If it looks like an Anglican, and smells like an Anglican, and talks like one on the Via Media, then it’s probably an Anglican
I found this on the Covenant-Communion Website. It is so strangely timed because I was just about to write an essay saying pretty much EXACTLY what he said because I felt it needed to be said. Thank you Matt Gunter for this sane statement as General Convention comes up; where the future of TEC is held in a precarious balance. Let us all pray that God is not yet done with the Anglican Communion
“I’ve been accused of picking up splinters in my backside from sitting on the fence with regard to the bless-ability of same-gender sexual unions (SSU). I suspect I am not alone. And even if there are few who are truly straddling the fence, there are certainly many who still have one hand on the fence even if they have come down more or less on one side. These are the “Yes, buts” and the “No, buts” and there are many of both. But, given that so many others seem so confident of the rightness or wrongness of SSU one might wonder how anyone can “waffle” so.
1a. For all the talk of how much we’ve talked, I have seen little evidence of genuine conversation and precious little deep and sympathetic listening.
2a. I find most of the usual arguments – scriptural, theological, or otherwise – for SSU to be tendentious and thus convincing only to those who are already convinced or want to be convinced.
3a. Any scriptural argument in favor of SSU is less than straightforward at best, as even some of its proponents admit, e.g., Walter Wink and Luke Timothy Johnson.
4a. Too often, arguments in favor of SSU are accompanied by theology that is suspect measured against the creeds we confess.
5a. Related to #4, too often, those arguing for SSU offer no comprehensive sexual ethic that has any continuity with what has heretofore been considered faithful Christian discipline. Indeed, much is dismissive of anything like that discipline or is indistinguishable from what one might hear from Oprah or read in the heirs of Dear Abby.
6a. I am put off by the smug certitude of many proponents of SSU who seem convinced that their perspective is so self-evident as to not require rigorous defense. Which is not to suggest that a similar spirit is absent from those defending the tradition. More on that later.
7a. Even assuming SSU can be shown to be compatible with Christian faithfulness, the Episcopal Church has done a clumsy job of it such that, ironically, it has become harder for that presumed compatibility to get a hearing. Many who were open to considering it have become less open. Consecrating Gene Robinson before/without revising the marriage canon was an end-run around the hard work of building a new consensus that such revising was meet and right so to do. However uneven, difficult, and drawn out it seemed, there was the beginning of a conversation that might have led to a consensus if that conversation had not been prematurely cut off. One does not need to be narrowly conservative to wonder if some inconvenient bits of the Book of Common Prayer and our Constitution & Canons got finessed.
8a. Our understanding of abstractions like love, holiness, justice, etc is provisional. So is the interpretation of scripture. This side of the kingdom they will be incompletely understood, let alone lived. Thus, it is in the widest communion possible that interpretations and definitions of Christian faithfulness, however provisional, are best discerned. As an Anglican, I take the Anglican Communion to be the most adequate body for such discernment. Until or unless there is a consensus that SSU fall within the realm of Christian faithfulness, I support the moratoria on bishops in SSU and on authorizing official rites of blessing of SSU.
And yet . . .
1b. I am haunted by the story of Stephen Thyberg who occasionally attended my congregation, St. Barnabas, in the mid 1980’s while a student a Wheaton College (an Evangelical school in a nearby suburb). Though I did not arrive here until 2000, according to the newspaper clipping in my files, young Thyberg, who it turns out was gay, left the college campus one day and stepped in front of a train. According to witnesses, he assumed a posture of prayer as he waited for the train (where, I wonder, did he hope it would take him?). I do not know if he was consumed with self-loathing, if he despaired of being able to contain what he considered to be sinful desires, was rejected by his family, feared that rejection, or some combination of the above, but the burden seemed unbearable and led him to a drastic and tragic means of resolution.
I know this is not a unique story. In spite of my lingering reservations, I wonder if the Church is not obliged to listen more carefully and sympathetically when its gay and lesbian children come pleading for a hearing. Many have tried to live into the traditional discipline and have found it to be not a dying to self that leads to life but a dying that leads only to death. If liberals have not done a very good job of explaining how SSU fit into the logic of Christianity, conservatives have not done a very good job of demonstrating how the traditional discipline is good news for gays and lesbians
When Jesus declared that the Sabbath was made for humans rather than the other way around, I wonder if part of what he was declaring was a rejection of moral calculations that find such collateral damage acceptable. Perhaps we need to “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’”
2b. I know gays and lesbians who are desirous of living into the fullness of God’s will. I know gays and lesbians who robustly affirm the creeds and traditional Christian discipline in other areas and expect SSU to conform to the expectations and disciplines that have traditionally been the marks of Christian marriage. I know gays and lesbians who have lived into those expectations and disciplines faithfully for many years, often with little or no communal or ecclesial support.
On the one hand, acknowledging the existence and faithfulness of such relationships can take us only so far. By analogy, one will not “convert” a Mennonite to the justifiable use of violence by telling her she needs to get to know more church-going Marines. On the other hand, one cannot simply disregard the testimony of sisters and brothers in Christ.
