Reprinted from UM Insight with permission from UM Insight and Rev. Dr. John D. Copenhaver

For decades United Methodists have been debating issues of human sexuality. The debate usually comes down to differing interpretations of scripture. As a protestant denomination it is not surprising that United Methodists would look to scripture to find the right way forward. Frankly I’m tired of that debate because we are so dug into our positions that discussions are seldom productive. In fact, they often seem to lead to further entrenchment.

Traditionalists frequently describe their views as “orthodox” based on their interpretation of scripture. Progressives argue that traditionalist do not own orthodoxy and that progressive interpretations are equally or more orthodox. For the purposes of these reflections, I will set aside that debate and turn to another meaning of orthodox—right praise/worship. (The Greek word “doxa” can mean opinion, belief, glory or praise.) I’m not proposing an alternative way of settling the issues, but I am inviting us to think about the issues in the light of worship, more particularly in the light of our hymnody.

This is not as strange as it may seem as early Methodists often learned and expressed their theology in their hymns. Perhaps such reflections can begin to loosen the logjam. How is our theology of human sexuality reflected in our hymns? How singable is our theology of human sexuality? Does it uplift and unite us in faith? Does it inspire and challenge us? Does it help us move on to perfection in love? Perhaps this fresh way of framing the issues will help us hear each other better. I’m going to make a case for the singability of a progressive theology of human sexuality. I believe it fits well with the One Church Plan or the Simple Plan.

As it will help if you can sing along as you read, I hope you can find some privacy. I will indicate tunes for the hymns. I don’t, however, recommend taking phone, tablet or computer into the shower!

I think it is appropriate to begin with ecclesiology. Over the last year I began singing “The Church of Christ, in Every Age” frequently as part of morning prayer. The first stanza addresses the task of the church, both to affirm enduring truth and test parts of its heritage that may hinder its mission. This is what the 2019 General Conference is constituted to do.

The Church of Christ in every age

Beset by change but Spirit led,

Must claim and test its heritage

And keep on rising from the dead. 

– Fred Pratt Green, 1969

DICKINSON COLLEGE LM  (UM Hymnal #589)

Let us hope that we get this right and keep on rising from the dead! The third stanza suggests the appropriate humility with which the church should approach this task.


Then let the servant Church arise,

A caring Church that longs to be

A partner in Christ’s sacrifice,

And clothed in Christ’s humanity.

Another hymn, “Many Gifts, One Spirit,” speaks more clearly of how difference and diversity can amplify our praise.

God of change and glory, God of time and space,
When we fear the future, give to us your grace.
In the midst of changing ways give us still the grace to praise.

Refrain:  Many gifts, one Spirit, one love known in many ways.
In our difference is blessing, from diversity we praise
One Giver, one Lord, one Spirit, one Word
Known in many ways, hallowing our days.
For the Giver, for the gifts, praise, praise, praise!

God of many colors, God of many signs,
You have made us different, blessing many kinds.
As the old ways disappear, let your love cast out our fear. (Refrain)

– Al Carmine  1973 

KATHERINE 65.65.77  (UM Hymnal #114)

Difference and diversity, of course, add nothing to our praise of God if our celebration of diversity is a cloak for sinful behavior. Is it possible to express a sexual ethic in hymnody? It sounds like an impossible task! Excellent books[1]are available for those looking for a fully developed progressive sexual ethic, but I think this hymn provides a good moral foundation. Remarkably, in her hymn “Sacred the Body,” Ruth Duck does this in just two stanzas (3&4) of the hymn.

Love respects person, bodies, and boundaries.
Love does not batter, neglect or abuse.
Love touches gently, never coercing.
Love leaves the other with power to choose.

Holy of holies, God ever loving,
make us your temples; indwell all we do.
May we be careful, tender, and caring,
so may our bodies give honor to you.

– Ruth Duck (2001)

RUDDLE 10.10.10.10 by W. Daniel Landes

(The Faith We Sing, 2228)

These brief stanzas express the gentleness and holiness with which Christians are to express physical intimacy. Although these stanzas do not provide a complete sexual ethic (it would need to include, at a minimum, a discussion of maturity, commitment, and mutual vulnerability) but they are not the loose license some associate with progressives. Based on the long-term relationships and marriages of same-sex couples, we know they have the same capacity as heterosexual persons for this holiness and gentleness. If, indeed, their relationships are holy, then the task of the church in our age is overcome our prejudice and fear of the otherness presented in LGBTQ+ persons and their relationships.

