When I was mowed down by a mobility scooter in a Methodist Church earlier this year, I joked it was divine intervention. No doubt there would be some who loudly proclaim their "Christianity" who would be only too ready to believe the joke. Why? I was there to hear a sermon by Dr David Bromell, an openly gay man who had been a Methodist minister in Dunedin and Christchurch. Further, the man driving the scooter was someone who had left my congregation during the furore over Dr Bromell's appointment in the 1990s. I believe he remains unaware of the fact that he hit me and I am sure he had no idea who I was.
People naive enough to believe God was in control of that scooter would be pleased to know I was spared the danger of Dr Bromell's words that day, because I had to seek medical attention for my crushed shin. In recent days, I have sought out his sermon as I try to quell my increasing anger at the gutless way Christian churches in this country deal with the idea of equality for gay, lesbian and transgendered people.
Somehow, people in these churches continue to preach the all-embracing love of God "love thy neighbour as thyself", or even "do unto others as you would have done unto you" without their noses growing.
Last week, it was the turn of the Methodists. Various parts of the church which do not support the ordination of gay and lesbian people have come up with a memorandum of understanding, which the leadership of the church hails as a way to move forward on the issue of gay ministry. This woollyworded document supposedly confirms gays and lesbians may be ordained, but they may still be kept out of parishes where they are not welcome.
Church president Dr Lynne Frith points out the church's stationing committee carefully matches parishes and ministers, so that if a parish vociferously did not want a gay or lesbian minister, that would be considered not a good match and the minister would not be forced to go there. This is current practice in the church, so the memorandum changes nothing.
Well, that's fair isn't it? Who would want to go where they weren't wanted? But, since candidates for ministry never have to say what their sexuality is, and I am assured parishes will not be allowed to ask prospective ministers about their sexuality, who will necessarily know whether ministers are gay or not? What would happen if an anti-gay community got a minister who later came out? It also makes me wonder under what other criteria parishes could vociferously discriminate. Are women always welcome? What about bald men? Fat people? Blacks? Single people? Divorcees?
The Methodist Church cannot pretend this is a step forward. This is the church that said in 1993 it would order its life in accordance with the Human Rights Act and not take the easy way out, which allows churches exemptions to the rules on sexual-orientation discrimination. It had the chance then to lead New Zealand churches on this issue, to take a stand and stick to it because it was right. Yes, it was never going to be a unanimous position. Yes, the church would lose some members, but those people would have no trouble finding other churches (not just Destiny) where people feel like they do about the issue.
Gays and lesbians do not have such choice. They may find pockets of acceptance in some congregations in the traditional churches, but no mother church is wholeheartedly clasping gays and lesbians to her bosom and encouraging their participation at all levels and in every congregation.
This namby-pambyness over the issue being displayed by the traditional churches has nothing to do with what is right, and everything to do with keeping bottoms on pews so the money will keep rolling in. Sadly, congregations are missing out on some clever, gifted, amazing ministers. I know. I was lucky enough to be in a congregation served by two of them. The small Methodist Church I attend at Broad Bay on the Otago Peninsula took a stand and welcomed Dr Bromell in 1991. We had no gay members, but we felt strongly that discrimination against gays was wrong. It was not easy. Some members left. Some long term friendships were severed. Those who remained, however, have never regretted their decision. A few years later, we enjoyed the ministry of Alyson Murrie-West, a senior Knox College student, whose later licensing as a probationary Presbyterian minister hit the headlines. Neither is in church ministry now.
As Dr Bromell put it, in the sermon I didn't hear, gay and lesbian people can only serve in the Methodist Church in an increasingly narrow and proscribed domain. He said there was no equal opportunity, and little hope of exercising any leadership role that required appointment by the whole conference (the church's governing body).
After 18 years involvement with the church, why didn't he stay and fight? He said, "There's faithfulness, and there's just plain masochism." He decided he didn't want to spend his life banging his head against a brick wall of bigotry and discrimination. "I haven't lost my faith, or my vocation, or my desire to sing the Lord's song, even if I have hung up my harp. I continue to be what the first followers of Jesus called a 'God-respecter'. Someone on or beyond the edge of organised religion, but who takes time to think about matters of life and death. Someone who is passionate about God. Someone who believes that true religion takes us, not into the denial of who and what we are, but more deeply into ourselves, and our connections with others and with this world, and the contribution of all our lives to the God in whom we live and move and have our being."
Perhaps that's the message the divine interventionists wouldn't have wanted me to hear.
[First published in the Otago Daily Times of 23/9/2004]