Post 53: Homosexuality in Pastoral Perspective: Notes on a continuing conversation

The processes of drafting a document Adventist Studies: An Annotated Introduction for Higher Degree Students (2006, revised 2009) and writing a journal article “Contextualising Recent Tensions in Seventh-day Adventism” (published in Journal of Religious History, September 2010) have helped to alert me to the need for a better understanding of human sexuality in its various dimensions. This blog is part of a conversation on the related but more specific theme of pastoral care for lesbian and gay Adventists that I initiated almost four years ago, on 13 September 2008. 

During the early 1970s, my approach to ministry was deeply impacted by the teaching of Charles Wittschiebe at Andrews University (Berrien Springs, Michigan) and the insights of Clinical Pastoral Education. Wittschiebe’s shock of white hair helped to preserve his dignity, despite the fact he was writing a book under the startling title God Invented Sex (1974).

Clinical Pastoral Education as recommended by Christian Theological Seminary (Indianapolis, Indiana) for its Doctor of Ministry students, required us to actively listen to our counselling clients and congregants. This form of process-learning was monitored by skilled supervisors and prodded by fearless input from our peers.

What Wittschiebe Knew

Charles Wittschiebe was not a biblical scholar, nor was he a church historian. But, as a well-trained, caring pastor he sensed Adventist ministers needed to better understand human sexuality in the combined light of Scripture, history and science.

Our heritage offers some interesting observations. Early in 1846, two Advent believers were “published for marriage” as required by law in New England at that time. By so doing they “denied their faith,” according to James White. Why? “We look upon it [marriage] as a wile of the devil,” he wrote. “The firm brethren in Maine who are waiting for Christ to come have no fellowship with such a move.”

The New Testament reminds us how the Apostle Paul questioned marriage, no doubt due to a combination of hope in Christ’s imminent return and the active persecution believers were experiencing in the first Christian century. Eighteen hundred years later, it took much Bible study and prayer for our Adventist pioneers to balance their Advent hope and lifestyle patterns.

Issues relating to human sexuality were particularly difficult in the mid-nineteenth century. Christianity was still profoundly impacted by past thinkers like Saint Augustine, who believed sex was essentially evil, even though it was necessary for procreation. In Augustine’s view, it was a pity sexual activity had to be experienced; certainly, it should never be enjoyed!

American culture of the 1840s and later added other heavy burdens. It was widely believed that humans had a limited store of “vital force” and that every act of sexual expression was a withdrawal from this finite deposit. Augustine’s teaching had helped to galvanise the church into priestly celibacy. The notion of vital force caused nineteenth-century stalwarts to recommend sex only for procreation. Some people (like the famous health reformer John Harvey Kellogg) forever avoided consummating their marriages. It is no wonder that Adventist literature declaimed against “secret vice” (masturbation) as the cause of many horrendous diseases, including (it was claimed) “the inward decay of the head.”

Slowly new concepts were developed. Think of such landmark volumes as that by Harold Shryock, Happiness for Husbands and Wives (1949). So Wittschiebe’s generation was made ready to appreciate his unblushing affirmation that God actually invented sex and gave it as a precious gift to humankind.

What Wittschiebe Didn’t Know

Charles Wittschiebe’s classes would have been even better if he had had the benefit of later Adventist authors like Eldon Chalmers, Alberta Mazat, Richard Davidson (an Old Testament scholar) and Ivan Blazen (a New Testament specialist). During the early 1970s we were all too engaged with the need to put straight sex into a mature pastoral perspective to even contemplate the difficult task of dealing with homosexuality. So most Adventist pastors just perpetuated the patterns of millennia: homosexuality was regarded simply as a perverse, evil choice.

Seventh-day Adventist leaders in the 1970s and 1980s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars either trying to help homosexual pastors and others become heterosexuals, or defending the church from being tainted by having its name associated with a more open view of homosexuality. Most of us failed to translate the vision of the Adventist church as “caring” or “welcoming” into effective pastoral care for gay and lesbian believers.

The results of conversion (or “reparation”) initiatives were usually disastrous. False hopes were imposed on fragile individuals and some of them were sexually abused by the very people who were reported to be facilitating their transformation. Adventist magazines and journals, like Adventist Review and Ministry, largely failed to keep members and ministers abreast of constructive research. Once Michael Pearson’s doctoral dissertation was published (Cambridge University Press, 1990), it was clear that the church was falling well behind the wave of understanding relating to human sexuality, except for the independent Adventist press that Pearson cited at length. Without the constructive input of Spectrum (from 1969) and Adventist Today (from 1993), Adventist perceptions would be even more inadequate.

