In June, the Methodist church in Britain voted to permit same-sex marriages. The vote to change the definition of marriage at the Methodist Conference passed 254 to 46. A freedom of conscience clause means those who oppose this change will not be forced to conduct same-sex weddings if they do not wish to. This decision by the Methodist church followed many years of very difficult internal conversations.
My own denomination, The Salvation Army, has its roots in Methodism. Our founders, William and Catherine Booth, were Wesleyan missioners to the marginalised in The East End of London in the 1860s.
The Booths had no desire to start a new church. When people were converted through their evangelistic activities, the Booths urged them to connect with established congregations. Generally speaking, though, the people in those churches were not welcoming. They struggled to make room for what The Salvation Army’s doctrines eventually described simply as ‘the whosoever’.
The converted drunkards, the prostitutes, the ex-prisoners, the poverty-stricken found it hard to fit in with respectably conservative Victorian-era churchgoers. And so, they returned to the Booths, who found themselves establishing a safe faith community for those who had found their way home to God.
The Salvation Army, which now extends around the world, is not in the same space as its Methodist parent when it comes to same-sex marriages. In fact, at the same time the Methodist church was voting, The Salvation Army was engaging in some difficult conversations of its own. This was in response to indications from our international headquarters in London that suggested little openness to full inclusion of LGBTQI+ people within Salvation Army churches.
Consequently, it seems internal Salvation Army battle lines risk becoming even more entrenched. This both worries and saddens me. Not only for the future of our mission, but primarily because of the impact of this on the wellbeing of those LGBTQI+ Christians who are connected to The Salvation Army. It’s never easy to sense you might not be welcome somewhere. This is something the Booths understood.
A family disagreement
In this contemporary environment of heightened anxiety, I am reading the Rev. David Runcorn’s excellent book Love Means Love: Same-Sex Relationships and the Bible (https://spckpublishing.co.uk/love-means-love-548). Runcorn makes the case for biblical support for same-sex relationships, but advocates this within a culture of ‘good disagreeing’, as the Church remembers that we are family – ‘brothers and sisters in Christ’.
Which makes this a family disagreement.
What gives me the most pause in Runcorn’s book is a quote from a 1990 address by New Zealand professor and respected restorative justice advocate Chris Marshall: ‘Exclusiveness is the besetting sin of religious conservatives … smugness … the besetting sin of religious liberals.’
Runcorn moves from that quote to Paul’s words in Romans 14:5-8 (related to conflict around Gentile believers keeping traditional Jewish food and dietary laws), emphasising that whatever view we hold, we must do this ‘for/of/to the Lord’.
Not simply ‘against’ or even ‘for’ others.
Marshall summarises Paul’s position: ‘If another holds a view that you disagree with, perhaps passionately, and that you may even consider to be a totally inappropriate view for a Christian to hold, as long as that person has come to [their] views in conscious submission to the teaching of Christ, and holds it with a clear conscience, in thankfulness to God and aware of the coming Day when [they] will give account of themselves to God, then you are duty bound to welcome that sister/brother in the same way that Christ has welcomed you.’
I don’t need to agree with someone’s views, but I do need to welcome that person as a member of God’s family – of my family.
Runcorn unpacks this more, making the point that ‘it is Christ who welcomes, Christ who includes’ (just as it was when Jewish Christians eventually came to welcome Gentile Christians, at Christ’s instruction).
Runcorn points out that ‘the Church itself is not the centre of the story and never has been’, emphasising that ‘Jews and Gentiles were actually on a journey together, beyond their understanding, preferred boundaries and limited expectations, into the welcome of a new community of Christ.’
He continues – and this is the crux for me: ‘Now, as then, the life and mission of the Church is not for understanding in the sense of one group calling another to its viewpoint as if one were right and the other wrong. Both need the courage and faithfulness to go “to a place that neither has ever been before”.’
In The Salvation Army, as in other denominations, we are journeying to a place we have never been before. Consequently, there is a great deal of heat in what is being said. There is an increase in what might be described as ‘friendly fire’, with worrying instances of ‘shooting the wounded’. There are missteps and misspeaks.
I remember the uninformed and insensitive words I used before I knew any out gay or lesbian Christians/Salvationists. Words like ‘lifestyle’ and ‘choice’. Throwaway phrases like ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’. I am grateful for the grace and patience people showed me, despite my lexicon.
The useful motivation of pain
There is pain on both sides of the barricades. And because in the church we have a pervasive culture of ‘niceness’, some of us may want to paper over our differences. I feel that pull myself. That I should step back from activism as an LGBTQI+ ally, and instead ‘play nice’. That because we truly are brothers and sisters in Christ, I should suck up my frustrations and settle for the status quo. Or leave.
However, one school of thought in change management theory says we must be careful not to shut down pain prematurely, because an awareness of pain (our own and others) motivates and energises us to do the difficult and courageous work of making difficult but essential change. I suggest that such work is part and parcel of the ‘good disagreeing’ Runcorn espouses, on our journey to that place we have never been.
So, what attitude will we adopt as we pursue Runcorn’s challenge to ‘live faithfully in a divided church’?
Some conservative voices are doubling down in spiteful attacks – and there’s certainly the temptation for LGBTQI+ people and allies to respond in kind. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, ‘What you are [exclusive/smugly superior] stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.’
We cannot advance our cause – which in my case is an inclusive one – if we lose the best of ourselves.
Christina Tyson has been a Salvation Army officer (minister) for almost 30 years.For 16 years she was involved in Salvation Army communications, and now works with her husband as pastors of a Salvation Army church and community centre in Newtown, Wellington.