Article Title:Debate: The ordination of "practising" gay Presybterians
Category:Features
Author or Credit:National Radio; GayNZ.com
Published on:14th September 2004 - 12:00 pm
Published by:GayNZ.com
Story ID:418
Text:From 19-24 September the Presbyterian General Assembly will convene in Christchurch and will once again attempt to deal with a subject which has taxed and divided it for a decade, the ordination of "practising homosexuals." Observers from within and outside the Church have predicted that this issue could split the Presbyterian Church in two. In National Radio's programme "Spiritual Outlook: Gay and lesbian friends of God" lesbian Presbyterian minister Margaret Mayman debates the issue with Stuart Lange, co-chair of Presbyterian Affirm which opposes the proposal. This transcript has been slightly edited by GayNZ.com for clarity. The basis for the two opposing views is made crystal clear, the host for the debate is National Radio's Maureen Garing. Maureen Garing: The question of homosexuality in relation to church leadership has been causing division and dissension in churches throughout the world. Here in New Zealand the most recent public argument has arisen within the Presbyterian Church, sparked when a lesbian woman who wished to become a minister was told she could not attend the gathering at which candidates were assessed for admission to training. Both the candidate and the Wellington presbytery who put her forward appealed and the Church set up a a judicial commission whose task was to decide if she had a right to be interviewed for entry into the assessment process. They said she did, and it's this which gave rise to widespread discussion both within the church and in the wider community. With me I have the Reverend Stuart Lange, a Presbyterian minister and chairman of Presbyterian Affirm whose members strongly oppose the ordination of practising homosexuals into church leadership. And the Reverend Dr. Margaret Mayman, a Presbyterian minister who openly acknowledges that she is lesbian. I'm going to ask each of my guests to make an opening statement, so Stuart perhaps you'd like to go first. Stuart Lange: I believe that the contemporary moves within western culture to endorse and to celebrate homosexuality are inconsistent with a responsible interpretation of Christian scripture. It's not a matter of scattered proof texts, it's a matter of the whole teachings of scripture, and theologian Walter Wink, a liberal, a few years ago frankly admitted that the whole Bible knows homosexuality to be wrong. I'm not a fundamentalist, rather I want to reflect the classical orthodox Christian understanding of gender and morality... that God made humanity in God's own image as a distinct co-humanity of male and female and that God's intention for human sexual expression is a loving faithful marriage between a man and a woman... and that any other sexual pattern falls short of God's intentions for us. What also matters to me are the biblical theologies: of sin and suffering, the calls to repentance and holiness, the calls to forgiveness, and to transformation in Christ. And so to “de-sin” homosexuality seems inconsistent with all that and requires a radical reinterpretation of Christian theology and scripture. So, as a matter of profound biblical and theological conscience I cannot accept it. Margaret Mayman: Gay and lesbian people, particularly clergy, have been the subject of debate in the Presbyterian church for decades now. It's a tiring and sometimes tiresome process, but it's work that must be done. I think that this debate is a symptom of the struggle for the heart of the Church, for whether it will be defined by dogmatism and exclusion or by the Gospel imperative of justice love. Gay and lesbian people have always been part of the church, including as ministers and elders. But what is happening now is that gay and lesbian ministers are wanting to be open, to acknowledge and celebrate who we are. Now we are claiming our place and being open to the call of God to ministry. There can be no more secrets. The new openness is a result of many things, not least of which are the changes in societal attitudes and law. With homosexual law reform in 1986 and the human rights act in 1993 New Zealanders have increasingly had the opportunity to get to know gay people who are confident and secure of who we are. The attitude of most New Zealanders is now that it is simply not an issue. But for churches is has been a harder journey because of the prevalence of conservative Biblical interpretation. However, there is also a strong progressive tradition in Christianity that has interpreted the Bible contextually. Now we do our interpretive work in the context of biological and psychological research which indicates that sexual orientation is not simply a matter of choice. Homosexuality is part of God's good, glorious and diverse creation. But the Bible is still our guide... Jesus addresses human relationships in the great commandment: Love God and love your neighbour as yourself. Responding to the love and presence of