Community forum joins in exploration of faith, sexuality

Thursday, July 9, 2009 | 5:39 p.m. CDT
Doug Stone, left, and partner Tim Root have both been active members of the Missouri United Methodist Church for over a year. "It's one thing being kind of accepted by your family and community," said Root. "It's another thing to be accepted in our church."

COLUMBIA — Doug Stone and Tim Root call themselves a typical couple.

Their day-to-day routine is just like that of anyone else. They go to work, walk the dogs and mow the lawn. On Sunday mornings, they attend the 8:50 church service at Missouri United Methodist Church. This summer, Tim has volunteered to help with crafts and recreation at the church's Vacation Bible School, and together he and Doug are involved in many aspects of church life through the Open Door Ministry.


If you go:

The Public Forum on Faith and Sexuality, hosted by David Weiss will be held from 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, July 10 at Missouri United Methodist Church's multipurpose room, 204 S. 9th St.

Weiss will hold a book signing and community reception from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday, July 11 at The Center, 907 E. Ash St.

Missouri United Methodist Church's Seeker's Class begins at 10 a.m. Sunday, July 12 at 204 S. 9th St.

Both are happy to worship in an environment that is welcoming and accepting of people from all walks of life — and all sexual orientations.

In religious communities today, there are differing views on the issue of sexuality. While some churches are welcoming same-sex couples such as Doug and Tim , others openly picket against homosexuality and some take little to no stance on the matter. That is why four Columbia organizations are coming together to encourage community conversation about the issue of faith and sexuality.

This weekend, four groups are joining together to host theologian and author David Weiss. Weiss, who wrote the book “To The Tune of a Welcoming God,” will lead a public forum on the topic of faith and sexuality Friday evening, speak at a book signing Saturday and participate in the Missouri United Methodist Church's Seeker’s Class on Sunday. His visit is sponsored by the Open Door Ministry of the Missouri United Methodist Church, Lutherans Concerned, the mid-Missouri chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and The Center Project.

Weiss’ visit and the forum are meant to explore the understanding of homosexuality in the church. “There are so many interpretations,” Root said, referring to literal and non-literal ways of viewing the Bible and its teachings on sexuality.

Although PFLAG and The Center are not affiliated with specific faith organizations such as Lutherans Concerned or the Open Door Ministry, PFLAG member Linda Hayes said it was still a valuable discussion to bring to the community.

“It’s important for PFLAG to be involved in that discussion because so much of the discrimination that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people experience comes from churches that condemn homosexuality and have no other viewpoint,” Hayes said. “We just want people to know that there are other viewpoints out there.”

Last week, the group invited Marc Adams from the organization Heart Strong, which helps LGBT students in religious schools, to meet with PFLAG and share his story of being gay in a fundamentalist Christian home. Hayes said she felt it was significant that Adams shared his experience with faith a week before Friday's forum because it highlighted different sides of the spectrum when it comes to faith and sexuality.

Retired United Methodist minister the Rev. Dick Blount, founder of the Open Door Ministry, said he hoped Weiss’ visit would help foster discussion that would change perspective within the church.

“The faith community has been the biggest contributor to homophobia in the country,” Blount said. “One of the issues David will be addressing, he says in his book: all churches today are at a critical point in history regarding homosexuality. The Church is being silent. If we can get the Church to be aware of its own involvement, maybe the Church can begin to speak out collectively."

Weiss’ visit comes in the midst of a discussion within the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America about whether to pass a new policy statement calling for gays and lesbians serving in the church to be allowed to have recognized, legitimate partnerships. Representatives from Lutheran churches across the country will meet in August at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly to vote on the measure.

Audrey Mortensen, a member at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Columbia, is a long-time member of Lutherans Concerned, an independent membership organization that works for full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Lutherans in all aspects of the church, as well as the national secretary for a similar organization, Lutheran Network for Inclusive Vision. Mortensen hopes the ministry policy will fulfill her wish for a more welcoming church.

“The statement involves an opening up of church policy, asking that we do not discriminate against those gay and lesbian pastors who happen to have partners, because single gay and lesbian people have always been able to be pastors in the ELCA,” Mortensen said. “There are many congregations that would like to have gay and lesbian pastors in a committed relationship. The sexuality statement would give congregational option so that if a congregation would like to call a gay or lesbian pastor (to serve) then they would have that opportunity.”

Each of 65 different regions of the Lutheran church, called synods, have met and discussed a proposal that would “recognize, support and hold accountable life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships,” according to the policy statement.

“During the past year, maybe since January, each one of them has had a convention and has taken this up,” Mortensen said. “Three-fourths of them have said, 'Yes, we want a change.'”

Mortensen said this could have a large impact on those who are able to act as leaders in the church yet are barred because they are in a gay or lesbian relationship.

“Right now we have over 40 pastors who are trained and ready to take a call (to serve), some of them have been kicked out, and they are totally credentialed in every way except that they happen to have a partner,” Mortensen said. “Perhaps they did not when they were ordained, then they happened to fall in love just like heterosexual people do. It’s like being left-handed, some people have one characteristic, some have another.”

Mortensen said she hopes Weiss, whose sister-in-law worships at St. Andrew’s, would bring a new perspective about the church for those who have been rejected.

“We hope that when people hear him, they will relate to having an open message of being welcoming, knowing a God who is welcoming to everybody,” Mortensen said. “A lot of people who have been turned off by right-winged zealots in the country will now know that, ‘Hey, we want you. God’s love is for all people.’”

When the issue was brought before members of St. Andrew’s, Mortensen said the proposed ELCA statement has generally been received in positive ways from the congregation.

“We studied it at the very beginning, and I would say I saw very little opposition,” Mortensen said. “There was some, but most people are just very happy to let people (serve). Whenever people have been given the gift to be a minister, most people feel that they should have that opportunity to serve.”

Mainline Denominations

As with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, discrepancies also exist within and between some of the major Christian denominations when it comes to ordaining gay and lesbian clergy.

Like the Lutheran Church, it is forbidden in the Presbyterian church to ordain openly gay clergy who are not celibate, according to the Rev. Raymond Massey II, pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Columbia. Although the book of order that governs the church forbids ordination of gays and lesbians who are in relationships, different regions, called presbyteries, tend to interpret the book differently or ignore it altogether, Massey said.

“Under the same book of order, how people follow, interpret and do things is very different,” Massey said. “There are Presbyterians who are all over the board; some who think it’s a terrible sin; some who think it’s a sin to not ordain openly gay people.”

Massey said the issue of ordaining gay clergy comes up in some way at almost every bi-annual assembly of the denomination. However, because of varying interpretations and differing opinions, a statement like the one proposed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has never carried the same weight.

According to Blount, the issue arises at the worldwide meeting of the General Conference of the Methodist Church held every four years. A social justice policy passed in 1968 states that homosexuality is “incompatible” with the teachings of God and forbids ordination of gays and lesbians. However, Blount said he thinks the denomination is closer than ever to reforming the policy with more “progressive” language that would say “all people are the children of God.”

In 2004, the Episcopalian Church's election of its first openly gay, non-celibate bishop created deep divisions within the church. Last month, the Anglican Church of North America was formed as a split from the Episcopal Church so it could continue to ban female and gay bishops from being ordained.

Issues and divisions within the Episcopalian Church are stark examples of the types of divisions between and within different denominations and the differences that can exist between the faith community and the LGBT community. That is the purpose, according to the Rev. Blount, for a community discussion revolving around faith and sexuality.

“This is a public forum,” Blount said. “It’s not for the Methodist church, it’s a meeting for everybody."

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