June 11, 2001
Homosexual Unions: The Fire This Time, and Every Time
-- Martin E. Marty
A nineteenth-century sermon illustration told of the time a town's church was burning. At the head of the bucket brigade was the village atheist. Why show up now? "Because when the church is on fire is the only time anything exciting is going on."
Denominations go pretty much neglected most of the time. But we now enter the season when the press discovers them, "on fire." Not on fire with "the Spirit" but with self-set arson, as denominations engage in conflict over the one issue that inflames factions in all of them: homosexuality.
"Presbyterians Face Battle Over Gay-Pastor Ban." "Showdown Is Looming on Ban of Gay Clergy." "Protestants Face Annual Sexual Divide." These were the three typical weekend headlines. (It was refreshing to see one paper spend a headline on something apparently irrelevant to the public, because it is central to the life of a church: "Bishops Address Eucharist Beliefs.")
Why, asked William H. Willimon in The Christian Century (May 2), is this issue capable of rousing the torchers on all sides? After all, it's only twice- or thrice-noticed in scripture. Willimon had good reason to ask, having gotten singed over the issue this year. Willimon, never typed as a liberal and usually seen as someone who does work to keep to the church's central mission, is the eloquent and, to stay on metaphor, often fiery chaplain at Duke University, which is connected to the United Methodist Church.
Flame-throwers reached him because Duke's chapel, which serves many faiths, is going to become the site for some "gay unions" not presided over by Willimon. It's not his issue, we read him saying. (Nor is it ours, we find ourselves saying, and then asking: why must people check their credentials at the door when this one issue comes up?)
He could have preached the death of God and gone almost unnoticed. But on homosexual unions he did not oppose the university policy. "Fire him!" came the cry. He received a hundred hateful, similar-sounding emails a day. He protested to the United Methodist group that prompted most of these protests, and he heard the response: "If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen."
Willimon, in the heat, almost loses his cool, but doesn't. Instead, he asks of the denominations: why just this issue alone, decade after decade? He reminds himself and us that churches are selective about enforcing policies presumably based on literal readings of the Bible. For example, Jesus is heard arguing that a Christian commits adultery when married to a divorced person whose former spouse is still alive (Mark10, Luke 16). Willimon says that no one gets literal about that, including the pastors and bishops who are guilty of violating those same scriptures. These are often the same people who are quick to turn their flame-throwers on those with whom they disagree, and these targets often respond in kind. The fires blaze on.
This week the fires will flare up anew as the Presbyterians meet. The bucket brigade has again formed, the curious are again jostling for the view at the head of the line, and denominations continue to struggle to break the pattern.