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The United Church and sexuality

Sobering lessons for other denominations.

It was a hot August night in 1988 when the crucial vote passed. The reactions were intense – and wildly different. Sally Boyle, watching from the gallery, shed tears of relief and happiness. Graham Scott literally tore his shirt, overcome by a sense of deep spiritual darkness.

The United Church of Canada, Canada’s largest Protestant denomination, had sent a clear signal of its growing acceptance of homosexuality.

What happened in the United Church in the 1980s? And is there anything that denominations such as the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and the Presbyterian Church in Canada can learn from it, as they wrestle with similar questions?

The United Church’s Journey

Well into the 20th century, the United Church shared the overwhelming cultural consensus that sex outside of a (heterosexual) marriage was immoral. The church’s position started to change in the 1960s, during the wider sexual revolution taking place in affluent Western countries. A new generation of church leaders proclaimed that the church had too often been an obstacle to progress; it was time to catch up with where the world was headed, and perhaps even to lead for once.

By the 1980s, discussion focused on whether homosexuality should be a bar to ordination. After many years of reports, lobbying and deferred decisions, in 1988 the General Council decided that sexual orientation was not an impediment to membership or ordination.

Both sides in this fierce debate understood the decision as the beginning of the end of the church’s opposition to homosexual relationships, and they were right: in 2000 the General Council stated that all sexual orientations are gifts of God. Shortly after, the church embraced same-sex marriage and gave its full endorsement to the transgender movement. Today the United Church is known as one of the world’s strongest religious backers of the new Western sexual morality.

Four Observations

The Christian Reformed Church of 2021 is not the United Church of 1988. The United Church has always been more theologically liberal, and more identified with mainstream society, than the CRC. Today’s social context is also starkly different. In the 1980s the United Church was on the leading edge of a change in sexual mores; today the CRC is a holdout against a hegemonic consensus in North America.

Still, there are four things the CRC can learn from the experience of the United Church. (I’ll refer to those who see heterosexual marriage as the only legitimate context for sexual activity as “traditionalists,” and those who believe same-sex relationships, including sexual intimacy, are equally valid, as “revisionists.”)

First, debates about sexuality reflect deeper disagreements about moral reasoning. In the United Church, revisionists focused on the personal experiences of gays and lesbians in the church – often experiences of exclusion and rejection – and concluded that complete affirmation of same-sex relationships was the only truly loving response. Traditionalists asked a different question – what are God’s intentions for human sexuality? – and pointed to the Bible’s specific teachings as the authoritative guide to these intentions.

The United Church had long been willing to question or set aside particular Scriptural teachings, which is partly why the opposition to homosexuality was unsuccessful despite representing the large majority of United Church members in the 1980s. Today in the CRC, biblical arguments carry more weight, and advocates of the revisionist position have made greater efforts to propose reinterpretations of the relevant passages. These are no doubt sincere, but not very convincing on exegetical, hermeneutical or historical grounds. Instead, personal stories of pain and exclusion remain the powerful heart of the revisionist cause. As it was in the United Church, the debate in the CRC is as much about how we should resolve moral questions as it is about the specific question under consideration.

Second, the revisionist position reflects a consistent moral logic with broader implications. In the United Church, acceptance of homosexuality was preceded by increasing tolerance of premarital sex and abortion and followed by approval of today’s full spectrum of LGBTQ+ identities. With hindsight it is clear that the same convictions drove these several changes: sexual self-expression is essential to who people are, rules about sex are exclusionary, and the church harms people if it refuses to affirm their deeply felt sexual and gender identities.

Scholars like Jonathan Haidt and Carl Trueman would argue that these convictions, while unusual in historical and global terms, are deeply rooted in contemporary Western moral tastes that emphasize harm avoidance and fairness above other considerations, and that see free sexual expression as fundamental to a person’s identity. For most Westerners today, the moral imperative to accept people for who they are – and avoid the harm of not doing so – readily outweighs ancient texts and venerable traditions. Consequently, those who think the church can affirm same-sex relationships, while maintaining in the long run its opposition to extramarital sex, are fooling themselves. (Indeed, the Bible’s opposition to premarital sex and polygamy, while clear, is less explicit than its opposition to homosexual sex.)

Sharp divisions

Third, any position a church takes on sexuality will encourage some and alienate others, inside and outside the denomination. In the United Church, even the restrained wording of the 1988 decision provoked the intensely opposite reactions of Boyle and Scott. Gays and lesbians, especially those who had lived fearfully in the closet as ministers, for the first time felt at home in their own church. Traditionalists, for their part, felt that their church had changed beyond recognition, leading to an exodus of clergy, laypeople and congregations. Outside the denomination, the United Church’s stance on sexuality inspired some other mainline Protestant churches, but created serious tensions with Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches outside North America and Western Europe. Today the different positions are more sharply drawn. The CRC’s position will not only determine who will be inclined to stay and who to leave, but also whether the denomination is casting its lot with the United Church and other liberal Protestant churches in the West, or with the global church.

Finally, some hope that the revisionist position will help the church hold on to young people who accept the social consensus about sexuality, and thus stem the church’s loss of members. This hope is badly mistaken. Despite endorsing nearly every progressive cause since the 1960s, including progressive positions on sexuality, the United Church has continually hemorrhaged people and today has a relatively elderly constituency. The decline accelerated measurably after the 1988 decision. This is a nearly universal pattern in Western societies – the most “progressive” churches have the most difficulty holding on to members and keeping up sustainable levels of commitment. In our own research, my colleagues and I have found that even within mainline Protestant denominations, the handful of growing congregations are markedly more theologically conservative than their many shrinking counterparts. Conservatism is no guarantee against numerical decline – most Western churches of any stripe are struggling just to hold their own right now – but the evidence is overwhelming that the more theologically and morally liberal churches are, the less able they are to withstand the secularizing pressures of contemporary Western culture.

The Inescapable Question

The lessons from the United Church’s history are sobering. What is at stake is not just this one issue, important as it is, but a denomination’s approach to moral authority, its place in the global church, and maybe even its ability to sustain itself numerically. Either way, people are going to be hurt, and people are going to leave. Yet avoiding the issue is not a real alternative.

As useful as historical comparisons can be, this question cannot be answered by what others have done in the past, or what we think will keep people in the church. Above all, it is a question of what is true and what is right. May the Lord help the Christian Reformed Church, and all of us facing this question, choose wisely.

  • Kevin is professor of history at Redeemer University and the author of After Evangelicalism: The Sixties and the United Church of Canada (McGill-Queen’s, 2013). He’s written widely on the history and sociology of Protestantism in Canada.

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One Comment

  1. A new generation of church leaders proclaimed that the church had too often been an obstacle to progress; it was time to catch up with where the world was headed, and perhaps even to lead for once.

    Just the opposite of what Scripture says about “Do not be conformed to the world. “ This decision began the downfall…

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