Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Getting Off the Fence – Obstacles

For years I have wrestled with questions about the faithful options for Christians who are romantically and sexually attracted to others of the same sex. It has been a topic of conversation and debate in the church for decades and has consumed the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion for the last ten years. I have long described myself as ‘on the fence’ – open to considering a rethinking of the interpretation of scripture and tradition, but not persuaded by the arguments for doing so. There are people who I respect who have come to differing conclusions. As one of my seminary professors liked to say, "Some of my friends say this, some of my friends say that, and I always agree with my friends." But over the last couple of years I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with my fence-sitting. Though cautious by nature, I knew I had to risk a more definite position on the subject however complicated, confusing, and contentious.

This all came to a head last summer when, as a deputy to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, I was called upon to vote for or against a provisional rite of blessing for same-sex unions (SSU). With fear and trembling, I voted yes. In following posts I want to try to explain how I have come to get off the fence on the side that I have.

But first I want to list some of the obstacles that have made that difficult and cause me to remain fairly close to the fence:

1. It is no small thing to adopt a position that is counter to what has been the consistent teaching of the Church and remains the understanding of the vast majority of Christians. Any scriptural argument affirming the bless-ability of Same-sex Unions (SSU) is less than straightforward at best, as even some of its proponents have admitted, e.g., Walter Wink and Luke Timothy Johnson.

2. Most of the arguments – scriptural, theological, or otherwise – for SSU are tendentious and thus convincing only to those who are already convinced or want to be convinced.

3. Most biblical scholars and theologians who I hold in high esteem who have commented on the topic have argued against the bless-ability of SSU, e.g., Raymond Brown, N. T. Wright, Richard B. Hayes, Oliver O’Donovan, Wolfhart Pannenberg.

4. While it is true that one way or another, the topic of same-sex sexuality has been discussed in various contexts in the Episcopal Church for some decades, I have seen little evidence of genuine conversation and precious little deep and sympathetic listening. And much that has passed for conversation has been manipulative.

5. What exactly is our teaching? The argument in favor of SSU in the Episcopal Church has been ad hoc and uneven. It has been ad hoc inasmuch as there are multiple and not altogether compatible attempts at making the case. And it has been uneven inasmuch as the quality of the argument has varied considerably, much of it frankly, quite bad. This makes it hard to know just what the Episcopal Church actually teaches on the subject.

What is that teaching?

Is it the same as John Spong’s (Living in Sin?), rooted in a reductionist, rationalistic rejection of anything like classic Christian doctrine and discipline?

Or maybe it is more like William Countryman in Dirt, Greed, & Sex, who reduces biblical sexual ethics to ancient obsessions with purity and property (simplistic and misleading in my opinion). In that case, do we agree that, “[T]he gospel allows no rule against the following, in and of themselves: masturbation, nonvaginal heterosexual intercourse, bestiality, polygamy, homosexual acts, or erotic art and literature [i.e., pornography]” (p. 243)?

Or is our affirmation ultimately based on modern individualistic, consumerist notions of self-actualization, disdain for limits, and individual rights? One gets the impression that for some in the church any argument that leads to the ‘right’ conclusion is acceptable because that conclusion seems so obviously right to them that it needs no real defense.

Or are we advocating something more like Eugene Rogers (Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God) who approaches the question in terms of what leads to the holiness of disciplined, self-sacrificial love?

It is hopeful that Rogers was one of the authors of ,and his approach was reflected in, 'The Liberal View' (beginning on p. 40) in the document on Same-Sex Relationships in the Life of the Church submitted to the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church in 2010. If this is closer to our 'official' position, it would be helpful if our leaders publicly articulated it in those terms and, just as importantly, made it clear that we reject the other arguments.
6. The Episcopal Church has done a clumsy job of it. Consecrating Gene Robinson before/without revising the marriage canon was an end-run around the hard work of building a new consensus that such revising was meet and right so to do. However uneven, difficult, and drawn out it seemed, there was a conversation that might have led to more of a consensus if that conversation had not been prematurely cut off.

One does not need to be narrowly conservative to wonder if some inconvenient bits of the Book of Common Prayer and Canons got ignored or finessed. I am convinced that the exercise of more patience and prudence would have avoided much of the turmoil and division we have experienced over the last ten years. As Aquinas would say, how we achieve something is as important to it's being virtuous as what we achieve. And while those who have resisted or pursued schism as a result share the blame, the general dismissiveness by ‘progressives’ toward ‘traditionalists’ has belied their talk of inclusivity. Schism can be provoked as well as pursued.

