Being Christian and LGBT? Church politics and inclusivity, with Rosemarie Wenner

In the wake of a split in her own denomination, Rev. Rosemarie Wenner affirmed that people of “different sexual orientations and gender identities are part of the God-given diversity in creation.” Wenner, the former bishop of the United Methodist Church in Germany, was speaking about the upcoming Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC)  and LGBTIQ+ participation in a public event held May 27 during the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups.

Her presentation was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Csongor Kozma of the Paulus Akademie (which hosted the Forum). The panel included Gabriele Mayer, one of the co-ordinators of Rainbow Pilgrims of Faith, and Heinz Fäh of the Protestant Church of Switzerland.

Read Rosemarie’s full text below, gratefully shared with her permission.

Heinz Fäh, Rosemarie Wenner, Gabriele Mayer, Csongor Kozma

Being Christian and LGBT? Church politics and inclusivity

When we talk about being a Christian and about sexuality, we touch very personal issues.
That is why I want to introduce myself in a little more detail than I would if I were lecturing
on Methodist church history. I was born in 1955, grew up in a Christian family in southern
Germany, have been at home in the Methodist Church since childhood and have “always”
been a Christian. In 1981 I was ordained as a pastor in the United Methodist Church. I have
been married to my husband since 1983. I have always lived in Germany – and I have always
had a great interest in everything that is happening in the world. From 1996 to 2017, I was
active in church leadership roles, first as Superintendent, then as Bishop of the United
Methodist Church in Germany. This period also included a rotation as President of the
Bishops’ Council of the internationally structured Evangelical Methodist Church. Currently, in
my retirement, I am working for the World Council of Methodist Churches as a contact
person to the World Council of Churches in Geneva. In this respect, I am also involved in the
preparations for the Assembly which will take place in Karlsruhe from 31.8. to 8.9.2022. This
will be the first WCC Assembly that I will witness.

The church to which I belong is splintering because some people cannot accept that we
interpret the few passages in the Bible that explicitly deal with homosexuality differently.
The initiative for this division comes from evangelicalist Methodists in the USA. When I was
in church leadership responsibility, I did a lot to hold the church together over these
tensions. At the same time, I have always been convinced that different sexual orientations
and gender identities are part of the God-given diversity in creation. All people are welcome
in the church, and we all have to learn to enjoy and responsibly shape sexuality as a good gift
from God. This conviction was reinforced by an encounter I had as a young pastor in the
early 1980s. A woman who occasionally attended our services at that time asked to talk to
me. In the congregation she had belonged to, she had been urged to overcome her
lesbianism. She had tried to change, in vain. In therapy she learned to accept herself. The
therapist also advised her to seek pastoral counselling. Now there was this woman, deeply
religious, like me. Devoted to a person in love, like me. Without having done long studies
before, it was clear to me: She is God’s daughter – like me and she belongs to the body of
Christ, without ifs and buts. The studies I later did in detail supported this view of mine. In
many discussions on the subject of church and homosexuality, I noticed that it is often the
personal encounters that challenge us to question outdated dogmas.

After this journey through time, I come to the topic of this impulse:

Being LGBT and a Christian – is that possible within the World Council of Churches (WCC)?
What about church politics? How does inclusion work?

1) What is the WCC?

The WCC includes about 350 churches from various Orthodox and Protestant churches in
120 countries. There are close contacts with the Roman Catholic Churches and now also with
some Pentecostal churches. The constitution describes the self-understanding in this way:

The primary purpose and vision of the fellowship of churches in the World Council of
Churches is to call one another to visible unity in one faith and in one Eucharistic
fellowship, expressed in worship and common life in Christ, through witness and
service to the world, and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may
believe

The WCC is not a super-church, but a fellowship of churches challenging each other to
journey towards visible unity and to celebrate and bear witness to the faith. The global
context and the fact that many confessional families are represented is both an opportunity
and a challenge.

The Assembly usually takes place every 8 years. All member churches, as well as friendly
churches and church agencies working with the WCC, send delegates or observers. The
Assembly elects the Presidents and the Central Committee and gives impulses for the focus
of the work in the coming years.

At the moment, preparations for the 11th Assembly are in full swing. The theme is: “Christ’s
love moves the world to reconciliation and unity”. About 5000 people are expected in
Karlsruhe.

2) What has been the path of the WCC in relation to people belonging to the LGBTQI+
community?

The commitment to justice is one of the concerns of the WCC. The WCC was born in 1948
from a movement that in the first half of the 20th century wanted to strengthen the bonds
between the churches of the world, in spite or because of two World Wars. Already the
Assembly in New Delhi in 1961 noted that the core issues on sexual relations needed to be
examined in the light of rapidly changing moralities in different parts of the world.
Programmatic work on overcoming HIV/AIDS helped to get sexuality talked about in
churches in the global South. At the 1998 Assembly in Harare, overcoming violence against
women came to the fore. The Programme Guidelines Committee made the following
recommendation:

Being aware of divisive issues among churches, the WCC can function as a safe space
to enter into dialogue and moral discernment on matters which the churches find
challenging. Examples which have been heard strongly in this assembly include
questions of gender and human sexuality. Controversial issues have their place within
that safe space on the common agenda, remembering that tolerance is not enough,
but the baseline is love and mutual respect.

After Busan, a reference group on human sexuality was established, which already in 2019
produced a comprehensive document: Conversations on the Pilgrim – Way Invitation to
Journey Together on Matters of Human Sexuality. A Resource for Reflection and Action.

