It was inevitable. The only question was when and where this initiative would occur. The surprise was that it emerged in Phoenix, Arizona, part of Goldwater country, rather than San Francisco, New York or even “born free” Vermont. I refer to a formal declaration entitled “No Longer Silent!” developed and made public by an ecumenical group of Arizona clergy, which stated that its signatories would no longer tolerate the continuing negativity from Christian churches toward homosexual persons. It was a dramatically new thing in the present, tired debate.
The Phoenix Declaration was signed by 86 ordained religious leaders representing in descending numerical order, the United Methodist, United Church of Christ, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Unitarian-Universalist, Episcopal and Metropolitan Community Church traditions of Christianity. Opening this Declaration was the rather bold but accurate claim that the debate on homosexuality in our society “is over” and that the verdict “is clear.”
“As Christian clergy we believe it is time to share our perspective concerning gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) persons,” they began. “Homosexuality is not a sickness, not a choice, and not a sin,” they continued. “GLBT persons are distinctive, holy, and precious gifts to all who struggle to become the family of God. We are committed to work and pray for full acceptance and inclusion of GLBT persons in our churches and in the world.” They went on to state their opposition to those religious persons who continue to condemn and exclude homosexual persons while calling that behavior “Christian.” The “Christian faith compels us,” they concluded, “to be part of the healing for the souls wounded by this tragic violent and destructive hatred.”
Then follows a series of affirmations. The Declaration commits its signers to oppose openly those who use the Bible to undergird homophobic ignorance and prejudice. It acknowledges the presence of homosexual persons already in the church and recognizes their great gifts of leadership. It calls on other clergy to speak out against the insensitive and hostile rhetoric that emanates from conservative religious leaders around the world. One thinks of the words and actions of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, as well as pronouncements made by John Paul II, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey and other leaders in every Christian tradition. It celebrates the courage of those prophetic figures who have endured enormous hostility when they spoke out as lone voices inside the prevailing negativity of their own faith communities.
Finally this Declaration issues a call for “an end to all religious and civil discrimination against any person based on sexual orientation. All laws must protect the freedom, rights and equal legal standing of all persons. We will continue to work for and promote the dignity of GLBT persons and their inclusion in our social, political, cultural and economic life.”
There are several unusual things about this Declaration. First, it represents a grassroots movement led by pastors in daily contact with their church members. There is not a bishop, moderator or general secretary among the signers. Second, its signatories represent a critical mass of the clergy leadership in the Phoenix area, including many who are highly successful and respected by their communities. One is the Rev. Dr. Culver H. Nelson, the founder and now 'pastor emeritus' of Phoenix's largest Protestant congregation. Rising young denominational leaders like the Rev. Margaret Lindamood Roberts, the Rev.Gene Lefebvre, the Rev. Dr. Jeff Proctor-Murphy, the Rev. David Felten have led this effort. No ecclesiastical hierarchy would try to silence or marginalize such leadership. Third, this group will force denominational leaders everywhere to recognize that American society has moved far beyond the current negativity that still marks most churches on this issue, revealing yet again how irrelevant most of the Church's leadership has become.
This is not the only issue on which the Christian Church seeks to catch up with a fast changing world. Our nation, for example, has decided quite publicly that racism will no longer be tolerated, even in the person of former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Yet the most segregated hour of the week in America continues to be the time of public worship on Sunday morning in our churches.
Countries such as England, Israel, India and Pakistan have had female heads of state. America has women governors, senators, representatives, Supreme Court justices, and Cabinet members. Women today are the CEOs of such major corporations as Lucent, Hewlett-Packard, E-Bay, and Toys “R” Us. Yet, churches across the world remain among the most sexist institutions in the world. This sexism ranges from the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions which still maintain that women are not fit, by God's design in their very creation, to serve as priests, bishops and popes; to the Southern Baptists who recently declared as part of their core belief that wives must be subject to their husbands and that the Bible forbids a woman to have authority over a man. Who in our society today is still willing to listen to this strange and negative bit of dated religious ignorance?
Similarly, the churches are also badly out of touch with reality on sexual orientation issues. The Congress of the United States has in both political parties today 'out of the closet' gay representatives, elected by the people of their districts. The second family of the nation, Vice-President Richard and Mrs. Lyn Cheney, are the parents of a lesbian daughter whom they love, accept and acknowledge without apology or duplicity. Television programs, motion pictures and Broadway plays now treat gay and lesbian issues as a normal part of human life. The fact is that the consciousness of the Western world has changed dramatically on this issue, while the leadership of the Christian churches remains mired in an ill informed debate that ignores the data now available from the medical and scientific world.
This data proclaims that sexual orientation is not a choice but a given; that the number of homosexually oriented people is approximately the same in every part of the world throughout all time; and that sexual orientation is so deeply a part of a person's identity that it is not amenable to change. Either unable or unwilling to confront this new knowledge, church leaders defend their prejudices by quoting the “clear teaching of Holy Scripture,” oblivious to the fact that the “clear teaching of Holy Scripture” in previous eras was used to condemn Galileo, to justify slavery and segregation and to establish an inferior status for women.
Now, this significant group of clergy leaders, in a relatively conservative western state, has dared to stand up and say, No more! We will no longer participate in the ill-informed prejudices put forth by our churches and its leaders. We will act on our understanding of the demands of the Gospel!
This statement will have two major side effects. First it will embolden young clergy leadership all over the developed world, to decide that they too can no longer remain silent, and they will add their names to this Declaration. That in turn will cause church hierarchical leaders, who seem to worship some strange idol called “church unity” which must be served even at the sacrifice of both truth and justice, to recognize that the primary threat to church unity has shifted dramatically. It no longer comes from a few prophetic voices on the edges of the church's life, that can be quickly isolated. The divisive force is now located in those recalcitrant traditional people who are not emotionally capable of changing no matter what new data is presented. This means that a new and positive majority on homosexual persons is finally visible in the Church.
This Declaration further reveals that the traditional negative voices are in reality nothing but the sad sounds of people living in a religious time warp. Typical of these voices was the first reaction to the Phoenix Declaration, uttered by the Rev. Nathan Holt, from Mesa, Arizona. This retired pastor is the convener of a Methodist organization created to counter any move to open that church to the inclusion of gay and lesbian people. His defensive statement suggested that “the sponsors of this [the Phoenix] declaration hope to promulgate their misguided assumption that God created homosexual people with same sex orientation.” He went on to say that a fundamentalist organization in Encino, California that “treats gays and lesbians for their sickness,” has findings that “irrefutably showed that same sex orientation can be overcome” if the patient really wants to be “cured.” Someone should inform this gentleman that there is not one shred of scientific evidence to support that claim. Furthermore, a well known national pastoral counseling organization has called this point of view nothing less than “pastoral violence.” The Rev. Mr. Holt illustrates well that ignorance, no matter how overlaid with piety, is still ignorance.
The day such claims will continue to enjoy respect is over. The Phoenix Declaration from the clergy group that calls itself “No Longer Silent,” has made that very clear. A new day has dawned. History needs to note that this new consciousness first appeared in Arizona. The whole church owes an enormous debt of gratitude to these Phoenix Christian leaders.
John Shelby Spong