Thursday, October 25, 2012

Getting off the Fence – Testimony (1)

If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.
– Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark

Given the obstacles I listed in an earlier post, why would I vote in favor of the provisional rite of same-sex blessing (SSU)? My response will mostly come under three headings:

• Testimony of brothers and sisters within the church.
• Commitment to the pursuit of holiness.
• Engagement with the Bible as the Word of God

Two caveats at the outset:

1. I have no illusions that what I am offering is novel, thorough, or in any sense a ‘game-changer’.
2. That I have come to a certain conclusion on the topic does not mean that I think it is the only legitimate, respectable, or faithful conclusion.

So, why reconsider?

Testimony of brothers and sisters in Christ

It is a common charge that this is just a matter of the church accommodating the surrounding culture. Though I have been critical of my church’s apparent cultural captivity (and never mind that I think conservative Christians are often captive to culture as well), I don’t think it is always and only that.

What has provoked me to take another look and ultimately change my mind has not been what is going on outside the church. Rather it has largely been the testimony of brothers and sisters within the church.

That testimony is of two kinds. One is ‘negative’ and the other ‘positive’.

Negative Testimony and Collateral Damage
Over the years several Christians have ‘come out’ to me, or, as it has always felt, 'let me in' on their life. I have heard many stories of desperate attempts to change through prayer, determined willpower, various ‘healing ministries’, etc. All to no avail.

The testimony I have heard and the fact that leaders of ‘ex-gay’ movements frequently end up denying the efficacy of the ‘reparative’ healing therapies they have advocated (see here, here, and most recently, here,) calls into question the significance some conservatives place on such movements and the reliability of examples of change. I suspect the emphasis placed on such healing ministries is actually not as much about evidence of real change as it is about the need for some – mainly heterosexuals – to believe real change is possible for their own comfort in maintaining the way they understand things. I find much more credible the testimony of brothers and sisters like those I mentioned in the last post who have chosen the hard discipline of celibacy. Their testimonies must not be denied. But, I wonder, given the preponderence of other testimony, if the call to celibacy and the denial of all romance is adequate or necessarily the only faithful option for everyone.
I have also heard many testimonies of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who have tried heterosexual marriage. The result is rarely happy. Most end in divorce. I know fairly well the story of one such marriage that did not end in divorce. The couple was married in the days before coming out was an option, especially in conservative Christian circles. She did not learn he was gay until some time after they married. In spite of years of infidelity on his part, they stayed together, raised a family, and remained married until his death. In many ways theirs is a testimony of admirable sacrificial commitment that included more than a little grace. But, I also know enough about the story to know the emotional toll it took not just on the couple but on their children. And I know she now has serious reservations about the wisdom of entering into such a marriage. She does not recommend it. And her experience has made her considerably less conservative when it comes to questions of sexuality.

Then there are stories of physical and verbal bullying that gays and lesbians experience frequently. Martin Smith, the former superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, is someone whose maturity in the faith I respect. He led a retreat at St. Barnabas a few years ago. Here is his testimony about the threat of abuse: Matters of Life and Death. I do not know anything about the faith of Joel Burns, but the stories he shares, including his own are too common. At the very least, Christians need to ask if the way they talk about those who experience same-sex attraction contributes to this. Silence, let alone the refusal to speak against such bullying, is not an option for Christians who desire to follow the example of Jesus. Stories like this are not encouraging.

And there is the testimony of Christian parents of gay and lesbian children. Some parents reject their children when they come out. I know others who have loved their children even as they have been clear about their disapproval of their behavior. For most, having a child come out has provoked a rethinking of their prior convictions. It is telling that nothing seems to change people’s minds like having a gay son or a lesbian daughter.

But mostly, I am haunted by the stories like that of Stephen 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, Stephen, who 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 have spoken with more than one person who knew Stephen and it is clear that his struggle with his sexuality played a part in his suicide.

I know this is not a unique story. Most testimonies I have heard from gay and lesbian brothers and sisters have included deep and abiding anguish. Though not universal, suicidal thoughts or attempts are a common theme. At the very least, Christians must be sensitive to the reality of these stories. I wonder if they are stories of the collateral damage of maintaining the traditional teaching. That teaching has much to commend it. But, I wonder if the shadow of that teaching is that many are consigned to lives of despair and death. Are we calling gays and lesbians to a living sacrifice for the sake of their souls or to a sacrifice of death for the sake of the rest of us? I will come back to sacrifice and self-conrol in a later post (See Reclaiming Self-control). I think it is a concept all Christians need to reclaim in pursuit of holness.

If, as scripture charges, we are to fulfill the law by bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), we are obliged to listen carefully and sympathetically to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters when they plead for a hearing in the church. Many have sought 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 (see here for another example). 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 really good news for their brothers and sisters who are gay or lesbian. 

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.’”

This is not so much an argument as a explanation of why I have been willing to rethink the argument. And, again, I concede that this does not necessarily require coming to a more affirming conclusion. For me, though, these testimonies raise questions about the goodness of the traditional discipline expected of gay and lesbian Christians and make me willing to reconsider that discipline.

Next: Positive Testimony

Previous: Obstacles


Dave M said...


