Thursday, July 25, 2013

June 26, 2013, A Great Day For America

by John Shelby Spong

I was surprised at how elated I felt on June 26 when the Supreme Court handed down its two historic decisions affecting gay and lesbian people. The first decision mandated federal recognition of gay and lesbian couples in states that permit same-sex marriage by declaring the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to be unconstitutional. The second reopened the door for same sex marriage in California by refusing to consider the appeal from the court that had declared Proposition 8 to be unconstitutional. Impressive and, to some, as startling as those decisions were, the court in actuality took only baby steps toward justice by leaving the nation in a patchwork of conflicting practices in regard to the rights of same-sex couples.

On the Proposition 8 decision they showed no great courage by allowing that proposition to go down on a technicality. This was hardly the sweeping and courageous change that was shown by the Warren Court in 1954 with its 9-0 desegregation opinion in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education. When these decisions were announced, however, the immediate reality was and is that the right of people to marry whomever they love was established, and that this nation will be forever different. There will be no turning back. Surely within a brief span of time, no more than five years at most, the patchwork pattern these decisions have left will disappear and marriage equality will be universal in this country, yes, even in Texas and South Carolina.

One of the things that helped to make this victory so compelling and ecstatic for me came when I listened to the reactions of the defeated voices. To our shame as members of the church, so much of that negative reaction came from Christian leaders. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York called June 26 “a tragic day for America.” The Rev. Dr. Albert Mohler, the fundamentalist president of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, called it “a sad day for America.” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said “the court got it wrong.” Evangelist Pat Robertson opined that Justice Kennedy must have gay law clerks working for him and that God would soon send something drastic upon this country because of these rulings. All of these responses broadcast loudly that their negativity had been defeated.

The political response from the far right was also loud and predictable. Republican Representative Michelle Bachman fulminated; other Republican House members proclaimed that such a change should have come, not from the nine people on the court, but from a majority of the voters. These Representatives seemed not to recognize that in our democracy basic human rights are guaranteed by the constitution. They are not decided by a vote of the majority. One wonders where Justice Clarence Thomas would be today if the rights of black people had been determined by a voting plebiscite rather than by the courts. It was interesting to listen to Tea Party members castigating the “liberal” decisions of the Supreme Court, whose majority was appointed by conservative Republican presidents: two by Ronald Reagan, one by George H.W. Bush and two by George W. Bush. On that court today also sit six Roman Catholic Justices, two of whom voted to recognize same-sex marriage. These reactions convinced me that the decision of the court was greater and more far-reaching than I had at first fully understood.

As this wave of euphoria then floated over me I became quite nostalgic. The battle for acceptance and justice for the gay community has seemed like a long one and in that battle there have been both heroes and casualties. I thought of people like the Rev. Jimmy Creech, a Methodist minister serving in Omaha, Nebraska, who was removed from the Methodist Ministry by his Conference for presiding over the blessing of two gay couples in his church, one in 1997 and one in 1999. How wrong those Methodist leaders look today. They punished their prophet. I thought of the Rev. Janie Spahr, a Presbyterian minister, who has been hounded, harassed and finally punished by her church for living in a relationship of commitment with her partner and for acting in the cause of gay justice. Janie was in touch with truth. Synod Presbyterian leaders were not.

I thought of the Rev. Paul Woodrum, who was the first priest to confront me about my prejudice against homosexual people. When I discovered near the beginning of my career as a bishop that he lived with his partner in the rectory of the church, I informed him that since I could not allow an unmarried heterosexual couple to occupy a rectory, I could not allow him and his partner as a homosexual couple to do so either. Prejudice sometimes masquerades as “evenhandedness.” Paul responded to my pious words by saying “The heterosexual couple has a choice: they can get married anytime they choose. Neither my Church nor my State has been willing to give that choice to me.” That was the comment that drove me to study sexual orientation with some doctors at the Cornell Medical Center in New York City, a study that turned my attitude, my life and my career around. In that study I became convinced that sexual orientation is a given, not a chosen, aspect of life. It is like gender, skin color and left-handedness. One cannot be judged moralistically because of what one is. This seemed so obvious to me on the other side of my prejudice. I realized then that I did not choose to be heterosexual. I also did not choose to be white, male or right-handed. Armed with this conversion of my mind and heart, my life had to follow and I took on the prejudice against homosexual people as my own cause and that work became a major focus in my career.

