At the CSCS “Embodied Ministry” conference, the final plenary session dealt with “Gender and Sexuality in the Pastoral Encounter”, in which three panellists each contributed a short personal perspective. Rev Carla Grosch – Miller focused on the words, “pastoral encounter”:
The word “encounter” is provocative. It suggests the possibility that we will change each other, that our conversation will be converting.
I want to take note of the opportunities inherent in pastoral encounters that touch on gender and sexuality, and then tell a story. My particular interest in pastoral encounters is in enabling a personal encounter to impact the larger setting in which we operate, perhaps to stimulate other encounters and conversations that move the body of Christ towards greater wholeness.
Opportunities in Pastoral Encounters:
· Surface the feelings and truths in the situation
· Affirm a person’s reality and make the space for them to work with it
· Equip and enable the right response for the person and the situation
· Constructively engage all the sources of theology – scripture, tradition, reason, experience
It was the beginning of the second day. I hadn’t slept well. The first day had ended with a strong statement by a participant that sex belonged only in marriage, God-ordained between one man and one woman. No one had risen to articulate a different view. A heavy silence hung over the class as we disbanded.
I had laboured to make the space safe and open. The participants held diverse theological viewpoints; I had hoped that we could teach each other as we explored this sensitive topic. As I tossed and turned that night, I wondered how, in my striving to make the space safe for all, I had empowered primarily those who kept to the party line.
At breakfast “Michael” approached me. “I’m really angry about how the class ended yesterday. I’ve been angry all night. I felt like I was being told that I was not a Christian,” he said. “Can you say more?”, I asked. He then told me his story: the story of a young man active in church struggling with his sexuality who, when he had his first sexual experience with another man, was full of self-loathing. Michael became strident in his opposition to homosexuality, until he couldn’t bear the dissonance between what his heart knew and what his tradition taught. He went to his pastor and confessed his struggle. The pastor promptly removed him from all church responsibilities. Michael left and continued to wrestle issues of sex and faith. He came to accept his sexuality and discovered a renewed and deepened faith that in time blossomed into a vocation for ministry. I asked him if he would be willing simply to tell his story at the start of the day’s class. He said “Yes.”
I began the class (after psalm and prayer) with a statement that at the conclusion of class the previous day, we had heard a strong articulation of a scriptural and traditional view of the place of sex in human life and asked if there were any other viewpoints, perhaps drawing on other sources of theology. Michael raised his hand and told his story.
The impact of the story was to transform the space, opening and warming it. Some thanked him for his courage. People who held the heterosexual marriage only viewpoint acknowledged that, while their opinions were strong, there was a need for pastoral sensitivity when dealing with this subject. (Indeed, the two most vocal protagonists of that view approached Michael during the tea break to speak with him.) The remainder of the course was marked by great sensitivity, which enabled others later to speak openly about struggles with internet pornography.
Michael later described the experience of the first day as extremely painful, triggering all the hurtful, destructive, unloving things he had heard as a young man. He knew he either had to live with the anger and survive the rest of the course or say something. He would have wanted to say something judgmental and angry, engaging with the issue theologically, but with my encouragement decided he would just tell his story. He couldn’t have done that on day one because “it would have felt like I was playing the victim, changing the discourse to a different, emotional level which didn’t seem fair”. But that second morning, he felt he could offer it in the structure of a conversation about the sources of theology.
When he opened his mouth to speak to the group, he thought “Oh my God, what am I about to do?” He knew that people would see him in a different light forever after. But once he began, the atmosphere in the room changed. He got visual clues of support around the room: thumbs up, smiles, tears. He immediately felt relief – having said all that was on his heart, not repressing or bottling anger. The man next to him, who was theologically more traditional, put his arm around him when he finished.
“The best thing”, Michael said, “was the spirit of generosity, openness and honesty –real listening to each other– treating each other as sisters and brothers, once we got over the hurdles of fear, doubt and hurt…. ‘Hearing’ each other into speech’ summed up the whole experience of the course……the Holy Spirit was definitely there.”
2014 July 10 14:45
© Carla A. Grosch-Miller, 2014
(Revd Dr Carla A. Grosch-Miller is a minister and theological educator specialising in sex and ministry short courses for various ministry training colleges. She is the author of Psalms Redux: Poems and Prayers, available from Canterbury Press Ifollow the link).
Contact Rev Grosch – Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org
- “We Are Vulnerable” – but “the Kingdom of Heaven Has Come Near” (christianityandsexuality.org)