The following essay was written in response to a conversation between the BMC Board of Directors and two church leaders. As a part of this discussion, analogies of establishing ‘fair play’ and ‘leveling the playing field’ were used. At the end of our meeting together, one of the leaders asked for a better understanding of what a ‘level playing field’ would look like. The following thoughts present some guidelines for establishing and maintaining respect and ‘fair ploy’ in the church’s dialogue about the inclusion of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the church.
First, it seems significant to acknowledge that a truly ‘level playing field’ is impossible to create in the current discussion about the inclusion or exclusion of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in the church. Whenever there is a power imbalance such as the one that exists in this current debate, the playing field is not and can not be level. The risks taken by the parties involved are not even, the potential losses are not equal, and the privileges the parties experience are not the same. We believe that leaders are responsible for acknowledging this power imbalance and inequity whenever and wherever this debate is discussed. We also believe that it is the role of strong, effective leadership to protect the safety and dignity of those that are least powerful. It seems important to ask the question ‑where and with whom should the church stand when power is not bestowed equally?
Effective, just leadership is desperately needed in this current debate. We recognize that the demands on current leaders are great as the passionate questions of integration and inclusion surface. Although part of your work demands that you represent the concerns of your constituents, we also see your role as one of prophetic leadership. Church leaders are not merely elected to be spokespersons for their constituents; church leaders are affirmed and called to continue discerning the will of God and to lead others as they are led by the Holy Spirit. Many of us have experienced church leaders abandoning their personal integrity and their calling to prophetic leadership in the face of this volatile issue, and choosing instead to follow the majority in order to please the most people. Functioning in this representational style of leadership alone requires acting on the behalf of the majority and results in maintaining the status quo. We look to leaders to be more than representatives, spokespersons or tools of the majority. We look to leaders to be seekers of both justice and the will of God and to be men and women of personal integrity, using their bestowed power to guide and influence church decision making.
Part of effective leadership in the current debate must also include setting parameters for our discussions together. All of us have experienced the difference that a good leader makes in framing a large discussion. Adding to the challenge of respectful discourse amongst a large number of people is the volatile nature of the debate of inclusion or exclusion of gay, lesbian and bisexual people. Given this volatile nature, a strong, responsible leader becomes even more essential to effective dialogue. The following guidelines reflect our expectations of our church leaders in this debate.
Do not tolerate the use of weapons. Not all weapons are crafted out of metal, but all are crafted for battle. As leaders, do not tolerate spoken or written words whose purpose is to divide, scar, or injure other people, other congregations, or the dialogue process itself. Do not give consideration, time, or energy to conversations that are initiated by an act of violence (i.e. an anonymous mailing, phone call, or rumor that infringes on personal privacy or safety). Conversations or debates initiated by an unfair act are inherently unfair. Personal attacks and name calling are also forms of weaponry. This includes the name ‘sinner,’ which is ultimately God’s job to judge rather than our own.
Do not allow hostage taking and threats. Individuals and congregations who issue ultimatums effectively grind to a halt any honest, productive conversation. It is disrespectful and unfair to those favoring the church’s inclusion of gay/lesbian/bisexual people-those who have come to this conversation through the loss of personal privacy and risking total vulnerability-to have the conversation ended by their opponents’ unwillingness to take reciprocal risks in honest, informed dialogue. More and more, churches are leaving or threatening to leave-and to take their dollars with them-unless the conference sees things their way. This is not the ‘loving dialogue’ requested in the Purdue and Saskatoon statements. Name this as violence to the minority and to the process and be clear that threats are not an acceptable part of this dialogue. Hold hostage‑takers accountable for their actions and for the harm that they do to the process. Have the courage to allow churches that issue ultimatums to leave if they insist. Do not allow yourselves or the conversation to be bullied into compliance with the loudest majority. This mode of functioning is always most harmful to the least powerful-clearly not a Christ‑like model.
