The Church and Same Sex Marriage: The Pastoral Question
Originally posted By Michael Austin on bycommonconsent.com
“God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another.”—John Henry Newman
Unless everybody I know has misread the tea leaves, same-sex marriage will soon be legal in all 50 states. On the off chance that this doesn’t happen in June, it will happen some time. We have passed the tipping point, and a clear majority of people in the United States now favor such unions. Even in a democracy as dysfunctional as ours, clear majorities usually end up getting their way.
Universal same-sex marriage laws will have consequences for the Church. I’m not talking about the dire parade of horribles at the end of Glenn Beck’s slippery slopes. Nobody is going to force the LDS Church to perform gay marriages in their temples, nor will anyone force a religion to give ecclesiastical recognition to that which has been joined civilly. The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment will not go gentle into that good night, and gay marriage will not awaken the Ice Giants.
The real consequences will be much less drastic, but still very real. For one thing, the Church will probably face some legal questions about things like married housing at its universities (see Sam Brunson’s excellent contribution here). There will also be political questions. Will we support the inevitable efforts to overturn or protest a Supreme Court decision? Or will we conclude that, having fought the good fight, we should figure out a way to build the Kingdom of God in a country that lets gay people get married?
By far, though, the most significant question we will face as a Church will be pastoral: how should we as a religious community treat our legally married gay members? Most people I know think that this is an easy question. The problem is, about half of them think it is easy in one direction while the rest think it is easy in the other. Actually, it is a very difficult question. But it is also an extremely important one, as it may determine the nature of our community for the next hundred years.
What makes this question so difficult is that, more than perhaps any other religion in the United States, Latter-day Saints have tied our definition of “morality” firmly to the whims of the state. This was probably inevitable, given the problems we had when we strayed too far from that definition in the nineteenth century. But after we determined to submit to the laws of the land, we started to use those laws to draw a big bright line on sexual activity. The line is marked “legally and lawfully wedded.” On one side lies eternal life; on the other lies the sin next to murder.
As lines go, this one has worked pretty well. It has done all of the things that lines are supposed to do; but it is not our line. We have subcontracted out the hard work of defining morality to the state, which will no longer work to our specs. The line in the sand has become sandier just when we needed it to become linier. At the very least, we will have to clarify it.
But the blurring of this line also presents us with pastoral opportunities we should not ignore. By giving legal sanction to monogamous same-sex relationships, the state could help the Church create spaces for its gay members in between lifelong celibacy and excommunication. As one of my blogging colleagues recently put it, “to me gay marriage was a gift, a way to stanch the bleeding, by providing a path for good young gay Mormons to envision a happy life within the Church.”
Let me be very clear here that I am not suggesting anything that would require changes in our theology. Profound shifts in fundamental doctrines would have to occur before the Church could solemnize same-sex marriages in the temple or declare them valid for time and all eternity. But the bar for temple marriage need not be the same as the bar for not cutting people off from the Church, revoking their baptisms, and delivering them up to the buffetings of Satan.
The Church has managed to accommodate a lot of people who are not married for time and all eternity in some level of activity short of Satan’s buffeting. Many of these people are also sinners of one sort or another, which is actually the whole point of the Church. To answer Christ’s call, we must become a hospital for the sick and not a museum of the saints. Not casting people out does not constitute an endorsement of their behavior or their lifestyle. It simply acknowledges that, notwithstanding their weaknesses, the gospel can still make their lives better
For a century and a half, the Church has tolerated liars, gossipers, and backbiters in our midst. We do not excommunicate people for being uncharitable, proud, judgmental, or unwilling to help others. And we give a free pass to the majority of things forbidden in Leviticus. I believe that there are some very powerful pastoral reasons to add legally married gay people to the list of those we allow to exist in our community. Here are some of them:
- Committed monogamy is a good thing, and its goodness does not depend on its configuration of genders. Promiscuity and infidelity are spiritually destructive, and this destructiveness is independent of sexual orientation. Once we agree that some kinds of relationships are spiritually superior to others—independent of the sexual orientation of the partners—the principles of pastoral care dictate that we should encourage the former. Excommunicating people for getting married does precisely the opposite.
- The only two options now available for gay people who want to remain part of the LDS Church are 1) a commitment to lifelong celibacy; or 2) a mixed-orientation marriage. Neither of these options has proven effective in keeping people in the Church or in helping them to live happy, spiritually fulfilling lives. The Church will never be able to minister to the spiritual needs of more than a small fraction of its gay members without another option.
- Marriage is more than simply a license to have sex. Almost every discussion of this issue I have ever been involved in has hyperfocused on sexual expression (which actually does not require marriage, gay or otherwise). Committed, long-term, monogamous relationships are about intimacy, closeness, tenderness, mutual support, and the transformative power of loving somebody else on the same terms that one loves oneself. These are the sorts of things that we come to earth to learn about, and our biology is such that it is difficult to experience them without sexual attraction.
- Excommunications can have traumatic effects on families and can force parents, siblings, children, and other family members to choose sides between the Church and their loved ones. Such situations often result either in the excommunicated members losing the support of their families, or in family members themselves leaving the Church. Pastorally speaking, these are both bad things.
- The generational shift on the issue of same-sex marriage has been profound, and this will have consequences. Young people today are far more likely to support same-sex marriage than their parents were, and to consider it an important civil rights issue as well. This means that the pastoral consequences of excommunicating legally married gay members will not be limited to the members and their families. An entire generation will be watching to see what we do.
It is difficult to see what pastoral objectives are accomplished by excommunicating people for a sexual orientation, over which they have no control, or for choosing to express that orientation in the most chaste, socially acceptable, legally official, and spiritually positive manner available to them—a committed monogamous marriage.
In nearly every other case I can think of, pastoral discipline focuses on behaviors that people can change and by doing so, live happier lives. It does not punish people for being who they are. We need to find ways to minster to people who are doing the best that they can under the circumstances that prevail. This, I believe, is the second most important reason that we need to find ways to make room for married gay Mormons in our congregations.
But there is an even more important reason, which another of my BCC colleagues pointed out yesterday in his brilliant post “Unforced Errors.” Simply put, we need our gay brothers and sisters too badly to drive them from our midst. We need their strengths and their desires to serve. We need the perspective that they bring to our community and the gifts that they bring to the altar of God. If we cannot find a way to use these gifts, we will deprive ourselves, and the Church, of those whom God put on the earth to do some work which He has not committed to others. If we cannot find a way to let everybody do the work that is theirs to do, we will all be diminished by the absence. We cannot afford to throw anybody away.