It was the mid 70’s when one of our Disciples’ seminary boards refused to grant a degree to a student who was recommended by the faculty for graduation. He was refused this degree because he was gay. In his last year of seminary he was told that he would not be recommended for graduation unless he became better known by the faculty. He was accused of holding himself apart. So he decided to “come out” to the seminary community and ended up writing his research project on the subject of homosexuality and the Church. When he was not granted a degree, he took legal action against the seminary. The legal process went on for several years. In the end, the seminary won on appeal and the Church lost a promising and talented young minister. I am not identifying anyone in this story (other than myself and my husband), and will refer to the person, denied his degree, as “O”.
O was an active member of the small country church that my husband, David Edwards, was serving at the time. O sang in the choir, taught the high school Sunday school class, was secretary of the board, and planned amazing art activities for vacation bible school and other congregational gatherings. His energy, his creativity, his sense of humor, his love of life endeared him to all ages.
When it became obvious that O’s sexuality was going to be a matter of public discussion, he met with the elders of the congregation to tell them his story, and apprise them of the lawsuit he was filing against the seminary. David had served this congregation for about a year and we hoped for a supportive response, but had no real idea of what would happen. After O told his story to the elders there followed some cautiously supportive remarks. Then one elder said, “We have to be realistic about this.” Now, we thought, here it comes. We are going to hear about how greatly O is loved, but that the church must be protected; there could be scandal; the majority of people would not understand and would leave the church, etc. However, what this elder meant by realistic was simply — “O is a child of God. Created and loved by God. Our actions have to be based on this reality.” As far as he was concerned, that was the end of the discussion. To our surprise, all of the other elders agreed. They moved on to making plans for concrete ways of educating other members of the congregation, and deciding on how to respond to the seminary and the media.
A week after the elders’ meeting, this brave young man stood up on a Sunday afternoon to tell his story to the whole congregation. Only one person left the sanctuary and did not return to the church. NO ONE else left the church over this issue. Two people expressed their love for him but considered him misguided and said they would pray for him. The matriarch of the congregation, a woman in her nineties with failing eyesight, asked for information on tape so that she could educate herself on this topic, which she had before never considered. The majority of the congregation stood with O and lovingly supported him through the whole ordeal.
On several different occasions I went with O to talk with the president and the dean. We still had hope that there would be a reversal of the decision. A most memorable statement came from one of those meetings. It was, “You know, the local church is just not ready to deal with this issue.” I relished being able to say, “You know, you are so wrong. We are part of a church that is dealing with ‘this issue’ in a most positive and loving way.”
O eventually gave up the suit and moved away. He was tired of fighting. The stress had been enormous and caused suffering in all areas of his life – health, finances, relationships. The loss of the dream to become a minister was devastating.
Over these past forty plus years, there have been long stretches of time when we have had no contact with O. We do know that he has built another life for himself, and I am sure that through his art, and by just being himself, he has ministered to many.
Some Good News out of this story . . .
That small country church was not destroyed. It continues to this day.
That seminary now graduates qualified students, no matter their sexuality.
David and I gained a valuable lesson about trusting and learning from the people we seek to serve.
I hope and pray that those who attend the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) this summer in Orlando will be as “realistic” as the elder in this story.
I hope and pray that one day that seminary will right a great wrong and grant the degree that O so rightly earned and deserves.