The Revd. John Simmonds
I am a Minister in Leek in a joint URC/Methodist Church that confesses itself to be inclusive, having, down the years given positive votes in support of all people whatever their sexuality. But it is now struggling within itself as it tries to discern how to respond to same-sex couples who come seeking a place where they can ask for God’s blessing on their civil partnerships.
Within Trinity Church, there are two vocal minorities.
- One minority is clear that only heterosexual relationships are according to the will of God and these must be conducted faithfully within marriage. Extramarital sexual contacts are specifically prohibited. This group could not entertain the thought of civil partnerships being blessed in church or by a minister outside church.
- And one minority is equally clear that a variety of sexual relationships can be enjoyed so long as they are conducted with mutual respect and faithfulness. This group would be delighted to welcome civil partnerships for a blessing.
Surrounding these two minorities is a majority of folk, some who are reasonably happy that people of a variety of sexualities are now free from ostracism and public exclusion and can now take their place in pretty well every part of life, police, the forces, politics, etc However, they can’t bear the thought that the ‘fellowship’ of the church might be upset by any kind of precipitate action. They would not like to see people leaving the church as a result of a civil partnership blessing, for example. So, on the whole, people prefer not to raise the issue. ‘Head in the sand’ seems best and the minister who raises this issue is a nuisance! In any case, Leek doesn’t have homosexuals; certainly not the kind who would want a blessing in church!
So far as Methodism is concerned, what pertains in the local also pertains in the connexional. There are two similar minorities (though one is probably more numerous and organised than the other, (viz. Headway), whilst the majority continues to make great claims about the church’s inclusivity, whilst hoping against hope that we are not embarrassed by sexual minorities. Certainly, that is true of the church’s hierarchy (Connexion, District Chairs, Superintendent Ministers). The surprising thing is that the current leadership of the church would largely describe itself as liberal and yet it is singularly unwilling to initiate practical policies, which give flesh to its 1993 Methodist Conference commitment in Resolution 6. Can I remind you of the 1993 Resolutions on
- The Conference, affirming the joy of human sexuality as God’s gift and the place of every human being within the grace of God, recognises the responsibility that flows from this for us all. It therefore welcomes the serious, prayerful and sometimes costly consideration given to this issue by The Methodist Church.
- All practices of sexuality, which are promiscuous, exploitative or demeaning in any way are unacceptable forms of behaviour and contradict God’s purpose for us all.
- A person shall not be debarred from church on the grounds of sexual orientation in itself
- The Conference reaffirms the traditional teaching of the Church on human sexuality; namely chastity for all outside marriage and fidelity within it. The Conference directs that this affirmation is made clear to all candidates for ministry, office and membership, and having established this, affirms that the existing procedures of our church are adequate to deal with all such cases.
- The Conference resolves that its decision in this debate shall not be used to form the basis of a disciplinary charge against any person in relation to conduct alleged to have taken place before such decisions were made.
- Conference recognises, affirms and celebrates the participation and ministry of lesbians and gay men in the church (and) calls on the Methodist people to begin a pilgrimage of faith to combat repression and discrimination, to work for justice and human rights and to give dignity and worth to people whatever their sexuality.
The vocal minorities know what they think! The majority talks of ‘living with the tension’, whilst leaving excluded people to pay the price. Now, 13 years on, there are very few churches in Methodism which have an unambiguous practice in respect of sexual minorities. Hardly anyone is prepared to come out of the closet; neither reformers nor traditionalists. In just a few churches, there is a willingness publicly to celebrate same-sex relationships. In only a few, is there a stated same-sex policy. Most prefer to remain silent. The rights of sexual minorities are denied by silence; silenced by silence.
In the USA, there is much more open debate; indeed, conflict, with churches and ministers declaring pro or con. [Here, John referred to recent events]
So where are we now?
- In a few places same-sex partnerships are enjoyed and celebrated.
- In a few places there are cases of direct action being taken against lesbian or gay ministers.
- Most Methodists like to think they are tolerant and committed to human rights. After all, Resolution 6 got massive support. It is simply not likely that it will be rescinded.
- But most Methodists will not take steps which risk the fellowship of the church.
(Sweetly may we all agree.) So let’s not do anything that disturbs the peace, such as
- Invite a gay minister
- Host a celebration of a civil partnership
- Openly acknowledge and enjoy same-sex friendships in our
When an argument erupts, it’s as if the majority screams (with a beatific smile) a plague of both your houses!
So what is afoot?
- What will happen when ministers enter civil partnerships and claim equal treatment on housing, pensions, etc?
- What will happen in June when the Methodist Conference ‘gives advice’ on whether civil partnerships may be conducted in Methodist churches and/or by Methodist Ministers?
- Will anyone challenge the church’s persistence in discriminating on the grounds of a person’s sexuality in spite of the 1993 resolution?
Thank God that the world, where God dwells, is getting on with compassion. Maybe the church, which God also loves, will catch up!