Thanks for this post. As they used to say on the AM radio stations (back when those were a thing), I'm a long time reader, first time commenter.

I'm interested in your series of posts here, but am wondering about the following question.

You mentioned celibacy briefly in your post here and in your initial post in the series. A significant reservation I have about the Episcopal Church's blessing of same-gender relationships is the wider Christian tradition's emphasis on celibacy as a specific vocation given for service to Christ's body (even if we as Protestants mean something slightly different in that than our Catholic friends).

There are lots of folks in the Church who are not celibate by choice, but who choose to embrace celibacy anyway for whatever time they are unmarried (folks like me who are single and never married, widow(er)s, divorcees, etc.). There are also folks who are not celibate by choice because they are attracted to persons of the same gender, but who embrace celibacy as an act of discipleship. Does the blessing of same-gender relationships undercut the vocations of these people? Does it undermine their importance to Christ's body? Finally, does the blessing of same-gender relationships embrace a certain myth of our culture than in order to be a fully-human, adult human being, one must experience such romantic love (and if so, what does that say to the 50 year old widow, or to the 45 year old single, never married woman on our vestry, or folks like them)?

Thanks in advance for engaging with this question - I look forward to the remainder of your series.

Anonymous said...

Thanks again, Father.

"Are we calling gays and lesbians to a living sacrifice for the sake of their souls or to a sacrifice of death for the sake of the rest of us? (I will come back to sacrifice in a later post. I think it is a concept all Christians need to reclaim in pursuit of holness)."

I think about that question all the time. And I think that's why I'm supportive of blessing SSU, because what is the alternative? Darkness and bullying? Keeping things in the closet? Enforced celibacy? Shame? Are we (the Church) asking LGBT persons to do things that we'd never ask of anyone else, and why?

Also, I think everybody needs to reclaim the later.

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks for reading and for commenting. You ask some good questions.

I hope to address them more fully in some of the upcoming posts in this series. But, briefly:

"does the blessing of same-gender relationships embrace a certain myth of our culture than in order to be a fully-human, adult human being, one must experience such romantic love?"

It might be important to distinguish romantic love from sexual consummation although they are obviously related. From the perspective of the tradition, theoretically two men could have ‘romantic’ love for one another and not sin as long as they do nothing sexual, right?

But, maybe that is where some of the catch is. It is a contemporary cultural myth that one cannot be a fully human adult without having sex. But that is problematic in multiple ways. As you point out it calls into question the vocation of sexual abstinence in singleness as well as the monastic vocation of celibacy. But it also reduces romantic love and marriage – and by extension SSU – to the regular availability of licit sex.But, sexual expression is just one of the goods of that vocation and not the central good.

Our culture does contain a tangle multiple competing myths about what constitute the good life. One of the tasks of the church in every generation and every culture is to tease out the distinctive Christian vision in the midst of that even as there will be inevitable similarities:

• Does accepting that there might be some justifications for divorce beyond adultery, e.g., physical abuse, abandonment, necessarily mean embracing a culture of divorce that undermines the discipleship of those who stay married in spite of considerable hardship? (see,

• Does allowing that sometimes a congregation can become so toxic as too require leaving necessarily embrace the consumer mentality of church shopping/church hopping that undercuts the hard discipleship stability?

• Does affirming the just war theory necessarily embrace the blank check approach that says whenever my nation declares war it is ipso facto just, which seems to be the cultural default? And for that matter, does just war undercut the vocation of those who have embraced Christian non-violence (which itself needs differentiating from other similar ideals) and do those who embrace Christian non-violence necessarily undercut those who have decided that taking up arms might be a form of discipleship?

In each of these examples and others, discipleship calls for prudent discernment. And things
‘on the ground’ are likely to be less clear-cut than we would like and even the best of motives are likely to be less than pure. So your question is the right kind of question to ask.

As I admit in both of the posts so far, I wish the Episcopal Church was more clear in this regard and that lack of clarity is one of the reasons I found it hard to vote for the provisional rite.

The only question that matters regarding SSU is can such unions be redemptive and sanctifying or are they always and only sinful? Which of course begs the questions, What is holy? and What is sin? Those questions I will save for later.

Why, assuming such unions can be a means of sanctification, would they necessarily undercut the vocation of singleness any more than does marriage? Or vice versa for that matter? Or any more than the monastic vocation undercuts the vocation of marriage or vice versa? The vocations of singleness, monastic life, and marriage have, at the church’s best been seen as equally valid track toward holiness. I am suggesting that SSU might be understood as another.

Finally, I think the church in America (and not just TEC) needs to reclaim a seriousness about the pursuit of holiness. That includes a reclaiming of chastity. In this I agree with the bishop of Southern Ohio, Tom Breidenthal who while affirming SSU has argued for a return to the ideal of abstinence outside of traditional marriage or covenanted SSU.

Again, thanks for engaging. Please let me know what you thinbk of this.


Matt Gunter said...


Thanks. Yes, at the least, Christians need to do much better at addressing these questions with more honesty and charity whether defending the tradition or not.

It would make a difference if the American church was characterized by self-sacrifice. But our indulgence in so many other areas of life compromises our insistence sacrifice in matters sexual. And that is true with regard to single straight people as well as gays and lesbians.