Expert Testimony to Cal-Nev Investigation

Expert Testimony on Holy Unions for the UMC Clergy Committee on Investigation

Lebacqz, Karen
Robert Gordon Sproul Professor of Theological Ethics

In early February 2000, PSR faculty members Jeffrey Kuan, Karen Lebacqz, and Mary A. Tolbert served as expert witnesses in the "Holy Union" hearing held by The United Methodist Church California-Nevada Annual Conference Committe on Investigation for Clergy Members. The hearing was held to determine whether 67 Annual Conference clergy should be tried for their participation in the public Holy Union blessing of two women in January 1999. The following is the testimony of Karen Lebacqz.

Background and Credentials:

I am an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ through the Bay Association of the Northern California Conference. I am also Robert Gordon Sproul Professor of Theological Ethics at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA, where I have been on the faculty since 1972. Pacific School of Religion has official relations with three denominations, including The United Methodist Church. I have therefore worked with students and clergy from The United Methodist Church for many years, and have read significant portions of the Book of Discipline. My field is Christian ethics, particularly social ethics. In this capacity, I teach courses on Sexual Ethics, Professional Ethics, and Theories of Justice.

Summary of Testimony:

According to the Book of Discipline (#65C, p.87, 1996), "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches." This section has been interpreted by Judicial Council Decision 833 as binding on (rather than guiding for) clergy. Two issues therefore confront the UMC in the light of the holy union ceremony held on January 16, 1999.

The first is what constitutes a Christian understanding of marriage: What is the role of the church ceremony in that understanding, and should marriage include an affirmation of unions between gay or lesbian couples? Drawing on the theological ethics of Methodist theologian, Dr. Paul Ramsey, I will argue that marriage is not a matter of ceremony or legality, but of commitment and responsibility. Further, it is not for purposes of procreation, but for union. Hence, gay and lesbian couples can legitimately be 'married' in Christian understanding. Further marriage ceremonies do not create marriages but merely bear witness to an already existing marriage. Hence, to allow ceremonies for heterosexual couples but prohibit them for gay and lesbian couples is unjust: it constitutes discrimination. The second issue is whether clergy who believe that their denominational guidelines and policies are discriminatory and unjust are justified in engaging in 'ecclesial dissent' or 'disobedience.' I will argue that there are grounds in ordination vows and clergy ethics to support such dissent or disobedience. Drawing on the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., I will further argue that, under some circumstances, disobedience is not merely permitted but required and that it should be public. Finally, I will argue that it is incumbent upon clergy to witness to the covenantal nature of human life, and that the church should not stifle but encourage covenantal commitments among its members. Doing so is good theology: it embodies the God presented to us in Scripture.

The Meaning of Marriage in Christian Tradition

Because of the explicit prohibition against ceremonies celebrating homosexual unions, it seems at first glance that marriage in the United Methodist tradition is limited to the "love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman." (#65C; emphasis added) However, drawing on the work of the eminent (United) Methodist theologian Dr. Paul Ramsey, I would like to offer an alternative understanding. Some 35 years ago, Ramsey declared:

"A Christian view of sex and of marriage never was a theology of the marriage ceremony. Ours is not the task of defending bourgeois respectability or legal paper.... The man and the woman marry each other in fact when their consents are the response to and the responsibility for each other's reality...." (1)

Ramsey's definition of marriage focuses on the commitment and response of the couple to each other. It is this commitment and response that constitutes a Christian marriage, not legal status or ecclesial ceremony. Marriage is about a couple's standing before God and each other. It does not require legal approval in order to be approved by the church. Further, it does not require church approval to be valid. Marriage happens when the couple commit to each other; the church merely witnesses to the marriage that has already taken place.

My own understanding of marriage has been shaped significantly by Ramsey's view. Because my primary ministry is teaching, I do not perform many wedding ceremonies. When I do, I tell the couple that the wedding ceremony does not 'marry' them; we merely witness to a marriage that has already taken place. This understanding derives directly from Ramsey's Methodist interpretation of the meaning and structure of marriage.

