I Affirm Marriage Equality: or, If you really want to listen to me, you’re not a bigot

1. As a Christian, as a gay man, and as someone who believes the first two identities do not conflict inherently, let me say it clearly: I affirm Marriage Equality for my friends in the United States, and continue to affirm its existence in Canada, where I live.

2. I have recently been involved in difficult discussions about marriage equality (and Christian objections to it) that have been very saddening to me; it is possible that I may lose important friendships, though I will work and pray against that possibility.

3. Let me continue to be candid. Most Christians in the world read the Bible, in both the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Testament, as condemning all forms of homosexual sex and sexual relationship. This interpretation has a long history, and until about 1954 or so was also argued for on strictly rational grounds by ‘secular’ state authorities in the West. Most Western people, until recently, felt that natural law, medicine, and sound social function required objection to homosexual acts, even between consenting adults. For Western Christians, the objection has or had an added force because the “Word of God written” objected, and in fact explained why the ‘secular’ consensus found why homosexuality was so destructive. Something that God says is wrong will have real-world, negative effects.

4. The issue for me as a Christian becomes: Christians’ objections to homosexuality are based on a bad reading, a misinterpretation, of the words, historical context, and pastoral application of Scripture. In other words, Scripture cannot be applied directly to all, or even many, of the manifestations of same-gender sexual relationships or activities that we see in the Western World, today.

5. Yet, as my sisters and brothers in the US will note, most of the opposition to marriage equality in the civil arena comes from theologically conservative Christians, whether fundamentalist or evangelical. (The distinction often matters, but that’s another conversation) In fact, there are myriads upon myriads of stories and research studies that demonstrate how destructive conservative Christians and their churches have been in the lives of gay, lesbian, bi, trans, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) people. A belief that causes widespread destruction needs to be challenged, and that is what the gay rights movement has been doing for the past forty years or so. In fact, as evidence that homosexuality can be profoundly healthy mounts, it seems logical to afford people who have been stigmatized as a class the same protections that other citizens have–and marriage, whether common law or civilly registered (not to mention blessed by the Church!) is one of the most comprehensive forms of protection that the state can give pair-bond. (Such a protection also means that bodies are more easily managed by the State, but that’s a different discussion, for another time.) Thus, gay activists have been pushing–more and more successfully, it seems, for the extension of marriage as a basic social good to non-heterosexual people who want to attempt the same kinds of stable and life-giving relationships that their hetero neighbors do.

6. In spite of all the evidence marshaled by LGBTQ people, however, there are still people and powerful organizations which oppose this extension even of civil marriage, primarily on religious grounds. Here, then, is the question: are people who oppose marriage equality bigots, in much the same way we would apply the label to racists or those who hate people on the basis of gender or religious faith?

7. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a bigot as “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.” It strikes me that the disagreement about the label “bigot” among LGBTQ people when applied to conservative Christians might be about where one places the emphasis: is bigotry more about “obstinacy and hatred” or about “intolerance”?

8. People who place the emphasis on “intolerance” are right, in a liberal democratic context, to object to conservative Christians who object to a change in the definition of civil marriage. Why do I say this? Because if Christians have learned anything from our history, it is inappropriate to try to gain coercive influence in society when a great many of your fellow citizens have not been convinced by your worldview or your arguments. Though I object to any conception of the State as “ideologically neutral,” liberal democracies nevertheless consider it a basic good that multiple communities are able to live together without harming one another. Christians who object to civil marriage for LGBTQ people because they hope to coerce the nation “back to God” or at least “to the way I see things” are forgetting something theologically important: Christians are not responsible for taking over the government or shutting out objections to the Christian worldview, but rather for forming radical and persuasive communities that clearly offer something distinct from and even better than “life under the sun”–the status quo as we know it. Conservative Christians, on the other hand, who concede that extending the definition of civil marriage is consistent with allowing people to object to the Gospel (or to our interpretation of it), are no longer “intolerant.”

