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Pastoral Letter from Iowa CM

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A Pastoral Letter from Iowa Conference Minister Rich Pleva
to the Pastors and Leaders of the Iowa Conference

As you well know, in April 2009 the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the state constitution must be interpreted to grant equal marriage rights to all couples – whether of same or different gender.  My purpose in writing isn’t to agree or disagree with the court’s ruling (though I will speak of my own convictions later) – instead I intend to offer a pastoral word of encouragement and challenge as you work with church members and others in the context of this new situation here in Iowa.

In taking this approach with you, I am seeking to model a particular ministry stance.  Since coming to serve with you nearly 4 years ago, I have tried to make it my consistent practice to be conference minister to all the churches and all the people of the conference.  I work very hard at this.  You will be the judge of how well I am doing, but whether it has been in the hard decisions about conference finances, or the configuration and ministry emphases of the conference staff, or the decisions around Pilgrim Heights, or my availability to small or large churches – I have worked hard to be there for all of you.

Do we always agree?  We do not.  I am fully aware that my leadership and suggested direction about the conference budget and about the divestiture of Pilgrim Heights and the sale of the conference office building have not been pleasing to all of you.  Regardless of whether we have agreed or disagreed, I hope you have experienced my continued regard and respect.

Why raise these seemingly extraneous issues in the context of questions about marriage equality?  Simply for these reasons:  I am less interested in whether or not I’m right and you’re wrong (or vice versa), than I am in whether or not we are able and willing to be the one body of Christ even in the midst of our differing opinions and convictions.

Many of you know that I was raised, educated and ordained in a church context considerably different from that of the United Church of Christ.  I am grateful for my early experiences in that quite different church – they formed me in ways which gave and continue to give me a deep grounding in and appreciation for the Biblical texts.  But like every tradition (including our own!), there were weaknesses and problems in that tradition.  One of them – I would say – was a powerful need for certainty and control.

As I get older, I find myself more and more drawn to an understanding of Christian faith which emphasizes relationship, reconciliation, and change, more than certainty and correctness.  I also find myself more and more fascinated with the question of how and why people of good will and sincere Christian faith can be so profoundly divided about questions and issues that are seemingly so important.

This letter would quickly become a book if I were to attempt to fully explicate the issue I’ve just raised.   Suffice it to say that this dynamic is nothing new.  Already in the first decades of the early church, profound questions about matters that seemed critically important were being debated.  First and foremost among those questions was the Gentile-Jew issue:  Does a Gentile wishing to convert into the “Way” need to become a Jew – does a male convert need to be circumcised?  Make no mistake about it – this question was no less controversial in that day as same sex marriage is in ours.  One of the things I find fascinating about this debate as we find it in the book of Acts and in the New Testament epistles is that it happened at all!

By this time I consider myself an Iowan, so forgive me for a small bit of in-house criticism:  Had this debate happened here in the upper Midwest, it might never have been resolved.  In our preference for “peace” and in our typical aversion to conflict, we would have practiced evasion and denial.  And who knows – we might even have kept a sort of peace.  But if we had, it would be at a steep price – the erosion of genuine and deep community into superficiality and “niceness.”

If a random passerby says something with which I disagree, it is probably a sign of my own insecurity if I feel compelled to challenge him.   But if a member my own congregation – a fellow member of the body of Christ — says something with which I strongly disagree as a matter of important conviction, my failure to engage her in a respectful, but honest conversation likely says more than I intend about the degree to which the community of faith has become trivial and insubstantial.

Is this an easy thing to do?  It is not.  It is all the harder for many of us because we no longer cultivate the skills by which to have such difficult and challenging conversations.  Instead we gravitate to one of two unhelpful extremes – we accost or we evade.  Neither is commendable.

