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Stafford: ‘Promiscuous sitting’ may teach us a lesson

It seems comical now. Strange.

But this was in the 1840s, when more traditional Methodists in Springfield were trying to uphold the tradition of men and women sitting on separate sides of the sanctuary.

In their attempt to do so, they used what now seems an obviously loaded term for the newfangled idea proposed by those who would abandon same-sex pews: “promiscuous sitting.”

Members of Springfield’s High Street United Methodist Church know that in the early 1850s, their pastor, Rev. John Inskip, was the dispute’s national lightning rod.

Inskip was first suspended from the pulpit for promoting the practice.

But, because it involved a controversy festering throughout the denomination, his case went before the 1852 general conference in Boston. There, church elders decided to resolve the issue by giving local congregations the final say over who could sit with whom.

All this surfaced from somewhere deep in my brain last week because of two things in the news: The Boy Scouts announcement that it might leave to local option whether gay scouts and leaders would be accepted in the organization, and the possible consequences in the American Catholic Church over whether a cardinal from Africa, where church growth is fastest and views more traditional, might succeed Pope Benedict XVI after his startling decision to step down.

My failure to find a story I wrote some years ago about the the Rev. Inskip sent me on an Internet search that rooted out an interesting footnote about the episode.

I found it in Vol. I of “The Methodist Experience in America: A History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe and Jean Miller Schmidt.

And it was indeed in a footnote that contained two tidbits:

Tidbit 1: That for 50 years before the controversy, Methodists simply agreed that “a general mixture of the sexes in places of worship is obviously improper.”

It was a no-brainer, a practice with obvious moral foundation, and any thought of changing it a non-starter. It was to them what men and women sharing the same bathroom at the same time might be to most of us or what the issue of gays in the scouts is to many now and most not long ago.

It’s surely no coincidence that in similar controversies a century and a half apart, 19th century Methodists and present day Scouts looked to local option as a solution. For the same reason, we have local option votes on liquor permits.

It’s an approach that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, something apparent from our nation’s experience with a local option on slavery.

Tidbit 2: The footnote says that “promiscuous sitting” controversy was tied to another issue.

“Interwoven with the battle over seating was the equally hallowed practice of banning pew rents and requiring all churches to offer ‘free seats.’ ”

Although this had obvious theoretical parallels with all people’s equality before God, the footnote said that “During this period many congregations, especially in urban areas of the East, began to finance new church buildings by renting pews to families, a practice that suggested females and males could sit together in a family pew.”

And those buildings, it added, helped to establish “the denomination’s new social status as a Main Street denomination.”

No doubt the traditionalists saw money playing an evil role in the controversy. And the faithful in the countryside saw their brothers and sisters in the city giving way to temptation.

Those looking toward the future of the church, however, reasoned that new buildings would give Methodists a better chance to compete for members and the old ways. That meant discarding what they saw as old-fashioned practices like segregated seating.

And that brings not only to Pope Benedict’s replacement, but to working through any changes taking place on an international scale.

The nations of the world are all in different places in their economic growth — in different time zones of development, sometimes separated by centuries.

This is complicated by the fact that they’re of different cultures, too, cultures being changed both by their internal development and outside factors, like the world economy and other social ways in puts them in contact with.

If the story of “promiscuous sitting” is typical of issues facing changing cultures, a question arises: How in the midst of all this complex, bubbling stew of events, in which the moral views we turn to as anchors seem linked to our very different social and economic circumstances, do we find the common values that help us live together?

It’s a question facing not only the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church face as they work through issues of identity, but the rest of us, too.