Many mainstream denominations are bitterly divided over issues concerning the churches' own ethical and ecclesiastical practices regarding gay and lesbian persons. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), for example, appears much closer to division than it has been since the schisms that followed the mergers of Northern and Southern Presbyterians. The main issue seems to be whether the more liberal wing on gay rights will leave and thus give the property to the conservatives, or vice versa. The American Baptist Churches no longer speaks for anything like a majority among Baptists in the North. The United Methodist Church, where control of property is more direct, continues to have serious problems. Although it may not formally divide, the lines are becoming more rigidly drawn.
Should gays and lesbians have their committed relationships blessed by the churches?
Can and should gay and lesbian persons be ordained?
If they are, are they obliged to maintain a celibate life style while serving?
These specific debates hide theological questions of far-reaching significance, including those of biblical authority, of who selects and authorizes ministry, and of the role of individual conscience in making decisions about sexual matters.
Perhaps the most explosive are questions about the nature and future of the family and of the churches' responsibilities in this area: Is the two-parent, two-gender family a biblically sanctioned norm or the social convention of an older culture?
What role should the theological seminaries take in the midst of this crisis? We can be an island of knowledge in the midst of these seas of debate and anger. The fact of the matter is that very few Americans know anything at all about gay and lesbian persons, nor have they had any real training in how to read the Bible carefully or reverently. I hope that theological educators can be the disseminators of information on the real issues before the church. We also have the potential to be the place that can show, by example as well as precept, how important issues can be contested without the contest itself becoming ultimate. In other words, we can set an example of how theological battles can take place without destroying fellowship or community. Instead, I am afraid that we may continue to demonstrate our irrelevance. In a recent study, Barbara Wheeler and Elizabeth Lynn (“Missing Connections,” in Auburn Studies 6, August 1999) found that few seminaries could be identified by people in their immediate locale. If we continue not to educate on the issues that matter to people—supposedly to avoid involving our seminaries in controversy—we may end up with no one in their right mind wanting to support us. After all, in the great struggle between good and evil, why put your money on an army of mice?
The mainstream churches are closely related fellowships, and what happens in one almost necessarily affects the others. Most mainstream seminaries in America are, by choice and economic necessity, interdenominational schools that draw their students, financial support, and faculty from a variety of faith communities. While individual teachers and administrators may personally have their communities of accountability in one or the other church, theological schools have an obligation to be responsible both to their own denomination and to the larger Christian movement
What is seminary responsibility to the churches as institutions? Seminaries have their own corporate characters that are more than the sum of their parts. We are the principal educational communities related to the churches. Further, we represent a significant investment by the churches in the sinews of critical thought: libraries, computers, and trained scholars. How can this investment be tapped in a period of ecclesiastical ferment?
Drawbacks to Advocacy
The easiest answer would be to say that seminaries should be “communities of advocacy” that take and publicize their own positions on gay and lesbian issues. Some institutions may elect this approach, which would allow them to stand with similarly minded people in the churches on one side of an issue or the other. For practical and other reasons, however, advocacy may not represent the best route. People who work in seminaries rarely hold the same position on controversial issues. If an issue is divisive in the church, it will tend to have people on both sides in most seminary communities. And seminaries tend to be small institutions where face-to-face relationships are especially important. Such communities do not often take positions that exclude some participants. By the time theological schools find a consensus, advocacy is often no longer needed.
Further, advocacy is rarely part of a seminary's mandated purpose. In general, churches have assigned that task to various social action committees, study groups, caucuses, and other similar agencies or judicatories. The best schools are places where diverse opinions are disciplined by common intellectual methods and aspirations. Academic life is devoted as much to the discussion as the conclusion. A seminary contribution to the resolution of the crisis should reflect academic values. In other words, how can seminaries make a substantial contribution in the midst of an ecclesiastical crisis without losing their character as schools?
My own reflections on this question began with the Statement of Mission of Bangor Theological Seminary, where I teach. Two specific tasks assigned to the seminary speak to the current situation: Bangor Seminary is “an intellectual center for the church,” and, Bangor Seminary is committed to a “public ministry” in northern New England. While the way that Bangor states these goals is related to our own history, I do not believe that either statement is unique to my institution. In their intent, these two goals express much of what it means to be a theological community at the end of the twentieth century.