There are, I suspect, many reasons why the conversation for which I plead is so difficult.  Let me name only one.  It is a challenge unique to the church – particularly to OUR kind of church.  To put it bluntly, we do not share common understandings about our most fundamental and revered texts – that which we call the Bible.  For some of us, the Bible is nothing less than the Word of God written.  For others, however, the Bible, while still held in highest honor and respect, is seen as a record of the dealing of God with God’s people.  To put it another way, for some, the Bible is ITSELF God’s revelation of God’s self.  But for others the Bible is the written record of God’s revelation as it has unfolded in the community of faith over many generations and then finally, in Jesus the Christ.  And to be honest, the dichotomy as I’ve described it is still oversimplified – convictions about the nature of Scripture exist on an odd continuum – a continuum which isn’t precisely linear.  The variations of presupposition about just what the Bible is are many and fascinating, and are not entirely compatible.

Is it any wonder that a community which isn’t (and never has been!) of one conviction about the nature of its foundational texts should find it challenging to speak with one voice about the application of those texts to the issues of contemporary life?  It isn’t surprising to me, at least.

Consequently, for some of us the matter of same sex marriage is settled by those often quoted texts which condemn same gender sexual activity.  But for others of us, those same texts are seen in a historical context which causes them to be read with less authority.  Instead, these members of the faith community find themselves more compelled by other texts which speak of inclusion and changing understandings of the will and revelation of God.  Too often we talk past each other for our failure to understand that we approach the sacred texts with profoundly differing assumptions about just what they are.  The first side sees the other as dismissive of the texts, while the second will commonly view the first as obtuse.  I would suggest that neither is exactly right and that neither attitude is helpful.

My pastoral appeal, therefore, is for deep and meaningful conversation.  Upfront I can safely predict that even when we seriously talk, we will still not be of one mind on this – or a myriad of other difficult and important questions.  That should not, however, excuse us from the hard (and potentially exhilarating!) work of seeking to know and appreciate each other with greater grace and depth and respect.

In the 14th chapter of the epistle to the Romans, Paul takes on the question of division in the church.  The issues (religious holidays and dietary restrictions) probably seem trivial to 21st Century readers but to the first readers of this letter these were questions of paramount importance.  Certainly Paul had his own opinions on these questions (and I think those opinions are pretty clearly signaled), but would and did Paul make agreement with his conviction the necessary condition for sharing table fellowship?  He did not.  Neither should we.

Because some of you are curious, I am not shy to tell you that I am profoundly grateful for the Supreme Court’s decision.  It accords with my convictions on how best to read scripture.  But if you and I disagree, let us not avoid each other or write each other off as somehow deficient in our faith.  Another New Testament principle – one undisputed by those with different hermeneutical convictions – is that the body of Christ is diminished whenever any of its members are excluded.  Ultimately it is God who creates this thing we call the church – none of us gets to decide who might be in and who might be out.  I believe I am compelled to embrace as one in Christ all who confess Christ as Lord – whether we agree or disagree on the legitimacy of same sex marriage.

Should you desire assistance in planning for a congregational conversation about same sex marriage (or any other difficult subject), please understand that members of the conference staff are ready to offer assistance.  We will do our best to bring integrity and respect to our work with you and the quality of that work will not be conditioned on whether or not we agree.

As always, I am grateful for your ministry in your place of call – whether you are a pastor, a congregational leader, or a member whose vocational call is in the office, shop, school, farm or elsewhere, together we are the body of Christ, called to bring the Good News of God’s transforming love to a hurting and needy world.

God bless you!
Rich Pleva
Iowa Conference Minister

Resources

http://www.ucccoalition.org/programs/ONA/resources:l. Covenant Conversations…a resource designed for clergy meeting with same-gender couples prior to a blessing or marriage ceremony. The collection includes reflections of the meaning of covenantal relationship, unique issues which arise when working with same-gender couples, questions to explore with couples, and more.2. The Greatest of These is Love–8 same-gender couples’ joyful, historic, legal marriages in faith communities in Massachusetts.  The resource includes photos of the couples and their reflections on marriage, with additional comments by officiants, family, and friends.