The importance of this church witness to an already existing covenant of marriage should not be underestimated, nonetheless. The wedding ceremony helps to position the couple publicly, in the eyes of the community, as a couple committed to each other before God. For those who are already members of the church, the ceremony is a crucial public witness. Even for those who are not members of churches, such a public statement of their commitment is an important step in honoring and securing the benefits of covenant commitment. Thus, although I would argue that the ceremony does not 'marry' the couple, but rather witnesses to a marriage that has already taken place, that does not mean that such ceremonies can simply be ignored. They are an important part of the public proclamation of covenant, to be addressed below.

Can Gay or Lesbian Couples be Married?

Ramsey had in mind heterosexual relationships. (His phrase "the man and the woman marry each other" makes this clear.) Can his understanding of marriage as the commitment between the couple extend to any couple taking responsibility to and for each other?

"Marriage ... may be defined as the mutual and exclusive exchange of the right to acts that of themselves tend to establish and nourish unity of life between the partners."(2)

In Ramsey's view, marriage gives a claim to sexual acts; the meaning of these acts is the union of the couple rather than procreation. A union need not be procreative in order to be understood as a proper marriage. What makes it a proper marriage is the exclusive claim to sexual practices that nourish unity of life between partners.(3)

Thus, though Ramsey had in mind heterosexual couples, the internal logic of Ramsey's understanding of marriage extends to cover gay and lesbian unions. Since marriage is not about legalities or religious ceremonies but about commitment and responsibility between two persons, Christian marriage does not require that the couple be legally permitted to marry. Since the primary purpose of sexual acts in marriage is not procreation but union between the partners, Ramsey's argument implies that it is not necessary that one be male and the other female. In short, there need be no distinction between gay and straight couples. (4)

Thus, I believe that there is good reason, grounded in Christian theology and ethics, to recognize gay and lesbian marriages and to endorse ceremonies that witness to such marriages. This position is not particularly radical; it is merely the logical entailment of ethical and theological reflections offered some years ago by the eminent and somewhat conservative (United) Methodist theologian, Dr. Paul Ramsey. Covenant responsibility is the internal meaning of Christian marriage, and this meaning need not be limited to heterosexual couples. Marriage ceremonies do not 'celebrate' marriage in the sense of creating marriage; they witness to the reality of a marriage that is already there.

Prohibition as Injustice

The explicit prohibition of Section 65C violates this understanding of marriage. Further, it is discriminatory: it prohibits some couples, but not others, from receiving from the church the blessings of a witness to their marriage.

Such discriminatory prohibitions are unjust. Martin Luther King, Jr., defined unjust laws or rules as those that 1) degrade human personality, or 2) are applied unequally to two categories of people. (5) Rules prohibiting public recognition of marriage for gay and lesbian couples, but permitting it for heterosexual couples, are unjust on both counts: they are discriminatory between categories of people, and they degrade the human person. They are discriminatory because they treat two classes of persons differently, without theological justification for the distinction. They degrade the human person because they create, ipso facto, a 'second class' citizenship for gay and lesbian people in the church.

The Question of "Disobedience."

For Martin Luther King, Jr., unjust laws required civil disobedience. Here, King stands in long Protestant tradition. Calvin himself declared that our obedience to human rule must never become disobedience to God, and that we must "suffer anything rather than turn aside from piety." (6) It is in general, therefore, a Christian obligation to stand up over against injustice, even at personal price.

Do unjust rules within the church similarly require disobedience? If clergy believe that the official polity or social principles of the church are not in accord with the best understanding of Christian marriage, and are indeed discriminatory and unjust, are they obligated to uphold the policy and principles nonetheless? Is there room for disobedience, and if so, of what sort?

Ordination Vows

At first glance, it might appear that The United Methodist Church makes little room for ecclesial dissent or disobedience. Those seeking ordination are specifically asked whether they will (1) support and maintain the government and polity of The UMC, and (2) observe the direction not to mend rules but keep them. (#327, p,199, 1996 Book of Discipline) Such affirmations suggest that, in the very process of being ordained, Methodist clergy have taken vows to uphold the principles and polity of the Church. Disobedience to such principles and polity would appear to be a violation of ordination vows.