God is our task and so our relationships, all relationships, should be loving, equal, faithful, mutual and respectful. Sexual orientation is simply not relevant there. HOMOSEXUAL PRACTISE IS EVIL Garing: Stuart, you talked about “celebrating homosexuality,” and you also talked about that Margaret, and I interpreted what you said about it as being honest. Mayman: Absolutely. Garing: So what did you mean when you said that Stuart? Lange: Margaret is claiming that because homosexual orientation exists it must therefore be right. It's a very naturalistic expression. The fact that something exists is not in itself, to me, proof that it is a good and natural part of God's creation which is to be celebrated. It may in fact be a disorder, or an evil within things as they are now subsequent to the human law. Garing: Evil is a strong word Stuart. Lange: I certainly don't see homosexual activity as the only sin or as the worst sin. I don't even see a disposition towards homosexuality or an orientation as itself sinful. And indeed the 1985 assembly of the presbyterian church in this country said so. And I've always held to that view, that homosexual orientation in itself is not sinful, but that homosexual practice is against God's intentions for humanity. Mayman: I think that the distinction between orientation and practise is one thing I would like to address, and I think it's a very artificial and ideologically driven distinction, that most gay and lesbian people simply do not accept because we do not experience ourselves in this way. Sexual orientation is part of who we are and in terms of categorising it as disordered or as a result of human sinfulness is just completely incompatible with our experience of ourselves as sexual beings and particularly of ourselves as people in loving relationships. I think Jesus gave us a very good guide when he talked about fruits... the fruits of our lives. And what I see in gay and lesbian lives in the Christian church and in the community that I'm part of are loving, committed relationships. Not all... I think, like heterosexual relationships, they are capable of being in a variety of ways. But what mars human relationships is not the absurd idea of “homosexual acts” but the brokenness of the relationship of treating one another as less than human, of objectifying people into groups and categories and excluding them from participation in the community. Lange: Yes. Mayman: So I find it a very unhelpful and unreal kind of response to homosexuality. Lange: Can I suggest, Maureen and Margaret, that the blurring by the homosexual viewpoint of orientation and practise is also ideologically driven and that the distinction can be made for those that are called heterosexual as well. Being heterosexual does not give one a blank cheque to do anything that a heterosexual can do. THE SCRIPTURAL EVIDENCE Garing: You mentioned, Stuart, the standard of faithful marriage between man and woman as being a Biblical standard. Lange: I believe, and the Presbyterian Church has likewise declared. that God's intention for human sexual expression is loving, faithful, mutual marriage between a man and a woman and that any sexual pattern outside of that falls short of God's intentions. Garing: What I was asking you Stuart was to explain to me, because I don't actually know, where this comes in the scriptures. Lange: I would have thought it came very clearly from Jesus' teachings on marriage. You can relate it back to Genesis, chapter 1, that God created us in his image, male and female he made us. And then leading on from there a man shall be joined to his wife and the two shall become as one. And Jesus endorsing those statements and taking a very high view of marriage over and against the openness to divorce and to a more shallow view of marriage. I think we've got to take Jesus' view of marriage and sexuality and its sanctity and its permanence as our benchmark, rather than of course some of the more culturally dodgy parts of the old testament in that regard. Mayman: It's interesting to me that you pose the opposition of Jesus valuing of marriage, which I don't have a problem with, with the “over and against” being divorced, and I think you'll probably include adultery in that. And Jesus didn't actually say anything about homosexuality... we'd both agree about that I think. And so it confuses me that you're not being very direct about what exactly is motivating this “over and against.” It seems to me that you're choosing examples that we understand are less than ideal and including homosexuality by derivation in that argument and I don't think that that's logically coherent. Lange: Well, while I said that I didn't want to proof text, there are various scriptures that I can't get past. And some would be Jesus's echoing of the Genesis teaching on gender and marriage and also there would be the teaching in Romans 1, 1st Corinthians 6, and it seems to me that Jesus silence on homosexuality can be read two ways. With a great deal of effort it can be taken as endorsement but that would be entirely foreign to the