1) The current definition of the phraseWe actually have a definition of what "practicing" means. It comes from the Judicial Council fifteen years ago in Decision 920. In that decision "living in a a partnered, covenanted homosexual relationship with another woman" was deemed sufficient evidence for a review, but only if that person "affirms that she is engaged in genital sexual activity with a person of the same gender" would the person actually be "self avowed, practicing." In other words, the relationship itself is smoke but "genital sexual activity" is the fire.
Warning - the next section will necessarily be somewhat crass and explicit.
2) The definition applied
Case #1: Decision 920 referred to a real woman who had admitted to a relationship with another woman but had not spoken about their sexual activity. She was ultimately allowed to continue as a pastor because a covenanted relationship is not, by our definition, the same thing as "practicing" homosexuality.
Case #2: This is a hypothetical but possible situation designed to show the absurdity of our current definition. A heterosexual boy is repeatedly sexually abused by his brother. As an adult, the boy becomes a pastor but the sexual abuse continues even after sharing it with his District Superintendent. That clergyman is - please understand that what I am about to say is completely absurd - by our definition a self-avowed practicing homosexual. I know it sounds disgusting. It should. But it meets the criteria. He is self avowed - the clergyman shared the abuse with his District Superintendent. He is practicing - the definition of practicing only requires that the person "is engaged in genital sexual activity with a person of the same gender."
Clearly in case #1 we are talking about somebody who is gay and in case #2 we are not. We know this already because we know what homosexuality is. But that's not what our definition says. This doesn't necessarily mean that our Book of Discipline is wrong; it does mean our definition is wrong. It does not say what we intend.
3) Another definitionOne solution to the problem is to further refine the definition. We could add "consensual" to the genital contact. But, of course there are "consensual" abusive relationships. And adding that word does nothing about case #1. Clearly, what we really intend is to say something about the relationship itself - thus efforts from some like John Lomperis of the Institute for Religion and Democracy to deprive due process to those in such a relationship (I cannot locate the resolution at this moment and will edit with a link when I do locate it.) What would such a definition look like? Here's a stab at it - "Practicing homosexual - a person in a consensual, committed relationship with a person of the same gender." That could do it. It would certainly apply to Case #1 and not Case #2. But what about Case #3?
Case #3: Two women are in seminary together and become incredibly close. They fully live life together. Both identify as heterosexual. For the sake of committing themselves fully to their work as pastors they choose not to marry. Instead, they list each other as beneficiaries, they socialize with each other regularly, and whenever possible to save money they live in the same house. When their appointments are a greater distance apart they maintain a long distance relationship not unlike some married clergy couples. Two heterosexuals who fit our new definition of practicing homosexual.
Or Case #4: Two men who identify as homosexual are married in a civil ceremony. After being married for some time, one hears the call to ministry in the United Methodist Church. But he does not intend to leave his marriage. Not wanting to hold anything back, he openly acknowledges his marriage. He also shares that like an estimated 15-20% of marriages, he and his spouse are completely celibate. By our current definition this would not count but with the new definition I think it would qualify as practicing. But then so would Case #4a.
Case #4a: The same two men as in case #4 choose not to marry but are sexual active. The same person hears the call to ordained ministry and at the same time is convicted that being sexual active with another man is sinful. At the same time, after spending years as an unmarried couple, he remains committed to his longtime partner - in a celibate, unmarried, but committed relationship. This would also qualify as practicing, even though many evangelicals would affirm the man for choosing to remain celibate. Then there's the very awkward case #4b:
Case #4b: The same scenario as #4a except that the new pastor wants to push the boundaries some and so asks his District Superintendent "how far is too far?" Does kissing count as genital contact? You can imagine a whole series of additional questions to make the full point.
4) What It All MeansThe point of this exercise in cases and definitions is to show that there is no definition of "self avowed practicing homosexual" that adequately allows ordination for some and not for others. Perhaps this is why we have been changing our language every four years since 1972. We will never find the right language. It doesn't exist. Because there is only one sufficient way to define a "practicing homosexual."
Practicing homosexual - a person who is currently [i.e. practicing] sexually attracted to people of the same sex[i.e. homosexual]
The fact is the only gay person that we want as a pastor is the gay person who doesn't act gay. Whatever that means...