Sunday, October 31, 2010

"I'll Risk My Reputation for That"

"Megachurch Pastor is Gay; Comes Out to Congregation."

That's the headline floating around the net, in various iterations. (Like this. Or this, which is a better story.) It may not be quite accurate -- "megachurch" is a tricky word -- but it comes close. And the story underneath the header seems noteworthy, at least so far as we can discern it. Which isn't very far.

Jim Swilley, 52, is a clergyman in Conyers, Georgia. Last week, he revealed to his congregation that he is gay, and has known this about himself -- even when he didn't have words for it -- since he was very young. He also pledged to remain celibate. He is twice-married, with four children, and although he is divorced from his second wife, they are still apparently close. She was with him when he made the announcement, and spoke in his support. He says that she knew about his sexual orientation all through their marriage, and was helped him make the decision to speak about it publicly.

He also says that, although he had been considering a public statement for some time, he was moved to action by the recent attention given to the bullying of, and suicide among, gay teens:
“As a father, thinking about your 16, 17 year old killing themselves. I thought somebody needed to say something,” Swilley said through tears. ...

“I know all the hateful stuff that’s being written about me online, whatever,” Swilley said. “To think about saving a teenager yeah, I'll risk my reputation for that.”
There is no hint (so far) of blackmail or a pending lawsuit, a la Swilley's fellow Georgian, Eddie Long. It appears that Swilley, settling into middle age, genuinely decided it was time for some honesty, and that this was a cultural moment during which his honesty might help somebody else. We hope that's true, and we hope that it does.

You can stop reading right there, and have most of our take on the subject. But if you're the curious, detail-oriented type, here's some background.

Swilley is -- or was, since he has apparently resigned -- a bishop in the International Communion of Charismatic Churches, an organization which has its roots in the 1970s dialogues between Charismatic and Roman Catholic communities. (Here is the ICCC's own self-description, which is fascinating, and includes a snapshot of its early leaders with Pope Paul VI.)

He is also the pastor of "The Church in the Now," in Conyers. The name will remind many readers of Flip Wilson's "Church of What' Happenin' Now," but we doubt that an hommage was intended. We aren't sure whether it is a "megachurch" as defined by the Hartford Institute (2000 weekly attendance), but it is certainly very large. It also has a very slick, albeit not very informative, website, full of expressions like
[T]his house was/is to be a place of human recovery for those who have not been reached by the conventional church…those who have been overlooked…those who have slipped through the cracks.
[T]o become a reality for this community of truth-seeking believers...this non-traditional, inter-denominational, multi-cultural embassy of Christ. [All ellipses original, and inexplicable].
Honestly, it sounds like a decent enough place, if you are charismatically inclined. It even sounds, at least superficially, like the sort of place that might be able to live with a gay pastor, certainly a celibate one and perhaps even the other kind. But who knows?

One person who may know is David Huskins, the ICCC archbishop. It's a bit hard to work out the details of their interactions, based on a report by the highly biased folks at GCM Watch, but it seems that Huskins knew that Swilley was gay, and asked him not to make a public announcement, out of concern for ICCC bishops in countries with powerful antigay customs and laws. (We're looking at you, Peter "String-'Em-Up" Akinola). Swilley resigned from the ICCC rather than keep silent.


PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

Superficially reading your short take on this, it seems that either resigning or not resigning as bishop could be seen as taking a stand in favor of honesty. I hope that his honesty is helpful to some of his parishioners.

BTW, 'nother topic: you can be glad you aren't listening to all the vile and semi-vile TV ads for the election. The local TV stations I listen to are on the border between two states, ie Double you Fun.

Our pastor even mentioned in the sermon how glad she will be when this is over. Her sermon was about how we aren't perfect. It combined the Reformation theme with God's anointing of David, because David was in the lesson for today. We are using the ELCA Narrative Lectionary.

Father Anonymous said...

Yeah. I really hope the whole story is as basically decent as it sounds. And I hope it helps some struggling kid.

As for the political climate, I am indeed very isolated. Even from here, and can get a vague sense, but only a vague one. And it's a relief, not to mention a boon to my blood pressure.

Matt said...

And, for once, a story about a "homosexual" pastor who actually is homosexual in his self-understanding, and isn't simply being "outed" because he played power games with sex and got caught. The Long case is a profoundly, I might say incomparably different matter! Whatever its facts (for the court to decide), Long stands accused of gross sexual misconduct, which happened to be with people of the same gender. (Which seems all the more acrimonious because of his loud stands against homosexuality.) On the other hand, if we have the story right, Swilley simply chose a moment when, as a pastor, he found it ethically demanded by his conscience to "come out" at personal risk to his power and authority as a pastor. For the sake of the other rather than at the expense of others.

No story is ever as morally tidy as it seems, I'm sure, and I don't mean to paint one a hero and one a villain in harsh opposition, but I do want to describe the kinds of actions involved in as opposite a fashion as possible! Why should we assume Swilley will be sued/blackmailed like Long?

Father Anonymous said...

I don't think anybody is making any such assumptions. I'm not, and neither has any of the coverage I've seen. On the contrary, the guy has has the potential to become a folk-hero among gay-friendly Christians.

But one word of warning is in order, before we start the ticker-tape parade. Or actually two.

First, the heart is deceitful above all things, and even the best intentions are often clouded by secondary considerations and ulterior motives. That poses a problem for any celebration of moral heroism, especially in this age of too much information.

And second, Swilley lives and works in an ecclesiastical environment which is often short on discipline, which means that pastors with serious problems are often able to go further than they might elsewhere. Remember Earl Paulk (to whom Swilley is actually related somehow, although that's beside the point). Paulk was one of the brightest stars of the charismatic movement, appealing especially to the comparatively liberal; he was also a sexual predator of astounding rapacity.

I didn't even want to bring that last bit up, since it seems unfair. The situations are completely different. And Swilley's former involvement with the ICCC did seem to offer a touch of church discipline that many of his colleagues lack. I only mention it to explain why my own response may seem ... hesitant.