This address was given by the Reverend Professor Peter Storey at the Cape Town solidarity service held while Ecclesia’s appeal was heard. For those of you who have not followed her story I have two posts – here and here…
It’s a long read but well worth reading… it left me deeply moved.
‘THERE COMES A TIME’
Address at a Service of Solidarity to mark the Trial of Rev. Ecclesia de Lange
Rev Prof Peter Storey DD.LLD.DHL
Rosebank Methodist Church, 8 February, 2010
There comes a time. It’s as simple as that.
There comes a time when a new mind settles over the human family, when almost imperceptibly, people begin to think a new and different thought, making the old thought no longer thinkable and the world a kinder place to live in. One of our hymns – used often in the apartheid days – reminds us that to every person and nation- to all of us -there comes a ‘moment to decide.’ One of its lines is particularly apposite today:
‘New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
they must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.’1
Jesus brought a new mind to our world. It included a radical hospitality of the heart that threatened a host of ancient shibboleths. Broken and needy people heard him gladly but his wide open love was resented by the religious of his day; for them it was more important to be right than to be good. They didn’t understand that being good becomes the ultimate right. His love was too big for them – too big for any of us. Even the way he was killed nailed his arms forever in wide embrace. After his Resurrection, his first Jewish followers struggled with the breadth of his welcome; his Holy Spirit had a relentless hospitality that left them punch-drunk. He seemed to want to include everyone. The Acts of the Apostles became the story of one barrier after another tumbling before this relentless hospitality.
The Holy Spirit is God’s promise to haunt us, to confront every prejudice of the devout, no matter how respectable or how carefully wrapped in dogma. Time and again since, the Spirit has taken the Church, sometimes gently, more often by the scruff of the neck, and shown us that what was once revered as an ancient good has become uncouth and untenable. The Spirit still has lessons to teach and we have lessons to learn. When we have listened, the Spirit has used the Church to be the conscience of the world – as some churches were used in the dark apartheid years – but when we have been obdurate and blind, then God has used the world to be the conscience of the Church. Right now is one of those times because, when it comes to how we treat people of different sexual orientations, the Constitution of South Africa seems to be more in tune with the mind of Christ than the attitudes of the Methodist Church.
So, let me say now that there will come a time when the Methodist Church of Southern Africa will declare its ministry open to persons in faithful same-sex relationship. It will honour and bless their love with the same blessing given to all marriages everywhere. That is as certain as day follows night. When this will happen, we do not know, but when it does, it will not be primarily because of Constitutions or grand declarations; it will be because of the courage and faithfulness of people like Rev.Ecclesia de Lange and her spouse Amanda. Alan Walker says, ‘Always advance comes by a man here, a woman there, being faithful in a particular situation to a great truth.’ Ecclesia, your simple words of witness have moved us deeply. You have said:
‘I desire to serve Jesus. I desire to be true to myself. I desire to minister within the Methodist Church of Southern Africa with integrity and to be faithful to God’s call on my life …’
What could be more simple, or more honourable? But we know strong forces resist this simple answer to God’s call. You have also said:
‘I have reached the point where I can no longer be silent. I have come to see that it is better to be rejected for who I am than to be accepted for who I am not …’
I wonder if you know how close those words are to the words of Anne Hutchinson, put on trial by the 17th Century Puritans of New England for being a Quaker. As she exited the church where the trial was held, she said: ‘Better to be cast out of the church than to deny Christ’
Which is why … there comes a time …
The Holy Spirit has waited long enough. It is time for the Church to recognize, repudiate and reject what William Sloane Coffin calls its ‘last respectable prejudice’2 – homophobia. If that is too much to digest all at once, then the time has come for at least a full place at the table for people with a new and different mind. As a well-wisher wrote to Ecclesia, ‘Gay ministers are not going to go away and more of us will want to be married3.’ So today we are here to say to those who differ from us, ‘Hold your views if you must, but we are not prepared to see one more person – this person – sacrificed on the altar of wrongful exclusion.’
Before going further, because this gathering is not just about opinions, but about real people who have been – are being – sacrificed, we must make confession:
Some years back I was speaking at a conference on inclusiveness in a church in Lancing, Michigan. The day was enriched by a magnificent choir – the Lancing Gay Men’s Choir. As he introduced their first item, the Choir Director said that he had had to work very hard to persuade most of his singers to agree to perform in a church. Too many of them had been hurt by the churches they had grown up in. He then apologized for being late. At the last minute, he said, when it came to actually passing through the church doors, two or three of his choir had simply frozen. They couldn’t take that step. The trauma of what they had suffered at the hands of the church was just too much. ‘So, we’re short of a few voices today,’ he said. ‘We apologise.’
But it is we, the church, who must apologise. This apology must be a wide one, embracing every person who has been hurt, rejected, excluded and wounded by the Christian Church because of his or her sexual orientation. It must be deep, reaching down into centuries of wrong. The church’s long compromise with slavery, our blind acceptance of racism, our stubborn exclusion of women from leadership and ordination – these are sins from which we have had to be delivered, but John Cobb would remind us that in this particular, we may have done worse: whereas in most forms of suppression the church has given at least some support to the oppressed, in the case of homosexual persons, the church has been the leader in the oppression4. I confess this sin on behalf of my church – the Methodist Church of Southern Africa today. We stand in need of forgiveness – from our God and from those we have hurt.
