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Jan13TueSocial Issues Committee examines Army's relationship with LGBT+ community. January 13, 2015 by Kristin Ostensen
Can a person who is openly gay become a senior soldier? What should an officer do if she is asked to conduct a baby dedication for a same-sex couple?
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Questions such as these are likely to spark debate in any Salvation Army congregation. And that's why the Canada and Bermuda Territory's Social Issues Committee (SIC) has embarked on a year-long project to study the Army's relationship with the LGBT+ community.
“I think it's a discussion that's long overdue—it's not a distant or abstract thing anymore,” says Aimee Patterson, Christian ethics consultant at the Army's Ethics Centre in Winnipeg and staff support person for the SIC. “We are looking into various perspectives on Scripture and theology. But what drives this conversation are living, breathing relationships, and how certain people have been shamed, neglected and excluded.”
A Place for Discussion
The SIC was formed in 1968 and is a sub-committee of The Salvation Army's Ethics Centre Board. The SIC exists to identify, study and respond to moral and social issues affecting the lives of people in Canada and Bermuda and requiring action on the part of The Salvation Army. The SIC operates in an advisory capacity, studying an issue and developing recommendations for Army leadership.
“We don't just create position statements,” explains Estee Lau, chair of the SIC. “Usually it's at the request of the territorial leaders. If they see that we need to explore a certain issue, they ask the SIC to work on that.” Any position statements that are drafted and approved by the territorial Cabinet must go to International Headquarters for approval before they can be adopted.
Though Lau notes that changes to the Army's position on social issues typically are not major, there is room for evolution. For example, in 2002, the territory's position statement on gay and lesbian sexuality included the following sentence: “We do not believe that same-sex attraction is necessarily blameworthy and we oppose the vilification and mistreatment of gays and lesbians.” In 2009, the position statement was revised.
“The result was the omission of a single word, yet it was far from insignificant,” notes Patterson. The statement now reads: “We do not believe that same-sex attraction is blameworthy and we oppose the vilification and mistreatment of gays and lesbians.” This statement is again under discussion.
Having a committee like the SIC is essential, Patterson says, because “it's important to provide an environment to encourage critical thinking about social issues. It's not enough to say, 'This is the way we've always done it.' It's important to allow for some innovation and to be faithful to the Christian call at the same time.”
“These issues often get lost in real life because they're such heavy, complex questions,” says Lindsay Colley, a senior soldier at Toronto's Yorkminster Citadel and a member of the SIC. “So instead of skipping over them and saying, 'We'll deal with this later,' or making a decision in a hasty way, the SIC provides a place to examine these problems.”
The Army and the LGBT+ Community
The committee's current study of the Army's relationship with LGBT+ persons officially began in June 2014 but had been in development for months prior to that.
“In May 2013, the SIC, through the secretary for program services, sent out a survey to all divisional commanders asking them what are the top three social and moral issues affecting their ministry and requiring action by The Salvation Army,” says Lau. “The LGBT+ issue was in the top three for most divisions. We thought it would be helpful if the territory could give some guidelines to help the officers solve some of those sensitive issues.”
The committee's task is not necessarily to amend or rescind the Army's position statement, but to start by creating a safe and welcoming conversation through which to examine this topic.
“As divisive as the topic is, nobody knows how to address it,” Patterson says. “We see people addressing it as a debate between two sides, and that's one way to do it, but we wanted to make sure that the various perspectives on this topic—which include two extreme sides, but also include views in the middle—are heard and respected.”
To achieve this, the committee is hearing from various people within and outside the Army, representing theological and experiential perspectives on Christian sexuality that are not already represented around the SIC table. These people will have the opportunity to speak with the SIC not only during their presentation but also at every subsequent meeting.
“We want to engage others, not just hear from them,” says Patterson. “We want people to speak for themselves and not put words in their mouths.”
The Ethics Centre has also provided relevant reading material for the SIC members. “Each member is encouraged to read and learn more so that we can have a more valuable conversation and discussion when we meet,” Lau notes.
Person to Person
With the approval of the chief secretary, the SIC began to organize a series of meetings and invite guests to talk to the committee about this topic. Their June 2014 meeting focused on stories of people who have a personal connection with the topic.
The committee invited two Salvation Army officers from the United States who have a son who is gay to share their experience.
“It was a very emotional journey for them and when they shared that with us, it really opened our eyes to what they have faced as officers having a gay son and how they accepted that fact and how they 'came out' as a family,” says Lau. “The main message is that they love their son very much and walk along that journey with him.”
The committee also heard from a gay man who grew up in The Salvation Army in Canada and how he struggled with his sexual identity.
“He prayed and asked God to do anything that he could to change him from gay to straight, but he could not change,” Lau shares. “He was devastated and cried and asked God to take his life because he didn't want to kill himself. He has now come to terms with his sexual identity and is no longer suicidal.”
“One thing that meeting confirmed for us is that there are people who have been hurt and continue to hurt within our territory over this issue,” says Patterson. “It's become clear to us that we need to be engaging people and learning from them, rather than scrutinizing or condemning them.”
The SIC has also received written testimonies from Salvationists in Canada and abroad via a number of channels.
“In reviewing all these testimonies, I realized that there are quite a number of gay Christians, including Salvationists, among us. They just haven't come out and told us because they're waiting for a safe and welcoming conversation,” says Lau. “So we need to find a way to move this forward peacefully with respect and dignity, and we need to give them a sense of safety if they voice their opinion.”
The committee held meetings for this project in September and October. The group heard presentations from Major Ray Harris, who examined biblical and doctrinal perspectives on the issue. In November, Major Phil Davisson spoke about finding a balance between past understandings of Scripture and contemporary insight and experience into these matters.
In the months to come, the committee also expects to hear from people engaged in relevant pastoral, educational and scientific work.
When the SIC concludes its study next June, it will submit a report to the Ethics Centre Board and the territorial Cabinet sharing how the committee grew in the key areas of experiential, exegetical and theological knowledge. It is hoped that this will produce a safe and welcoming conversation model that can be used by ministry units facing all kinds of sensitive issues.
“Even within the SIC, there are very different views on this topic,” says Colley. “That has been a real learning experience for us and a challenge. And as we work through that, I'm hoping that we come up with a set of best practices that we can then share with the wider Army on how we pose these kinds of questions and have these discussions.”
Any Salvationists who are interested in contributing to this project can contact the Social Issues Committee via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Salvation Army does not discriminate in the delivery of its social services. You can read our full nondiscrimination policy here: http://www.salvationarmy.ca/nondiscrimination/
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