The upcoming Supreme Court decisions about so-called “gay marriage” will soon be issued, according to court observers. The Court has before it two different cases on this subject, and the Court may issue very limited rulings, or they could issue a more sweeping ruling about what some are calling “marriage equality.” No matter how the Court rules in either case, I am sure that many people will be upset and distressed by their rulings -- some wanting more restrictions and some wanting fewer restrictions. I believe that we United Methodists need to respond to whatever the Court may rule with these attitudes: prayer, patience, and respect for one another.
The issue of homosexuality has been a controversy in our United Methodist Church ever since the 1972 General Conference voted to make the first-ever denominational statement in favor of equal civil rights for gay and lesbian persons. That statement was amended to include the phrase “though we regard the practice homosexuality as incompatible with Christian teaching.” That amended statement has remained in our Social Principles, and it has been further amended to verify our belief that all persons are of “sacred worth” -- but other statements have been added over the years to prevent our churches and our clergy from participating in “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions.” Our Social Principles have also consistently affirmed that marriage is only to be acknowledged between one man and one woman.
Any ruling by the Supreme Court will not affect our United Methodist Book of Discipline, nor will any such ruling change our definition of marriage. It is also very unlikely that any ruling by the Supreme Court can force our pastors and churches to offer marriage rituals for gay and lesbian couples. As a church we are protected by the Bill of Rights from interference by the government in our religious services and rituals.
However, any ruling by the Supreme Court is likely to stir more discussion at best, and more controversy at worst, around this difficult issue. Our Book of Discipline leaves our clergy and our churches in an awkward position: we welcome all persons into our churches, but we do not affirm the “practice of homosexuality.” Many gay and lesbian persons are in fact very faithful members of our churches, even though they are not allowed to be ordained or appointed as clergy unless they affirm their celibacy. I know many gay and lesbian persons who do not want their own sexuality to be a political issue for the church -- they just want to worship and praise God in our churches like everyone else. Other gay and lesbian persons are more engaged in advocacy for “equal rights” to marry one another.
Clearly, any decision by the Supreme Court will not finally resolve these issues. Our cultural changes and our theological discussions will continue. Some will quote the very few Scripture verses which seem to make statements about homosexuality as the “final answer.” Others will affirm the full range of Scripture verses which speak of love and the priority of life-long covenants. And those of us who are heterosexuals need to confess the failures of so many heterosexuals to obey the Scripture verses about life-long marriage covenants. Sometimes I wonder if our focus upon homosexuality is a way of avoiding dealing with the sins so prevalent within our society by heterosexuals. Jesus warned us harshly about overlooking the logs in our own eyes while being focused upon the speck in the eyes of others. In fact, we have no recorded words of Jesus about homosexuality, but we have many recorded words of Jesus about religious hypocrisy. We in the church need to heed those words of Jesus whenever we engage in any discussions about the sexuality of others.
So this statement is a plea for United Methodist people to respond to any Supreme Court decision with Christian maturity that is evidenced by prayer, patience, and respect for one another.