Magazine article The Christian Century

Postponing a Decision: Ordination of Gays

Magazine article The Christian Century

Postponing a Decision: Ordination of Gays

Article excerpt

ONE MORNING in 1950 the Geneva staff of the World Council of Churches cringed at the news that the aging Pope Pius XII had declared that belief in the bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary was henceforth a binding obligation of membership in the Roman Catholic Church. This new canonical requirement seemed to the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Methodists and other guardians of the Reformation a further obstacle to the hoped-for achievement of Christian unity But a Russian Orthodox theologian contributed a special perspective that I relished and have never forgotten: "Isn't that just like the Romans," he said, "to make a hard juridical requirement of something so obvious?"

Today quite a few denominations are arguing heatedly over the issue of the ordination or commissioning of homosexuals to positions of church leadership. Some conscientious people want the highest authority in their organization to proscribe such ordination or commissioning. Other equally conscientious people want the authorities to declare that sexual orientation is not a criterion for ordination or commissioning.

This disagreement cannot be resolved if both sides insist on making a hard juridical requirement out of something so little obvious. Neither the biblical record nor Hebrew-Christian experience for more than a thousand years, neither the reflections of theologians across the subsequent 20 centuries nor the insights of present-day ethicists and scholars of pastoral care offer grounds for a simple yes or no on the issue. It might well be that the data are so diverse and complex that it is presumptuous to claim that an absolute stand is faithful to the mind of Christ.

How should a religious community behave when it doesn't know for sure? Dogmatism serves no useful purpose--far from it. On matters on which we clearly are less than omniscient, perhaps we should be humble enough to manage rather than resolve our disagreements. Neither the inclusion nor the exclusion of homosexuals should be made the politically correct position, let alone elevated to the level of in statu confessionis, an essential article of faith.

The art and science of management teaches that we must measure the size of a problem as well as be sensitive to its inner quality. How large is the number of self-described homosexual candidates for ministry? Who will be significantly helped or hurt by the possible policies that religious bodies might adopt on the matter?

The oft-cited estimate in the Kinsey Report from the 1940s that 10 percent of the population is of homosexual orientation has been questioned lately. Some recent surveys indicate that although the social atmosphere of the '90s is more open, only 2 to 3 percent of Americans identify themselves as homosexual. Given the apparent secular style and slight church involvement of the neighborhoods where homosexuals tend to settle in American cities, one might guess that the proportion of religious vocations among homosexuals would be even smaller than that in the general population. In the U.S. there are reported to be 132,694,380 members of 219 Christian denominations served by 299,836 parish ministers and priests (see the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches 1992). Many of these church members belong to one of the mainline Protestant congregations whose denomination belongs to the NCC and/or WCC or to a Roman Catholic congregation (the total number of congregations in these categories is about 150,000). If all the imaginable homosexual candidates for church office met all the normal spiritual, academic and character requirements for ordination or commissioning, their number each year could fill but a tiny fraction of the personnel vacancies. …

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