Majority rules

Post Author: Bromleigh McCleneghan

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Image originally here

The day the Supreme Court declared Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act to be unconstitutional in its failure to offer all people equal protection under the law, I did something I’d never really thought I would do.  I celebrated a simple communion service with my boss, a couple of parishioners and their best friends, in honor of the pair’s fifteenth wedding anniversary.

I never anticipated an event like this for several reasons: one, I’m a Methodist, and in my experience Methodist laity are far more likely to think we “do” communion too often (and that the liturgy takes too long) than to ever request what amounts to a private mass.  Secondly, though, I’d assumed that my status as ordained clergy in the United Methodist Church, and as such, as someone largely bound to uphold our Discipline, precluded me from getting to care for parishioners like Dan and Allan in this way.  I never thought I’d be the only straight person at a post-communion lunch, the only one at the table whose marriage has been legal for years and years and years, in every state of this union, even though I’m not yet 34 and they were all in their sixties. (How ridiculously unfair is that?) I did not anticipate this because I thought my denomination, to whom I have pledged, in this arena reluctantly, to be loyal, would mean that I didn’t get the privilege of marrying my gay parishioners.

Now, technically, I have not married my gay parishioners. I didn’t even celebrate the Eucharist last Wednesday. But I led some prayers, and I typed up the bulletin, and I celebrated the coincidence of their event falling on the auspicious day that it did.  Perhaps more importantly, if the opportunity arose for me to officiate at a same-sex marriage, and not just hang out reaffirming commitments, I have pledged before my annual conference that I would do so (along with several hundred of my colleagues committed to marriage equality and full inclusion).

I feel afraid typing those words, or rather posting them on the internet for all God’s children and all the trolls alike to see. I feel afraid telling this story. I feel afraid of zealots in my denomination, who think the Good News of Jesus Christ is, well, not the same as I think it is, and who would love to bring me and my comrades up on heresy charges which would challenge our standing and our ability to serve. And then I feel ashamed of my fear, for I am truly among the most privileged in any number of categories, and what I stand to lose is so inconsequential – and unlikely — compared to what so many LGBT folks have already lost and suffered daily and throughout the years.

As we got in the car to drive to lunch that day, my boss and I chatted about the ruling of the court, and I vented some of my frustration with my denomination, and how our last church-wide discussion of the issues surrounding LGBT inclusion went down.  (It was ugly. If you missed it, rest assured that it was not like the UCC joy-filled denominational affirmation of gay marriage this weekend.) She noted that the times are a’changing (she didn’t say that; she’s British and would never say that), and that soon the denominations will see what the masses see, and will come around to know what the majority of Americans know: that people are born gay, that sexuality exists on a spectrum, that this is the same love (S/o Macklemore!) poets and the faithful have extolled for years.

When she said this, I nodded. But I confess (as I blundered to her), that I am not sure what to make of a theology that is staked entirely on shifting majority opinion. That’s not really what she meant, of course, but in conversations with unchurched friends, I have heard similar sentiments. The church is off base (surely), how can they not see? Similar sentiments are echoed in the Barna Group’s work, published in Unchristian. Young people are staying away from the church in droves, because they perceive the church to be homophobic or, if not afraid, simply exclusionary and hate-filled toward their gay friends and family members. But — and I do so love cultural wisdom and popular culture — surely the church has to have better justifications for changed understanding then “well, if we want to popular with the post-college set…”

After the Supreme Court announced their decision in this case, Ralph Reed appeared on Meet the Press and suggested that the next step for Christian conservatives was to take this issue back to the states, and to work hard to turn out the evangelical vote to pass statewide measures to limit same-sex marriage. Rachel Maddow offered a response that suggested that Reed and his cohort had turned out the evangelical vote, and had yet lost. In increasing numbers of states, and in the hearts and minds of public opinion.  The culture is shifting. And what is interesting now is that a whole host of Americans – and the vast majority of my facebook feed – rejoiced when the Court finally saw fit to get with the cultural program, to see what we had already seen – that DOMA was wrong-headed in 1000 different ways.

