by Ellen Sims
I want to respond to kind Facebook comments about an interview I gave recently in an article on the SCOTUS decision to legalize same-gender marriage. First, let me explain that my comments were solicited by al.com reporter Carol McPhail’s text message as I was changing planes in Atlanta on Friday: “Ellen, what’s your reaction to the ruling?” I hastily typed into my iPhone a reply that was included among other local religious leaders’ responses in the article titled “Gay Marriage Ruling: Here’s How Mobile’s Religious Community Responded.”
I’m sharing the context for two reasons. First, I want to give credit to Carol for her continued and accurate reportage of this issue. She never misquotes me and always appreciates the complexities of the issue. Some interviewers, for example, have not been as informed, especially regarding the range of religious perspectives, which makes it hard for me to answer succinctly.
I also write this to say that I’m not the only pastor or priest in town who supports LGBTQ people and their rights, contrary to what some have assumed from the article. Consider that reporters might contact clergy at inopportune times for immediate responses. I told Carol on Friday that I could be available for more measured comments once I landed in Cleveland, but she did not follow up and I’m sure her piece had already been filed by then. My point is that other pastors might have been willing to give an interview, might even have been willing to give an interview supporting marriage equality, but probably weren’t asked or weren’t free to talk or text back when they were asked.
I do not want to make excuses for ministerial colleagues who are just plain mean, uninformed, or cowardly.
But I don’t want to take credit (others might view it as taking the blame!) for being the only LGBT-affirming pastor in town. I know of at least three other churches that have been performing blessings of same-gender couples and will now presumably be performing legal weddings. Other clergy and congregations remain officially and quietly neutral on this topic but see themselves as welcoming to openly gay members.
And here’s the thing. Pastors are human. They know what they know because of what they’ve been taught and what they’ve experienced. It’s one thing for straight individuals–through study, relationships, story sharing, and prayerful reflection–to evolve toward acceptance of LGBT folks. It’s more difficult for a minister who feels responsible for the souls of her or his congregation, so to speak, to make that shift. It took me years. “What if I’m wrong?” I had to ask again and again. The consequences seemed greater for me as a spiritual leader than for laity. Some of my colleagues in town have likely been too proud, blind, or hardhearted even to consider they and their denomination might be wrong. But other pastors have been prayerfully wrestling with this issue for a long time—despite the weight of church pronouncements and expectations, a handful of scriptures that seem to condemn homosexuality, lots of cultural baggage, and, yes, the fear of consequences if they “come out” as an ally. I believe many are sincerely seeking to understand God’s will in this matter.
Finally, I gratefully admit I am supported in ways many of my pastor friends are not. It’s hard for me to condemn a colleague when I have a husband whose salary can keep a roof over our heads if I were to lose my “job” because of a controversial position I take. I also am supported by my progressive denomination, the United Church of Christ, which has been at the forefront of this social justice issue for decades. I will not be defrocked for my stance. Finally, my congregation has been open and affirming of LGBTQ folks since our inception. The courageous and compassionate people of Open Table UCC encourage me to take unpopular stands in the public arena for the sake of Love. So you see, I am not brave. Or maybe I am only a little brave because I sometimes act and advocate for justice in ways that appall some of my friends and extended family, whom I love. That’s still hard because I was raised to be a people-pleasing good girl.
Let me end, however, with a challenge to those clergy who are sitting on the fence. So much more information is available to you now than when I began my discernment on this topic twenty-five years ago. I encourage you to read widely from the best of biblical scholarship, current theology, and Christian ethics. I can offer suggestions and am available to talk with you. Read your Bible for its overarching story of God’s compassion. Study resources that affirming denominations have created on this topic. But mainly get to know LGBT folks. Listen to their stories. They will break your heart. And open your mind. And maybe even open the doors of your sanctuary.