A few weeks ago a website called Church Clarity launched. Their stated goal is to encourage churches, primarily evangelical ones, it seems, to be upfront about their policies regarding LGBTQ members. If, for instance, some churches will hospitably “welcome” LGBTQ members but not allow them to serve in leadership roles or receive Communion, Church Clarity wants those churches to own up to that policy on their websites so that potential members can see ahead of time what they’re getting into. As their own website indicates, they’re developing a database that offers “scores”:
The Church Clarity database scores churches on how clearly their websites communicate their policies. Currently, we are evaluating clarity of policies regarding LGBTQ people. To begin, we’ve published a selection of evangelical churches in America. The goal is to compile a comprehensive database of as many churches, especially evangelical ones, as possible.
When I first got news of the CC site, I felt immediately uncomfortable with it, but I wasn’t quite sure why. After all, I’m gay, and I know firsthand the relief that clarity from church leaders has brought to me. When I first came out to an elder at my church, to hear him say with zero equivocation “Your experience of same-sex desire does not disqualify you from living a Christian life” took a dismaying weight of uncertainty off my shoulders. And when, subsequently, I heard my pastors give a lucid statement on what kind of sexual behavior Christianity was asking of me — sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage between a man and a woman, and all of us, regardless of marital status, are called to chastity — I was spared the task of trying to decipher hazy theological obfuscations. (As Eve Tushnet has nicely put it, “I’m not sure it’s wise to [speak] as if all the church is asking is for gay people simply to be nicer.”)
On the flip side, I know, as well, how demoralizing a cagey, hem-hawing refusal to offer clarity can be. I remember once talking with a Christian leader — a seminary professor, as it happens — who told me that, given the sheer volatility of the debates swirling around Matters Gay, he hoped never to say a word about the issue whether in public or private. Lucky you, I found myself thinking. Some of us don’t have the luxury of sitting this debate out. We actually have to figure out how we’re going to live with desire that isn’t heterosexual. Living with a lack of clarity is a luxury some of us can’t afford.
But, after a lot of reflection, I still remain discomfited by Church Clarity, and the reason, I think, is to do with my larger worries about the state of our divided churches, perhaps especially in contemporary America.
Everywhere I turn, whether to the so-called progressive Left or conservative Right, I feel as though I’m watching my ecclesial nightmare scenario play itself out. Given current trends, I see a future where we Christians allow the terms of the culture war to decide with whom we get to maintain fellowship and with whom we must cut ties, with the result that we’ll all go about choosing a church based on political affinities so that we can avoid sharing pews with those whose views we find repugnant. On my especially pessimistic days, I think that we’ll all end up in churches of one, like the early Baptist Roger Williams, unable to agree with anyone but our own selves.
On the conservative Right, there are certain voices that seem to suggest that to go on worshiping with those who adopt what they (and I) believe to be a wrong view of sexual ethics is tantamount to apostasy. And certain voices on the Left are happy to return the favor, arguing that to go on worshiping with those whom they believe to have a wrong view of sexual ethics is tantamount to fomenting hatred of LGBTQ people and a denial of LGBTQ personhood itself. Cynically, I imagine a world in which each group logs on to a website like Church Clarity to find churches whose convictions align with the ones they already hold so that they can avoid their respective heresies (and heretics).
I don’t mean to downplay the seriousness and urgency of the issues involved here. As someone who holds a “traditional” view of what Scripture teaches about sexuality and marriage, I worry all the time about the inroads “affirming” theology has made in the church. I view that theology as a grave departure from biblical truth, and I think it ultimately harmful to spiritual health, both individual and corporate. If being a Christian involves bearing witness to the truth, then, as Robert Jenson asks, how can those of us “who defend the necessity of what used to be called marriage join in moral witness to the world with those who do not?” How I can maintain fellowship with churches and individual believers who promulgate erroneous views of sexuality is a question that regularly keeps me up at night.
And I know the same is true from my “progressive” friends: How can LGBTQ believers be expected to attend churches that refuse to honor their marriages as “true” ones, that treat what they believe is part of their Christian calling as sin, that may even deny them Communion as a result of their marital status? Or if they are allowed to receive the Eucharist — reluctantly, as it were — how can they be content with such tolerance, pretending that the full-throated affirmation it leaves out doesn’t sting? As Willie James Jennings has recently said, “[G]ay marriage must be celebrated just as strongly, as loudly, and as intensely as any marriage of disciples, because what begins in civil toleration when touched by the Spirit of the living God becomes joyous and extravagant celebration” (italics added). For someone of that conviction, it’s hard to see what it might look like to maintain unimpaired ecclesial communion with those who stubbornly refuse to celebrate.
Feeling the weight of these questions, I find myself picturing a future in which we all just retreat into our siloed churches and denominations, pronouncing mutual excommunications over our shoulders as we go. And I confess I don’t have a clear alternative path to recommend.
But in the wake of perusing the Church Clarity site, I’ve found myself returning to an older essay, called “Staying Put,” by the Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner addressed to his fellow “conservative” Episcopalians urging them not to leave the Episcopal Church even though its witness to the biblical truth about human sexuality is, at best, greatly mixed.
