On the same day that I read the Associated Press report that I referenced yesterday regarding the new Pew Research about same-sex marriage there was another report from Great Falls, Montana. This story struck me as one filled with profound pain and difficulty.
Roman Catholic Bishop Michael Warfel of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings conducted a meeting with about 300 parishioners from St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Lewistown on Saturday, September 20. There is a huge controversy inside the St. Leo congregation. Fr. Samuel Spiering, the priest at St. Leo’s, has decided to prohibit a gay couple from receiving the Eucharist unless they take three steps. First, they must legally divorce. Second, they must live separately. And third, they must write a statement affirming that marriage is between a man and a woman. The 300 people from the parish who met with their bishop were said to be evenly divided about the counsel of their priest. (Note: This is not an urban center where large numbers of gays might live in communities.)
The same-sex couple, in this particular instance, involves a man who is 66 and his 73-year old partner. Both have attended St. Leo since 2003 and both sang in the church choir. One is the church organist. The men have been in a “committed” relationship for over thirty years according to various reports and were legally married in Seattle in a civil ceremony in May 2013.
So how does the church, generally speaking, address this problem? I cannot speak for the Catholic Church in particular, though I have some understanding of how this can be addressed canonically and pastorally at the same time. I can speak broadly about the issue and believe that we have here a clear case of “the 900-pound gorilla in the room.”
I am persuaded that there are three concerns for the church in this matter. First, there is a political issue. What is the right response morally and what role does the church have within the culture regarding the debate over marriage? We are clearly divided at many points as touching this issue of the political. Some will fight against same-sex marriage for years to come. Others will focus much more on the issue of what the church can and cannot do morally and shift the focus there rather than upon the cultural debates.
But what I am deeply concerned about is that there are two other important areas of concern for the church as we face this issue in the years ahead. There is the issue of pastoral practice and then the issue of missional church. Both seem to have been lost to most conservatives who stand strongly against same-sex marriage. In reading the story of division at St. Leo’s I sense that both of these are missing from the debate. Let me explain.
Whether you agree with same-sex marriage or not the church must have a pastoral response to real people. This involves caring for them where they are, loving them with the love of Christ and shepherding them with private and public care. This does not mean there is no place for moral courage or personal confrontation about sin. It does mean this must be done in a proper context, with deep concern for the person(s) involved. Pastoral care is never about the political. I care for people who hold many views about many things that are very different from my own moral and spiritual standards.
The third concern I have in these debates is missional. The church is to be a colony of heaven in the midst of the world. It is to be a community of love where people can feel safe, seek help and find community. The mission is to corporately reflect Christ’s grace and love to the world so that people will see us living in relational unity so powerfully that they will conclude that surely the Father who sent the Son into the world to save it is love (cf. John 17). I rarely hear a good discussion about the missional implications of the church’s response to the same-sex issue. Most of what I hear sounds like a harshly discordant note in terms of what the world hears us say about grace and forgiveness. We have reduced the church’s mission to being a moral force in the culture, not a hospital and lighthouse for sinners who want to find their way home to the Father.
I believe more and more younger Christians will push the church to deal with the pastoral and missional issues related to this contentious issue. I do not have simple and easy answers for what this looks like but I am sure that we will never know until we consider all three of these concerns in addressing the same-sex issue inside the church. No issue more threatens to redefine us, and impact our mission negatively at the same time, as this one.