Do not allow an ‘easy way out’ of the community’s conversation. On the issue of gay/lesbian/bisexual inclusion in the church, our relationships and shared history are at stake. When churches are asked to leave or when churches choose to leave conferences, the fabric of our community’s relationships and histories is torn. This should only be done intentionally, honestly and with clear accountability. Mail‑in ballots allow us to rend the fabric of our history and relationships without taking accountability, without looking each other in the eyes, and without feeling the resulting wounds. This ‘easy way out’ is nothing short of cowardice.
‘Nothing About Me Without Me!’ This slogan from the Disability Rights movement is valid in the Church’s conversation about the inclusion of gay/lesbian/bisexual people and their allies. It seems elementary that conversations geared at decisionmaking about a certain group of people should only happen with fair representation of the group in question. This is not only courteous and decent; it is a decisionmaking process that welcomes input. A closed decision‑making process is not a process at all-it is a decision. However, a ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ policy within the church will prove to be difficult unless efforts are made to ‘level the playing field’ in our conversations. It is disrespectful and unrealistic to expect that gay/lesbian/ bisexual people will continue to submit themselves to the personal attacks and unfair tactics that they have experienced within the church in order to be a part of the conversation. This is not an ultimatum demanding that ‘we get our way or we’ll leave.’ This is a request for decent, respectful treatment from others so that gay/lesbian/bisexual people can be part of the conversation without being abused spiritually or emotionally.
Insist on educated, informed, ‘responsible’ dialogue and do not allow impassioned, inaccurate ranting to stand uncorrected. When education is needed, provide it and insist on it. Intervene with appropriate correction when comments are made that reflect inaccurate information (i.e. linking homosexuality to pedophilia, talking about homosexuality as a psychological disorder, citing AIDS as God’s punishment for homosexuals, etc.). As in the case of any minority’s relationship with its respective majority, gay/lesbian/ bisexual people have much more information about and experience with straight people than straight people have with them. Encourage reciprocation. Insist that those against the inclusion of gay/lesbian/bisexual members make efforts to acquaint themselves with such people prior to engaging in the conversation. Again, work to equalize the amount of risk individuals must take in having this debate.
Reframe the conversation to accurately reflect the issue. Do not tolerate the naming of the church’s problem regarding inclusion as ‘the homosexual issue.’ Gay/lesbian/bisexual people are not issues, but people. And the real issue is our own Anabaptist churches’ inner conflict about whether it will include or exclude gay/lesbian/bisexual individuals and their allies within its congregations and conferences. By identifying this conflict as ‘the homosexual issue,’ responsibility for the conflict is placed squarely on the shoulders of gay/lesbian/bisexual people rather than on the shoulders of the church. Those gay/lesbian/bisexual individuals seeking membership within the church are not conflicted about whether they want to be included in the church. The church is conflicted about including them. Framing this conflict as the church’s conflict puts the responsibility for solving this conflict on the church body as a whole rather than on the minority group with the least amount of power. Additionally, this way of framing the issue does not vilify either group in the way that ‘the homosexual issue’ does.
In summary, we believe that it is incumbent upon church leaders to provide a safe, respectful forum in which the church may have this difficult conversation. Clearly, every individual should exercise behaviors of common decency and respect. However, church leaders must hold individuals and congregations accountable for their treatment of each other. Over the past number of years we have seen abhorrent examples of leadership as well as a number of good examples. Although we remain unhappy with the outcome of Southeast Mennonite Conference’s conversation about Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship’s participation in the conference, the conversation itself serves as an example of leadership paying attention to respectful discourse and relationships. Likewise, we thank the faculty and administrators of Bethany Theological Seminary (Church of the Brethren) for their openness to discuss the ministerial options available to gay, lesbian, and bisexual students. We value the efforts of the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada in creating and maintaining a Listening Committee that includes gay/lesbian/bisexual members. We also appreciate the officers of the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference who continue to dialogue with BMC regarding options for visibility at these annual events.
We also applaud the church’s efforts in preparing and adopting documents geared toward helping the church ‘disagree in love.’ Our hope is that this document might serve as a companion to these church documents and to other efforts the church has made to create a safe, respectful environment for this conversation.
BRETHREN MENNONITE COUNCIL
FOR LESBIAN AND GAY CONCERNS
Box 6300 Minneapolis, MN 55406 USA 612 722‑6906
March 1999, revised June 1999