The last week in September, I had the privilege to attend the annual Dubose Lectures Sewanee’s School of Theology sponsors for alumni who gather for soul-food and a reunion. This year’s lecturer was Dr. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury until 2014, and arguably the most distinguished and wide-ranging theologian of our time.
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to attend a symposium at Belmont University. The invitation I received described a round-table discussion of pastors of churches under the aegis of a new initiative out of Belmont called the Institute for Innovative Faith-Based Leadership. The first such conversation was called “LGBT issues and the local church.” I had planned on attending to listen; I had no intention of speaking, as I did not know where the conversation would go, who would be there, and what, exactly, would come up. I know what the Episcopal Church has said and done at its General Conventions and what our bishop has decided for this diocese, but I did not think these things would inform a discussion amongst pastors of churches.
What I discovered when I showed up for that roundtable a couple of weeks ago was that I was one of 25 church ministers, two of whom (I being one) were female; the other is a United Methodist pastor. Another attendee is a friend who pastors a Disciples of Christ church. The rest, I discovered, as we introduced ourselves, are Baptist – not great diversity in the room.
Quickly the “conversation” began to take shape as LGBT problems for the local church, and not how the church ministers with, to, and on behalf of, LGBT members. Pastors of at least two corporate-size Baptist churches indicated that their leadership had drafted written official policies about LGBT people: that they cannot be married in their churches, but also that they cannot hold leadership or teaching positions, among other rules and regulations devised for “clarity” or to “live out the biblical witness” about “homosexuality.”
I found that I actually had some things to say in that conversation. I found myself correcting language that I thought was not helpful – indeed, was biased toward LGBT people as “problems” and not people – and near the end of our time of discussion I put forth a picture of my congregation as a way to show how the Church, the Body of Christ, IS the church. Here’s something of what I said that day:
"Imagine a congregation in which all kinds of people come in on Sunday mornings and any other time the church is open for programming – politically conservative and politically liberal, gay, straight, people of all shades of color, young, old – all sitting haphazardly next to each other on a pew. Imagine that these people at one time might not have chosen to associate with one another outside of their places of work or in their neighborhoods, but here they are, choosing to sit beside each other to be the Church. Imagine that these folks might not, at one time, have believed that they would work and pray and sing and visit with people so different from themselves, but at my church they have moved beyond accommodating - and even just accepting - to welcoming, befriending, and choosing each other."
I was asked if we had discussed this in a leadership meeting or church-wide meeting to make this decision, or had we drafted some kind of policy. I replied, No, to the amazement of some of those large-church types. I explained that I believed what happened in my congregation was that we simply understood our role as broken and beloved people bound together in the love of Jesus Christ, and we had simply come to living out what we believed to be the Good News of Jesus Christ and to live out gospel hospitality with one another. With everyone.
Something that Dr. Williams said in his second lecture on Wednesday, September 28 resonated with my picture of St. Philip’s and the difference between us and some other churches in the room on that day of roundtable discussion. His lecture was entitled “Christ For Me,” as he unpacked Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christology. Rowan said, and I paraphrase slightly, “For the Church, there can really be no strategies for either humiliation like Christ’s, or for success, for that matter. The Church can only repent, and point the way to repentance and salvation by being Christ and Christ’s gospel.” He went on to say this – this statement that is resonating with me about who we are: “When the Church becomes the subject of itself, the subject of its own thinking, it is not Christ’s Body. It is not the Good News…. We strive for the Church to be focused on Christ and not itself!”
Thank you, St. Philip’s, for believing with me that that is the only prize on which we keep our eyes. Policies about to whom and how we minister are not who we are as Episcopalians but particularly not who we are as St. Philippians. Keep on being Christ and Christ’s Good News.