"The lines we draw are invitations to cross over and that crossing over, as any nomadic subject knows, constitutes who we are." (Judith Butler)

Archive for March, 2011

Ethics of ordination

The United Methodist General Conference is just around the corner, and one of the issues facing General Conference 2012 will be, as always, whether or not the UMC should ordain non-celibate lesbian and gay persons (oh, my apologies, the language is actually “self-avowed practicing homosexuals”). It is my belief, put simply, that a truly Wesleyan policy would be, not to have a standard that automatically excludes certain people from consideration, but to allow a process for examining the fruits of each individual’s faith and love in the world (shouldn’t this already be the inherent purpose of a Board of Ordained Ministry?). (For a bit more on this perspective, see my post “Who Cares about the Bible? Part 2.”)

I don’t want to focus here on what the UMC should do and why because that is a tired debate (but one I will certainly continue to engage). Instead of thinking about the church, I want to address those who remain in the UMC despite the fact that its polity is exclusionary and hurtful. I want to address specifically those who would even seek ordination in the church they love because they believe in their gifts and calling, not in spite of their sexuality but as beloved LGBT children of God.

I’ve heard it expressed — by both straight and gay people — that for a lesbian or gay person to take the vows of ordination is to somehow undermine the oath that others make. The logic is that a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” knows that s/he lives in violation of the Book of Discipline and so ostensibly lies when promising to support the polity of the church.

What is most troubling to me about this line of thought is that it places an undue ethical burden upon the lesbian or gay candidate for ordination. The idea that setting aside regard for a policy that excludes oneself from full participation in the church somehow taints the vow that others “take seriously” is disturbing. First of all, I’m still not sure how persons who are LGBT have the power to bring down all of society (destroying the institution of marriage and apparently also the legitimacy of ordination).

Secondly, and more significantly, it’s offensive to think that a person cannot love her church, have a calling and passion for ministry, and possess a desire to build up the church while disagreeing with a policy that violates her sense of being and sacred worth. Why is it that LBGT persons alone are ethically burdened with weighing whether their ordination somehow vitiates ordination in general?

Why is it not the ethical responsibility of the church, first and foremost, to consider how its policies might harm its members? Early Methodism was built upon mutual accountability; however, there can be no mutuality if the church expects lesbian and gay candidates for ministry to bear the burden alone without the church having to consider and weigh the ethics of its own practices.

I took up this issue of the ethics of LGBT ordination in my final paper for the class on United Methodist polity at Harvard Divinity School. I am sharing the paper here as a contribution to the debate but, more importantly, as a way of thinking for LGBT persons to move past any anxiety they might have over whether or not it is right for them to engage the ordination process, instead being able to consider whether it is personally and spiritually good for them.

Please do keep in mind that this paper was written in the spring of 2008, and my own thinking about the complexities of sex, gender, and sexuality have developed, and likewise my language for talking about these issues has expanded and been refined. We are always learning and growing.

And so, I offer my thoughts: Queering Ethics, Ordination, and Church (PDF).

When did we become so boring?

I recently posted on Facebook that I clearly need to get out more in the present since I had to stop and think about whether it’s appropriate to refer to the peoples and texts from the past which I primarily study as “ancient.” I was being silly… but also kind of serious. Windows into the first few centuries CE — through writings and material remains — showcase vibrant, complex, interesting social and religious dynamics that don’t feel to me like old, outdated ways of being, beyond which we have so obviously progressed.

In fact, when I turn from the pages of the long past and look at the present, quite frankly, we appear pretty boring! Especially in the church! There are ways in which we have progressed in terms of sex, gender, and sexuality (for which I am thankful), but our conversations and imaginations can also be so incredibly limited and limiting.

There is all sorts of modern discontent over the language we use to talk about about the Divine. If we call God “He,” do we mean that God is literally gendered male? And is the implication then that there is something inherently more valuable about maleness? Or is “he” a generic term that we use for convenience while we admit that God transcends gender? And if we assert that God is beyond our understanding of gender, can we transgress our gendered boundaries when we imagine God?

The questions I raise are part of a long and continuing debate, and there are certainly a lot of diverse, beautiful ways that people today address and express the Divine. I do not mean to dismiss or diminish the creativity that is unmistakably alive in contemporary discourse and worship practices, but when I read writings of old (not all of them being “ancient”), sometimes I want to say, “I’ll support the next candidate for bishop who speaks like THAT!” In general, we are comparatively boring!

We might be able to talk about God as both male and female and/or neither male nor female, but when is the last time you’ve heard someone think about the femaleness of Jesus? In our rational, scientific ways of thinking about bodies, we might tend to say, “No, Jesus was anatomically a man. Having been a human male, it would not be appropriate to identify Jesus as a woman.” But some earlier Christians had more lively imaginations, which I would argue animated livelier spirituality.

Take, for example, Origen. Origen lived from around 185 to 253 CE, and he was an incredibly prolific writer, composing works largely dealing with interpretation of scripture. While there was a later time he was considered a heretic, Origen was an incredibly influential theologian. Don’t let the heretic label fool you. That was about differences of opinion over such theological matters as the nature of the Trinity, matter, salvation; it was not that Origen was some revolutionary figure when it came to gender.

Yet, Origen talked about his relationship with Christ in ways that no Christian would dare speak today if wanting not to rock the boat. Contemporary Christians caught up worrying about the place of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender folks in the church and society do not tend toward imagery that could remotely be considered homoerotic. But Origen, in his commentary on the Song of Songs, read Jesus in the role of the Song’s Bridegroom and himself in the role of the Bride. What we get, then, is a kind of spirituality characterized by gender bending. (more…)

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