The Methodist Church struggles with homosexuality
I remember when I was rabbi in Sacramento, a friend of mine had invited me to join him to attend the local gay film festival.
I had never been to a gay film festival before and I was, frankly speaking, a bit nervous about sitting there and contemplating what kind of movie I would be seeing.
It turned out that the festival presented a documentary entitled, “Trembling Before God.” The movie told the stories of gay men who were Jewish and who also grew up in the most observant branch of Judaism, which we call Orthodox Judaism. These young men discussed the tension and frustration of wanting to remain Orthodox Jews and be open about being gay at the same time in their respective communities.
That was over 15 years ago, and since then my religious movement, including myself, have undergone a serious period of introspection about whether liberal Judaism and I myself would be willing to be proactive in welcoming gay individuals and couples into the congregation.
The other critical question was whether or not I would be willing to marry committed gay and Jewish couples.
A great deal has transpired in America regarding clergy officiating at gay life cycle ceremonies, and whether religious denominations in Judaism and Christianity will endorse a change by accepting them on an equal footing with their heterosexual co-religionists.
Eventually, I did decide to officiate in what was called back then a commitment ceremony for a couple who were both females, and later on I officiated at another ceremony for a male couple.
Admittedly, it took me several years of study and reflection to know a variety of gay and lesbian people and to better understand them and their lives. I came to grips with the fundamental premise from my own theological and moral core, and faced those insecurities and fears of the other.
I came to realize that their love and devotion was not a sin and that they too were created in the image of God that is referred to in the creation story in Genesis.
I understand well the biblical verse that is often cited that man shall not lay down with another man (Leviticus 18:22). That is the primary verse used to classify homosexuality as an abhorrent act and sinful in the eyes of God.
The truth is that, over the centuries, homosexual behavior in men and women has not been accepted as legitimate. This is so today in the Orthodox religious community and it is a problem as Orthodox Judaism contends with the changes in our society’s moral code.
Is this also a problem for other religions, and especially those considered the most conservative, as they also face the societal values that are accepting and embracing gay couples and their children on an equal basis alongside heterosexual families?
Liberal religions such as Reform Judaism offer an alternative interpretation that there are many ancient laws in the Torah that God tells us to do and not to do. The Torah, for example, tells us to make sacrifices. It tells us to stone someone for violating the Sabbath. Yet, we do not do those things today.
We have choices to make as to what is doable and what makes sense in our world, even though we are mindful that we are reinterpreting the word of God in a contemporary context.
Denominations in Christianity are facing these issues too and have been doing so for a long time.
Currently the Methodist church is in the midst of a struggle to define themselves and how far the idea of inclusion can go when it comes to LGBTQ families. Can they be clergy and serve God and be our spiritual role models? May clergy perform such marriages for their gay parishioners, and shall the leadership of the Methodist church create new liturgies that are responsive to the spiritual needs of LGBTQ families in their congregations?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, formerly referred to as the Mormon Church, which has had restrictions for LGBTQ families, has recently changed its direction. The leadership decreed that they would now baptize the children of LGBTQ families. Before, based upon a 2015 decision, the church ruled that such children would not be allowed to join the church until the age of 18.
According to news reports, LGBTQ families will no longer be viewed as apostates even though the church has not changed its policy on viewing homosexuality as immoral behavior. The president of the International Church said, “such efforts to show more understanding, compassion and love should increase respect and understanding among all people of goodwill.”
The big picture here is that denominations and branches of Christianity and Judaism are struggling between the dictates of the traditional sacred texts and their interpretations versus what the contemporary world is saying about LGBTQ families.
If societies and their moral underpinnings evolve in a different direction from traditional laws and teachings, should religious leaders adapt or hold their ground?
At the end of the day people vote with their feet. Will families want to participate in a church or synagogue where they know that their gay child or gay grandchildren are not accepted, especially if the current clergy leadership believe that the word of God says homosexuality is immoral?
The answer to this question may not rest on theological doctrine, but it will impact the stability and vitality of America’s religions.