When I was in seminary, one of the hot topics we students debated was where each of us stood on the matter of women’s ordination. In our evangelical world, this issue was talked about in terms of “egalitarianism” (i.e., women are equally gifted alongside men and are called to serve at every level of Christian ministry) versus “complementarianism” (i.e., women are equal in dignity and worth but are called to different forms of ministry in the church than men are, and women are not permitted to be “elders” [presbyteroi]).
It was only later, after seminary, that it occurred to me that our debate was, among other things, odd. We students interrogated each other, and each of us felt a (mostly self-imposed) obligation to settle “our position” on the matter. But in retrospect, I view that as strange—because whether women can be ordained to diaconal or priestly/pastoral ministry is not a question that can be “settled” by an individual Christian, even one who’s been to seminary and been ordained. Rather, that’s a matter for churches to decide. Even in the Baptist church to which I belonged at that time, it made no real difference what I as a seminarian thought on the matter; nor would it have made much difference if I’d been a pastor or elder there. What mattered is what my denomination had decided and whether I wanted to remain a part of it, working within its confines or else kicking against the goads.
Some of the current discussions I follow, and am a part of, regarding gay and lesbian persons in the church, remind me of those seminary discussions. I read blogs and talk with friends who are trying to decide whether they, personally, are “Side A” (i.e., believing God blesses and affirms monogamous same-sex partnerships) or “Side B” (i.e., believing that God calls gay and lesbian Christians to abstain from gay sex). Listening into these conversations and participating in them myself, I find myself dwelling more and more on how this way of framing the discussion marginalizes the communal, ecclesial context in which all Christian ethical judgments must be made. Now that I am a member of the Anglican Church in North America, it matters very little, in one sense, what I believe about same-sex unions. My church has rendered a judgment on the matter, and so my question becomes, “Am I willing to be submissive to that judgment or should I look for another church?” (Or the bigger question: “Why am I a member of the Anglican Communion and not, say, Catholic?”)
Or perhaps I could go for a bit more complexity and say, “Am I willing to (a) be submissive, (b) look for a different church, or (c) stay put and work for change?” If I harbored “progressive,” “Side A” convictions on homosexuality, I could see my role as an Anglican as akin to that played by James Alison or Andrew Sullivan in the Roman Catholic Church: to be a prophetic voice of dissent against an ancient prejudice. Or if I held “traditionalist,” “Side B” convictions in, say, The Episcopal Church, I could view my role the way someone like Christopher Seitz views his: I would be called to defend historic Christian teaching on homosexuality in a church increasingly unsympathetic to it. The one thing I couldn’t do, in any of the above cases, would be to behave as if my “personal” views on the question were the most important, decisive thing to focus on.
This, I take it, is not unrelated to the point Rowan Williams made, over and over and again, when he was asked about the apparent discrepancy between his own “private” inclinations to find some way to bless same-sex unions and the Anglican Communion’s opposition to such blessings. Shortly after he became Archbishop of Canterbury, Williams told Time, for instance: “I’m now in a position where I’m bound to say the teaching of the Church is this, the consensus is this. We have not changed our minds corporately. It’s not for me to exploit my position to push a change.” In other words, even the bishop who is primus inter pares cannot allow his convictions to be elevated unduly.
So where does this leave us individual gay Christians in our various churches? Certainly each of us must act. We cannot put our lives on hold. Even though our churches may take a long time to give us the counsel we need to act rightly, that doesn’t mean that we’re able to wait that long before we embark on life-altering courses of action. A well-meaning Anglican priest once said to me, “We don’t yet have the mind of Christ on the issue of loving, faithful same-sex partnerships.” Well, even if I believed that to be true, that wouldn’t remove the urgency of my own choice: should I pursue such a gay partnership or remain celibate? That’s not a decision that can be deferred indefinitely.
It is, though, a decision that can be recognized as not a matter for my own “personal” judgment only. Or, putting it a bit more precisely (and positively), if I am to act according to my conscience, I have to recognize that my conscience is in need of communal formation. As Alan Jacobs put it, writing about his decision to leave The Episcopal Church several years ago,
I believe that I acted according to what Cardinal Newman long ago called “the supreme authority of Conscience… the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.” For Newman, conscience is anything but “private judgment”: it is, rather, the testing of one’s own private judgments, and sometimes those of others, against Scripture and against the long testimony of the whole church of Christ. And if we test those judgments so, and invoke our consciences, we enter perilous territory: as Newman reminds us, the fourth Lateran Council (1215) affirmed that Quidquid fit contra conscientiam, ædificat ad gehennam—Whatever is done in opposition to conscience is conducive to damnation.
If I am a Christian, then I belong (like it or not) to the Body of Christ. By virtue of baptism, I am no longer “my own person”; in belonging to Christ, I also belong to the other members of his body, the church. And so, these days, I find myself less and less interested in asking where each gay Christian, myself included, “stands” on the question of the morality of gay sex. Instead, I want—even, or precisely, as an Anglican—to explore the question Eve Tushnet, a Roman Catholic, raised recently: is there a way to see my own convictions as somehow less important than the matter of my membership in the church of which I’m a part?