Following is my most recent column in Disciples World Magazine:
Love knows no bounds…or does it?
According to a report from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, by the year 2025, five out of six current clergy leaders will have retired. Meanwhile, the average tenure of a clergy person is at least a decade less than in other “first career” professions. Aside from these age and attrition issues, there is also the matter of representation within church leadership.
Although most churches are experiencing the greatest growth in membership within non-Anglo ethnicities, a significant majority of our church leadership is still white. Although a majority of those who attend church are female, most clergy are male. Gender, age, and ethnicity gaps help to further reinforce the sense that our churches are decreasingly relevant with respect to real-world issues. Meanwhile, we face a looming vacuum in the pulpit.
Some within the church believe that broadening the scope of seminaries, and those they attract and train for ministry, has a positive effect on the institution of church and society as a whole. Others believe that it is the very historical restrictiveness of the church that has created the divisions, animosity, mistrust, and abuse that we now seek to reconcile.
In an August 1994 letter to members of the Episcopal House of Bishops, John Shelby Spong, retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, wrote, “Some members of our church no longer feel included, where those living in non-traditional relationships might no longer expect to find a place or a welcome in the Body of Christ and where gay and lesbian clergy might question whether or not their gifts are still wanted by the church they love.”
Spong went on to note that as much as a third of the populations in major urban settings identify themselves as gay or lesbian. He claimed that, by allowing ministers to live as openly gay or lesbian persons, and by encouraging them to model committed, loving relationships with their partners, these church leaders could bring “both the hope and love of Christ to communities of people long oppressed, long denigrated, and long judged by various religious authorities as inadequate human beings in whom the image of God is somehow flawed.”
In a post-denominational world, maintaining traditional standards upon which the historical church was built risks greater alienation, a lingering sense of oppressiveness, and further cultural disconnectedness. If we press forward toward a vision of church within which gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation are not criteria for ministry, we risk any number of divisions that could further weaken our ailing religious institutions.
There are those who believe it is religion’s responsibility to draw the boundaries of propriety within which the rest of society should operate. Others feel it is their spiritual calling to step across some of these same lines, drawing cries of heresy from the ones making the rules.
This moral tension changes form over time, but it never goes away. The price of addressing such issues is seldom insignificant. However, a church that does not face these kinds of social issues head on does not earn the right to claim the gospel as its heritage.
In their book Caught in the Crossfire: Helping Christians Debate Homosexuality (Abingdon, 1994), Sally Geis and Donald Messner suggested, “We need to perceive (scripture) not childishly but with a childlike faith.” Unfortunately, we often take strong positions on this and other issues before we even have a proper vocabulary we can employ to develop constructive dialogue.
Christians often think of homosexuality as a single, monolithic issue, but when we achieve an arm’s length degree of objectivity, we quickly begin to see how such issues cannot be distilled down to an either/or debate that can be so easily categorized.
The most important factor for either side is the continuation of dialogue. If, indeed, we agree that the church is to reflect the “re-membered” body of Christ, then our interdependence and common mission should trump the desire to draw lines and dig in our heels.
The future of the church depends on it.