Ecclesia and Amanda, I see your action, which has brought us together today, as a gift: it is an opportunity for the Church I love and serve to right a great wrong.
Sadly … though I pray it will do so, I fear it may not. There are many reasons for this, but I want to lift up just one. It takes clear vision and great courage to recognize and reverse a centuries-old, deeply rooted prejudice. It takes an even greater leap of bravery and conviction to repudiate what has been given to us as sacred teaching and to declare that, ‘time has made that teaching uncouth. We need to move on from it.’
I recall the electric moment at the Rustenburg Conference of 1990 when Prof. Jonker of Stellenbosch Kweekskool, made his historic apology on behalf of the Dutch Reformed Churches for their collaboration with the wrongs of apartheid. We knew that his courageous turn-around would bring difficulties for his church, but we had no idea how great. The backlash was ferocious, and one of the most common protests was from devout Dutch Reformed members who accused their leaders of betrayal : ‘You are the ones who taught us that apartheid was Biblical, moral and Christian. How dare you suddenly change your minds, making sinners of us all?’ You will recall that Prof. Johann Heyns, who shared with us in the writing of the Rustenburg Declaration, was assassinated soon after. If some of us are tempted to denigrate those who cannot agree with us, we need to pause and remember how hard it is to abandon a life-long prejudice, especially when you’ve been told that God shares that prejudice too. And lest any of us ‘straight’ supporters here be tempted to self-rightousness in our critique of more conservative Christians, perhaps we ought to recall that most of us held similar views once, and our journey to greater openness doesn’t makes theirs any easier.
I hope that we will stay in conversation with those who differ from us. Past experience tells us that a way forward may be found – together. Remember those words from another time and another struggle, written by black and white Methodists after Obedience ’81?
‘We have experienced how hard it is to abandon long-held prejudice and long-felt bitterness. But we have seen God work this miracle in us. It happened because we continued to search for each other even at our time of deepest division and despair.’5
So, there is hope, but hope is not enough: there is also urgency, because … there comes a time.
The Methodist Church of Southern Africa has acknowledged that we are divided between two opinions. That is true. The difference can’t be papered over:
Those who defend the closed door cannot open it without believing they betray Scripture.
Those who have opened the door cannot close it without believing we betray Jesus, the Lord of Scripture.
Our minds are unlikely to meet soon and the Methodist Conference has therefore invited us to ‘journey together’ in a way that ‘both respects and holds in tension differing views among our ministers and people.’6 Well and good, but if this journey is to have integrity there is one important condition: the same rules must apply to both travellers on the road. Our Church cannot claim to respect our views, and then punish those who, like Ecclesia, live out those views in practice. Holding the conversation open must not be another way to keep the doors of Christian marriage and Ordination for married gay people slammed shut.
Because there comes a time …
Let me say this very directly to our friends who differ from us: we will be patient in debate but no longer in suffering. You must understand that your opinion has real-life consequences for colleagues who we have come to love and honour. The pain and rejection they suffer is inflicted by the opinion you defend. Hold onto it if you will, but we cannot let you hurt people anymore. ‘‘There comes a time,’ said Martin Luther King Jr., when the cup of endurance runs over.’7
To our bishops and spiritual leaders, let me say this: Your task is not easy: in this matter you preside over a divided church. In the days of apartheid our leaders faced similar divisions, but while they wrestled with difficult debates, they were crystal clear about what was right and what was wrong – that the most damnable thing about apartheid was that it hurt people for something they could never change – the color of their skins – and for that alone it stood condemned in the councils of God. That was the bottom line. The rest was detail.
Today, we long for you to lead. You do not have to wait for any Conference to say what is right and what is wrong. We long to hear you declare lovingly and firmly that our beloved church cannot and will not any longer reject gay people for something they have no power to change. Please lead us. Let no more Ecclesia’s suffer. It would be a glorious day if at this time, because of your lead, God’s Ecclesia, God’s called people, were able to spread wide our arms and our hearts before the Holy Spirit had to prize them open.
There comes a time … and the time is now.
Simon’s Town, February 2010.
1. ‘Once to every man and nation,’ James Russell Lowell, MHB 1933, No 898.
2. William Sloane Coffin, Homophobia, the Last Respectable Prejudice, the 1997 Schooler Institute Lecture, Methodist Theological School in Ohio (unpublished).
3. E-mail from Rev.Suzanna Bates, British Methodist Church, 14 December, 2009
4. Ibid. Quoted by Coffin
5. The Charter of Obedience ’81, adopted by the most representative gathering of Methodists ever held in SA – Auckland Park, 1981
6. MCSA Yearbook 2008, p81, para 2.5.1
7. Martin Luther King Jr, Why We Can’t Wait, Signet Books, 1963/4, p.82