9. For my money, the key factor in whether or not someone is a bigot (or holds a bigoted view) has more to do with obstinacy, or what some logicians call “invincible ignorance.” In my life, there are clearly people like this: there are people, usually theologians and major pastors, who should know better than to disseminate things about homosexuality or GLBTQ people that are, even on the face of things, patently false (never mind when you bring sound scholarship into the debate!). Unfortunately, there can also be a great many more lay Christians who spout off something like the slogan, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” This is typical fundamentalist view, perpetuated from the top down and then reinforced by the way that future generations are taught the Bible. The civil sphere is controlled by the Devil, and if Christians manage to maintain godly values in the civil arena, it represents a victory for God that will facilitate spreading the Gospel of Christ. If one is in such a warfare or siege mentality, it is understandable why “invincible ignorance” becomes such a huge problem: bending even a little bit capitulates to evil. Bigotry in this sense is very real and harmful.

10. Perhaps I am in a unique situation, but I rarely meet intolerant conservatives (who want Canada to withdraw equal marriage); nor do I usually meet conservatives who are invincibly ignorant, who are unwilling to engage in conversation–and thus sometimes deliberately perpetuate harm against LGBTQ people. Rather, I meet people who are aware of the (sometimes profound) wounding on both sides, who increasingly are willing to bare their fears in front of one another: “This is what I’m afraid of, if you win…” Are conservatives who want to learn from conversation with LGBTQ people bigoted? I would argue not. Real-world conversations–over food and face-to-face, not by means of position statements and political stump speeches–are actually occurring, even while Marriage Equality seems to be gaining momentum.

11. Everyone has their own story to tell, formed by the own unique yet shared matrix that involves gender, race, religion, politics, sexual orientation, educational level and many other aspects. Imagine if we were to drop phrases like “conservative bigot” and “liberal whoremonger” from our conversations, and got down to the business of amassing evidence in the public realm and of sharing stories about why we are so invested in the positions we take!

12. There are bigots in the world, who spread false and evil poison abroad in society. They must be confronted. When we sit down at a table across a severe ideological divide, we must be willing to hear of pain, harm, agony, and suffering at the hands of those who only appeared to be willing to talk, or who deliberately took shots that ripped our lives apart. Bigots exist on both sides of the marriage equality debate–and the ones on the conservative side can, in real terms, inflict far greater destruction. But it is important to note that, while victims are allowed be explosively angry, it is the hardening into bitterness and hatred that perpetuates the cycle of bigotry: angry queer people react angrily to angry Christian conservatives, who conclude that the angry queer is a menace that must be stopped, and so on…

13. Very simply: I affirm Marriage Equality; most conservative Christians are not in fact bigots; and dropping inflammatory rhetoric in situations where people want to have a respectful conversation seems necessary to actually having one!

14. The take aways: Regardless of your position on Marriage Equality, assume that an opponent who really wants to learn from you is not a bigot. I also believe that conservative Christians opponents of Marriage Equality need to do most of the work. Stop complaining about the queer agenda, and open your ears: if you hear screams, it may be because they are mostly our fault.

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11 comments

  1. jt*

    Hi Rob,

    I’m a TST alum myself, having completed my M.Div across the road at Wycliffe. I’m a postulant in the diocese of Toronto as well, so we have a bit in common! At any rate, it was helpful to hear (read!) you articulate some of these things from your own experience. I wonder if we can zoom in a bit, to speak about marriage equality in the context of the church. You know as well as I do the impact that this very question has had on the global Anglican Communion. In this particular context, do you still feel that “conservative Christian opponents of Marriage Equality need to do most of the work”? As far as I can tell, if progressive Christians are interested in changing the churches definition of marriage (i.e. changing Canons, liturgies etc.) then would the burden not fall on progressives to do most of the work? And by most of the work, I mean presenting a solidly theological argument as to why the church needs to change these canons and thus understand marriage in a manner counter to the last 2,000 or so years.

    What are your thoughts on this?

    ps – I wonder if we couldn’t ask the same thing regarding civil marriages, actually? Many of the arguments that traditionalists make in this context are not theological but sociological and biological in nature (pun intended!). Perhaps you can elaborate for me why you think the burden of leg work falls to traditionalists rather than the revisionists? (Or, by “work” do you simply mean “listening”?).

    Grace and peace.

    JT.

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    • theologywriter

      Hey JT!

