Rev. George Tigh was ordained in 1971 and became an elder in Full Connection in 1974. George served several churches in the Eastern PA conference until he was granted disability leave in 2008. Despite a diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease, he continues to serve in ministry as a Pastor of Congregational Care at Newark UMC located near the University of Delaware. In George’s words, “I feel I have been reborn in this ministry, and plan to stay engaged in service for as long as health permits.” George was one of the 33 EPAUMC clergy members who co-officiated the service of Christian marriage for Bill Gatewood and Rick Taylor on November 9, 2013 at the Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia.
Consider the first words of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Is that not God’s way of saying, “I don’t have to be everything. I can permit to exist something that is not me?” A God-like spirit of respect and tolerance is diminishing in the world. Sadder still, the spirit of respect and tolerance is also diminishing in the United Methodist Church.
I began in the ministry in 1968. A year later I departed a doctrinally-inflexible denomination and entered the United Methodist Church. I brought with me a bundle of strong convictions, among them, the belief that a homosexual orientation was simply another way of defying the will of God. In the years since, I have re-examined the Scriptures and I have listened carefully to voices in the fields of genetics, psychiatry and medicine. As a result of doing so, I have come to believe that sexual orientation is determined by nature, not deliberate spiritual rebellion. The change in my beliefs did not evolve easily. It took years to overcome the culture of prejudice that permeated the church and world around me. I assure you that my movement from opposition to acceptance of a homosexual orientation was not the result of abandoning my faith, but exercising it!
I understand that many colleagues, many Christian brothers and sisters, strongly disagree with me. Recalling the pain and anguish of my own journey from one point of view to another, I dare not be impatient nor disrespectful toward those who disagree with me. I surely would never compel others to swallow their personal integrity and function as a pastor in a way that replicates my ideals and practices at the expense of their own. I give you permission to be you. You do not have to be me – a mere extension of my values, discoveries, beliefs and practices.
I but ask the same courtesy in return. If you oppose covenant services for same-gender partners, do not perform them. But offer me the creative, God-like courtesy to be different than you. Please reconsider your support for oppressive rules that obstruct me, and a sizable minority of your earnest and faithful colleagues, from fulfilling a ministry that we strongly feel is necessary to answer God’s call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament for all people.
“I’m so proud of him for holding to a biblical standard.”
The “him” in question was the seminary’s president. The comment tumbled out into an afternoon conversation amongst M.Div. students who were whiling away the time before an evening class began. We had been talking about nothing in particular when one of our colleagues—let’s call him “Peter”—voiced his excitement that the seminary president had refused to revisit the institution’s policy on human sexuality, despite the fact that some donors had made public their intention to withhold further gifts out of protest. “I think it shows a lot of courage.”
I wasn’t so sure. I had made my way to the seminary because of its commitment to urban issues. On the whole, however, I found myself to be less theologically conservative than most of my fellow students. Having embraced a conservative theology in my high school years, I had found it to be an uncomfortable fit by the time I entered seminary. Sometimes it felt to me that the “courage” to uphold a “biblical standard” was simply another way of refusing to consider new and uncomfortable ideas.
The acceptance of LGBT people—and, more to the point, the integrity of their relationships with one another—was definitely one of those uncomfortable ideas. As a high school student who had awakened to the lively power of the scriptures, I had “known,” intuitively and without question, that there was nothing acceptable about any relationships outside of a heterosexual norm. It was a given; as far as I could tell, the Bible, reason, and nature all pointed to the sinfulness, the ultimate futility, and the self-annihilating logic of same-sex partnerships.
But a Washington Post book review started to pull at the threads of my closed system, ultimately causing it to fray. Mel White, who had been active in the Moral Majority, was close to Jerry Falwell, and had ghost written the autobiographies of more than one notable evangelical personality, had recently published the story of his own life. And it was very much the story of his desperate attempts to escape the stark insistence of his sexual desires. Mel White was gay in a subculture that denied the reality and acceptability of that fact. The book review and accompanying interview addressed the multiple ways he tried to shed his desires and replace them with the purer desires of a heterosexual man. Prayer. Fasting. Therapy. Shock treatment.
I’ll repeat that, since it seared itself into my consciousness: Shock treatment.
Still, he found himself attracted to men, depressed and suicidal, unable to pray, fast, or even electrify the gay away. Confronted with this, gradually, I found myself asking: Am I insisting on calling unclean that which God has called clean?
I could not, therefore, enter into Peter’s robust confidence about the nature of the dividing line between courage and cowardice.
Neither, it turned out, could he.
Peter completed seminary with excellent grades. He was, by all accounts, an impressive student and a skilled minister. He landed a comfortable pastorate shortly after graduation. He married a woman whom he loved. They had children together.
All the while, however, a long-repressed aspect of his life dogged him, fought to loose itself from the stranglehold of his terrified psyche: his attraction to men. Like Mel White, he tried everything he could think of to escape his desires, their claim on his selfhood. They were, he believed, impure, sinful, and evil. They threatened everything he had built his life into. They had to be eradicated. And when he found himself unable to do so—unable to get rid of his desires, unable to withstand the self-loathing, unable to bear the crushing depression—he looked to something more definitive than prayer and therapy. He came frighteningly close to taking his own life.
I learned this part of his story, truth be told, long after I had come to accept that LGBT people—and their relationships—are part of God’s riotously kaleidoscopic design for this world. What it sharpened for me, though, is the sense that concrete lives take precedence over abstract ideas. A theology, and the institutions built around it, that generates ineluctable impulses toward self-destruction in some of God’s people is a form of spiritual violence. A theology that inspires suicides is a theology crying out for the courage to change.
It is time to stop calling unclean what God has called clean.
 This is not, of course, his real name. He has written and spoken about his story—but in its specificity, it is his to tell. Insofar as it has played a part in the ongoing unfolding of my theological reflection, I tell it that way—in a manner that is complete even without a real name.
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