Thoughts and Comments


The following remarks were given by the Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Summers on September 28, 2012, when he was honored with the Distinguished Alumni Award (Service to the Community) from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. They are used here with his permission.

Warm Heart and Social Holiness

By the Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Summers

Dean Jan Love and the Candler School of Theology family, at this occasion I am so deeply reminded of those lines from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

When I left these hallowed halls and classrooms in 1959 to begin my ministry, there were two most treasured themes that I carried with me for my future explorations. They were the Wesleyan emphases of the “warm heart” and “social holiness.”

Fortunately, in my years of being a minister, these two issues—the inner life of heartfelt experience and the outer life of social justice in the community—have remained with me. My pastoral search and yearnings have traveled toward such critical matters and activities as immigrant rights, anti-war protest, nuclear disarmament, racial healing, Central America’s search for liberation, and the dilemma of today’s broken public mental health system.

Very importantly also has been my opportunity of pastoral support and advocacy for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. Over twenty years ago, I was asked to conduct a funeral in Columbia, South Carolina for a gay man whose life had been swept away by AIDS. His family and church had turned their backs on him due to his sexual orientation. They were not even present for the funeral service. As a result of such a wrenching experience, there became resurrected within me the questions: Where is social holiness in the middle of such rejection and brokenness? Why should such inhumanity be endured?

Thus, these questions have stayed with me ever since then and in my continuing ministry with the LGBT community in my native state and elsewhere. Over these past years, I have had the privilege of marching, writing, speaking at rallies and town hall meetings, providing testimony before state legislative committees, and knowing what harsh opposition feels like. And it is sadly my estimation that the Church, to say the least, has yet to offer its fuller riches of blessing, understanding, and support to our LGBT brothers and sisters.

Because of this lingering dilemma, many of us here today for this luncheon event know only too well the painful challenges facing the systems in our United Methodist Church and some other religious denominations.

For instance, our hearts cringe with the realization that young gay teens take their lives by suicide four times more than their other peers. Such negative forces as bullying play their part in this tragedy. But dare we say that a condemning theology heard by a young gay teen often has a critical role in cultivating a devastating and crushing guilt.

Furthermore, our hearts cringe at the irony that United Methodist ministers are given a green light to offer such safe celebration and ceremonial services for the blessing of a fleet of boats, pet animals, or the opening of a new building. But there yet remains a disciplinary restriction and roadblock for clergy to provide a ceremony of blessing for the committed love and companionship for two devoted same-sex persons as a couple. In my opinion, this neglect of the preciousness of human bonds—gay or straight—is perhaps one of the greatest incompatibilities and violations of the Biblical principles of equality, fairness, love, and justice.

So, Dean Love and others, I have come back today to arrive at this unforgettable and appreciated place where so much of my pastoral foundations started over fifty years ago to say “thank you.” Using T.S. Eliot’s imagery, I have explored and explored and I now know my cherished heritage of the warm heart and social holiness even better.

But, even more so, I want to let you know that I have never been as proud of my theological alma mater as I am on this specific day. I assume that part of your recognition of me and my ministry is based on my strong devotion to the LGBT community. You have placed this award in my hands while there is yet heated controversy in our beloved and sometimes besieged United Methodist Church over such issues as whether LGBT persons are really compatible with Christianity and whether clergy who happen to be gay can be ordained. We know that these matters are so systemically perplexing and mixed. But, in its integrity and courage, this school of theology has stepped forth to reach right into that tumultuous storm and is saying: Here we stand because it is by a river of justice that we are planted.

With the symbol of this particular award, Candler is bearing witness and affirmation to the Gospel’s good news that our compassionate God blesses, loves, and accepts ALL of his children—every last one of them.

Thank you, Candler, for what YOU have done this day.

The Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Summers, a retired minister in the SC Conference of the United Methodist Church, served as a hospital chaplain and director of clinical pastoral education with the SC Department of Mental Health for 41 years before his retirement in 1999. He published the book "Hunkering Down: My Story in Four Decades of Clinical Pastoral Education" in 2000. Summers has also been deeply involved with social justice issues, including advocacy for gay rights, immigration reform and racial healing.