7. Too often, those arguing for SSU offer no comprehensive sexual ethic that has any continuity with what has heretofore been considered faithful Christian discipline. Indeed, much is dismissive of anything like that discipline or indistinguishable from what one might expect to hear from Oprah or read in the heirs of Dear Abby.

8. Given the Episcopal Church’s seeming inability generally to discern the difference between a gospel imperative and liberal/progressive prejudice it is no wonder many suspect us of merely accommodating one segment of worldly culture. As I have written elsewhere, there is a sort of idolatry in the Episcopal Church that compromises our witness.

9. I do not think the giveness of male and female and their sexual complementarity can be dismissed – as even some advocates of SSU acknowledge, e.g. Jeffrey John.

10. I respect the sacrificial self-discipline of those like Wesley Hill, Chad Thompson, and Eve Tushnet who have embraced celibacy in their determination to live faithfully according the traditional Christian sexual ethic.

11. Our understanding of abstractions like love, holiness, justice, etc. is provisional. So is the interpretation of scripture. This side of the kingdom they will be incompletely understood, let alone lived. Thus, it is in the widest communion possible that interpretations and definitions of Christian faithfulness, however provisional, are best discerned. As an Anglican, I take the Anglican Communion to be the most adequate body for such discernment.

12. Being part of the Anglican Communiona trans-national Christian body– is a basic reason I am an Episcopalian. The actions and reactions on this issue have done great harm to that communion. This was perhaps the most significant obstacle for me. I have been an advocate for the Anglican Communion Covenant. I would still like to see something like the Covenant adopted – even if that meant that the Episcopal Church might serve some time on probation or something.

So . . .

Given all that, along with the way it complicates my relationship with many friends and some members of my congregation who are persuaded otherwise, why vote in favor of the provisional right of same-sex blessing? That is what I will try to explain beginning with my next post.

Next: Testimony (1)


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I am in favor of SSU (for obvious reasons), but I have great trepidation about the way we've gone about doing it, too. As you rightly pointed out, the arguments for it are usually based on sanctifying white-bourgeois concerns (eg. the Democratic Party platform) and not on theological grounds. And, as you point out, talking at each other somehow passes for "conversation". I, too, am greatly frustrated by the lack of any sexual ethic outside of "do whatever you want -- God loves you!"

But, I'm convinced that there is a way to be gay and be Christian that doesn't have to include mass-enforced lifelong celibacy. Imperfect, awkward, nontheological and unspiritual as TEC's approach has been, I can't help but wonder if it will open the door for a deeper understanding to take place in the next generations. Personally, I'd like to see the traditional understanding retained (most sexual acts within the bonds of a blessed, committed relationship), but opened to LGBT persons. Not to be ageist, but I wonder if Boomers are capable of making that step towards a new ethic. I think most people my age who are thinking about this are ready to make that jump.

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to reading more!

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, Andrew.

You might be right about boomers. Like everybody, we've got our blind spots. As does, no doubt, your generation. It just may take some time for anyone to identify what they are (if you could see 'em they wouldn't be blind spots).

On the other hand every generation has its gifts and makes its contributions. Perhaps yours will find the synthesis you speak of.

I look forward to hearing what you think of waht follows in this little series.

Under the mercy,


Logan said...

Very impressive and I'm looking forward to seeing the following posts.

FWIW I tend to agree with Walter Wink's excellent summary on the subject-I simply don't think the Scriptures contemplated this issue, and as a result citing chapter-and-verse isn't the best method to find a resolution. Not that I'm minimizing the importance of Scripture, but I think a new exegesis-relying on the standby Anglican interpretive device we call 'Reason'-is in order.

On that note its long been intriguing to me that the Roman Catholic Church bases its objection to homosexuality more deeply in natural law than it does Scripture. I'd contend that revisiting the natural law argument today free of scholastic bias would dispose of that argument fairly quickly, but that's another can of worms!

I attended a schismatic Catholic for a long time that I felt offered a weak rationale for its embrace of LGBT unions, and I'm mindful of the issue as I move towards Anglicanism. In any case, I enjoy your blog and look forward to the next post!

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, Logan.

I appreciate your reading and commenting on the post.

I am less enamored with Wink's approach. I do not think the teaching of the church based on the NT and informed by the OT has been as incoherent as he suggests.

Certainly, the Bible as a whole has a grab-bag of things to say about sexual behaviors. As it does about money, violence, justice, etc.

If one just pulls random things about any of those from the 'grab-bag', then one can conclude the Bible has nothing clear to say about anything. Or we can configure them to suit our own prejudices. But that has not been the Church's approach.

Wink sounds too much like points 7 & 8 above for my taste.

That said, I do think Jesus' two-fold summary of the Law is a fundamental hermeneutical key.

Logan said...