But the matter is not quite so simple. First, these 'historic' ordination questions are to be interpreted in 'spirit and intent' by the bishop at the time of examination for ordination. The possibility of interpretation of the 'spirit and intent' of the questions suggests that keeping all of the rules and principles of the Church is not necessarily required as a vow of ordination. Indeed, it is generally the case that Social Principles are for guidance and are not binding on clergy. While judicial interpretation has given this particular Social Principle the force of law, that stands as an anomaly in the history of the Church. The fact that this principle has been so singled out contributes to the perception of a deep injustice at work.

Such an injustice bears particular burdens for clergy who were ordained before the explicit prohibition was added to the Book of Discipline. These clergy are being asked to honor a principle that was not present when they took their vows. It is one thing to take ordination vows knowing and understanding that one may not extend the blessings of the church to a group of people; it is another to take vows believing that the blessings of the church may and should be extended to all, and then discover that one group is to be singled out for exclusion.

Indeed, many clergy and bishops believe that specific ordination vows are intended to undergird the fundamental vow of clergy, which is to serve God by upholding and maintaining covenant with the church. Recognizing that the primary loyalty is to God, and that churches are human institutions and hence, fallible, there is good reason to believe that 'reverent dissent' can be part of the sustance and sustenance of that basic covenant. In a study of selective obedience in the Catholic church, Shannon argues that there can be a 'loyal opposition' to church teachings.(7) Since the teaching authority of the magisterium is held in very high regard in Roman Catholicism, it is significant that Catholic theologians understand that not every authoritative teaching of the church "can be ascribed automatically to the Holy Spirit." Church authority is held in tension with the demands of conscience, even in a church polity that generally gives significant authority to the magisterium. Even more so, then, in Protestant tradition, might church authority be held in tension with an informed conscience, and even more so might church teaching be subject to occasional correction or 'reverent dissent.'

Finally, I would note that The United Methodist Church itself- as is true of almost all denominations- began with acts of ecclesial dissent! It is because devout Christians found doctrine or polity of their churches to fail as an expression of the core Christian message that they started new modes of worship and fellowship. Ecclesial dissent is at the heart of the renewal of God's reign, witnessed in the very founding of The United Methodist Church. (8)

Professional Ethics

To these concerns that come from Methodist tradition, I would add only a few words from my discipline of professional ethics.

First, as is true of all professionals, clergy have an obligation to serve those in their parishes. As is true of all professionals, this obligation to serve requires the professional to put the needs of the client first and to take risks on behalf of the client. So strong is this requirement for clergy that Paul Camenisch in his review of clergy ethics suggests that clergy bear all the burdens of other professionals, but often lack the protections that professional groups generally provide for practitioners. (9) Such an obligation to serve parishioners can be understood to require that clergy offer services even when doing so puts the clergy person at risk of disobeying Church teachings and having to face consequences of that disobedience.

Second, in their study of clergy ethics Walter Wiest and Elwyn Smith propose that one of the special responsibilities of ordained ministers is 'watching' over the purity of the church's proclamation: "The pastor has a special... responsibility to see that...what [the congregation] does is consistent with the gospel and is fitting for the body of Christ taking shape in the world." (10) Part of the professional ethics of clergy, then, is ensuring that congregations are enacting a gospel of justice and love. Wiest and Smith do not specifically address dissent and disobedience, but their call for 'watching' over the life of the church suggests that dissent and disobedience might be countenanced when necessary to ensure consistency with the gospel. Some would go even further. Rebecca Chopp proposes that churches should be engaged in 'emancipatory transformation.' The church must be a visible sign of God's grace in the world, and it must be a community of justice and reconciliation. In this understanding, clergy become not simply prophets who focus on social justice issues, but watchdogs of the institution itself. Clergy must be 'in the church but not of it' - that is, able to see and name the faults and flaws of the church itself. (11) The suggestion that clergy should be 'in but not of' the church seems to make clear room for ecclesial dissent and disobedience.

Finally, those who follow liberation tradition might suggest that clergy have a particular mandate to listen to the voices of the oppressed. As the church proclaims justice, and justice cannot be done without hearing the voices of the oppressed, leaders in the church are called to lift up and honor perspectives that are not generally heard. The exclusion of a group from any of the benefits of the church gives particular force to the need to act in ways that lift up and recognize that group. (12)

Thus, there are grounds not only in the ordination vows of clergy but also in a broad-based understanding of clergy ethics and ecclesiology to propose that dissent and disobedience can be not only legitimated but required of those in leadership positions in the church.