3b. As noted above, I find many of the arguments in favor of SSU theologically and scripturally inadequate. However, not all arguments for rethinking the church’s teaching are theologically/scripturally shallow and self-serving. A distinction can be made between those who make the case in ways that are theologically and biblically responsible and those who do not. Eugene Rogers, for example, has written what I think is the best sustained argument for rethinking the Church’s teaching on same-gender relations in Sexuality and the Christian Body. His main conversation partners are a Russian Orthodox theologian, Paul Evdokimov, Karl Barth, and Thomas Aquinas. His reflections on the vocation of marriage have informed most of my wedding sermons since I read his book. Jeffery John’s booklet, Faithful, Stable, Permanent, is also quite good. He is more willing than most in TEC to critique other attempts at making the case as inadequate. He concedes, for example, that male – female complimentarity has a certain obviousness about it that cannot be dismissed. Another gay theologian of solid orthodoxy, is James Alison.
There are others whose theology and/or biblical scholarship I respect a great deal who have argued for rethinking the Church’s teaching – Luke Timothy Johnson, Catharine Pickstock, William Placher, John Milbank, Tom Breidenthal, and Rowan Williams to name a few. Though on the surface their conclusions are the same, they each start from a place very different from those like James Nelson, William Countryman, or John Spong. I do think the discussion would be very different if the approach of the former group was more common in The Episcopal Church than that of the latter.
Of course, there are others whom I respect a great deal who have argued against changing the Church’s teaching, e.g., Tom Wright, Marva Dawn, Richard Hayes.
4b. Those of a more traditional bent have hermeneutical and authority challenges of their own. Absent a Magisterium, we are all left to make sense of scripture and tradition in a context in which there is no straightforward, authoritative hermeneutic. This is a reality with which all of us outside the Roman Catholic Church have to grapple. We all need to give more attention to the hermeneutical principles by which we configure scripture such that some passages have more authority than others and some are relativized.
5b. The fact that many have managed to get around the traditional understanding of remarriage after divorce is a case in point. One can repent of a divorce, but sexual relations afterward are a different matter. It was not long ago that remarriage after divorce was a clear no-go. C. S. Lewis wrote on this late in his life:
“Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery”—I can understand that a man can, and must respect these ‘statutes’, and try to obey them in his heart. But it is very hard to find how they could be, so to speak, delicious, how they exhilarate. If this is difficult at any time, it is doubly so when obedience to either is opposed to some strong, and perhaps in itself innocent, desire. A man held back by his unfortunate previous marriage to some lunatic or criminal who never dies from some woman whom he faithfully loves . . . can [he] find the prohibition of adultery anything like honey?” (Reflections on the Psalms, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1958, p. 55)
If pastoral accommodation can be made for remarriage, why not for same-gender unions?
6b. I have been appalled by the meanness and small-heartedness expressed by many opponents of SSU. The classic Christian concept of loving the sinner, hating the sin has become almost unusable since so often it has been used as a thin veil for contempt. There does often seem to be something more visceral than rational motivating much of the reaction. That’s not to say “liberals/progressives” have been paragons of charity in all of this.
7b. Rowan Williams once suggested that part of what provokes such heat around this issue might be that there are so few other “markers” of faithfulness by which Western (particularly American?) Christians can distinguish themselves from their unbelieving or indifferent neighbors. We live in an affluent, over-indulgent society where gluttony and greed are woven into the fabric of our lives. The way we earn and spend money, the cars we drive, the homes we live in, the clothes we wear, and the amount of stuff we accumulate, etc. is quite indistinguishable from others in our neighborhood. We have few qualms about being titillated by R-rated sexualized and violent entertainment. There is little evidence that we are kinder, gentler, or more patient than the average American. What, then, becomes the means of assuring myself that I am really a serious Christian? That I follow the rules when it comes to sex?
8b. I am aware that representatives of the stream of Anglicanism with which I most identify—high church/catholic—were on the wrong side of the debate about slavery in the first half of the 19th century. They appealed to scripture and tradition in language very like that of contemporary traditionalists in arguing against SSU. According to the Bishop of Vermont, Henry Hopkins, the anti-slavery movement had to be rejected since it was “opposed by the unanimous voice of the Universal Church and is at war with the manifest sense of Scripture.” Despite John Newton and William Wilberforce, the same was largely true for those in the Evangelical and Broad Church traditions. Slavery and our divisions over sexuality might not be morally equivalent, but the similarities and the recognition that I experience some of the same tensions as my High Church forbearers are instructive and give me pause.
9b. This is an issue that beggars all analogies. Given the moral dimension, it is not just another advance of civil rights like that for African Americans or other racial and ethnic minorities. The scriptural, theological, and moral issues are quite different from that of women’s ordination.
On the other hand, SSU is different from other acts that have traditionally fallen under the category of sexual immorality. Same-gender attraction is an orientation that for many if not most is irreversible, yet is, in all other ways conformable to disciplines that we would identify as sanctifying and leading to human flourishing.
And so . . .
I am distrustful of those who seem so certain as to be unable to acknowledge the credibility of the concerns of those with whom they disagree. I do not deny that many of good faith have come down on one side or the other. And I do not begrudge them that. After all, Dante consigns to the vestibule of Hell folk like me who cannot commit. But, I do not understand how this issue has become for many on both sides a fundamental determiner of faithfulness. I also recognize that the fact that I am a married straight man makes it possible for me to indulge my indecision in a way that I might be less able to otherwise. Still, I am caught between the two and remain more or less sitting on the fence picking up splinters of indecision.”
If you’re an Anglican, or are watching in anticipation at where we are going, and you resonate with this, I’d encourage you to leave a comment with your name and diocese.