But this feels new, for the Court to be behind the culture, at least in the most obvious of analogous cases. When Brown v. Board of Education was decided, a good chunk of the people affected were not in favor of desegregating the schools. It was not a popular decision, and it was one fought tooth and nail by some state and community governments; we have the pictures to prove it. The Civil Rights movement was mobilized in response to a dominant popular culture rejecting the “elitist” decision of the Court. The Civil Rights movement helped bring the court’s decision to life and give it broader authority and legs.

In the United Methodist Church, the formulas which produce our representation in our democratically structured legislative body have left us in a place, still, where the majority can’t agree that living as a non-celibate gay person is not a sin. We can’t even agree that we read and interpret the Bible differently. After General Conference last year, I dreamed of a more authoritative body, a Supreme Court, to tell us that our homophobic disciplinary language had to be thrown out. But there is no such structure. We only have the majority, and for now, the majority of the church looks nothing like the majority of Americans.

In thinking this through with friends this week, I was offered two brilliant thoughts. The first is an experiment; imagine this:

What if you were a liberal Methodist preacher in North Carolina in 1954 when Brown came down? You might be with nine justices, half or more of the yankees, and  approximately none of your neighbors. That’s probably a good example of a time when the church was more liberal than some of its laity. How would you speak? How would you act? Can the pastoral clergy person challenge their congregants so directly?

The second expands on the first: Methodists (following H. Richard Niebuhr’s typology) like to view ourselves as working through Christ in transforming this world…but with LGBT inclusion, we (and others in a host of churches) find ourselves in a situation where we want the world to transform the church, at least to some degree.
This all goes to say that this week, I’m celebrating, and delighting in this huge milestone for so many people I love (and the accountants who will help them navigate the implications of this great news on their tax status). But I continue to want the church I love to find more and better ways to speak theologically about why same-gender love, sex, and marriage are holy and fraught, wondrous and difficult (just like they are for straight folks). I remain a Methodist for a host of reasons, and one of them is the conviction that the Spirit can speak through the democracy of the church, can speak through a majority. But I read J.S. Mills and the other Niebuhr, and I know the majority can be a tyrannical one as well; I heard about the decision around the Voting Rights Act last week, and knew the same could be said of a group of highly elite, appointed judges.
I celebrated with Dan and Allan, then I missed Pride. I didn’t actually marry them, but I did baptize the twin babies of a nice young lesbian couple a few days later. The opportunities we have for bearing witness are manifold, and I can’t help thinking that Christians have got to seek them out. But we also have work to do, to think about what it means to be a part of a cultural majority and a theological minority, and how we can best welcome all God’s children to the table and to full inclusion in our society and in our churches. Maybe the most important realization for me, though I love my theology and politics to be closely linked, is that society and our churches are not one and the same, and that might be to the good.

Bromleigh McCleneghan serves as the Associate for Congregational Life at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago, which means she's a clergyperson employed by a secular research university. Someday she'll parse out what that means for her prophetic authority. In the meantime, she writes very infrequently at her blog Love and a Cough, loves her husband, parents her daughters, and tries to write more books. Her first one was awesome, and she thinks you should buy it.  This article, crazed as it may be, was helped immensely (it should be mentioned) by two young clergymen. Peace, brothers!

6 replies
  1. Molly Fraser
    Molly Fraser says:

    Thanks so much for a beautiful reflection, speaking truth to the doubts and fears, and confidence so many of share.

  2. Heidi Haverkamp
    Heidi Haverkamp says:

    Thanks for this, Bromleigh. I also don’t think a theology of the majority quite cuts it. Or that this is a “justice” issue – I mean, it is, but that’s not a theology.

