Series Introduction: Last year a large number of former students and professors of Asbury Theological Seminary signed a letter urging Asbury leadership to repent of their treatment of LGBTQ+ students and the ways in which Asbury has supported the discriminatory treatment of LGBTQ+ people in the United Methodist Church.
Alongside that effort, a group of former students/professors are now sharing their stories of how they have individually journeyed to the affirmation of LGBTQ+ people. Each week during the next couple of months, one person will share their story as part of the project, Journeys to Affirmation.
These are their stories, shared each Tuesday.
New Ways of Thinking
Rev. Scott Spencer
My earliest memories include the church. I remember being at the church while my mom was in choir practice. I remember the offering plates being passed during worship and sitting next to my dad while my mom sang in the choir. I have pictures of nativity plays in the sanctuary and visits by Santa Claus in the fellowship hall. Around third grade, my family moved to a larger United Methodist Church. And as I grew older, I could not wait until I was in 7th grade and could be a part of the youth group. God, faith, and church were a part of me from the moment I entered this world.
My parents did not have me baptized as an infant. I was baptized when I was around 12 years old during the confirmation ritual. I don’t remember much about the confirmation class, but I knew I wanted to officially be a member of the church, that I loved God, and that I wanted to follow Jesus. I also remember the confirmation material – it had zero pictures in it and on the back page (which was blank) the pastor had us write “grace = undeserved forgiveness.”
Throughout junior high and high school, I remained active in the church. The topic of homosexuality was not something I remember being discussed either in my family or in the church. One of my earliest memories of being aware of what it meant to be gay was watching the t.v. program “Three’s Company.” And of course towards the end of grade school and the beginning of junior high, derogatory terms were thrown around in the hallways in a typical bullying fashion. Rock Hudson died of AIDS during my high school years and of course, the rumors were “he was gay.”
I believed homosexuality was wrong. I believed it was a sin. But I also believed that it was something few truly understood. And I believed that somehow God understood. As a young pastor, I didn’t feel the need to talk about homosexuality. And when people asked, I stressed our need for understanding and grace. From a young age, I have always found myself following the path of grace rather than the path of judgment.
When I chose a seminary, I chose Asbury based on its reputation as being deeply grounded in “classical Wesleyan-Arminian theology” which I had come to believe was the best expression of Christianity. It was no secret during my time at Asbury that there were students who “struggled with same-sex attraction.” Some were quite open about it. Others, more quiet.
I took a class on pastoral care and counseling while at Asbury. It was also during that time the UMC had its General Conference in Louisville. It was 1992 – and the study committee on homosexuality (which had met for the previous four years) was presenting at General Conference. My professor was on that committee and led the charge for the traditional view. He spoke clearly from the podium in Louisville and said that the reconciling Methodists had added “bisexual” to the usual phrase of “gays and lesbians.” He indicated that bisexuals, being attracted to both males and females, opened the door to non-monogamous relationships. At the time, we traditionalist students nodded our heads in agreement. I have since learned how wrong one’s assumptions can be. My professor simply did not understand what it meant to be bisexual. If a straight man can marry a straight woman and still find other women attractive but remain in a monogamous relationship with his partner, a bisexual person can also be in a monogamous relationship regardless of the feelings of attractiveness to others which may occur.
Nor did my professor understand much about sexual relations between two men or two women. In his class, he explained that human beings are the only species to have face-to-face contact during sexual intercourse. It is the most intimate kind of contact between two persons. But homosexuals, he said, don’t have face-to-face contact while engaging in sex. It was one more reason why homosexuality was wrong.
However, I will never forget when a male student leaned over to me and said, “He is wrong. I have had anal sex with a woman. It doesn’t mean you have sex ‘from behind.’”
I was stunned. How could a professor be wrong?
There have always been these cracks in my understanding of homosexuality. New information emerges. New experiences. New realities. My worldview was changing and continues to change.
Nevertheless, I had made a commitment to the UMC. I knew what the Book of Discipline said. I had taken a vow to uphold it. But as we all know, United Methodists can disagree with the Book of Discipline and work to change it. I began to work to change the Book of Discipline in 2014.
Around 2014, my bishop had been quoted in our state newspaper. Twice. Both times the bishop alluded to the fact that “Methodists follow the Bible” without clearly stating the United Methodist position on homosexuality or clearly stating that United Methodists can (and do) disagree with one another. Also, around that time, Rev. Frank Schaefer lost his clergy credentials simply for officiating at the wedding of his son to another man his son loved. It was time for me to speak up. While my bishop was being quoted in the paper, and while Rev. Schaefer was put on trial, marriage equality was coming to Oklahoma (even before the Supreme Court ruling.) I, along with several other United Methodist clergy in Oklahoma, began to publicly speak up. We placed ads in the Daily Oklahoman and the Tulsa World, we created a Facebook page and website, we ordered t-shirts, we marched in the Tulsa and Oklahoma City Pride parades, and we invited Rev. Schaefer to come and speak in Oklahoma the same week as our Annual Conference session met. Over 200 people met to hear Schaefer’s story.
I have come to change my views on “homosexuality.” I believe some people are born gay and some people are born straight. Some people are asexual. Some are pansexual. Some are intersex. Some are bisexual. It’s just the way things are. And I believe God designed us that way. The verses in the bible that are used to condemn homosexuality have nothing to do with loving and committed relationships. Some people in this world have the spiritual gift of celibacy. Some LGBTQ+ persons may have the gift of celibacy. But not ALL LGBTQ+ have the gift of celibacy nor should the church force them to remain celibate. No one can help with whom they fall in love.
In a former church I served, a gay couple wanted to get married. They knew they wouldn’t be able to be married in the United Methodist Church. They didn’t want to put me in an awkward position by asking me to officiate. They were married by a friend in a local venue often used for weddings. Many from the church attended and supported this couple. Some did not. This couple had been together for over two decades. They had raised a nephew as their own son. The church had been there for them – time and time again. The couple had experienced all the ups and downs of life together as any other married couple had done. When they could legally be married – with all the benefits that come from a marriage recognized by the state – they wanted that for themselves. It was inconceivable to me that their life together was wrong, shameful, or sinful. I attended the ceremony – as their pastor and as a friend. I offered a prayer during the ceremony. They said, “We won’t mention the church or that you are our pastor.” When I stepped forward, I proudly told the gathering that I was their pastor. There was no reason to be ashamed. After all these years, these two men are still married.
The United Methodist Church has been harming our LGBTQ+ siblings for at least 47 years. It’s time for the harm to stop. And I will do my part, with God’s help, to bring reconciliation and liberation to God’s LGBTQ+ children.
Rev. Scott Spencer is a 1995 graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary and has served in the Oklahoma Annual Conference as an associate, a pastor, and a campus minister. He is currently the lead pastor of Mosaic United Methodist Church in OKC, a reconciling congregation.
About this series: Journeys to Affirmation is a group of people affiliated with Asbury Theological Seminary who are sharing their stories of how God’s grace moved them from non-affirming to affirming of LGBTQ+ people. New stories weekly, click here for all entries in the series.
Thank you to these Asbury Theological Seminary students, alums, and staff who share their stories. Inspired to write your own? Contact the curator Bill Mefford @ Fig Tree Revolution.
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Original article: Journeys to Affirmation 07: New Ways of Thinking.