An Ethical Response To Injustice

Rhodes, Lynn Nell
Associate Professor of Ministry and Field Education

Excerpts from a statement to the Committee on Investigation by Lynn Nell Rhodes, PSR Associate Professor of Field Education.

I did not participate in the Holy Union to challenge a law of the church. I participated in blessing the committed love of Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton because I considered it the ethical response to a situation of injustice within The United Methodist Church.

I also participated because I believe that our church needs to address how we respond to the gift of sexuality. I do not believe that God created human beings to experience genuine love and sexual desire and then condemn them for expressing that gift. I am probably more cautious than many around sexual ethics. As a teacher and former campus minister, I have heard many stories of abuse and sexual exploitation. I was part of a research group that investigated clergy sexual ethics. I was appalled at what I learned about the misuse of power and role. I was upset that so many clergy had not thought about the relationship between what they profess and their personal sexual actions. I am very concerned about people using sexual activity as a way to control others, and in my work have had to confront those who use their power and role to engage in sexual acts that harm the less powerful. I do believe that our sexuality is a powerful force and that we must be careful that our sexual activity is loving, mutual, non-exploitative.

As a church, one of the most powerful witnesses we can make is to bless relationships that reveal our understandings of love, commitment, non-exploitation of our sexuality, and our desire to create family units that support and nourish people over time. It is out of my gratitude to the church and its teachings that I felt I had to participate in blessing the love of Ellie and Jeanne, who demonstrate so clearly what I affirm about committed, Christian relationships.

I am one of those whose ministry in the church was empowered through the work of Bob Cary, Youth Director for the Northern California Annual Conference. As a youth, I experienced his care, integrity and ethical leadership. In 1963, I participated in discussions with gay men in San Francisco through a Wesley Foundation program. It was the church itself that gave me the opportunity to talk with people who were shunned by society. My mentor, a Methodist pastor and faculty member of Boston University School of Theology, wrote an article in 1964 on Biblical interpretation that addressed and countered the attacks on gays and lesbians. My local church is a Reconciling Congregation and my Conference has been a Reconciling Conference.

My experience of the church has been as an advocate for the decision I made to participate in the blessing of the Holy Union. I have been part of a movement within the church that began for me at least 35 years ago. This is not a rash act nor one made without first spending many years working on advocacy and education to change laws. I believe that my actions were made within the meaning of our covenant together. I know that my insight and understanding is limited. I believe in communal discernment. My decision to participate came out of my belief that my convictions have been tested within the covenant and that I was being called by my colleagues to this action.

I know how the Bible has been used against women's participation in leadership and women's roles in family and society. Therefore I have to protest when the Bible is used as a weapon to deny to others what we claim for ourselves. In the past, my church has denied ordination to women, has perpetuated racism and done many other things that we now acknowledge as sinful. I believe homophobia is destructive to the soul. I want the church to advocate for all relationships that are mutual, loving, committed, and non-exploitative.

When I became ordained, I was one of only two ordained women in my Conference. I was also the only woman on the faculty at Boston University School of Theology. Many women had struggled to give me that opportunity. My local church advocated for my rights as a woman to be ordained. I therefore cannot turn around and say to others, "It would hurt my ministry or cause division if I advocated for you." To not participate in the blessing would be to turn my back on others who are being excluded now. When I was ordained I was especially proud of The United Methodist Church because it acknowledges that it doesn't have the final truth of God. It urges us to examine conscience and be willing to face the consequences. Thus, I understand that there may be consequences for my actions because of the ruling of the Judicial Council. But I don't believe that I have gone against the teachings of my church. I believe the church has enacted a law that is contrary to its own basic teachings.

I believe that for me to be silent leads to complicity in the violence that is perpetuated against people who are gay, lesbian, transgendered or bisexual. I don't believe this issue is just about holy unions, but about the sacred worth of human beings. For me, at heart, this is not a legal issue, but a theological issue. It will not be solved in the courts. I do understand that the law has a place. But the law in the church has a different function than it has in civil society. Law is always subservient to the Gospel. I believe that law in church life is our best attempt to keep us from harming each other and all of creation. It is made in specific contexts. I believe that the laws that have recently surfaced around homosexuality were created to deny people full participation in the church based solely on their sexual orientation. If they cannot partake of its blessings and rituals and offices, then they are not really in the community of believers. To say that homosexuals are welcome but cannot be in ordained leadership or have the church's blessings for committed relationships is like declaring that women can't be ordained but the church would still like their service, money, talent and love.

I want our church to be spending time on the issues that are really destroying lives- a culture that sacrifices people to an international economic system; a nation that seems to revert to killing others when international order is threatened as almost our first line of defense; our inability to provide basic food and shelter for the children of the world. I wish with all my heart that all the time and energy that has been spent on the issue of two women who desire the church's blessing for their faithful love could be spent instead on the things that really kill the body and the soul in our fragile world. That for me is the real tragedy of this time.

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