A Tragic Harvest

For gay and lesbian believers, the options were mostly dismal indeed. Some followed specific pastoral advice to marry, being assured the perceived problem of their sexual orientation would then disappear. For some of these desperate individuals, the result was years of trauma from living hopefully yet deceitfully and, when their situation became unbearable, breaking the hearts of wives or husbands, as well as children—when their marriages ended in disgrace. For church employees this often meant dismissal from their employment without the financial provisions others received. Thereafter, most such people had great difficulty in preparing for and finding suitable employment.

Parents of gay and lesbian young people were often traumatised by the realisation that their son or daughter was homosexual. Some could never admit this to their friends; they  hid the dark secret from their church. Some homosexuals felt, especially when earnest prayer or “conversion” initiatives proved fruitless, that suicide was the best option. Some were expelled from both family and church. Many sought to hide their pain and shame by drugs, alcohol, or the anonymity of city life.

Intimations of More Effective Pastoral Care

In 2008, Adventist Forum again offered a more constructive understanding by publishing a volume entitled Christianity and Homosexuality: Some Seventh-day Adventist Perspectives. The book carries a tribute to Mitchell Henson, a pastor whose “congregation became a beacon of what it means to have an inclusive congregation,” despite the attendant difficulties. In a chapter of the book, Pastor Henson tells the story of his church (pages 23-35).

The issue of homosexuality cannot be understood by Adventists without close attention to the Bible, church history, Adventist heritage, the social sciences (including sociology and psychology), as well “hard” sciences such as biology. Pastors and people need to assess the data demonstrating that for most homosexuals, there is absolutely no element of choice in their sexual orientation.

This fact underlines our need for the careful studies that the Forum book reports in the biblical, biomedical, behavioural and social spheres. Roy Gane examines Leviticus; John Jones looks intently at Romans; Fritz Guy uses expertly the tools of a theologian; David Larson employs in a similar way those of the ethicist; Mitchell Tyner probes the importance of legal issues in the United States. We need all these insights and more if we are to function effectively as pastors. Richard Rice and Gary Chartier help to round out the discussion of the biblical, theological and sociological perspectives.

Conclusion

In the last sentence of the book’s text, Gary Chartier reflects upon the value of the Larson, Tyner and Henson chapters. In my view, Chartier’s words can be more generally applied to the book as a whole. An Adventism that adopts the moral, political and spiritual stances this book recommends and models them effectively will make giant strides toward becoming the kind of community—just, open, caring— that it can and must be.

We owe this as a duty to our Creator. The lives of people made in His image depend on it. Let us be about offering more effective pastoral care for Adventism’s significant group of gay and lesbian adherents, their families and congregations.

Bibliographic Note: In order to understand this brief paper in its wider context, the reader should consult two items: Adventist Studies: An Annotated Introduction for Higher Degree Students, and “Recent Tensions in Seventh-day Adventism” that are available electronically from the author (arthur.patrick@bigpond.com) or http://www.avondale.edu.au/research::Journal_Articles/.

FURTHER NOTES Effective pastoral care begins by understanding the person and the issues they face. I need to listen carefully to all those who wish to share experiences and perspectives that relate to the theme under consideration. Toward that end, I have shared drafts of the above paper with several trusted friends. I value the comments already received and invite others, both pro and con. A few of the insights shared with me are appended here. My respondents tell me:

  1. The history of the SDA response to HIV-AIDS issues could be considered fruitfully in the context of the discussion about homosexuality.
  2.  There are many ex-SDA gays and lesbians, some of whom now are a part of other faith communities or have lost all connection with God. This little paper has been affirmed as a very welcome consideration of gay and lesbian believers. Sometime, the broader gay and lesbian community, whether ex-SDA or of “no fixed church address” should also be considered.
  3. One respondent says: “Very much agree [with the comment re Spectrum and Adventist Today]. The articles in these publications were of great help to me in the early 1990s when I spent many hours in the … library ‘researching’ the issue of homosexuality from an SDA perspective.”
  4. A range of health impacts has also been documented [in the experience of lesbians and gays], including increased depression, eating disorders and difficulties in establishing and maintaining healthy intimate relationships. SDA homosexuals have typically grown up without positive role models or useful parental feedback on partner suitability and have typically skipped the usual learning process of “teen dating.”  A general lack of confidence can permeate many aspects of life and impact upon job opportunities.
  5. The ACON Lesbian Health Study, for instance, is another relevant source:

http://www.acon.org.au/community/index.cfm?cat_id=72

A respondent writes: “There certainly can be anonymity in the city, contrasting to a small church community where gossip can be very destructive to individuals and families. I’d also like to add that there is a strong sense of community in ‘gay ghettos’ like Newtown in Sydney. For many it’s the first and only space where there’s total acceptance and a feeling of normality.”