In the first part of the essay’s practical portion, Radner outlines some of the benefits of staying put. Those of us who are “traditional”—or Scriptural, as we believe—on homosexuality but who choose to stay rooted in the increasingly progressive Episcopal Church may find that we have opportunities to grow in Christlikeness and teachability, to seek to manifest the truth (“You can serve as the conscience of your church,” as a wise priest once told me, “stewarding what you understand to be the teaching of Scripture and the Catholic faith and reminding your fellow Christians that it is a teaching with coherence and power and is not easily dismissed”), and, just maybe, to become instruments of reconciliation.
From there Radner goes on to discuss how might one stay put. Begin by vowing to stay, he says. Then continue struggling for the truth. Be prepared to accept suffering. Try to presume the best about your ecclesial opponents. Maintain communion. Submit to the church’s order. And finally, Radner counsels, be open to correction, adding — hauntingly — that “we cannot hear God’s prodding and correction unless we are physically bound to those who would speak hard things to us.” Being open to correction need not entail any waffling in one’s convictions, but it should entail a willingness to be instructed by the lives of those we believe to be in the wrong. Radner puts it this way:
While it is hard for me to believe that there is some new truth yet to be revealed about, say, sexual behavior that will overturn the basic traditions of the Church’s doctrine, nonetheless we must acknowledge the possibility of still learning something we did not know before on the matter. And where else shall we learn this than with those who challenge us about our exhausted outlooks? A pertinent analogy is the experience and understanding of something like witchcraft, the debate around which in the seventeenth century led not only to a critical reassessment of the parameters of its practice and meaning, but also, interestingly enough, contributed to a fertile burst of exploration and insight into the physical sciences…. The basic teaching of the Church concerning the existence of the evil one and of evil in general did not change. But because of these debates, Christians now approach the question of witchcraft very differently and much more circumspectly than in the sixteenth century. That is surely a blessing. Similarly, there is every reason to hope that God might lead us into some greater light around the issue of sexuality even in our era, a hope that properly demands an embodiment in patient listening and discussion, none of which need constitute an abandonment of our basic teaching.
I also find myself thinking of a similar sort of piece by my friend Eve Tushnet that I would commend to my progressive brothers and sisters for their reflection, even as I continue to ponder and pray about Radner’s counsel. Urging sexually active and partnered gay Catholics who dissent from the Church’s sexual ethics not to leave the Catholic Church in search of some “affirming” Christian community, Tushnet writes:
If I’m serious about having gay couples coming to church, about discipleship as a journey, and about removing stigma against all gay people including those in sexually-active relationships, we’re going to need to renew our understanding of not receiving Communion. I think I was really lucky to read all those table-pounding 20th-c. Cat’lick writers, your Waughs and your Greenes, because they helped me to see something humble and honorable in kneeling by yourself while everybody else goes up to receive. They helped me to see how much faith and devotion is embodied in that humiliating, ambiguous place, where you know you need to be in church even if you can’t imagine or accept complete fidelity to the Church’s moral law. I’ve had to be there, and it was awful at the time but I look back on the person I was then with a lot of compassion. I think having (literary) models of people who stayed in church when they couldn’t receive helped me to stay, and to hold on, to stay closer to Christ than I would have otherwise.
This is really a subset of all those posts about how we need to revive the role of the “Bad Catholic.” Being a bad Catholic can be very, very good for you; it’s a sign that you accept the Church as something (someone, our Mother) outside you and bigger than you, who gives your life its structure even when you can’t/won’t live entirely within that structure. (How many tears are shed because it’s so hard to tell can’t from won’t….) Being a bad Catholic means being assessed by the Church–accepting Her view of you, even if you accept it wincingly or ironically or in confused exhaustion, “Master, to whom shall we go?“–instead of judging Her. Her judgments of you will be more merciful than yours of Her, anyway.
You only get the spiritual benefits of being a bad Catholic if you take the “bad” part seriously. If you minimize the gravity of sin you lose the reminder it brings of our dependence on God; the more trivial the sin the less humility is provoked.
There’s obviously a danger of provoking self-hatred instead of humility by talking this way, but the literary figure of the “bad Catholic” calls up compassion and identification rather than judgment in readers. Maybe you should show the same compassion to him when he’s you.
Perhaps, contrary to all current-cultural common sense, being a theological “progressive” should mean staying put in a “non-affirming” church where even your basic convictions about who you are can be scrutinized and potentially revised in light of the gospel and where your identity as an LGBTQ person may force those around you to confront their too-simple prejudices and facile “solutions” too.
And just maybe, also contrary to all contemporary common sense, being a theological “conservative” should mean choosing to stay put in an “affirming” church or denomination where your life of holiness and love and Scriptural fidelity may be a sign of contradiction and a witness to truths that may yet be recovered.
I don’t pretend either option isn’t (quite literally, in the root sense of the word) excruciating. But if one of those options is what you choose to embrace, I doubt that websites like Church Clarity will do more than offer some forewarning of what your particular cross might involve.