      Yeah, I think you’ve hit it on the head–the work I am asking for here is mostly “listening.” And contrary to Oliver O’Donovan, the listening will in fact obligate some sort of change on the part of traditionalists. Why do I say this? Because what Christians listen for, primarily, is faithful testimony to the work of God in the world through Jesus and his people by the power of the Spirit. I am convinced increasingly that traditionalists will, in fact, hear faithful testimony–and then the Church’s theology will shift, because of what we see the Spirit doing already.

      Traditionalists still have most of the power and theological privilege even in the current context. Though it can be valid and appropriate, Anglican conservatives (as though I’m not one, where it counts?) should be excruciatingly careful about invoking the Tradition or even the will of the Communion when resisting revisions. Contra to many traditionalist scholars I can think of (two of who teach at Wycliffe!), Acts chs. 7-15 still provides, I think, a sufficient and flexible theological framework through which to process issues of homosexuality and marriage equality.

      But on the other hand, I agree with you–civil marriage is another animal that the Church should be cautious about buttressing. I, for one, am not even convinced that God directly authorizes marriage in the Bible (including in the words of Jesus), but on the other hand, God is quite willing to use human social constructions in the economy of salvation. One of the issues that I think is a sticking point for many Anglican traditionalists is a near-obsession with making babies–this is the primary reason (since I believe the revisionist Scriptural arguments about homosexual behaviours themselves are strong enough to overturn the tradition) that the Church upholds civil marriage. But my Anabaptist highlights are going to show here: Why is perpetuating society the Church’s responsibility? And do we populate the household of God by means of making babies or disciples (and the two are not identical)?

      Anyway, I think this is turning into an essay and I’d much prefer continued conversation. I hope to hear from you again, soon!

      In peace,
      Rob

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  2. jt*

    Dear Rob,

    I appreciate you taking the time to respond, and for making it so irenic! Thanks.

    It’s curious to me why you single out traditionalists as those from whom listening is required. I’d be more inclined to agree with you if this listening was mutually-transformative, but you seem to suggest that transformation is required on the part of the traditionalists only.

    Your mention of faithful testimony is interesting also. But whose faithful testimony? You seem to be arguing that we ought to understand the testimony of the church in light of the testimony of individual Christians. I tend to see it more the other way round myself, namely, that we ought to seek to understand our own testimony/experience as individual Christians in light of the testimony of the church. Of course, the church is not infallible, as she stands under the authority of Holy Scripture. Do we understand the “flow of interpretation” (for lack of a better phrase) to be going in different directions?

    On the issue of baby making, this is hardly particular to Anglican traditionalists, as far as I can tell. From the Fathers onwards Christians have grappled in various ways with the significance and importance of sexual differentiation when it comes to understanding marriage. Children were a part of this discussion long before there were Anglican traditionalists (and, for what it’s worth, I think it’s an important argument actually. But that’s another discussion perhaps!).

    I hear your Anabaptist objection. It’s one which I wrestle with myself and hold in tension with the church praying for and working towards the common good.

    Grace and peace.

    Jonathan.

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    • theologywriter

      Hey Jonathan –

      Don’t worry about your tone; based on your clarification, I believe I heard you well the first time. 🙂 To answer your question, let me give a little background.

      I grew up Alliance with Pentecostal highlights, spent almost two years in the Vineyard, struggled with remaining in Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, and landed (to my shock!) in liberal Anglicanism. The weird thing, though, is that I’m not a progressive, especially if that means I’m a disciple of Spong, Crossan, and Borg! No thank you. So, I’m in a weird place, because lots of Anglicans I hang around go, “Yay, Rob is gay and doesn’t affirm inerrancy! Boo, he affirms the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Yay, he affirms the centrality of knowing Jesus personally! Boo, he’s gay! Yay, he affirms the Social Gospel! Boo, he wants to heal the sick.” Anglicanism has been an amazing home, but I don’t ‘fit’ in any given camp.

      In that context, then, the listening will be slanted heavily to conservatives, and not to revisionists. On one level, we’ve had 5 000 years of consistent testimony that homogenital behaviour is wrong and that same-gender relationships are destructive. But in the same period of time, I think it’s safe to say that the Church’s pastoral care of same-sex attracted bodies (whatever social construction they operate under) has been abysmal–terrifying and death-dealing. For the first time in history, we have something called (following O’Donovan) “gay consciousness,” which is articulate enough to speak back to the Church and say, “Look, we honestly believe and affirm that you-lot, on a dogmatic level, probably have it very wrong.”

