One thing I like about the season of Advent is that it gives us a regular opportunity to reflect on the role of hope in our lives, both personally and collectively.
Waiting (and working) for Something Big on the horizon gives our lives direction. A band of escaped slaves wandered for 40 years seeking the Promised Land; at the time of Christ's birth, their descendants were hoping for another Moses to deliver them from colonial oppression. These hopes set the pattern for our smaller ones: waiting four years for the next election, waiting now for The Vaccine that will allow us to gather again without fear. In our extended household, we are waiting for a baby to be born next March, and Karen and I are waiting for international travel to be safer so we can return to the US and begin thinking about establishing a home base there after nearly 40 years away.
In the meantime, we are experiencing an Advent of sorts in GMIT that many would say is more of an apocalypse. At long last, after decades of being studiously ignored, the issue of the place of LGBTIQ members in the church has "come out." When we first came here in 1983 the unspoken policy was the old standby, "Don't ask, don't tell." GMIT had gay and lesbian pastors, but always in secret. They served well or poorly as other pastors do, they politely resisted efforts by the congregations to marry them off, or failing that, entered into cold marriages that simply produced collateral victims of homophobia.
During the years that followed, the issue slowly came into sight: word got out of same-sex marriages in Europe and America, and people shook their heads at the immoral West. An Indonesian LGBTIQ rights movement began to emerge, and was met with threats and violence in the cities of Java. People in Timor shook their heads at the wicked ways of the city.
And then it happened: a group of GMIT’s candidates for ministry were gathered for a final retreat before their ordination. At a candle-light service of meditation, they were invited to open their hearts and share their fears and hopes as they prepared to enter a lifetime of ministry in Christ's church. Surrounded by friends, in an atmosphere of caring and acceptance, Andi (a pseudonym) found the courage to share his secret: he was gay. He had struggled with his sexuality for many years and had even attempted suicide. Eventually he came to accept his identity as a gay man who was nonetheless called to ministry. This would mean that he would have to be celibate, and he was willing to pay that price. (The simple logic of celibacy is that Indonesia does not allow same-sex marriage, and GMIT does not accept sex outside of marriage—therefore no sex for Andi.)
Andi's friends freaked out, and his announcement threw GMIT's personnel department into crisis mode. They handled it gracefully. Working within GMIT's existing regulations, they found that there was no explicit refusal to ordain gay or lesbian candidates for ministry, although there is a definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. Up to now, GMIT has made no theological study of LGBTIQ issues save for two introductory seminars that were highly controversial, nor has it issued a formal position. Since Andi had been an exemplary candidate for ministry, much loved by the congregation he had served, and he had promised celibacy, there was no basis to deny him ordination. The personnel department therefore gave their recommendation, and he was ordained into Christian ministry in the Evangelical Protestant Church of Timor.
All might have ended there, except that a well-meaning reporter was doing an investigative story about how members of the LGBTIQ community relate to their respective religious communities. The Catholic Archbishop spoke in the same uncondemning tones that we have heard from Pope Francis; Andi was also interviewed (but not named). He said he hoped to use his position as a pastor to help show the church that LGBTIQ people could be good Christians and were worthy of respect and acceptance.
Someone who read the article put two and two together and identified Andi as the speaker. Within days, Facebook was aflame with outrage, and rumors spread that GMIT's progressive leaders were secretly promoting a pro-LGBTIQ agenda and were planning to introduce same-sex marriage. There were calls for an emergency meeting of the Synod to replace the current leadership. Judging by social media (which is always a mistake), widespread homophobic panic seemed to have overtaken the church. Tensions were running high when the moderators of GMIT's 52 Presbyteries met to decide what to do.
The meeting produced a classic church compromise that was perfectly calibrated to satisfy the majority of those who had no well-formed opinions about the issue and guaranteed to disappoint anyone who did. A statement was issued saying that 1. at the present time [my emphasis], GMIT does not accept same-sex relationships; 2. GMIT needs to formulate a clear theological position, but only after a thorough period of study and dialogue; 3. Andi's placement in a congregation will be delayed until he has undergone a period of further pastoral guidance and discernment; and 4. statements made in the press and in social media by pastors of GMIT must be in line with GMIT's official theological positions.
So...We're all catching our breath for the moment, and using the time to gather educational materials, identify allies in the struggle for LGBTIQ justice, and looking for strategies that can minimize the divisiveness in what is bound to be a long and painful journey. Forty years to the promised land seems realistic. In the meantime, Andi has become the pioneer who finally set the church on this much-needed journey. Other gay and lesbian pastors, students, and candidates for ministry have been forewarned that it is not safe to come out yet. When the Advent candles shine brightly, proclaiming a safe space for hope in the darkness, they are also forewarned: the same flame that brings light also burns.
Greetings in hope from Timor,
John Campbell-Nelson serves with the Evangelical Christian Church of West Timor in Indonesia. His appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, OGHS and your special gifts.