I certainly agree that the 'liberal' side of the homosexuality debate (I don't care for the label but for the sake of convenience...) has not offered any type of a sexual ethic of its own, besides what sometimes looks like a tacit endorsement of the "if it feels good do it" mantra of the sexual revolution. No matter how one contorts Jesus you just can't get that out of him.

That said, I still think Wink's approach offers a helpful starting point, in that it notes Scripture does not offer a consistent self-evident sexual ethic one can just appeal to on its face (hence simply quoting texts that appear to condemn homosexuality is not, as far as I'm concerned dispositive). Discerning a consistent sexual ethic is up to the Church and the exegetical tools she uses. I also do think there is merit to the position Wink & others enunciate that the Church's position on certain other moral matters-has indeed 'evolved' over time (again, perhaps not the best word but there it is).

All of this is just a starting point for me though. Too often the 'liberal side' has offered what I've found to be very facile arguments when it pushes for change, that I find to be no more self-evident than their opponents (again they often boil down to "it feels good, do it"-not to say experience shouldn't be a factor somewhere in the process, but like you I feel a lot more is needed).

I'll stop rambling for now...again, looking forward to seeing where you go with this.



bls said...

I came of age during the 70s and 80s, and believe me: depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide were the reality for a huge percentage of gay people in those days. Go back a little further, and it was shame, loss of employment (still a possibility, BTW), electroshock therapy, blackmail, and prison. I mean, the whole thing was all still a big secret for most people until about 20 years ago.

So I'm actually quite impressed and proud of TEC for what it did; it looked at all that and said, "Well, that can't be right...." - and then it acted upon that assumption. Episcopalians were one of the few groups of people that actually saw the real human beings at the core of this - and the toll that all that had taken. And Episcopalians (after a few false starts) ultimately didn't fold in their convictions, either. That's pretty impressive, in my view - and to be honest, I don't think it could have happened any other way.

Probably all the "bad theology" out there has been due to people casting about for justification for a gut feeling (that turned out to be correct!). It's also due to the fact that that there really aren't many inspired theologians around today. You might want to check out James Alison's argument, though, if you're interested; he's got the chops. It's of course coming from a Catholic point of view. Rowan Williams wrote about this many years ago, in "The Body's Grace." And then there's "To Set Our Hope on Christ," which kind of argues what I talked about above: "that can't be right." It also argues that our understanding of homosexuality is "new data" - an argument I'm seeing elsewhere as well. We also now have 40 years' worth of almost completely negative data on "reparative therapy" - and people have known for millennia that most people aren't called to celibacy.

So what's left? Blessing faithful unions, I'd say. This is the via negativa approach, if you like: nothing else really makes sense. The only other option is to ignore the very people who have the most at stake in this - which is exactly what most of the church does. (I would also point out here that we have other kinds of confirmation that we're headed in the right direction; early data from states in which same-sex marriage is legal shows that gay men in those states make far fewer visits to their doctors for ill health. Also I believe it's true that rates of depression, addiction, and suicide have gone way down - but of course, that's only what you'd expect when a formerly widely despised minority is no longer widely despised.

Myself, I don't think a Christian argument for same-sex unions is any different than the one for heterosexual marriage: "This mystery [marriage] is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church." That's in Ephesians 5 - and while it's speaking of heterosexual marriage (and you might, I suppose, have problems with the "one flesh" thing, if you had a mind to) - but what's so different? I don't see it, honestly. Christian marriage is a "type" of the relationship between Christ and the Church - or between God and the soul; therefore faithfulness is at the center of it. Faithfulness is what the entire Bible is about, as far as I can see - and practicing it in marriage is a natural extension of that spiritual faithfulness. Obviously, same-sex unions are not primarily about reproduction - although of course same-sex couples do have children, and do adopt - but then, neither are those between elderly couples, and nobody would dream of saying a negative word about them.

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, bls.

I appreciate you dropping by and commenting. You anticipate some of what I will be saying in upcoming posts in this ' apologia. Rowan Williams and James Alison are two of my favorites. Because I trust their theological judgment generally, and the sanctity I perceive in their writing, I have been willing to engage them on this issue.

In my more charitable moments, I get the point of 'bad theology' resulting from attempting to express what was more 'felt'. But, it is not just this issue, unlike Williams and Alison and a few others, most who have tried to make the case have done so in the context of a ‘liberal’ theology for which I have little respect. And I am not convinced that we could not have done it better tactically with much less collateral damage. In any event, my bitterness and resentment about that is one of things I need to get over - and to hold out because of that seems uncharitable.

I'll be interested to see what you make of the rest of what I have to say as I get it out.

Under the Mercy,