I want to try to comment on a—what to call it? a trend? a mood?—I’m seeing in the ongoing Christian conversations and debates about same-sex marriage. I’d like to call it an impatience with biblical exegesis, and here’s what I mean by that:
When I go and speak in various venues about Christian faith and sexuality, I hear comments like the following with more and more regularity: “We know that both sides aren’t going to agree about what the Bible says. And we know that both sides already know which are their favorite verses and how they interpret them, so we’re not going to change each other’s minds. But what we can do is share our stories with one another. We can learn to understand each other’s lives better. We can gain more empathy for each other. So let’s focus on that rather than having yet another ‘debate’ about the Bible.”
I want to add quickly that I’m not immune to this mood either! As Robert Gagnon pointed out yesterday about my recent public conversation with Justin Lee in Grand Rapids, I talked very little about my reading of biblical texts and spent much more time “telling my story.” I share the temptation that many others of my generation face to believe that talking about the Bible won’t lead to any resolution and so we’re better off simply trying to understand one another’s hopes and fears and offer support where we can. Where the Bible is too divisive, sharing our Christian stories can be something that unites us.
While observing the conversation about faith and sexuality over the past few years I have witnessed a depressing number of harmful and untrue words come out of someone’s mouth right after the preface, “Well, as someone with a conservative ethic…” or “As someone who is ‘side-B’…” (Side-B being clunky shorthand for a more traditional sexual ethic, for those who hadn’t heard it before.)
I understand that some of these people are new to the discussion, are becoming more aware of something that they used to not even have to think about. But…
It’s hard, sometimes, to watch people who are insulated from the consequences of their words keep saying the same harmful things over and over. And it becomes harder when these words are used by others as the example of a “traditional sexual ethic.”
The most divisive question facing the early Church was whether it was necessary to observe the entire Mosaic Law—including circumcision and the dietary laws—in order to be a disciple of Christ.
Today, some of the most divisive questions facing the Church concern our response to same-sex attracted Christians and whether to bless same-sex marriages. In response to these divisions, some have suggested that the Apostles’ decision to set aside circumcision and the dietary laws provides a precedent for today: that we should set aside traditional interpretations of the Bible which forbid homosexual acts, and bless same-sex marriages.
In this post, I want to question a simplistic way that the New Testament narrative is applied to contemporary debates. I want to point out first, that the authority claims in the two cases are quite different; and second, that the New Testament approach to sexual ethics is very different from its approach to circumcision and the dietary laws.
I’ve met Vicky once, when she attended my confirmation in the Church of England at St. John’s College, Durham, where I was based at the time. I was touched that she wanted to attend, and I was grateful for her warm friendliness.
Sean Doherty tweeted yesterday morning after the story was published, “Respect to @vickybeeching today – should not be but *is* still hard to come out and praying for you that you are overwhelmed with support.” I think that’s just exactly right, regardless of where your convictions about sexual ethics fall.
It’s easy for me now, as someone who writes and speaks publicly and frequently about these matters, to forget how difficult it was at first to talk with anyone about my sexuality. Despite the fact that I had a loving, close-knit family, an especially committed group of friends in high school, and an unusually sensitive, thoughtful youth pastor, it still took me until college to tell someone about my feelings. And even then, I was deathly afraid of what my peers would think.
In the 1970’s, when AIDS first began killing off a generation of gay men, my parish provided free burials to anyone claimed by the disease. Gay people go to my church. They are regular attenders—people who have been practicing Christians since before I was born. They are also leaders. One hard part about being gay in [the] denomination [I grew up in] that doesn’t really talk about homosexuality is the difficulty I had in finding role models—people who have wrestled with the questions I’m asking and who can provide insight and wisdom about how to live faithfully while holding those questions. Without such mentors it feels like you always need to be a trailblazer, which might sound exciting sometimes but really is just pretty exhausting and lonely.
Another difficulty I used to have, which I mentioned earlier, was getting stuck dwelling on things like the uncertainty of not knowing how people would treat me if they knew that I was gay (which only increased after I came out on this blog), trying not to say or do anything that might draw negative attention to myself, the persistent thoughts that—wrong though I knew them to be—kept popping up: that I’m different and obtrusive, that I need to retreat. At St. Paul’s I haven’t been so focused on myself and my sexuality because I know that no matter where I end up—in a relationship, with a family, called to celibacy, or just plain single—my church will be there to support me and celebrate life with me. And likewise, I will support the Church I love, not as a trailblazer, but as a servant, whether that be as a layperson, musician, member of the vestry, deacon, or priest.
I’m struck by many things about this, but mainly it prompts me to ask what would have to happen for churches who uphold the historic position on marriage and sexuality (marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman, and sexual abstinence is called for among those outside that covenant) to be places where the appearance of gay role models was normal. My experience was similar to Samuel’s insofar as my church growing up scarcely admitted the existence of gay people, let alone talked about the various possibilities for their sanctified witness among us.
I became interested in the topic [of friendship] because of my concern for the flourishing of gay people in the Church. As someone who is gay, and who holds to the Church’s traditional view — that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman ordered toward the bearing and raising of children — I am committed to celibacy. And I’ve gotten to know many others who are in my shoes, which means that I’ve become interested in how we might learn to practice a healthy and fruitful celibacy.
