Do you ever wonder if there are better ways to have conversations about same-sex relationships in church? Have you felt, as I have, that the debate has reached the end of its usefulness after decades of arguing? Opposing sides have squared off with their proof texts and their arguments from tradition and experience and science. And yet, many of us have failed to convince our “opponents.”
What if we shifted our expectations away from reaching the same conclusion and focused our attention on the conversation itself? What if we valued the quality of the discernment process as much as (or more than) the conclusion? What if the conversation could be a form of spiritual discipline in which we learned to practice patience, kindness, truth-telling, trust, hope, and perseverance (1 Cor 13)? What would that look like?
Presbyterians have been having a lot of conversations these past several years as changes to the Book of Order regarding the ordination of LGBT members and the marriage of same-sex couples have been proposed and passed. Whether they happen loudly in worship, quietly in the local coffee shop, or confidentially in the pastor’s office, they are almost always difficult conversations.
Sometimes, we are hurt by what others say. Sometimes, we regret what we ourselves have said, or the way we have said it. We alienate each other. And the pain that we feel shapes the way that we talk about – or avoid talking about – same-sex relationships in the church.
The temptation to avoid the conversation was a strong one in my church because the potential for conflict was so high. Since its inception, our church’s theology had been decidedly evangelical in flavor. Although evangelical interpretation of Scripture often upholds traditional views of human sexuality, our church also held a missional commitment to welcoming everyone into community – which resulted in a diverse congregation where LGBT people often held leadership positions. Thus, members held a wide range of opinions about the extent to which Hot Metal should affirm same-sex relationships.
Even the pastors didn’t agree with each other!
As we struggled to plan a format for our church’s conversation, we experienced a breakthrough when an excellent book was recommended to us. A Time To Embrace: Same-Gender Relationships in Religion, Law, and Politics was written by William Stacy Johnson, an ordained Presbyterian pastor, lawyer, and professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. In it, he identifies, explains, and analyzes a spectrum of seven different opinions that Christians hold regarding LGBT Christians in the church. These range from prohibition to toleration to celebration to consecration of same-sex relationships.
Recognizing that there were more options than being simply “for” or “against” was liberating and gave us the theological foundation for the conversation. It allowed us to account for the nuances of people’s beliefs rather than trying to box everyone into either one position or the other. It discouraged adversarial debate and encouraged listening. And it ultimately inspired a unique format for our conversation in the mind of Rev. Jim Walker (a United Methodist pastor who co-founded the church with Rev. Jeff Eddings).
We called it, “Circle Pie.”
Circle Pie was introduced at an all-church meeting. We drew a large circle on the floor and divided it into seven parts that corresponded to the positions outlined in the book. Beforehand, a few people representing a range of views had agreed to participate in the demonstration. After I explained the seven positions to the group, these volunteers were called to the circle one at a time by Jim who guided them through the circle using a series of questions.
The questions varied from person to person, but some examples are: In which slice did you grow up? Where are you now? What led you to that position? Where do you wish you were? Stand in the slice that you disagree with most; why do you think someone would choose to stand here?
The format of questions and answers, led with sensitivity by a pastor, created a safe environment where people could share honestly without fear. By eliminating the opportunity for debate, we freed the participants to really listen, rather than plan their counterarguments. It was an environment of empathy in which we were forced to consider the viewpoints of others.
After the large group demonstration, people signed up for smaller gatherings in members’ homes throughout the city. The format was the same, but everyone who attended had to participate.
These smaller gatherings recreated the safe environment of the large group and added an element of intimacy that lent itself to truth-telling. A few participants came out to their groups as gay or lesbian or bisexual. Some bravely shared horrific stories of discrimination and outright abuse. Others had reservations about affirming same-sex relationships and it was safe for them, too, to express their theological commitments. Although not everyone agreed, everyone was heard.
I don’t want to gloss over the difficulty of these conversations. Know that there were many hard moments. There was frustration. Bitter comments were made. Tears were shed. Anger was felt and expressed. So you may be wondering: what makes me think this conversation brought us closer together?
Some time after these conversations occurred, our session made the decision to ordain LGBT members to be deacons and elders in our church. In some churches, this may have resulted in division or a mass exodus from the church. And a few people did break fellowship with us over this decision. But it’s my belief that the way the conversation was framed helped our liberal and conservative members to remain committed to each other in the midst of disagreement.
Circle Pie helped us see that the conversation was not simply about abstract principles, but about people.
It revealed that our interpretation of Scripture is not only the result of careful contemplation of the text, but that our beliefs are shaped by relationships: by the people we know, the experiences we’ve had, our friends, our families, and our faith communities. This is hard for some people to accept. But I believe that a faith community hears God speak when it gathers around the Bible to talk.
More recently, I’ve enjoyed coffee with church members who expressed concern about the decision of our pastors and session to bless same-sex marriages in our church. They don’t affirm the decision. But what they did affirm, again and again, is that their reservations about same-sex marriages would not break their relationship with the church.
Of course, not every church that opens up this kind of dialogue will reach the same decisions regarding ordination and marriage that ours has. But, I am inspired by the people in my church who model this kind of unity in the midst of disagreement. It gives me hope that we can all live it out together in our presbyteries and the denomination as a whole!
Mike Holohan is an associate pastor at Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community in Pittsburgh, PA.