One of my long-standing struggles around the whole issue of same-sex relationships has been the inner conflict between understanding what Scripture states about homosexual acts (with all the varying interpretations around the said passages); applying a pastoral approach to those who are of same-sex orientation; and my personal in-built prejudices that arise from me being a heterosexual male.
This struggle has also been made all the more difficult by my encounter with close friends of both genders who are gay - listening to their struggles, I have to believe their sincerity when they say that their orientation is not a mere matter of choice. I also became close friends with the ex-husband of a woman who felt that she could no longer live the lie of pretending to be of opposite-sex orientation, and have shared many an account of his struggles as well.
So now we have the issue with Ecclesia de Lange, a Methodist minister who has recently entered into a civil union with her same-sex partner. (For overseas readers who are not aware of the legal situation in South Africa, same-sex "marriages" are legally recognised under the Civil Unions Act, which provides a legal framework for same-sex couples akin to that of the Marriage Act which governs heterosexual unions. I have used the word "marriage" in inverted commas, because technically the correct legal term for same-sex "marriages" is a "civil union".)
However, while the South African Constitution prohibits discrimination based inter alia on grounds of sexual orientation; same-sex marriages have legal recognition under the abovementioned Civil Unions Act; and the Methodist Church of Southern Africa has been in intensive and vigorous debate since the early 2000s around this issue, the official position of the MCSA at this point remains that the recognition of marriage is between a man and a woman only, i.e. same-sex unions are not recognised. This means that while the stance of the MCSA is that we as ministers must provide pastoral care to those of same-sex orientation - including those in relationships (whether civil unions or not) - we are not permitted to conduct civil unions.
Despite this, there are a number of ministers who are currently in same-sex relationships but because of the MCSA's position (not to mention the fact that such relationships are not widely accepted by society, notwithstanding the Constitutional protection), they have chosen to keep their relationships under wraps.
The dilemma in Ecclesia's case is that, by going ahead and entering into a civil union, she is now in breach of the MCSA's disciplines and doctrines. The result is that her Superintendent has laid a charge against her in terms of our internal disciplinary procedures.
The support for Ecclesia and her partner has been quite vocal, with a prayer vigil to take place at the same time and place where her disciplinary hearing is to be held. But while those who have come out in support see such support (quite rightly) as their pastoral responsibility, my concern is that her Superintendent who laid the charge has somehow been cast as the villain.
Since I do not personally know any of the parties concerned (Ecclesia, her partner, or her Superintendent), I'm in no position to comment on this particular situation. However, I do know from bitter experience that the decision to lay a charge against another person is a gut-wrenching and painful one. In my own case the charge that I laid was relating to financial irregularities during my tenure as Circuit Treasurer, and - trust me - it is a decision that one should only come to when all other avenues of reconciliation have been exhausted. It is a most unpleasant and draining process, and relationships are never the same afterwards.
I also know that the Superintendent in this case is a year or two away from retirement, and believe me - having served under a Superintendent who is at the same stage of his ministry, as well as being close friends with a number of ministers who have already retired - something like this is the last thing you want to do when you are so close to retirement! After a number of years in the ministry, which - although fulfilling - is also a stressful calling, one can be forgiven for wanting a quiet life in one's twilight years.
So what am I actually saying? It's this: While it may appear that I'm siding with Ecclesia's Superintendent (which I'm not - not because I agree or disagree with what he has done, but because I don't know the parties involved or the full circumstances), if we truly want to be Christ-like an "us-and-them" situation needs to be avoided (whoever the "us" and the "them" may be).
And most of all - irrespective of one's stance on the whole same-sex "issue", spare a thought for the people involved. And in this case it may well be about Ecclesia and her partner, but it's also about her Superintendent who has had to make a difficult decision. It's about the local church community, which will no doubt be adversely affected by the whole proceedings. And it's about the wider MCSA, which as an institution will be pressurised into making a stance on same-sex relationships one way or he other regardless of the outcome of this particular process. The whole covenant relationship between the MCSA and its ministers (as ministers we do not have employment contracts) could also be impacted.
Please pray for wisdom on all sides.
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