Another respondent states: “Contributions from many authors show the diversity of feeling and thought on the issues. The sometimes divergent conclusions, and counter arguments serve to strengthen rather than weaken the book’s [Christianity and Homosexuality] overall impact. Quite simply, this issue is very challenging. Questions and ambiguities remain both in scientific understanding and theological approaches. Yet, total unconditional love and support is needed and wanted.”

Further, a respondent writes of their personal experience as follows: “When an SDA pastor last officially contacted me, I argued to retain my SDA membership. The pastor at the time was called upon to investigate my admission of homosexual orientation by an elder at another church, who I had trusted and was betrayed by. For the record, some years after having been welcomed into another faith community, it was safe and saddening for me to resign my SDA membership. All along, from my youngest years, I have felt and known the love of God’s spirit. It’s been the official church, and some of its people that made my being [homosexual, that is lesbian or gay] like leprosy.”

Anyone who wishes to add notes on this topic for my consideration is welcome to do so.

Appendix 

Back to where the contemporary conversation began, for me. An invitation to a 13 September 2008 event gathered 28 people to our home.

An introduction followed by a presentation by Dr Ronald Lawson took ninety minutes and appeared to elicit a constructive response from the attendees. The initial invitation to the meeting stated that Joan and Arthur Patrick invited (name; the event was open by invitation only) to a time of listening and conversation on the theme Toward Effective Pastoral Care for Lesbian and Gay Adherents and Their Families in our home at 49 Martinsville Road, Cooranbong, on Saturday, 13 September 2008, 3:30pm-5:00pm.

Our special guest for the occasion was Professor Ronald Lawson, City University of New York. We welcomed Professor Lawson, as an Australian who earned a PhD degree in history and sociology at the University of Queensland prior to a long and distinguished career in the United States. He was a guest in our home while filling speaking appointments and conducting interviews in this area.

Currently Dr Lawson is busy writing three books focusing on international Adventism and its development, based on research that includes thousands of interviews conducted worldwide during the past three decades. He has authored many articles in the finest journals of their type, such as Journal of the American Academy of Religion and Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

The meeting in our home invited attendees to reflect on biblical, historical, sociological and and scientific considerations relating to human sexuality in asking how the church might relate Christianly to its homosexual  adherents and their families. Such a dialogue should be viewed as a small part of the ongoing  discussion taking place throughout the world amongst persons who are interested in the discipline of Adventist Studies and the delivery of Pastoral Care that is informed by Clinical Pastoral Education, Pastoral Psychology and Christian Ethics.

Back in 2008, informal discussion between Dr Lawson and some of the attendees continued for more than an hour after the benediction. Fourteen copies of the book Christianity and Homosexuality left the meeting in the hands of attendees and ten others were taken by an attendee for delivery to Sydney (New South Wales). It is my opinion that the reading of that publication will help to create a better understanding of homosexuality and enhance the present discussion of how to offer more effective pastoral care to gays, lesbians and their families.

The private screening of a new film about the experience of gay Seventh-day Adventists in the Morisset Multi-Purpose Centre on 31 March 2012 is another stimulus to the conversation that began in earnest (for me) almost four years ago. We will hear much more about this important film when it is formally released; in the interim, my readers may like to log on to http://www.sgamovie.com/

 Arthur Patrick, posted 6 April 2012

Comment received by e-mail from a Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor on 8 April 2012:

“Thank you Arthur for posting on our response to and care of homosexual people  both in and out of the church. For the people I have known it is as you say, there is no element of choice.I have worked alongside pastors who are gay and they have been among the most compassionate and effective persons in pastoral care I have known. For them to reflect on their sexuality and also their mostly non inclusion in the church as a whole has, I think, sensitised them to the voices of exclusion and pain they encounter in pastoral care. One minister commented that he understood a little more of what church is like for a woman, which I found an interesting observation.

“I have several close and rich friendships with gay and lesbian people and I see in them a faith that hangs on in spite of the way churches treat them. Nothing I have seen would cause me to question the depth of their faith.

“On the other hand we have experienced the aftermath of several instances of gay people marrying and hoping that might solve the problem. In most cases the fallout was destructive and did not help the cause of acceptance in the church.

Thank you again for your reflective material.”

About adventiststudies

Arthur Nelson Patrick, DMin, PhD, is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Avondale College of Higher Education, New South Wales, Australia
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