Why I Changed My Mind

(The original article was formerly here, but it’s been removed.)

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After a long process of study and prayer, the parish I serve voted to be an Open and Affirming (ONA) congregation. In the four years prior to the vote, I did not keep my favorable feelings toward ONA a secret. Some people said I should have remained neutral, but I don’t think false neutrality is honest nor do I think a neutral position on this is the best way to lead. So I was outspoken in my support of the ONA process. But this would not always have been the case. For many years I opposed the full participation of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in our churches. Obviously, I’ve changed my mind.

My journey toward change started – in 1980 – during my second year in seminary. For a class on Christian Ethics, I wrote a paper critical of the United Church of Christ’s (UCC) position on the ordination of homosexual people. While researching the topic, however, I found some holes in the church’s traditional antigay position. Nonetheless, I concluded that it was counter to biblical and church tradition to ordain an openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual person. Looking back, I have to attribute the conclusions of my paper to my own prejudice. I simply refused to take the arguments in favor of ordaining gay, lesbian, and bisexual people seriously. However, that experience left me wondering and questioning. So began a conscious effort to examine the issue.

Here are the findings that eventually changed my mind. First, in regard to the biblical material, there are only six passages in the Bible that have traditionally been understood to condemn homosexuals as sinners. There are many articles and books on this subject, so I won’t rehash it all here. Suffice it to say, I discovered that the passages in question suffer from mistranslation and poor exegesis. When I looked at the original languages and very carefully examined the passages through the eyes of a wide range of scholars, I became convinced that the Bible does not condemn gay, lesbian, or bisexual people. These passages do condemn gang rape, child abuse, and certain religious practices of fertility cults, but there is no condemnation of genuine love between people of the same gender.

Secondly, when I was a student of psychology in the 1970’s, I was taught to understand homosexuality as a neurosis or a personality disorder. I was trained in methods that sought to change the sexual orientation of homosexual people. However, that training was wrong and I was wrong. The American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association have since removed homosexuality and bisexuality from their lists of psychological disorders. In a recent news release, The American Psychiatric Association has made it clear there is no scientific basis for the success of so called conversion therapy. Indeed there is much evidence to indicate that conversion therapy is dangerous to the patient, with a risk of bringing on depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior.(1)

Third, we in the church must come to grips with the fact that our traditional antigay position has contributed to the abuse and death of our gay, lesbian, and bisexual brothers and sisters. The novelist, Bette Greene, interviewed more than 400 men who are in jail for gay- bashing. Only a few demonstrated any remorse for their actions, and many believed that their church and religious training supported them.(2) Today, some right-wing Christians breed hatred. The Reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, for example, are noted for their harsh remarks on the subject of God’s hatred of homosexuality and the consequences for any society which condones it.(3)

But it is not just the extreme right that breeds this kind of hate and fear. Most churches do not accept gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. I could go on for hours with stories I have heard from those who attended churches and were told, from the pulpit, that they were destined to go to hell. Some were openly rejected by their churches when the congregation discovered that they were involved in a same-gender relationship. In one especially brutal case, an eighteen year old woman was required to stand before the congregation while members stood and denounced her. She was forced to leave her church and have no further contact with any church member. She was ejected from her home. Fortunately, I was able to locate an Open and Affirming church near her where she is now getting help. I thank God for ONA churches around the country that offer real help to people who have been wounded by the body of Christ.

Many Christians who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual will justifiably avoid churches unless a congregation publicly proclaims a welcome to them. It is a sad state of affairs when devoutly Christian people cannot find such a church where they can safely practice their faith. Our silence does not assure Christian persons who are gay, lesbian, and bisexual that they are welcome; our silence allows the vocal right wing of our faith to have “the Christian” say in the matter. Christian churches have opposed the acceptance of people who are gay, lesbian, and bisexual people for so long that congregations which are welcoming need to make known their change of mind, their repentance of homophobia. An Open and Affirming stance is indication of this change.

In the parish I serve, we heard many dire predictions of congregational decline in membership and pledge income should we become ONA. However, after our decision, we lost only six members and have experienced a sharp increase in giving. Now, about six months later, four of the members who left have returned, and thirty people, of various sexual orientations, joined our church during the year of our ONA vote. Almost all of them said they came to our church because of our ONA initiative.

I have been sharing my own change of mind and heart, so I wish to conclude with a personal story. When I was growing up in a small Vermont town, Dougie was my best friend. He was a year older than I and the epitome of a “cool kid”. I idolized him. He had a gas powered model airplane, a really neat fishing pole, and a secret place under his house where we’d play cards or Chinese checkers on hot summer days. I still remember the days he and I spent fishing on the river that ran in back of his house.

Most young boys spend some time talking about sex. He and I were no different. But the trouble began when he described gay sex. I was sickened, and thus spent less and less time with him. This was about the same time that my father gave me the standard lecture about not accepting rides from strangers, especially men. My father warned me that such men might rape me. I thought of Dougie and a feeling of loathing came over me.

Soon after, we moved to Western Pennsylvania. Years later, we went back to Vermont for a visit. Thoughts of Dougie’s “gross stuff” had faded away, and I begged my parents to let me see him while we were there. But one day, I met a couple of my other old buddies. We talked a lot about the old days and then I asked about Dougie. They warned me he was a “faggot” and that the whole town knew it. I was told clearly that I should avoid that “sicko.” That afternoon my family drove by Dougie’s house. My folks said, “Well, do you want to stop by?” I said, “No.” As we drove by the yard, Dougie was walking toward the river with a fishing pole in his hand. I looked away, feeling sadness and revulsion.

Now, years later, I regret the loss of my good friend. My own homophobia and that of my culture ended a great friendship. A few years ago, I took my kids back to my hometown. I planned to look up Dougie’s folks and find out where he was, but they had moved. I wish I could reconnect with my boyhood friend; I know that is very unlikely. I do not want my children to grow up in a culture where good friends are lost because of fears and prejudice. So I work to bring an end to the pain our Church has helped to bring on all of us – straight, lesbian, bisexual, and gay.

—— The Rev. Geoff Knowlton is pastor of First Congregational, UCC in Pelham, New Hampshire.

1. APA News Release Number 98-56, December 14, 1998
2. As noted in The Good Book by Peter J. Gomes. William Morrow, 1996. p. 146.
3. Examples of such comments are available on the Web page of “Wired Strategies” at: http://www.wiredstrategies.com/hate.html