  3. megillikin
    megillikin says:

    I think our ethic of offering hospitality to strangers in Judeo-Christian tradition, can be the basis of a theological framework for the church following a cultural shift. Andrew Arterbury, in “Entertaining Angels: Early Christian Hospitality”, says that Jesus’ practice of journeying alongside strangers rather than shunning them was an important addition to housing and feeding folks. “Rather than deeming others to be foolish, ignorant, and of no benefit, Jesus’ disciples would do well to assume that God might have revealed himself to strangers.” I think we can go a step further and pose the question to the church that perhaps God reveals the Divine heart and will THROUGH strangers as well. If we expand “stranger” beyond “those who are unknown to us” and include “those who are dissimilar, weird or even distasteful”, then the idea that the Spirit of God may very well be moving through this vast cultural shift (because the church has been slow to hear and respond, so the Spirit moves where it can???) becomes not merely possible, but indeed plausible, and I would argue, actual. In Acts 10:1-36, Peter’s vision of eating non-kosher foods paved the way for a whole class of REVILED persons (Gentiles) to be fully included within the life of the church…. to no longer be seen as “profane or unclean” but rather as covenant partners in the community of faith. If God can grant visions to the thoroughly-embedded-in-his-theological-understanding-Peter to effect sweeping transformation of the church as it was 2000 years ago, I believe God can communicate in similarly radical ways to our churches… quite possibly through the winds of the Spirit breathing new life so clearly into the world around us.

  4. Elsa Peters
    Elsa Peters says:

    Great reflection. And yet, as a UCC clergy person watching what’s happening at General Synod and seeing the conversation among my colleagues, I want to be sure to emphasize that we are still in the midst of the conversation. We don’t all agree and we really struggle when the denomination leaps ahead of our local churches. Ours is a non-heirarchical structure that is dependent on grassroots conversations — and I’m not sure we are quite there theologically. We have covenanted to seek justice together (and that’s really hard for some) but the theology isn’t quite up to speed. To me, this is a reminder that we need to say more than love wins. We gotta talk about the theology behind that affirmation. I don’t think that’s happening even in my beloved denomination.

  5. Redeemed Christian
    Redeemed Christian says:

    Forgive me I’m not female clergy and I’m not a troll… But I think from a Biblical standpoint the Church becomes heretical if it affirms same sex relationships which the Bible repeatedly declares are wrong. No where in scripture can a standpoint be found that says otherwise. I see people speaking about the theology behind the affirmation- the theology is quite clear:
    1. Marriage according to Biblical parameters can only be between a man and a woman. It is representative of the relationship between Christ and His Bride – The Church.

    2. Active engagement in a same sex relationship is declared as wrong several times in scripture.(can you give me an example where it has not been used in a negative connotation?)

    3. You might read 1 Tim 1:9,10. It references homosexuality as unrighteousness, requiring forgiveness but also repentence, 2 Cor 7:10
    if it is to result in salvation. One is saved by grace, Jesus substitutionary sacrifice was the propitiation for our sin, but we are not to continue in it, hence, His oft repeated admonition to ” go and sin no more”, after forgiving a supplicant.
    It was never God’s intention that we continue in unrepentent sin, which when we are active participants in a same sex relationship it uncatagorically qualifies as.

    Furthermore, while He is longsuffering, ” not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentence”, 2 Pet 3:9, He is a God of judgement as well.

    Does that mean that we should not have compassion for our gay brothers and sisters? No -we need to have compassion but we cannot turn compassion into acceptance of sinful behaviour or lifestyle.

    Society should never set the standard or become the conscience for the church as it then means that the church will be out of covenant with God. Society ultimately will do what it wants and that almost invariably revolves around diminishing the influence of the church. Society desires a church shaped in its image not necessarily in the image of God.
    2 Timothy 4:3-5 (PHILLIPS) |
    3-5 For the time is coming when men will not tolerate wholesome teaching. They will want something to tickle their own fancies, and they will collect teachers who will pander to their own desires. They will no longer listen to the truth, but will wander off after man-made fictions.


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