An Intellectual Center
The phrase “an intellectual center” was taken from the work of H. Richard Niebuhr. It is rich in connotations. On its simplest level, a center is a place where people gather to perform certain functions or to affirm their own character as a group. Thus we have student centers, women's health centers, and the like. And the phrase fits the seminary because it is a place of intellectual gathering. Its purpose comes from its character as a place where the mind is used in multiple ways: to formulate theory, to investigate ideas, to formulate teaching, to examine practices.
The intellectual character of the seminary means that it is a place where ideas and their consequences are at home. In this sense, the seminary is a safe haven where people can pursue their thoughts without hindrance. Thus, the school invites people to examine concepts, to see things from another perspective, and to engage in personal and corporate criticism. In stressing that we are “an intellectual center” for the church, we invite the whole people of God to come to a place where the intellectual life of faith is primary.
Times of institutional crisis demand such centers. Stress and strain tend to move discussions from the intellectual to the emotional realm and to cloud judgment at those very moments when judgment needs to be clearest. As an intellectual center, the seminary invites people to put aside that tendency, at least for a moment, and lay all the ideas and concepts on the table where they can be examined. This also means that ideas have to be discussed in terms of the warrants that their advocates have for them and those that others can use to justify their own position.
Intellectual life promotes the exchange of ideas between people in a free and open, yet critical, atmosphere.
The most important function that the seminaries can perform in the current ecclesiastical crisis is to be an intellectual center for the churches. Someone needs to gather the information, marshal the different positions, and provide the safe place where all sides can examine their own and other points of view. But an intellectual center is more than an informational center. The ethos of an intellectual center is as important as its formal functions. Intellectual life has its own customs that promote the exchange of ideas between people in a free and open, yet critical, atmosphere. Although the sway of these rules is not absolute—we remain sinners—they do affect the ways that people, even people bitterly opposed to one another, conduct their disagreements.
An intellectual center is also a place where ideas and practices are presented in different contexts. Part of what makes the current debates over gay and lesbian issues so vexing is that so many different issues are involved in the debate. For one disputant, the key issue may be related to traditional Christian teachings about the family; for another, the issue may be the authority and interpretation of the Scriptures; yet another may believe that the questions concern how the churches use social science in formulating their ethical teachings. An intellectual center may not untie all these Gordian knots, but it should help people see the full scope of the issues.
For the seminaries, existence as an intellectual center means a willingness to do those things that make intellectual discussion possible. This includes gathering books and other resources on the issues in dispute, setting aside space for discussions, and providing personnel with educational expertise to provide leadership. In today's world, it also means the creative use of electronic media, especially the Internet, to help spread information and facilitate communication. In other words, the seminary must be a school, not only for its pupils, but also for the church at large.
The closely related idea of a public ministry points in a similar direction. The phrase “a public ministry” originally meant that the Congregational churches, which benefited from establishment, had the obligation to serve as teachers of religion and morals to the whole community, that is, churches had public obligations in addition to their private missions to those who accepted their own creedal formulations. Historically, congregationalists fulfilled this task by active service in the various cultural and social reforms that were so important in New England's history.
In today's New England, the original type of public ministry may not be as viable as it was a century ago, but the idea continues to be useful. The word “ministry,” we need to remember, comes from the word “service,” and has no necessary ecclesiastical or clerical connotation. All educational institutions claim to provide some public service in addition to their formal task of teaching, and those public services, ranging from scientific and technical research to work with government on social problems, have made colleges and universities crucial contributors to society. Seminaries have a similar role in the life of faith communities.
In part, this role consists of doing what schools do best: gathering information, answering questions, doing research, and interpreting data. If such work rarely provides the answer to ecclesiastical or political dilemmas, it does provide the materials that are essential if those questions are to be reasonably discussed. But the task may go beyond this. Universities are often most useful when they provide places for some people to develop the expertise needed to help policymakers formulate the right questions. They contribute both knowledge and skilled interpreters of that knowledge.
The Call to Seminaries
What can seminaries do? The answer is, Be true to their historic mission as intellectual centers and as places of public ministry.
First, the seminaries should offer their services to the churches, telling them that they are willing to be “intellectual centers” for the discussion of this issue and beginning to take intellectual leadership. Initially, this leadership could be in the form of bibliographies, Web pages devoted to the issue, and perhaps even an Internet chat room for virtual seminars. Later the seminaries might schedule continuing education events, provide space for conferences, or provide leadership (and space) for church events dealing with the questions.
