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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