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Gays and the Church

Applying Psychology to facilitate constructive dialogue.

Although the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges seemed to settle many civil issues about same-sex marriage in the United States, the topic remains contentious in many religious communities. In recent years, some denominations have broken with the historical Christian view that same-sex relations “miss the mark” and have become more LGBTQ affirming. Many have not, however, meaning they will not support “unrepentant” same sex sexual behavior or same-sex marriage in their churches.

From February 23-26, 2019, another major denomination will meet to discuss its official stance about same-sex relations, as leaders in the United Methodist Church will convene in St. Louis, Missouri to discuss “a way forward.” The plan recommended by the Methodist Council of Bishops would allow local decision-makers to implement policies about matters such as same-sex marriage that best fit their social contexts. If approved, this would enable more progressive districts to support the ordination of gay and lesbian Pastors and marry same-sex couples, subject to the conscience of the local pastor, while allowing more conservative districts to remain unchanged in policy and practice.

At play in these deliberations are questions of how to know what is true about matters of faith. The founder of the Methodist tradition – John Wesley – proposed four “ways of knowing,” now organized in what is popularly termed the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral:” experience, reason, tradition, and Scripture. Basically, Methodists look for “converging evidence” in these four domains when creating church policy, although Scripture is prioritized.

In anticipation of the denomination’s upcoming meetings, I have led a discussion group at my local Methodist church exploring same-sex relations, using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as an organizing tool, for the past six weeks. Members of my church community have discussed their experiences with gays and lesbians, we invited several gay Christians to our group to listen and learn from their stories, and we have explored Scripture from both conservative and progressive perspectives. As a facilitator, my charge was to lead this group neutrally, meaning I have not shared my opinion very often, I have tried to make sure the best of materials are shared from both conservative and progressive viewpoints, and I have sought to create an atmosphere that is hospitable and conducive to honest, respectful conversations among individuals who often disagree.

As a psychological scientist, I have found an understanding of Psychology to be invaluable in my work. For instance, in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, psychology illuminates how individuals may differ in interpreting experience, tradition, and Scripture. More centrally, part of “reason” is “science,” and so insights from psychological science often have taken center stage in this group’s discussions.

For example, many group members were surprised to learn about the connection between religion and suicidality among sexual minorities. In particular, in one study of over 20,000 young adults, researchers found a link between the importance ascribed to religion in participants’ lives and the amount of suicidal thinking among those identifying as gay, lesbian, or questioning.

In a session devoted almost entirely to science, we explored what research has revealed about the causes of sexual orientation and the changeability of sexual orientation. I assigned chapters from two books, reflecting both conservative and progressive perspectives. Doing this allowed us to focus on where psychologists with different theological positions agreed:

  1. 2-3% of the population reports being consistently and exclusively attracted to members of the same sex (more males than females).
  2. Sexual orientation is complex and poorly understood. There is no single cause.
  3. Part of what determines sexual orientation seems to be a genetic predisposition.
  4. Prenatal hormones seem to play a role in determining sexual orientation, at least in animal models.
  5. Poor parent-child relationships – including history of childhood trauma – do not seem to predict sexual orientation.
  6. Sexual orientation is not chosen; sexual behavior is.
  7. Most – if not all – people will not substantially change their sexual orientation.

More broadly, psychological research suggested ways to encourage constructive dialogue. Applying a tactic similar to the “jigsaw classroom,” I randomly assigned group members to tables during the more discussion-oriented sessions. This ensured that individuals were not self-selecting into groups with others who would further confirm their positions, but rather share views that would provoke deeper thought. We also often relied upon “ground rules” for conversation, including the importance of using “I statements” that required individuals to take ownership of their positions rather than asserting their universal truth value.

In our last session, most people noted that they did not change their beliefs very much as a result of their participation. What was almost universally agreed upon, though, was how much complexity was involved in the issue, and how much intellectual humility is necessary. Many people reported how learning from both sides stretched them and helped them gain greater empathy for those with whom they differed.

Personally, I felt like leading a group on such a contentious, politicized issue with people I know and like was a huge risk. After the first session, my wife wondered aloud with me whether we were going to make enemies of everyone we knew! However, taking this leap taught me to trust that good still is possible and that, with a little guidance and encouragement, most people really are capable of open, respectful conversation.

That’s a lesson we all need to remember.

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