Hymn writers have long recognized the difficulty of welcoming and embracing the other, the stranger, and have sought to both challenge and reassure us. The next two hymns I cite deal with the fear of the other and, subsequently, celebrates the power God gives us to overcome it. (First 3 stanzas of a 7 seven stanza of the hymn “O Praise the Gracious Power”, without the refrain.)

O praise the gracious power
that tumbles walls of fear
and gathers in one house of faith
all strangers far and near:

O praise persistent truth
that opens fisted minds,
and eases from their anxious clutch
the prejudice that blinds:

O praise inclusive love,
encircling every race,
oblivious to gender, wealth,
to social rank or place:

– Thomas H. Troeger (1984)

CHRISTPRAISE RAY 6.6.8.6. by Carol Doran

(Evangelical Lutheran Worship #651 and Presbyterian Hymnal #471)

Stanza Four of the hymn: “All Are Welcome”

Let us build a house where hands will reach
beyond the wood and stone
to heal and strengthen, serve and teach,
and live the Word they’ve known.
Here the outcast and the stranger
bear the image of God’s face;
let us bring an end to fear and danger.
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.

– Marty Haugen (1994)

TWO OAKS 9.6.8.6.8.7.10 with refrain by Marty Haugen

(Evangelical Lutheran Worship #641)

No examination of inclusive hymns would be complete without noting the wonderfully creative work of Mark Miller. Here I’ve decided to use a video link to convey the beauty of the music and lyrics. The anthem is titled “Christ Has Broken Down the Wall” (2011). It is performed here by the Virginia Tech Wesley Foundation Singers under the direction of Leigh Anne Taylor. I have chosen this video because of the clarity of the lyrics, and because Leigh Anne is a friend and colleague in our Virginia Conference.

           https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SdLsRoV9Cl0 [2]

There are many other wonderful hymns I could cite[3], but I think these examples provide at least a glimpse of the rich resources available for progressive, inclusive faith communities. Ruth Duck demonstrates that a responsible Christian sexual ethic can be communicated in worship, one that fits well in this #MeToo era. It is also important to note that a warm welcome to LGBTQ+ worshipers makes other minorities feel welcomed, honored, and safe. This kind of worship is evangelistic in the ancient and best meaning of the word—it is GOOD NEWS to those who feel vulnerable, insecure and marginalized. When I sing these hymns in communities that include LGBTQ+ friends there is a wonderful energy in the felt unity. These hymns uplift me and challenge me to embrace everyone in the spirit of Christ’s all-encompassing love. For those of who take seriously John Wesley’s counsel to seek perfection in love, these hymns help us move in that direction.

So, I offer a resounding ‘YES!” to the question of the singability of a progressive, inclusive theology. It is consistent with our Wesleyan emphasis on inclusiveness, evangelism, and sanctification. As “right praise,” it is eminently orthodox!

I’ll conclude with the final stanza of a hymn that has a familiar tune so everyone should be able to sing along. It is titled “Guide Us to Openness” and sung to the tune of “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”

Though there are those who would limit Christ’s graces,
Still we refuse to believe in such lies,
For in this time we have made a commitment
Never to limit love’s power or size.
Guide us to openness! Guide us to openness!
Let no one ever be shunned or denied.
Make of the Church a bold place of compassion,
That all who seek You may come and abide

– © W. Robert Martin, III

Sung to “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”
Tune: FAITHFULNESS 11.10.11.10 with refrain

[1] A good place to start would be Marvin M. Ellison Making Love Just: Sexual Ethics for Perplexing Times (Fortress Press, 2012). For those wanting a Biblical and theological justification for full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in the church see David P. Gushee Changing Our Minds (Read the Spirit Books, 2014).

[2] “Christ Has Broken Down the Wall,” Soloist Anna Skinner. You Tube, uploaded by missyjhughes,11 February 2012 www.youtube.com/watch?v=SdLsRoV9Cl0  Accessed 9 Feb. 2019

[3] Two that come immediately to mind are: “We Are the Church Alive” by Jack Hoggatt and David Pelletier (1980) and “Sing a New Church” by Delores Dufner, OSB (1991)

The hymn lyrics referenced herein are quoted under the “fair use” doctrine of U. S. copyright law.

Rev. Dr. John D. Copenhaver

The Rev. John D. Copenhaver is Professor Emeritus of Religion and Philosophy at Shenandoah University and a retired clergy member of the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
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