Proper Modes of Disobedience

It is therefore no surprise that there have in fact been many acts of disobedience to section 65C. Many clergy do perform commitment ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples. They do it quietly and secretly, without fanfare. We must now ask whether the particular act of Jan 16, 1999, can be supported. The act under consideration was not done quietly but publicly, openly, in deliberate defiance of Church rules. This may seem offensive. Can it be justified?

Here again, I think there are reasons grounded in professional ethics for explicit, public challenge to Church teachings. First is the issue of integrity. To be duplicitous - practicing one thing privately but another openly - seems contrary to the very nature of the church and its ministry. Methodist ethicist Stanley Hauerwas once said, "A Christian ethic is ultimately an ethic of truth or it is neither Christian nor an ethic substantive enough to deal with the human condition." (13) The church, he argued, must live truthfully, or it is not being the church. Should clergy not model for our churches a willingness to be open and honest about core faith commitments? Martin Luther King, Jr., said: "One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly...." (14) The purpose of disobedience is public and hence disobedience requires public display. The deliberate intent to challenge the rules of the Church is a prophetic statement about the seriousness of the justice issues at stake.

Second is an issue of kairos - of understanding the fullness of time and its ethical demands. In describing Rosa Parks' historic refusal to give up her seat on the bus, King said: "she was planted there by her personal sense of dignity and self-respect. She was anchored to that seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone by and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn." (15) Those who participated in the ceremony explicitly forbidden by the Social Principles did so in this same spirit of recognizing that the kairos required an end to silence. Responding to kairos is a matter of dignity and self-respect.

For these reasons, I deem both the general understanding of disobedience and the particular acts of disobedience to be justified by the best of theological ethics.

The Covenantal Character of Human Life

But there is yet another reason, more fundamental and more theological than any of the above, for supporting the acts of January 16, 1999.

Justice will not be enacted in this world unless and until we affirm our interconnectedness and our mutual responsibility for each other. In Christian tradition, we express this in the language of covenant. Here again, I find Ramsey instructive:


"I hold with Karl Barth that covenant-fidelity is the inner meaning and purpose of our creation as human beings.... This means that the conscious acceptance of covenant responsibilities is the inner meaning of even the 'natural' or systemic relations into which we are born and of the institutional relations or roles we enter by choice..." (16)

The lens of covenant then becomes the lens through which Ramsey considers the question of role responsibilities, and the self-consciously biblical principle of fidelity to covenant becomes his overriding norm for determining when action is ethical and when it is not. The sacredness of human life could not, for Ramsey, be sustained unless the demands of covenant or 'steadfast love' (hesed) underlie the way in which we live with each other. It is partly for this reason that Ramsey defined marriage in terms of covenant commitment.

To affirm gay and lesbian unions is not simply, therefore, to enact justice by ensuring 'equal treatment' of gay and straight couples. Justice alone is sufficient reason for disobedience to exclusionary policy. But more than this, I believe that it is important for the Church today to underscore the importance of fidelity, steadfast love, and covenant. Gay and lesbian couples who have committed themselves to each other - taking responsibility to and for each other- are exhibiting the covenantal meaning of life. Precisely because gay and lesbian couples cannot be married legally, their commitments shine as a form of testimony to covenant rather than contract. They exercise fidelity and steadfastness in the face of enormous social pressures to do otherwise. The courage to exercise covenant in the face of opposition is a bestowing of God's grace among us; the Church should not stifle but encourage and rejoice in such covenants. In so doing, the Church witnesses to the fundamental covenantal character of human life and to what is most central to Christian tradition.