C.S. Lewis notes that we in the modern world don’t pay nearly as much attention to friendship as we do to romantic love, but Scripture and the Christian tradition challenge us on that point. You can’t read someone like Aelred of Rievaulx or Bonhoeffer and not conclude that friendship is just as honorable, and worthy of time and energy, as marriage and family. Friendship, too, can be a site of sacrifice and devotion, a place where we give and receive genuine love. And for me, that opens up fresh ways of thinking about celibacy. Outside of a monastic context, as someone who lives and works as an ordinary member of an Anglican parish, I am still called, precisely as a celibate man, to make binding commitments and promises to my fellow Christians.
When I started college, I still often wondered if I was a failed Arkansan. I’d grown up in a warmly encouraging, close-knit family, and I never doubted that my parents admired and appreciated who I’d become. (Their tears when they dropped me off at my residence hall couldn’t take away the surge of pride I’d seen wash over them the day before when the incoming freshman class had all been addressed by the college president.) But, by many measures, I was an outsider during my growing up years. I never learned to love sports like my dad, and to this day I don’t really follow any with any religiosity (though I do get inordinately excited about the Olympics and the World Cup). I never took up fishing or hunting, which put me out of step with not only my immediate and extended family but also many of my closest friends. I was decidedly un-athletic and didn’t play pick-up soccer or basketball games with my friends, let alone join a school team. And my reading was increasingly taking me down intellectual byways and toward conclusions I was sure many of even my very closest friends wouldn’t understand or, even if they did, wouldn’t share.
It’s a time-tested plot device to have a young misfit finally come into his own at university (think of Chaim Potok’s remarkable novels, for example), but it really did happen that way for me. When I got to college, I finally realized that I wasn’t so much a mutant specimen of my native culture; I just seemed to belong to a different culture altogether. In my dorm and in my classes, I finally met others who were more or less like me. I remember sitting down to lunch one day during my first week of college with a fellow student who had read all the same theologians I had, and like a smothering fan boy, I nearly asked for his autograph. I was so pleased and surprised to find a fellow nerd who was also, it seemed, rather normal by other measures, that I went a little overboard in expressing my enthusiasm. Our friendship never took off, but within days I’d met a dozen others like him.
Or consider the current debates regarding same-sex issues. The church is perceived as “losing” on that issue and a good number of leaders are exercised about it. I’m not making light of their concerns and I share much of it. But when well-meaning leaders fall prey to the subtle temptation to make state legislation granting same-sex marriage rights a report card on the church, strange things can happen. Like the pastor who ceases his ministry of regular exposition to do a series on homosexuality. The series isn’t so much an exposition of key texts or a sensitive approach to discipleship in this area, but a jeremiad against “the culture” and a desperate ringing of the church bell to alert everyone to the impending doom. Public policy figures prominently in the sermons and in after church discussions. The pastor gets exercised. The church gets politicized. People get ostracized–and not just those who may be addressing same-sex desires in the course of their Christian discipleship.
It’s a sad fact about the Internet that posts expressing criticism can easily go viral, while posts pointing out good thinking rarely get the same level of attention. Still, I want to do what I can to give credit where credit is due.
Christian faith is not the conclusion of an argument: it begins in some sense or other in a personal encounter with God. Some people experience this encounter in a dramatic way, for others, it is much gentler and quieter. But we believe because we believe God, who, in some way, speaks to us. This belief is more a matter of personal trust in the God who loves us and has revealed himself to us than it is the conclusion of an intellectual investigation.
We are created in God’s image, and God is love. Our faith is thus best nurtured by experiencing God’s love through prayer, worship, and the sacraments, by acts of service or contemplation that we do out of love for God, and by Christian community, where we love others and experience and are nurtured in love.
God also knows and understands everything, and our desire to understand Him and the world He has created is part of His image in us. Although belief and trust are primarily personal responses to God’s love for us, we also want to understand what we believe and who we trust. There are, moreover, parts of Christian teaching—like the Trinity, the Incarnation, or the virgin birth—that are difficult to understand. And Christian faith also gives rise to difficult questions: for example, if God is all knowing and all powerful, and He desires what is good for everyone, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?
I’ve been working behind the scenes to help organize a small gathering (about which I hope to say more in due course) on the topic of Christianity and homosexuality, and I had an insight today, as I was working on this, that I’m not sure I’ve had before.
I was discussing with the other event coordinators the title for the gathering. We’re pretty sure it’s going to be “Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction: Finding Paths to Ministry.”
But just as the flyers are about to go to press, someone pointed out an ambiguity in the title. It’s not clear whether “ministry” in the subtitle refers to the ministry Christians have towards and for gay Christians or the ministry gay Christians themselves have in the body of Christ (and the world at large). Should we, this person wondered, alter the title so as to remove the ambiguity or should we leave it as it is?
I ended up making the case for leaving it as it is and hoping that the ambiguity will be provocative and productive. But as I stepped away from the email thread and thought about it more, I wondered if maybe this exchange between the other organizers and me was a microcosm of some of the larger patterns of miscommunication and misunderstanding that we in the Christian world have around the issue of homosexuality. Is our goal to try to find a way to help a certain subset of broken, struggling Christians find healing and hope? Or, even if something so limited isn’t our goal, do we often talk in such a way that people might have that impression? Or, alternatively, is our goal to try to encourage gay people in our churches to recognize the way their (our!) “particular mix of the Fall” (as Francis Schaeffer called it) and their equally particular experiences of grace and redemption may have uniquely positioned them to bring gifts to the church and the world that no one else has?