I’ve been talking recently with an Episcopal priest about the ongoing agonies of the Anglican Communion. Although he and I find ourselves in different places on the questions of the hour, he and I were also a bit surprised to see each other struggling to articulate a very similar posture towards the questions. We have both ended up describing, in our different ways, our reluctance to try to relieve the tension and unsettledness and anguish we feel.
Shouldn’t those who are pressing for the “full inclusion” of “practicing” gay and lesbian Christians in the church (to use the jargon) give more indication that they feel the weight of what they’re asking? That’s what my priest friend asks. Shouldn’t there be a little more fear and trembling and reverence for the historic teaching of the church? Of course they may end up disagreeing with Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustine, and Barth about the moral significance of our being created male and female, but shouldn’t they be a little less sanguine about it and a little more deferential, to the point of saying, “We believe the tradition made a grave mistake in its disallowance of gay partnerships, but at the same time we acknowledge our deep indebtedness to that tradition for giving us the theological and ethical vision to even make our argument for inclusion”?
(There are many who do say things like this—Eugene Rogers comes to mind immediately—and I don’t want to minimize their efforts.)
On the other hand, I find myself equally frustrated at times with my fellow “conservatives.” I recently sat down with a minister for whom I have the utmost respect. He has more than a little sympathy for people in my shoes (gay and celibate), but as we talked, he said something to the effect of, “This is an incredibly frustrating conversation to keep having in the church. Twenty years ago, the liberals were saying, ‘St. Paul was talking about the evils of pederasty in Romans 1, not the kind of loving, committed relationships we’re advocating for.’ Now they’ve changed their tune and want to say simply, ‘Paul was wrong. We know better.’” The self-assuredness of this minister’s assessment of the “revisionist” case bothered me, not least because I’m acquainted with quite a few “liberal” arguments that are a good deal more subtle and more respectful of the necessity of Scriptural exegesis than these quips would’ve led you to think.
In sum, I guess I just want to plead for a little more recognition of the difficulty and complexity of both “sides” of this debate among Christians. If I were advocating for unqualified blessing of same-sex unions in the church, I would hope that I’d have the humility and charity and intellectual honesty to grapple with Scripture and the church’s tradition in a way that didn’t dismiss it as simply “homophobic” or hopelessly benighted. And since I am advocating for adherence to the traditional Christian sexual ethic, I hope that I do so in a way that admits, “This is a hard teaching. I’m far from grasping its rationale fully myself. I still have a lot of questions. And I recognize that the church does a bad job, in many cases, of making it seem attractive and practicable and life-enhancing for gay Christians themselves. Until there are stronger practices of friendship and community and hospitality in the church, I feel an enormous amount of anguish and frustration when I tell young gay Christians that, yes, I do think, on the authority of Scripture, that God is asking you to live without gay sex. I cringe when I tell you that because, in our current climate, that often means living without deep intimacy.”
A couple of years ago when I was finishing up graduate school in England, I met with an Anglican priest and chaplain of one of the colleges in Durham. She’d been giving some lectures to Anglican seminarians on sexual ethics, and she recommended they read my book Washed and Waiting, which I was grateful for. And she told me that she prefaced their discussion by saying, “One of my main goals in talking with you about the situation gay Christians find themselves in is to convince you that it’s complicated.”
I hope that wasn’t where she ended the discussion (because that’s a bad place to end it). But I do agree that’s a crucial place to start. And maybe that recognition should be accompanied by what Virgil called lachrimae rerum—tears for how the world goes. There aren’t enough of those tears, on either side of this debate.