If you want a Christian wedding in Birmingham, you will find that there are hundreds of churches in this Bible belt city. If you’re partnered with a person of the same sex, the numbers are much smaller but there are still quite a few churches that will bless your union and offer you a rich life within the congregation. Of course you will have to be legally wed in a state where same-sex marriage is legal, but you will find that there are Christian bodies which can perform a blessing ceremony that looks a lot like a wedding. There’s the Metropolitan Community Church, the denomination that pioneered gay rights in the Christian context. There are a number of Episcopal churches and non-denominational churches which would also affirm your commitment. There are congregations of the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (USA) which can perform blessing ceremonies without breaking church law. There are Quaker and Unitarian churches which advertise themselves as “gay friendly.” There are even a couple of American Baptist churches in Birmingham that can bless same sex unions.
Now I think these churches have made the wrong choice in this particular matter. I am an elder in the United Methodist Church, a denomination that prohibits same-sex marital unions in its church law. I happen to agree with my church body – and the vast majority of the church universal – on this point. You will find some very vocal United Methodists who disagree with that position, but that’s where we stand.
I have a very broad view of the “holy catholic church” in which I say I believe when I recite the Apostles’ Creed. Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists, Anglicans, Baptists, Wesleyans, Pentecostals, Progressives and Evangelicals – all in their various flavors – they are all part of the body of Christ. The universal church includes bodies that I think are in error at some points. Some of the errors are minor; others, I think, are substantial and pose a danger to the church. At the end of the day, however, I have to take responsibility before God for myself and the church body to which I belong. And I have to allow members of other church bodies to take responsibility for where they come down on matters of faith and practice.
As a practical matter, church bodies must make decisions on these matters. They either practice infant baptism or they don’t. They either ordain both men and women or they don’t. In the same way, they either bless same sex unions or they don’t. The boundaries that define church bodies are not an insurmountable obstacle to what Wesley called “the catholic spirit.” Boundaries are an organization’s way of taking responsibility for its own life and identity.
So, to return to my original point, even in Birmingham there are a number of Christian churches which affirm same sex marital unions. If, after seeking the mind of God in the Holy Scriptures and the wisdom of the church universal, that’s what I am looking for, I have options from a number of Christian traditions. Not every church body in Birmingham will agree with me on same-sex marriage, but neither will they agree with me on the nature of other important matters of faith or practice.
I use the example of Birmingham advisedly. On October 26, retired United Methodist bishop Melvin Talbert conducted a “gay wedding” for two men in Birmingham in violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the same Book of Discipline under which Mr. Talbert was elected bishop in 1980. The event was part wedding, part protest against denominational policies which Mr. Talbert characterized as “wrong, evil, immoral” during the ceremony.
For the outspoken minority of United Methodists who are unwilling to live with the Discipline’s provisions on same sex marriage, this is simply a matter of justice. It is unjust, they say, that same sex couples cannot receive the full ministry of the church in the same way the opposite sex couples can. This argument is a difficult for me to understand. The ceremony over which Mr. Talbert presided took place in the sanctuary of a United Church of Christ congregation which gladly blesses same sex unions. Nothing stopped the couple from receiving the ministry of any of the church bodies in Birmingham with which they agree on this matter theologically. When the United Methodist Church takes a position against same sex marriage, it denies no one the right to associate with others who see things differently. Where is the injustice? What the protesters seem to call injustice appears to me as simple disagreement. It seems to me that the United Methodist Church is no more unjust in making its assessment about marriage than the ELCA is when it restricts communion to the baptized or the Episcopal Church is when it insists on apostolic succession for its bishops. Every church body has the right and the responsibility to order its common life in accordance with its understanding of the will of God. If you don’t like where a particular church comes down on an issue, find a different church – or create a new one, if you have to.
In its Book of Discipline, the United Methodist Church continues to hold the same basic beliefs and practices with regard to sexual relationships and marriage that most Christians have held throughout history and continue to hold throughout the world. But, obviously, in the last 50 years the universal church’s unanimity on this matter has fractured. It has become one more issue about which there are important differences from one church body to another.
I respect the right of other Christian bodies to see aspects of the faith differently than I do. I consider them brothers and sisters in Christ. I don’t want to protest their meetings, undermine their sources of authority or attempt to change their doctrines. I would hope that they would offer United Methodists the same courtesy. That doesn’t mean that we each don’t respectfully and vigorously contend for the faith as we understand it, but other denominations are not my enemy. God will use us and deal with us as he wills.
In my role as an Army chaplain, I support the right of everyone to practice their faith in accordance with their own beliefs. Following the National Council on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF) Code of Ethics, “I will seek to provide pastoral care and ministry to persons of religious bodies other than my own within my area of responsibility with the same investment of myself as I give to members of my own religious body.” That means I do my best to provide for those for whom my personal ministry is insufficient.
If my own beliefs ever make it impossible for me to live with integrity within my own denomination – either because I’ve changed or the church has – I pray that I will find another part of the body of Christ in which to live and serve.
For those who have never done it, it’s not the end of the world to change denominational homes. I’ve done it once in my life already, and I wish the members of my old denomination well. I pray that God will continue to use them for good even though I no longer submit myself to their discipline. Leaving my first church home to become a United Methodist was good for me and good for the church body that I left. I hope that it was also good for United Methodism.
And, significantly for me, the Discipline’s position on same-sex intimacy was part of the denomination that I joined over three decades ago. If the denomination ever changes that position, it will have changed the terms of our partnership. At that time, maybe it will be time for me to follow my own counsel.