy makes any distinction between gay and straight, trans and cisgendered. There are Protestant denominations – the Quakers, the Unitarians – where the religious body as a whole has decided that sexual orientation must not be a cause for rejection or exclusion. There is the Presbyterian tradition of freedom of conscience and long discussions in Assembly which, in the end, generally results in not closing the door to anyone. There were even LGBT-friendly Catholic masses openly held in London, until the Archbishop of Westminster declared they had to stop by the end of February because it was no longer appropriate for the Catholic Church to welcome LGBT people at Mass.
Forty-four years ago, when Troy Perry founded the Metropolitan Community Church – a revolutionary act, an open door instead of a closed one
Perry’s Metropolitan Community Churches was then a lone spiritual refuge for openly gay Christians, an idea so far from the mainstream that the founders were often chased from places where they tried to worship. Four decades later, some of the most historically important American denominations, which had routinely expelled gays and lesbians, are welcoming them instead.
MCC now has a presence in dozens of U.S. states as well as overseas, reporting a total membership of more than 240 congregations and ministries. But as acceptance of same-sex relationships grows – gay and lesbian clergy in many Protestant traditions no longer have to hide their partners or lose their careers, and Christians can often worship openly with their same-gender spouses in the mainline Protestant churches where they were raised – the fellowship is at a crossroads.
Is a gay-centered Christian church needed anymore?
Apparently a decision was made before Christmas in the Church of England’s House of Bishops, which has been headlined as Church of England decides to allow gay bishops – providing they’re celibate, which is not a requirement placed on heterosexual bishops or closet-cases who married in order to provide themselves with a beard.
But the decision the House of Bishops has made is that they will lift the ban on honest gay bishops, who live openly with their life partner. His honesty, not his sexual orientation, ensured that Gene Robinson, openly-gay and married to his partner, was the only bishop banned from attending the Lambeth Conference in 2008. The ban has been lifted not on gay bishops, but on the requirement to stay in the closet.
“There’s ’Come and don’t say anything,’ ’Come, but we won’t marry you,’ or ’Come and be fully accepted,’” said the Rev. Jo Hudson, senior pastor of the Cathedral of Hope. “We’re always glad when churches welcome gay and lesbian people, but it’s just a different experience in a church that is historically and predominantly led by heterosexual people. Everyone is going to find the church where they most fit in.”
Wilson said a large percentage of newer MCC members are from conservative Christian churches teaching that gay and lesbian Christians should try to become heterosexual or remain celibate. Koeshall was a pastor in the Assemblies of God, one of the largest U.S.-based Pentecostal groups, until 1997, when he says, “I came out and I got kicked out.”
New MCC congregations have recently started in Peoria, Ill., and in The Villages retirement community north of Orlando, Fla. (In a recent announcement in local gay media, the Peoria congregation described MCC as a fellowship created for gay and lesbian Christians now known as “the human rights church.”) Mary Metcalf, 62, a seven-year member of Heartland Metropolitan Community Church in Springfield, Ill., which started the Peoria congregation, said she was a lector and liturgy coordinator at her Roman Catholic parish until some friends brought her to a service.
“When it came time for communion, when the presider said that the table is open to everyone, I started crying,” said Metcalf, on a break from painting Heartland church with other volunteers. “I came from the Catholic Church. I’m straight, but I just finally had to come to a parting of the ways. I didn’t think Jesus kept anyone away from the table.”
From an online conversation a few days ago, a pastor who teaches and believes that “homosexuality is against the will of God”:
There are, in fact, a few gays and lesbians who regularly attend my church. I had the opportunity this weekend to have a deep conversation with one of them, and I asked her, “Please, be honest with me, do you feel excluded at this church?”
She paused for a few moments. She answered with a shaky voice, “By many, yes. I would even say by most. But not by you. And not by a few others who matter to us. And that’s why we keep coming back.”
The preacher whose story begins this blogpost, who preached on “what bothered them people, the same message every Sunday” would never have accepted this as a success (the pastor’s congregation mostly making this woman feel excluded in church) but the pastor describes this as a homosexual “heartily disagreeing” with the evaluation of his message as homophobic. (And to be fair, in a later comment, the woman herself says that while the pastor’s congregation have absorbed the message of hate, she doesn’t feel this from the pastor who teaches them that her sexual orientation is against the will of God and she is not entitled to marry.)
The MCC exists still (there is a congregation in Glasgow) because in many churches it is still a revolutionary and unwelcome idea that
We believe that God created us and loves us just as we are, and that created by a loving God, we are indeed holy. We want to lift up a new generation of spiritual activists called to a radical ministry proclaiming God’s love wherever that love has been buried by fear and hatred.
But to so many Christians – from Pope Benedict to that anonymous pastor – this is just not a Christian message.
Update, 27th February
Two things happened: Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigned because three priests and one former priest came out and said that he had made inappropriate advances to them, and as the Daily Mash nicely commented:
Martin Bishop, a very nice gay man, said: “I can’t decide whether I want to give him a cuddle or a good talking to and then a cuddle.
“He’ll try to pull away at first and call me horrible names, but I’ll hold on to him very tightly and then eventually he’ll just give in and let himself be cuddled.
“And I’ll say to him, ‘if God thinks you’re wrong then he wasn’t really your friend anyway’.”
And the new head of the Inquisition, Gerhard Müller, put an end to the Soho Masses, which had been celebrated in Westminster Diocese since April 1999: Müller apparently feels that Masses which explicitly welcome LGBT people as Catholics are inappropriate.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien is said to be “very upset” about the circumstances of his resignation. Perhaps in a different church, one in which Pope John Paul and then Pope Benedict – and his chosen enforcers – were not so eager to ensure that gay priests and bishops must lie and lie and lie, O’Brien might have been able to retire as honourably as Bishop Gene Robinson.