AN EPISCOPAL PRIEST’S MINISTRY
WITH GAY AND LESBIAN PEOPLE
“Gay and lesbian people? Full inclusion.
I’ve had a conversion experience.”
(The Rev. Canon Eugene Sutton, Bishop-Elect, Diocese of Maryland)
The year, I think, was 1984. I had recently been given the role of seminary newsletter editor as my campus job that year. And I had finally gotten into a rhythm of publishing The Chelsea Round at the same time each week.
Chelsea is a Manhattan neighborhood with a large gay and lesbian population. Ministry within that local community means caring for lesbian and gay people. Not surprisingly, the ministry of the seminary includes making its buildings available for local meetings. In any given week notices of these meetings were posted all over the bulletin boards. There was also a small, rather unremarkable periodic notice posted that said something like: “Gay and lesbian seminarians who wish to gather for fellowship, reply to Box J.” Since I did not think I knew any gay or lesbian people at that time of my life, it was merely a curiosity. That changed one day when I received an article for the newsletter. It was a story with an announcement about meetings for gays and lesbians, the first time a notice would be run in such a public way. The notice had been slipped under my apartment door several hours after the deadline for that week’s issue.
When I read it, I felt uneasy, but I did not know why. I knew that, as the editor, it was mine to publish or not. Next week would be too late to publish something about this upcoming meeting. Was I going to get myself into some kind of controversy by running it? Should I publish things that come to me after my deadline? What was the right thing to do? I called my best seminary friend and asked him if he would come and take a look at the notice. He read it and said, “I don’t have a problem with this. What’s your problem?”
Traveling teacher and spiritual guide Parker Palmer suggests that when someone says or does something that troubles us, we might benefit from this wisdom: “When the going gets tough, turn to wonder.” On that evening in my apartment, my friend invited me to wonder: “This article bothers me. What it is within me that makes me resistant to this request? Is it simply my need for control, knowing this article wasn’t submitted on time? Or is it something larger, something about myself that I am unwilling to look at? I wonder what’s going on with me and this article?”
I ran the article, but I wasn’t ready then to do any real self-reflection. Nearly twenty-five years later, I now see that I have been immersed, time and again, in intense pastoral situations with people who have been in very different places with how they think we as a church should respond to lesbian and gay people. When I am honest, I see those differences in my own internal times of ambivalence. It is through personal, ongoing reflection – including prayer, study and confidential conversations with fellow clergy, spiritual directors and psychotherapists, all of whom have been willing to struggle with me over these issues – that I began back then and continue today to face my own fear of the children of God who look, seem or feel different from me.
In congregations in Pennsylvania and Kansas where I served as rector, gay and lesbian members of those parishes came to me and said, “We want to form a chapter of Integrity, and we’d like you to accompany us when we ask the Bishop.” I did this, and both chapters were formed. As rector I also presided over dialogues on human sexuality, recommended by the General Conventions of 1991 and 1997, in each of those congregations. What I learned in those two faith communities over ten years was that, while people’s minds and opinions might not change, their hearts could be and were indeed often transformed. People began to feel safe enough to talk about the deeper, common issues and experiences of life. Men and women who would not speak to each other before the dialogues began were embracing each other when we were through with those sacred conversations.
As an Episcopal priest and an Anglican Christian, I look to the tripod of Anglican authority first suggested in the 17th century by theologian Richard Hooker: scripture, tradition and reason. Since Jesus had nothing to say about homosexuality, we have tended to turn to other parts of the Bible for guidance. Scholars are increasingly clear that the kind of relationships referenced in Leviticus and the writings of Paul have little if anything to do with being lesbian or gay and much more to do with promiscuity, violence and abuse. Regardless of our feelings about it, tradition changed for Episcopalians in 2003 when Gene Robinson was elected a bishop. And reason keeps telling me that we have more to learn about how to be open to what God’s Spirit has already been doing in our midst. As one of our hymn texts puts it, “the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word” (George Rawson, #629, Hymnal 1982).
In one parish I served, a member said, “you clergy have been dealing with these issues for years. I’ve just started. Give me a chance to catch up.” My conversion experience about full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in ministry has indeed been a gradual one, a slow and steady realization that, if we are willing to baptize someone, why can we not extend to them all areas, all rites, all vocations in ministry? I believe strongly that this is also an issue of power. As a white, male, heterosexual, married priest – as a very privileged person of power, it is, I continue to see, incumbent upon me as a Christian and priest to relinquish that power in ways that make it truly possible to share ministry. When I give up power and control, I empower others who do not enjoy entitlements that freely come to me, benefits I enjoy both consciously and unconsciously. Of course, I do this letting go reluctantly, imperfectly, always needing God’s gracious help.
In twenty-two years as priest, I have had the privilege and pleasure of serving alongside gay and lesbian persons, lay and clergy, including staff and vestry members. Regardless of circumstance, they have always had to labor under the burden of “don’t ask, don’t tell” or “if you ask, I’ll tell.” Although I pledge to stand with them when it is time to tell their stories, some may never be able to do so. The decision for someone else to “come out” is never mine to make. Discrimination against lesbian and gay persons takes many forms, including abuse at the hand of other Anglicans, here and around the world. They can tell their stories only to safe people in safe places, where everyone can, to borrow St. Paul’s image, grow up into maturity, into the full stature of Christ
I firmly believe there is, in all of this, Good News. As a lifelong Episcopalian, I am proud of my beloved Church. Together I believe we are on an intentional spiritual journey toward God’s reign of mercy, justice and love for all of God’s children. The full inclusion of women and people of color as well as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and trans-gendered persons is, for me, exactly what God’s mercy, justice and love demand. We are each unique strands of the same beautiful quilt, woven together by God in Christ for ministry. God needs us to need each other, so we can be the church God keeps calling us to be. St. Paul, in speaking of the church as the body of Christ, reminds us:
God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. (I Corinthians 12:24-26)
The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg, Rector
All Saints’ Episcopal Church
February 1, 2009