Private Lives: Why it Shouldn’t Matter if Your Bishop is Gay


Published: August 27, 2009

Gay men and women are finding their place in the clergy slowly but surely, especially after a recent vote by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) to allow homosexuals in committed relationships to serve in clergy, but it’s still a rocky road, with opponents putting up a fierce fight.

Previous ELCA policy stated that homosexuals were allowed in the clergy, as long as they vowed to remain celibate. Last week, however, so-called “active” homosexuals were invited to the pulpit. Still, though, not all congregations will welcome gay clergy, with the decision being left up to each congregation to decide.

Not too long ago, Episcopalians also faced a divide over homosexual clergy within their community. Ultimately, the more traditionalist wing broke off, calling itself the Anglican Church in North America and upholding a strict ban on gay bishops. This branch also refuses to allow female bishops and it takes cues from the more conservative Church of England, also Anglican.

Frankly, it is ridiculous to think that the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) community should be excluded from any form of public or private life, including clergy.

When it comes to homosexuality, the military has a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy.” While the merits of that policy can be debated endlessly, it still comes down to a simple principle: it’s none of your business. No authorities of any sort are apt to make a big fuss over who is involved with whom in the heterosexual community, so it shouldn’t matter how people behave in their private lives, or with whom they engage.

Homosexuality has been made into a direct opponent to mainstream religiosity. The issue of homosexuality in general has been a constant battle for the last several decades among nearly all religious groups. While some are still caught up trying to invalidate homosexual existence, or worse, under the impression that being gay is a choice and therefore can be somehow “fixed,” others have moved on to the next step of the battle: rights. Unfortunately, even many who have come to accept homosexuals’ place in society refuse to put them on an equal level.

What people do with their private lives should have no bearing on human rights; a person should be able to make his or her own decisions when it comes to career choices. Governmental and religious bodies therefore have no right to refuse people their rights because of their sexual orientation or gender identification, as simply as someone shouldn’t be refused for being a cat person as opposed to a dog person. In all honesty, it is really that simple—people are people, no matter what.

Debates over homosexuality in the context of religion are not new, and nearly all opponents have their own reasons behind their beliefs. People have argued, for instance, that homosexuality is forbidden by the bible and therefore an unacceptable sin. Columnist Chuck Colson wrote last month, “The Episcopal Church, in [ordaining openly gay men or women], loses its biblical legitimacy. It is not Christianity, it is liberalism run amok.” Excuse me, sir. Christianity and liberalism are not varying degrees of one another. It is impossible to say that the Episcopal Church plus gay bishops equals liberalism minus Christianity. Not only that, but such a statement places Christianity on some unattainably high level, only for the true pinnacle of society, whereas liberalism is therefore assumed to be for the illegitimate rest of us.

As a relatively liberal non-Christian, I find this offensive. It’s not as though the Episcopal Church is dealing with this presumed “problem” exclusively and can toss it down to the rest of us when it has made its final decision against homosexuality. Many religions have struggled with making a place for the LGBTQ community among them, and none is on a higher plane than any other. Even those who still haven’t made strides to accept the gay community, as congregants or as clergy, still have time to dwell on their decisions and adapt to modern life as others have.

Just one example of the hypocrisy comes from a widely-known biblical mantra: the idea that one must “be fruitful and multiply.” Does this mean that couples who are infertile too should have no rights? And what about Catholic clergy, who are expected to remain celibate? Celibacy is not only completely at odds with the idea of being fruitful and multiplying, but it is also discouraged by the bible. So if gays can’t be clergy simply because they are somehow unethical human beings due to their presumed inability to procreate, what do we have to say to clergy, who are encouraged to remain celibate? This, of course, is only one example of the double standards present in any given religion.

Other religious movements stand at different places on the spectrum when it comes to homosexuality. The majority of Jewish movements, for instance, have accepted the LGBTQ community as equal members, including those who wish to be ordained as rabbis within the Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative movements. When it comes to Orthodox Judaism, however, steps still need to be made. The year 1999 saw the coming out of the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, Steven Greenberg, but it doesn’t appear as though any others have come out (or been ordained) in the decade since.

Others continue to rally for acceptance of gays within Islam, with groups like the Al-Fatiha Foundation at the forefront of the movement. Still, the idea of gay religious leaders within the Muslim faith remains a topic that has yet to be broached on a wider scale.

All in all, the issue of homosexuality has remained a tense subject among all sorts of religious groups, dividing many from each other and from within. Widespread acceptance of the LGBTQ community, especially within clergy, is not a topic that will come to an agreeable solution anytime in the foreseeable future, but small steps make all the difference in the slowly evolving realm of religiosity. And ultimately, an idealist can still see a future where the gay community at large will be treated the way it deserves to be treated—like people, just like the rest of us.

It is about time for the opponents of gay rights to stop fighting and nitpicking over whom to allow in the pulpit, on the bima or otherwise. If you must, employ a “don’t ask, don’t tell,” policy, but don’t prevent otherwise qualified and passionate people from assuming leadership positions within clergy strictly on the basis of whom they do or do not love.