milieu in which Jesus was speaking. It is the assumption I make, and that I think most scholars would make, that it was just so unthinkable for Jesus that he certainly never left any room for it. Mayman: I think that you then need to deal with the historical context and the understandings about sexuality that existed in the Biblical periods. Yes, there are verses that clearly condemn homosexual acts but there was no understanding of what we now know to be the natural variety of human sexual orientation. And just the valuing of one form of relationship I don't think necessitates our devaluing of others. Lange: This is where we really part company. Because it seems to me the underlying presupposition of those many who want to reinterpret scripture on this matter is that scripture is essentially a human construct, a record of human thinking about God. Whereas the classical understanding is that scripture, while being human in one sense, its provenance is essentially divine. And so I would not want to pose a modern understanding or misunderstanding based on science, good or otherwise, about sexuality over and against what I believe to be the divine teaching of scripture and that which I believe is intrinsic to scripture. This teaching on humanity as a co-humanity of male and female, Jesus' honouring of scripture, the consistent prohibition on homosexual activity. I would want to take scripture as divine provenance, and I simply cannot, as a matter of conscience, relativise it or say ”well, we now understand more about these things.” Mayman: Clearly we do understand a great deal more about the natural world than the biblical writers do, and we operate with the benefit of that knowledge. And I think you're right that in the end it does come down to understandings of Biblical interpretation and what I want to stress is that in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand there are varieties of understanding of the biblical record and different weights are put on different pieces of it. And you do the same thing. What we need to do to move beyond battering biblical verses backwards and forwards is to accept a fairly major degree of theological diversity within the Church... to acknowledge that that does underlie a great deal of our difference in this matter. Lange: But your presuppositions there are relativistic or post-modern, that any truth is ok as long as you hold it sincerely. But I don't actually bow down to that particular line of approach. And I am mindful of the fact that the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand is a confessional church and that constitutionally and legally our very first article in our constitution is that we are to order our life in accordance with the word of God contained in the Old and New Testaments. There may be interpretive differences, and there is room for shades of opinion. But when it comes to a radical revisioning I am not so sure that that's permissible. LIBERTY OF OPINION WITHIN THE CHURCH? Mayman: I was interested to read comments made recently by the moderator of the Presbyterian Church in which he strongly restated another key founding principle of our relationship to scripture and to the confessions, and that is a liberty of opinion in matters that do not enter into the substance of the reform faith. There seems to be no grounds to argue that our understanding of homosexuality and the place of gay and lesbian people in church could be considered to be a fundamental doctrine of our faith. So it is something we have liberty of opinion with and I am willing to live with the diversity of opinion even though that makes my ministry quite challenging in many ways. I accept that that's what is to be a Presbyterian in the 21st century in Aotearoa. Lange: But if you allow for liberty of opinion on something so basic as human sexuality and morality why not be relativistic on such matters as the existence of God? We could go for Christianity without God for instance. We could deny monotheism, the concept of revelation, the goodness of creation, the sanctity of human life, the message of the prophets, the incarnation... I mean, where do we stop? It seems to me, and this is the point that I began with, that your revisioning of the scriptures to just simply a message of justice and love and a rejection of all authority seems to go beyond... Mayman: Stuart, I'm sorry to interrupt you but I think that I didn't [say] what you just said, which was rejection of all authority. Lange: Well I'm not sure how you define the authority of the word of God. For me your revisioning is far too radical. And I as a matter of conscience cannot interpret the scripture in the way that you do. 21ST CENTURY KNOWLEDGE Garing: There is another thing that came to mind as you were talking so I want to ask both of you about this... in the scriptures there is an awful lot of talk about lepers and leprosy, what a terrible thing it was. Now we know that some of the leprosy that they talked about was simply various skin diseases like excema and things that we know about these days. So can we