In sum, I argue that clergy participating in the ceremony on January 16, 1999, were not in violation of Christian practice. If wedding ceremonies do not marry people but only witness to a marriage that has already taken place, and if such marriages are not limited to heterosexual couples, then to deny such witness to one group of people while permitting it to another is to discriminate and to exercise injustice. Ordination vows and professional ethics require clergy to serve those in their charge, even at risk to themselves. Further, it is a mandate of professional ethics that clergy 'watch' over the Church to ensure that it is a liberatory community of justice and love. By lifting up the covenantal character of human life proclaimed in the Gospel, those who engage in ecclesial dissent or disobedience proclaim and assist the Church to embody the God of justice and truth presented to us in Scripture, the foundation of United Methodist tradition. (17)

See also:


1. Paul Ramsey, "On Taking Sexual Responsibility Seriously Enough," first published in Christianity and Crisis, v.23, no.23, Jan 6, 1964; reprinted in Gibson Winter, ed., Social Ethics: Issues in Ethics and Society, NY: Harper and Row, 1968. Quotes are from the Winter volume. Ramsey was responding to a view promulgated by a group of Friends. In 1964, pre-marital sex was the hot debate. A group of Friends published a document entitled Towards a Quaker View of Sex. This document argued that when engaged couples enter into a genital sexual relationship, "their marriage begins then and there." The Friends also argued that "when two people are deeply committed to each other, but for some reason [are] unable to marry...they may, in fact, live as husband and wife and their union may, in its inherent quality, be indistinguishable from that of a legally married couple." In short, the Quakers argued that there were circumstances in which 'pre-marital' or 'non-marital' sex was acceptable, and that such acts of sex between committed couples created and constituted a 'marriage' in Christian eyes. Ramsey argued that the Friends had not gone far enough in their understanding of Christian responsibility. Once marriage is understood as the commitment between the couple, there is no such thing as 'pre-marital' or 'non- marital' sex for those whose sexual activities are within the context of committed relationship.

2. Winter, 49.

3. Here, Ramsey follows Protestant tradition in general, which tends to stress the unitive rather than the procreative purposes of sexuality.

4. This position also implies that there are many 'marriages' that are not valid Christian marriages, even though they may have both state and church approval. Legal paper does not create a Christian marriage. But that's a subject for another time....

5. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," in James M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (HarperSanFrancisco, 1986), p.293.

6. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, book IV, chapter XX, #32, in John T. McNeill, editor, The Library of Christian Classics, vol. XXI: Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), pp.1520-21. Calvin quotes Acts 5:29: "We must obey God rather than men [sic.]."

7. Thomas A. Shannon, Render Unto God: A Theology of Selective Obedience (NY: Paulist Press, 1974), p.87. For his study, Shannon drew heavily on two of the most revered Catholic theologians: Karl Rahner and Bernard Haering. C.f. Karl Rahner, Obedience in the Church (Washington, D.C.: Corpus Books, 1968)

8. The Book of Discipline skirts lightly around this issue, noting merely that "Wesley's ordinations [of Coke and others] set a precedent that ultimately permitted Methodists in America to become an independent church." (p.11, 1996 Book of Discipline) In fact, Wesley ordained Coke and others against the strictures of the Church of England - i.e., he practised ecclesial disobedience! Thus, ecclesial disobedience undergirds Methodist tradition.

9. Paul F. Camenisch, "Clergy Ethics and the Professional Model," in James P. Wind,, eds., Clergy Ethics in a Changing Society (Westminster/John Knox, 1991), p. 130.

10. Walter E. Wiest and Elwyn A. Smith, Ethics in Ministry: A Guide for the Professional (Minneapolis: Fortress press, 1990), p. 64.

11. Rebecca Chopp, "Liberating Ministry," in James P. Wind, eds., Clergy Ethics in a Changing Society (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), p.97.

12. I draw here on my own previous work Justice in an Unjust World and also on the important work on oppression by Iris Marion Young in Justice and the Politics of Difference.

13. Stanley Hauerwas, Vision and Virtue: Essays in Christian Ethical Reflection (Notre Dame, In: Fides Publishers, 1974), p.117.

14. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," in James M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (HarperSanFrancisco, 1986), p.294.

15. King, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (NY: Harper and Row, 1958), p. 29; quoted in the editor's introduction to A Testament of Hope, p.xvii.

16. Paul Ramsey, The Patient as Person (Yale University Press, 1970), p.xii.

17. The primacy of Scripture in Methodist tradition is made clear in the statement of 'theological task' at the beginning of the Book of Discipline: "...Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine." (#63, p.75) The authority of tradition "derives from its faithfulness to the biblical message." (#63, p.74) Though Scripture is interpreted in light of experience, "Scripture remains central in our efforts to be faithful...." (#63, p.79)

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