Ironically, my rather traditional Midwestern conservative father was the one who introduced me to music. He was a little flummoxed when I moved from his love of Jazz to the wild sounds of David Bowie. I recall him seeing the album covers, and just closing his eyes. If Bruce Springsteen grabbed my attention for the stories he told, David Bowie captured my imagination. The Los Angeles that I grew up in the mid 1970’s had an underground rock scene that would later emerge as punk rock and new wave sounds. It began in 1972 with what many consider one of the finest rock concerts of history. Bowie’s music was constantly changing and evolving from ballads in the late 60’s through an Avant gaard period in his collaborations with Brian Eno in Berlin. I began going to Bowie concerts on the Station to Station tour in 1976.
But, David Bowie introduced something else to me at an impressionable age. Like many adolescents, our views of human sexuality are profoundly influenced by events in our lives. These events can include family dynamics, divorces, exposure to images and practices of human sexuality, along with our own psychological development. I’ll spare you the Psychology 101 lecture, along with the views of Freud, Jung, and Erickson. You get the idea.
Bowie as an artist personified a different way of expressing his sexuality. He could be androgynous in his appearance. He would move from wearing elaborate makeup to dressing like a suave European nightclub singer. He once described himself as a “closet heterosexual.” An eye injury from an early age left one eye permanently dilated. This appearance added to the mystery.
Later, in college I became friends with several young men who were struggling to understand their own sexual identity. Over those college years, we talked on occasion, and in the end several of them came to a full understanding that they identified as young gay men. This was between 1977 and 1981, not exactly a time period when homosexuality was embraced by the culture.
From an early and formative time period in my life, I had been exposed to various perspectives of human sexuality. I had heard stories of family members who had come to understand themselves as gay, of men and women who were comfortable in same gender relationships.
By the time, I had moved toward an acceptance of a life as a follower of Christ at a Lutheran Camp in Southern California, I had already known many people who were gay. They were my friends, acquaintances and neighbors. I naively entered the Lutheran church with the assumption that everyone had this same experience. Didn’t we all know people who were gay? Didn’t we all grow up with David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, and Rock Hudson? Didn’t we know that the church organist was gay, or that college professor was lesbian?
It was only much later while in seminary that I began to pick up on this notion that not everyone in the church accepted gay or lesbian people. I never entered into any form of activism about the issue. I just watched and listened. I heard people say things I couldn’t believe. Eventually, I was asked to address the matter in a series of private conversations with people who were members of congregations that I served. In settings of pastoral confidentiality, I was asked about my views. I articulated an unequivocal acceptance, grace and embracing of people. I couldn’t see why people would not.
All this is to say, that I’ve never really thought of sexuality as something to fear. Oh, to be confused by, yes indeed. I think we are all trying to understand who we are as sexual beings. That’s part of the life long journey.
Somewhere in the time period between the formal beginnings of my Christian faith and my second parish, I took time to study the various biblical passages that had typically been used to support a case against homosexuality. What I found were a few passages in Leviticus and a passage in Romans. I did some reading and research, and I’ll admit it was not a thorough dive into all the scripture, but it was enough to give me a solid perspective. There were a range of responses from those who held up these passages as clear evidence of God’s condemnation of homosexuality. There were also clear bodies of scholarly work that pointed out these passages were not to be understood as legislative rulings. I also found absolutely ridiculous ideas on both sides of the argument. I concluded that while there are passages in the Bible that speak to this matter, there were also passages in those same parts of the scriptures that we choose to ignore. For instance, it’s clear that the Biblical concept of Jubilee, in which all debts were wiped clean was never practiced in ancient times, and certainly we don’t practice that today.
In addition, our understanding of human sexuality has evolved over time. One brief example. It used to be considered that the sole purpose of human sexual activity was for the purpose of child bearing. Fertility was everything. Do we still hold that view today?
I recognize that my perspective is not embraced by everyone. That’s ok. I’m not writing this to be coercive. I’m simply articulating some, and not all, of the pieces that brought me to this understanding.
In 2009, the ELCA made a decision that opened up this church to the gifts of gay and lesbian persons. The reality is that gay and lesbian people have been serving in the church for 2,000 years. But, now it could be publically affirmed in our denomination. We as a church developed some careful guidelines, that made it possible for there to be clarity around the circumstances those persons could be authorized for ordination, such as committed relationship, which has now evolved to legal marriage since the Supreme Court decision. We also put in place provisions for persons and congregations that did not want to be served by a gay or lesbian pastor. In short, we opened the tent, allowed for flexibility yet embraced a non-coercive practice.
Since being elected as Bishop in New England, I’ve had the opportunity to preside at the ordination of a number of persons who express their sexuality in multiple ways. Some are gay and single, others are straight and married, and others are celibate. In other words, there is a range. And what I have found in this range of expression of human sexuality is some amazingly gifted and faithful people. I want to emphasize this point. THESE ARE GIFTED PEOPLE AND GIFTED PASTORS. In many cases the congregations they serve are thriving. They are thriving because they are being served by gifted people, who happen to be gay.
David Bowie, some close friends and an affirming God gave me a gift early on – the gift of accepting people as sexual beings in various expressions. I’m grateful for that.