In February 2022, the Central Committee received this document, so it will soon be available
as a working resource.

So, the WCC wants to move towards overcoming violence, and towards building safe spaces
for conversations about sexuality and supporting people of different sexual orientations to
use God’s good gift of creation responsibly. At the same time, the WCC is becoming
increasingly polarised, with representatives from Western churches calling for full inclusion
and clear statements for the rights of people of non-heterosexual orientation. Such demands
for change sometimes come across as know-it-all, especially since there are also churches in
the USA (or in Germany) that do not approve of practised homosexuality. Voices from the
global South point out that in their churches and in many countries, homosexuality is not
acceptable at all. Delegates from Orthodox churches say that these issues are not on the
agenda for them, as they are committed to the understanding of marriage as the
sacramental community of man and woman, which is rooted in their tradition. Christians
from the LGBT community are made virtually invisible.

The WCC works with a consensus model. There are no battle votes as I know them from the
international United Methodist Church. In meetings of the WCC, many blue cards stand out
as soon as homosexuality is discussed. This shows delegates that they are “not warmed up”
for conversations about gender diversity and inclusion. Often this ends the conversation
before any attempt at respectful dialogue can be made.

3) How can the WCC Assembly take steps towards inclusion?

Within the Assembly programme, there will be different places that could become special
learning spaces on the way towards gender justice. This starts with the Pre-Assemblies, one
for women and men “Just Community of Women and Men”, another for youth and young
adults (the two other Pre-Assemblies will bring together representatives from Indigenous
Peoples and from the Ecumenical Network for Persons with Disabilities). These pre-
assemblies open up spaces to prepare for the Assembly from a specific perspective. Those
who often feel marginalised hopefully see the need to work together for inclusion. However,
the fact that these pre-assemblies exist can also be used as a justification to tick off issues of
gender justice and inclusion in the actual assembly under the pretext: “This has already been
discussed in the pre-assembly…”.

The Bible texts which are treated in prayer times and Bible studies during the meeting are
Gospel texts showing Jesus as an actor for and with people who have been made outsiders.
The Bible can serve as a source of liberation provided that we expose a misuse, whenever
the texts are used to maintain an unjust status quo. I hope that this can happen in some of
the Bible studies and in other thematic sessions. For example, there will be a plenary on
human dignity and human rights. There will also be a thematic series of talks on the theme
of Conversations on the Pilgrimage: an invitation to explore together the theme of human
sexuality, prepared and led by members of the Reference Group. The Faith and Order
Commission also provides resources. It has conducted and evaluated studies on moral-
ethical discernment that can contribute to understanding.

In the meeting area, called BRUNNEN (“well” or “fountain”), workshops and opportunities
for discussion will be offered. Not far from the congress centre there is a meeting place: WOMEN; MEN; FAMILY; GENDER DIVERSITY. The meeting places are part of the Assembly
programme but are not under the control of the programme committee in terms of content
and are open to anyone interested, without registration or cost. I am leading a preparation
team which includes some members of the GLOBAL COALITION. At this meeting place there
are numerous events prepared by international teams bringing together different
perspectives on gender justice and gender diversity. Topics such as “Human Sexuality and
the Bible”, “Masculinity in Different Traditions and Cultures”, “Stop Violence against
LGBTIQ+ Persons”, “Are Churches Safe Places for People of Colour and LGBT+ Persons?” or
“Created in God’s Image – Male and Female. Gender Diversity in the Bible” will be discussed.
We are doing a lot to ensure that at least in this meeting place a PROTECTED SPACE for
respectful dialogue is guaranteed. The guidelines that all contributors have to follow state,
among other things: Use language in a non-discriminatory way, include all people of diverse
cultures and genders”, “It’s not OK to blame, shame or attack ourselves or others”; ” It’s OK
to disagree”

Will all this contribute to more inclusion? I vacillate between hope and fear. Polarisation-
even in the midst of the WCC – has tended to increase in recent years. In online meetings, it
is difficult to build trust and discover unity. The war in Ukraine is increasing tensions
between East and West. At the same time, however, there are more and more voices – e.g.
also from evangelical communities – emphasising that different opinions on homosexuality
do not have to be church-dividing. For me, the fact that people from the LGBT community
are clearly and at the same time sensitively engaging in the consultations in view of different
cultural and theological imprints is the greatest sign of hope. At the same time, it also
shames me that people have to fight for themselves and thus make themselves very
vulnerable.

Conclusion

The path towards gender diversity is arduous and rocky. Walls are hard to break down.
Sometimes they are even built higher. In Karlsruhe, there will probably be fewer female and
fewer youth delegates than in Busan, despite all the appeals and assurances. The willingness
is low to overcome taboos and confess guilt and failure; including those in view of the
treatment of women, children and people who are gay, lesbian, trans or bisexual.
For many delegates, it is more important to be loyal to tradition and they are afraid to
endanger the unity of the churches, a unity that is far from fully existing even in dogmatic
and ecclesiological questions. This fear keeps the delegates from opening up to brothers and
sisters, from overcoming violence, including violence which can be expressed in words.

Nevertheless, I maintain that Christ’s love has power. Jesus made himself vulnerable. Even as
the risen Christ, he identifies himself through the stigmata. The love he proclaimed and
embodied continues powerfully to this day. It creates true reconciliation – healing of body,
soul and spirit – and unity that values differences as richness. I trust in this.

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