Second, the seminaries ought to begin to set aside some resources to deal with this question. In some cases, faculty might be given a reduced load to work on issues relating to gay and lesbian persons in the churches. Schools could also help to bring together people who already have knowledge in this area and provide them with the opportunity to educate one another. In this way, the seminaries could build up the type of expertise needed by the churches.
These are only suggestions. But whether the schools take these lines or others, the current situation in the churches calls them to an examination of their purposes and missions. While the training of ministers is an important part of the work of a theological school, it is only part of its mission. That mission includes providing intellectual leadership that enables the churches to deal responsibly with the issues before them. The hotly debated issues around homosexuality and the church are a test of the schools' resolve. If they cannot provide an intellectual center when the questions are potentially disruptive, then one wonders what value they have as intellectual centers in calmer times.
How To Talk to Each Other When We Disagree
The following is adapted from remarks made at an October 1997 Call to Renewal conference in Arlington, Virginia, on the common ground process, and discusses one way dialogue involving values conflict can be structured. The speakers are Frederica Mathewes-Greene and Naomi Wolf. Reprinted, with permission, from Sojourners (January-February 1999). 800/714-7474.
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Frederica Mathewes-Greene: Common ground's goal is to understand a little better what people think. Because of the way the term “common ground” gets used, some people presume it means that we're negotiating toward a compromised position in the middle. That's not what we mean. People's profound convictions on this issue [abortion rights] are respected and we don't try to change them.
In our local group, we begin with a day-long workshop that has both plenary and small-group sessions. A small-group session is four to six people, evenly balanced between pro-life and pro-choice. There's a facilitator in each group. A good beginning question is raised, such as, What experiences led you to take the position that you do on this issue? People one at a time talk about that. If a pro-lifer describes what experiences she's had, then a pro-choicer in the group is asked to reflect back, as accurately as she can, what the first woman said, so that the pro-lifer knows that she's been listened to and understood. Then a pro-choicer does the same.
You cannot imagine how healing this is. To have someone that you thought hated you, someone that you're pretty sure misunderstood you, actually understand you. You know they may not agree, but you can see that your words have had some impact. They may still come to a different conclusion, but they know what you're talking about, they understand it. It's a powerful moment.
The point of common ground is to clear away misunderstanding so we can arrive at genuine disagreement. The reason for this is to be understood and to understand. It was painful to me, as a pro-lifer, to see my views caricatured and misunderstood, and healing to see a pro-choicer look me in the eye and say, “This is what you believe, isn't it?” And repeat it to me accurately, even though he or she still disagreed.
Naomi Wolf: When you open yourself to the kinds of change that common ground creates, you lose aspects of your identity that you have been clinging to. I had to face the fact that I might have been wrong all this time. The other painful thing I had to face was that I needed to ask forgiveness for the wrong I had done.
I'll remember for the rest of my life what happened when I apologized to the pro-life people in the room at a common-ground conference. I thought I would lose everything by asking forgiveness and, of course, I felt truly liberated in a way that all that us-them rhetoric had never freed me.
Finally, I want to end on a note of caution, and I'm speaking as a member of a religious minority. As much as I embrace and am delighted by what we are doing here, some of the most rigid thinking comes from believing that God has told you, “It's just like this.” While we move ahead with our effort to discern what God's will might be for American society, it's very important for us to remember that we all hear God's will according to our distorted, mistaken human ability to hear. That will allow us to be open to the possibility that our opponent is also taking his or her effort full-step along the path, according to what he or she believes to be God's will.
Frederica Mathewes-Greene is a columnist for Christianity Today. Naomi Wolf is a political columnist for George magazine.
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Common Ground in the Abortion Conflict, published by Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, 1601 Connecticut Ave., N.W., #200, Washington, DC 20009 (202/265-4300). This manual is being revised for August publication; a section is being added on how to use this model when discussing other volatile issues: est. price, $20.
Religion and Public Discourse: Principles and Guidelines for Religious Participants, published by Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith, and Ethics, 211 E. Ontario, #800, Chicago, IL 60611-3215 (312/266-2222): $8.45 (includes shipping and handling) . Includes contributions by Martin E. Marty, Larry L. Greenfield, and David E. Guinn.