draw any sort of parallel here about the different way we think about that and the possibility of a different way of thinking about sexuality? Lange: I want to say that we do need to distinguish between those parts of the scripture which are culturally bound and really quite peripheral and which have no direct application now, and those truths about the nature of God and humanity which are true in every age. Now, the question is “where do we draw the line.” Obviously I am not wanting to hold to views of leprosy that have been held in the first century. But when it comes to basic teaching about humanity, sexuality, marriage, repentance, holiness, transformation and Christ and so on, I simply see that as core, not periphery. And Margaret and I presumably draw the lines differently. Mayman: I think that's right, and it's important to acknowledge that it is you drawing the line and that the biblical writers themselves didn't see those distinctions as culturally relevant or central. Those are your impositions on the Biblical text. And I don't blame you for doing that. We all do that, but I think it's important to acknowledge that that's what we are doing and that it is a matter of ideology. And that your position is as ideologically driven as mine is. But we both base it on different experiences and neither of us can prove that the other is wrong. Which brings me back to my point that we actually need to learn as members of the same church to live together with our differently-held views. I believe that difficult and challenging as that is, it is possible to exist in the same church and not to resort to name calling, othering, dehumanising the people that we disagree with. Lange: I entirely agree with that and yet I think we have to acknowledge that the ability to get on as human beings and to treat those with different views with courtesy doesn't get round the fact that there are really two theologies here which are radically different and which are really mutually irreconcilable. For many of us, on all sides of this issue, this issue is deeply painful and it is really worrying about the ongoing unity of the Church. EXCLUSION AND DIVISION Garing: I think what you've said, Stuart, is very important. You've talked about the on-going unity of the Church and I don't particularly limit that to the Presbyterian Church. I talk about the entire Christian church because the church as a world-wide body must have some degree of unity. My understanding of Christianity is that the main teaching is that of love and sometimes people outside see the arguments that Christians have over issues such as the ordination of women (which is still going on in some churches), the ordination of practising homosexual people, and these sort of things are not understood by people in the outside community. They don't do the Church a good service. Lange: The issue here is not really one about love but it's simply a matter of holding in good Biblical conscience to our understanding of revealed truth. Mayman: I believe what we need to focus on is ethics and that is how we are in relation to one another. And as a lesbian woman in a relationship I do my best to make sure that that relationship is an ethical relationship and I believe that it is compatible with all that I know about Christian tradition. and about love in relationships. That is revealed truth to me. The issue of ethics is also one that applies to us as a church community and I am really clear that, while people claim that they do not hate, what has been done in terms of attempting to legislate exclusion of certain people from participation in parts of the Church's life is unloving. I think that... Lange: No, this is where I'd like to say that to disagree with you in not unloving. It may feel unloving to you but it's simply being true to what we believe is Biblical truth. Mayman: I'm talking about actions Stuart, and I think that's why I am concerned to make a distinction between what we believe and what we do. And often I think it's best left to the people who are the object of the action to decide about whether it is unloving or not. In this case I am aware of my own situation and the situation of gay and lesbian people who are called to ministry still in the Church. I realise the huge levels of activity that come from your part of the Church and the energy that goes into excluding us from participation and community. I find that most unfortunate. That, for me, is a core issue about what it means to be in the Church and be in Christian community which each other. I really wish that we could accept that we believe different things, not just as individuals but as different parts of the Church and find ways to go forward, holding on to that which we do share and recognising that which we have differences about. But I believe that what we need to focus on is action and love in action, toward one another. Lange: I think that those who want to celebrate homosexuality and insist on such people being in Christian leadership need to acknowledge that the conscience of those who take a more classical