      But “revisionism” is a much bigger animal than one’s opinion of homosexuality, at least to Anglican Essentials sorts of folks. This gets back to your question of faithful testimony. First of all, the Church does /not/ stand under the authority of Scripture; it stands under the authority of Jesus speaking through Scripture, and that to me is a profound difference. Books do not have voices, but writers and readers do. Standing under the authority of Scripture also implies that Scripture speaks with one voice on all issues as though it’s a legally binding document, and I think this is a poor image. On the other hand, if it’s a community library in which inspired texts in tension call us to wrestle with the Angel of the Lord until we limp away with a new name, so much the better for complicated situations like this one. Second, faithful testimony is shaped by participation in liturgy shaped by the core values and doctrines of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, and I consistently challenge revisionists to frame their arguments this way–if they dare. Still, whether or not Jesus has been raised can be affirmed by both sides of the homosexuality debate, and those voices the Church can hear will be understood most profitably within creedal orthodoxy. Testimony has just as much to do with intuiting the “fit” of a new idea or practice after long formation. This is why I am deeply nervous about the demand for theology first–what do we do with people who pray, fast, wait before God, read the Scriptures in all their multiplicity, and can’t do systematics to save their lives, yet who ‘come out’ on the revisionist’ side of the argument? Or the traditionalist for that matter? That gut-level integrity is what the Church should also consider valid testimony. And in that case, revisionists have consistently been better at respecting less discursive witness on this issue than conservatives.

      And to make my position clear: the Church is *not* responsible for making babies any more. The Messiah has been born, the universe is being saved, and God gains children (and lovers!) through adoption as sons and daughters and by calling us his friends. Which still leaves a radical place for children: as “nobodies” who are first in the Kingdom, who get in before all the adults and systematic theologians (like us?).

      In Christ’s difficult but beautiful peace,
      Rob

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  3. jt*

    Upon a second reading my comment may sound accusatory. I didn’t mean it as such. I should have phrased some of those statements as questions. i.e. “…are you suggesting that transformation is required on the part of the traditionalists only?”

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  4. jt*

    Dear Rob,

    Nice to hear a bit about your own background. Thanks for sharing that. I’m appreciating this back and forth we’re having. About 16 years of my own church experience was spent in the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, so I know those circles well! Just out of curiosity, how would you distinguish between a ‘liberal’ and a ‘progressive’?

    I’ll focus on your paragraph on revisionism, Scripture, and testimony since that is where most of your weight fell. Standing under the authority of Jesus and standing under the authority of Scripture are not mutually exclusive. Your conclusion that, “the Church does /not/ stand under the authority of Scripture,” simply does not follow from your assertion that the church, “stands under the authority of Jesus speaking through Scripture.” Of course the Bible isn’t a legally binding document, but it’s also not simply a book. It’s the word of God, this is why the church has always upheld the authority of Scripture. Historically, Anglicans in particular have always understood the church as being under the authority of Scripture (as did the Reformers…hence the need for reform). See, for example, this selection from the 39 Anrticles:

    VI. “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation…”

    VII. “…for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man.”

    XVIII. “…For Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.”

    XX. “…and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.”

    As is evident, that the church is submitted to the Scriptures has historically always been affirmed by Anglicans.

    Thus, any change to marriage cannons and “5,000 years” of understanding marriage in terms of one man and one woman is at its heart a theological challenge and must be argued, being expounded from the scriptures, as such. (Interestingly, you state this initially in negative terms: “5,000 years of consistent testimony that homogenital behaviour is wrong…”. This is misleading, I think, because the church has always made a /positive/ argument, that the fitting place for healthy sexual intercourse is in a marriage between one man and one woman. This positive-negative distinction is important, I think).

    So, such arguments (i.e. in how the church should understand marriage) must be argued in light of Scripture, not apart from Scripture, and must be argued /primarily/ from Scripture /not/ from “personal experience/testimony”. This isn’t to say that personal testimony is not important and carries no weight (it does!). It’s just to say that our private/personal judgement must be understood and weighed in light of Scripture and the “common order of the Church” (Article XXXIV).

