In January, Cape Town lesbian minister Rev. Ecclesia de Lange De Lange was suspended indefinitely without pay or position by the Methodist Church following her marriage to her partner Amanda.
A District Disciplinary Committee found her guilty of “failing to observe the provisions of the Laws and Disciplines and all other policies, decisions, practices and usages of the Church by announcing her intention to enter into a same-sex civil union…”
In a moving address at a service of solidarity to mark de Lange’s appeal trial on the 8th of February, the Rev Prof Peter Storey called on his Church to end its unjust rejection of gay people. Below is a transcript of that powerful address.
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 recognise, 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 married.” (3) 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.”
“Let me say this very directly to our friends who differ from us: we will be patient in debate but no longer in suffering…”
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 apologised 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 oppression. (4) 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 recognise and reverse a centuries-old, deeply roo