My campaign began with a charge to the people of the Diocese of Newark in 1984 to study “changing patterns in family life.” That sounds innocuous enough today, but the changes I asked them to consider was having this church bless the sacred commitments of gay and lesbian people. Their recommendations, when reported out in 1986, called on our clergy and congregations to give to gay and lesbian couples “the same recognition and affirmation, which have nurtured and sustained heterosexual couples, including appropriate liturgies, which recognized and blessed such relationships.”

In 1986 this was a ground-breaking statement. It was the first time a unit of a major Christian church had put itself on the line for the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people. To support this initiative of our diocese, I wrote a book entitled Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality, which appeared in book stores in 1988. This book has been credited with sparking the debate on gay rights in American churches. It called for all Christian Churches to develop liturgies for the blessing of same sex unions, to recover the meaning of “betrothal” and to offer it liturgically to young adults when they decide to live together outside the bands of matrimony, and for churches to develop liturgical services to recognize the death of a marriage, to be used when divorce occurs. When that book came out, my life was destined never to be the same. Those ideas put me into the category where the word “controversial” would be forever attached to my name in both the religious and secular press.

While that debate was still raging I acted once again on December 16, 1989, to ordain the first openly gay priest, living with his male partner in a publicly-acknowledged, committed relationship. I did this with the full support of all the decision-making bodies of my diocese. This prophetic act set off a massive wave of public and ecclesiastical negativity. Our presiding bishop, Edmond Browning, handed me and my diocese an official “letter of disassociation.” I was told that I had violated “the collegiality” of the House of Bishops.

My wife and I then took our case across America speaking on radio, television, to the print media and in public addresses. We were spat upon as we walked through a crowd of demonstrators into a church in La Jolla, California. We were set upon and physically threatened by demonstrators in Rockford, Illinois, led by the Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kansas. I received sixteen death threats that were quite specific. Abusive mail and telephone calls poured into my office. The students at my own seminary invited me to speak to them on this subject, while the faculty boycotted the evening in protest. When one’s mind is convinced of the rightness of an action, one’s heart, one’s will and one’s life has got to follow. To hide in some safe haven of acceptable moderation is not an option if integrity is to be served.

This battle in my church was tense and difficult, but attitudes were changing. We were heralding the birth of a new consciousness. Today, in 2013, the leaders of my church greeted the decision of the Supreme Court with excitement and approval. My former seminary now has a lesbian faculty member. Two openly homosexual bishops now serve my church with competence. When I retired as the Bishop of Newark in 2000 we had in our diocese 35 out of the closet gay and lesbian clergy serving churches, thirty-one of them living in publicly acknowledged partnerships. They were a powerful witness to the people of our diocese and to the state of New Jersey. I was and am enormously proud of each one of them.

Now the smoke of battle is clearing away. The victory is obvious. Gay and lesbian Christians are fully included in the life of my church and their claim to full citizenship in this nation has now been extended to them by the Supreme Court. There is no doubt in my mind that the struggle was worth the sacrifice. We have witnessed a new understanding of what it means to be human receive cultural affirmation. Justice and human dignity have been extended to one more group of people who were once marginalized and rejected by human prejudice. I rejoice in this day as a citizen of the United States. As a Christian I rejoice that the promise of Jesus to all people recorded by the Fourth Gospel: “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly,” has now been guaranteed to our homosexual brothers and sisters by my country and affirmed by my church. June 26 was a great day for America and let it be said by this Christian leader, it was an even greater day for the cause of Christ.


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