Chester Wenger, a Mennonite pastor who sacrificed his ministry by officiating his son’s same-sex marriage, is an examplar of “generous orthodoxy” — showing “respect for the body he is trying to heal,” says journalist and commentator Malcolm Gladwell.
Gladwell, famed for explaining cultural trends in his book The Tipping Point, profiles Wenger on Thursday’s episode of his Revisionist History podcast.
Wenger, now 98, says he had little knowledge about homosexuality for much of his life, and when his son Phil came out as gay, the minister thought it was a phase Phil would get over. Eventually it became clear it was not a phase, and Phil was expelled from the Mennonite Church (by another clergy member, not his father). Wenger and his wife urged Phil to maintain his faith in Jesus Christ nonetheless.
Some years later, Phil joined the more accepting Episcopal Church after Gene Robinson became its first openly gay bishop, making his father weep with joy that he had renewed his faith.
After same-sex marriage became legal in their home state of Pennsylvania in 2014, Phil and his partner, Steve, had one ceremony officiated by the rector of their Episcopal congregation. Chester expressed disappointment that his son had not asked him to conduct the wedding, so the couple had a second ceremony, with Chester officiating.
“With that act, Chester Wenger made his family whole,” Gladwell says in the podcast. “He welcomed his son back into the fold of family and religious community. But he knew what that meant. It meant that he had broken the rules of his own church.”
The denomination revoked Wenger’s ministerial credentials, which he had held since 1948. “It didn’t make any difference to me because I am the same person,” he tells Gladwell, and he was already retired. But he responded by writing an open letter to the Mennonite Church, urging that it become more accepting of LGBT people.
To Gladwell, the two most affecting passages in the letter were these: “When my wife and I read the Bible with today’s fractured, anxious church in mind, we ask, what is Jesus calling us to do with those sons and daughters who are among the most despised people in the world — in all races and communities? What would Jesus do with our sons and daughters who are bullied, homeless, sexually abused, and driven to suicide at far higher rates than our heterosexual children?”
Gladwell closes by predicting that Wenger’s inclusive viewpoint will win in the end — not right away, but it will win.
Go here to listen to the full episode, in which Gladwell also deals with the effort by Princeton University students to have the name of Woodrow Wilson, the former U.S. president and Princeton president, but an outspoken racist, removed from the university’s graduate school.