Fair to All Churches: Social Change, Fiction and Characters as Archetypes

The website Fireside GLBT Book Reviews posted an extensive review of the novel Angel today.  One paragraph inspired a bit of thought, which I would like to share:

It is interesting to see how the author handled the world of the everyday life of a church. As someone raised in that world, I found it extremely well-done: realistic and fair.  The author carefully painted a comfortable, comforting atmosphere, so that when it comes crashing down the reader is deeply affected. As a reader, I was somewhat bothered by the book’s reluctance to address the reality that there are more liberal churches than the one presented. I felt that a picture was being painted that wasn’t fair to all churches, in an era when Christianity is poorly understood to begin with. However, upon more consideration I realized that it is not the business of this book or its story to address all that: this is ultimately a story about one man, one church, one group of believers. It doesn’t need to address the wider political reality.

Several months ago I was pleased to receive a review of Angel from a conservative Christian blogger who believes homosexuality is a sin.  One of the points that she made was that she felt the novel should have told “the other side of the story.”  As an example, she suggested having the minister seek counseling from a fellow minister who could voice the view of conservative Christians.

I believe I wrote a post about this (although I can’t find it now).  In case I did not, my reaction was that I had written a novel, a work of fiction.  Although it has a point of view, it is not a morality play.  It is the story of one man, what happened to him, and how he reacted to it.  What is “the other side of the story” to a person’s experience?  What is the “other side” of your life story?  Is there a valid counter argument to the way you live your life?  I appreciated this same reflection in today’s review.

All novels deal with social issues.  That is to say, they are all narratives about individuals interacting with others in a social context.  The more a particular social issue is politicized, the more characters seem to be seen as archetypes.  So Paul is seen as representing ministers or the ministry or Christianity in a way that Ian is not generally seen as representing recovering alcoholics in general.

Paul’s church does not represent “Christianity.” It is a particular Christian church.

What interested me even more was the perception of Paul’s church as “conservative.”  This highlights, for me, the pace of social change since I started working on this novel a decade ago. To see this, I will go into some of my process in creating Hope Church.

Although The Minister and the Mountain (working title) was in the works since 2000, the central conflict regarding a same sex love affair did not come into the picture until late 2008.

Day to day work in a church, and many of the internal political questions that church boards deal with came from my own experience working in a Unitarian Universalist church office.

One of the questions our church board tackled, for example, was whether Red Cross blood drives, which do not accept donations from gay men, ran contrary to our mission as a Welcoming congregation.  (This is actually a federal law and not Red Cross policy if you want to study the question.) This inspired a scene in Angel in which the subject of the ban comes up.

(UU, for those who don’t know, is the most liberal of the Protestant denominations, to the point that there is disagreement among members as to whether Unitarian Universalists belong to the Christian tradition at all.  My minister, at the time I worked in the church, felt it was a Christian denomination.  Most of the office staff disagreed.  When I lived in France, I looked up Unitarian Universalism in a dictionary and it was defined as “a heretic religion.”)

Being part of a liberal religious organization I felt as though many agnostics and liberal religious folk had an unrealistic picture of where Christian churches were on social issues.  The image of the “Christian” in the news media tends to be exclusively that of the Evangelical Fundamentalist Christian.  I wanted to paint a more nuanced picture of the church, a picture of a mainstream denomination.

I decided that I would look up the statements on sexual orientation of two denominations that I considered to be mainstream and representative– not on the liberal end of the spectrum like the UCC and not Fundamentalist.  I  chose the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches.  Both had similar statements on human sexuality, statements that tried to have it both ways.  Gays and lesbians should be tolerated and welcomed, but it was still “incompatible with Christian teaching” and openly gay ministers were not allowed, nor was the blessing of same sex unions.

It was a time of social change, and large organizations change slowly.  They were trying to balance the needs of a new generation without alienating an older generation.  The story, then, was particularly interesting, because it was not a story of a church with a single point of view, but a living church with multiple, conflicting points of view.  This balance could only exist as long as they were not forced to confront the issue directly.

Shortly before the book was published, in 2010, the Presbyterian church voted to change its position and allow the ordination of LGBT ministers.  This was not without controversy; a number of individual churches left the denomination over it.

The United Methodist Church has retained its policies, in fact, while my book was in the process of being edited and printed Rev. Amy DeLong was tried by church authorities for being “a self-avowed practicing homosexual” (the same language I use in Angel, taken from UMC guidelines.)

While the UMC is, for now, sticking to its language and policies, many individual Methodists, congregations and organizations are campaigning for change.  (And Rev. Amy rocks!  Look up some of her sermons on YouTube.)

While I purposely do not identify Paul as Methodist, the official position of the fictional denomination was mostly based on the UMC.  (A Methodist friend of mine described her frustrated minister saying that his denomination’s position on gay rights was “not to have a position.”)

Paul’s is a church that is scrambling to keep up and to balance the different views of a large body of Christians, who never are and never were a monolith.

What is interesting to me is that a church that I thought of when writing in 2008 and 2009 as being a bit more on the progressive end of the spectrum comes across as “conservative,” even unfairly conservative, to some readers in 2013.  Things are changing very quickly.

The speed of change was one reason I didn’t want to identify Paul’s denomination.  But there is another important reason.  It was very important that Paul’s church be of a denomination that allowed ministers to serve until they decided to retire or they were dismissed by the congregation.  Some denominations (and I believe Methodists might be among them) assign ministers for a finite period of time.

Paul had been at Hope Church for years and he planned to stay there until he retired and to be buried in the church yard beside his wife.  Paul was connected to his denomination through family history and tradition, and he was connected to Hope church by the community.

People attend churches for many reasons, and I would argue that theology is a much smaller part of that decision than people believe.  Paul disagreed on a number of points with his denomination’s position.  That did not mean he could just pack up and leave and get a job at a more liberal UCC church.  Not without pain.

“It’s a relationship with a church, like a friendship,” Paul says to Ian. “You don’t stop speaking because you disagree on something.”

Whatever differences he might have had with his denomination about theology, Paul had devoted his life to the Hope Church community, it was his family, his home.

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