or biblical or fundamentalist view of the scriptures is deeply violated by the very thought of practising homosexual people being put in leadership. And that again is the agony of our Church. The issue for such people is do we say “yes and no” at the same time or from the conscience point of view do we in fact say “yes, maybe” to that which in the eyes of many is profoundly contrary to the revealed purposes of God. And which is really offensive to their spirit. NZ'S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION LAWS Garing: Something that intrigues me, and I think intrigues people outside the Church is that New Zealand law doesn't discriminate against homosexual people. It did at one stage but it doesn't any more. So why does the church? Lange: Clearly, in a post-Christendom model and even indeed in a New Testament model, we are subject to God and not to Caesar. Mayman: It's interesting that others might think that the state is with God on this issue in terms of being just and inclusive and recognising the full humanity of all the members of society... Lange: Let me say this Margaret... Margaret Mayman: ...whereas other people might think that at the moment the Church is not with God. Lange: Well, the Presbyterian Church in this country since 1985 has supported the decriminalisation of homosexuality but when it comes to whether ordination of practising homosexuals is a right within the Church the state has no business to say whether it is or not. Ordination is not a right. Ordination is a recognition that the Church gives that certain people by their faith and life and understanding and gifts are suitable persons to be in leadership in the Christian church. PRACTISING? WHO WOULD KNOW? Garing: I want to get back to this term 'practising homosexuals.' I was trying to say earlier, and you corrected me, that those of homosexual orientation being ordained into church leadership was opposed by Affirm. But you pointed out to me that this is not the case and that you would be quite happy for them to be ordained as both ministers and elders as long as they are not practising homosexuals. Have I got that right? Lange: That is entirely correct. Garing: So now I'm going to ask the $64,000 question. How do we know whether or not these people are practising? Lange: Well, I for myself would be absolutely opposed to witch-hunting and I think it is simply a matter that if somebody declares that they are in a homosexual relationship, or declares that they are a practising homosexual, that they would fall within that. It is perfectly competent of the Church courts if the matter comes up, if somebody is applying for this or that, to ask. If somebody for instance, and I am not making a direct comparison here, was in an adulterous relationship then the Church might get to hear about this and could say “is this true or is this not.” And they would probably trust the word of the person. Garing: It seems to me that the Church needs to sort itself out because in my understanding they've hedged around the issue for quite a long time. Lange: That's absolutely so. The assembly this year does need to clarify very clearly where the church stands. Mayman: Last year at the General Assembly the Wellington Presbytery tried to have this issue clarified and many members of Affirm including yourself spoke very strongly against the need to have this issue dealt with at General Assembly level again. And it does seem to me a little ironic that you are so keen to talk about it at this next Assembly. Lange: The fact of the matter is that the Church has been hedging it around for the best part of a decade. I just want to stress that the issue is not about orientation for us. It's not about exclusion or hate or intolerance or biblical literalism. It's not about rejecting science or denying justice or anything like that. When it comes to whether practising people should be in leadership the issue for me and for many others is one of responsibly submitting to what we see as the overall teaching of holy scripture... not only in matters of gender and marriage and sex but also in terms of the classical biblical theologies of sin and suffering, repentance and holiness, forgiveness and transformation and Christ. And to do otherwise would profoundly violate my biblical and theological conscience. Mayman: Gay and lesbian Christians are often asked why we don't leave in the face of incredible hostility that does violence to us and to our loving relationships. I mean by that hostility the way that we are spoken about, and I find that we really hold on to, and we have to hold on to, the sense that we are loved and welcomed by God who has made us all. We are claiming our place in the coMargaret Maymanunity of faith and within a tradition of wisdom that illuminates what it is to be human. I think we find that within the scriptures and within the teaching of our tradition. So we seek to live as friends of God in co-creating a world of justice and love. National Radio; GayNZ.com - 14th September 2004    
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