    So, yes, traditionalists must listen to and really hear revisionists, and revisionists must do the same. And together we must all submit to the Holy Scriptures and the God who in Christ Jesus is therein revealed. This is a difficult task, indeed, and will require much patience and sacrifice from all those who would call each other brother or sister.

    ps – On babies, I don’t recall arguing that the church is /responsible/ for making babies. Of course what you’ve stated in your final paragraph is true and good and beautiful, and I agree! It’s the underlying presumption that troubles me, and that is an understanding of sex /apart/ from children. Of course, sex doesn’t always result in children, but any attempt to think and talk about sex apart from procreation is just fundamentally wrong-headed as far as I can tell.

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    • theologywriter

      Jonathan,

      About the distinction between a liberal and a progressive: sometimes there isn’t. But when I do encounter it, it usually looks like this: liberals are creedally orthodox, and “progressives” are not. I fully acknowledge that this is potentially arbitrary. David Neelands and the late Stephen Reynolds are liberals. Spong is a wonky progressive.

      I agree absolutely that the Church stands under the authority of Jesus known in the Scriptures and in the Church. That’s fine, and I have no problem with it. I’m objecting to “the authority of Scripture” as I hear it deployed by the vast majority of Evangelical theologians I encounter, and I think it is misguided.

      I also think I’m not being heard well when I talk about “testimony,” so I’ll try again. Testimony is not just the assertion of a modern, autonomous “I” over against another group. When a testimony is Christian, it attempts to narrate an individual or community experience in terms of “what God is doing in the world” in ways that the community can hear the resonance. So if my definition is a good one (James KA Smith, a Pentecostal philosopher, uses something similar) than testimony is already a mode of doing theology (or at least, it includes theological reflection).

      Regarding the Articles: I don’t deny anything that was said in them except the idea that we are not allowed to interpret one part so that it is repugnant to another. Unfortunately, even the most conservative Anglicans do this all the time, with “good hermeneutical reasons,” so I just find that one part of that article is actually fundamentally dishonest about the practice of the Church. For example, the book of Ezra (send your half-breed wives and children into the desert to die) is repugnant to the book of Jonah (God loves and saves even the horrible Gentiles). Do we teach them both as somehow God’s word? Yes. Do we come down closer to Jonah? Yes. Why? Because of the ministry of Jesus and the book of Acts.

      I think many things in the Church’s history have been argued primarily on the basis of hermeneutics and not of Scripture (the inclusion of Gentiles without circumcision being one of them). Or, even better, take slavery. Why? Because the current practice of the Church was inhumane (and so disrespected Scripture on another level) and the Spirit leads the Church to deeper appreciation of the imago dei redeemed in Christ. But to say that Scripture is clear that slavery is wrong is a little weird, I think.

      Personally, if traditionalists were willing to concede that sex outside of marriage is not always a sin (I believe this, and I think I have sound exegesis on my side), then quite frankly, within the Church I couldn’t care less about marriage equality as a desired theological outcome (because perhaps there are multiple ways of fulfilling God’s desire that human beings should not be alone). But because traditionalists usually argue that all sex outside of marriage is always sinful, and since the Church’s pastoral care of bodies on these issues is usually abysmal, I argue that almost by definition we are arguing the theology wrongly, and need to extend the definition of marriage. If “good theology” ends up consistently destroying people, we are in the wrong. (This is why I have difficulty hearing that the Church has always made a positive argument. Really? Have you ever read the Church Fathers about marriage as a second-class institution?)

      I must admit that this conversation is starting to make me a little angry, mostly because I think there’s still an assumption that Bible is actually going to win the argument (I wish it would, but it won’t–I mean, what would it take for you to be convinced of a historically limited reading of Romans 1? What would it take for you to be convinced that Genesis 1-2 are descriptive and not trans-culturally binding? These are not biblical questions–they are hermeneutical). Also, can you name one place in all of Church or Biblical history where an *experience* was not previous to a change in theology? I’m open to being persuaded otherwise, but I haven’t found one yet.) I usually hear arguments like yours as, “Read the Bible my way or your argument doesn’t count. Agree with my hermeneutic or your argument doesn’t count.” (I’m not claiming this as your intention–I think I’m trying to challenge you that there’s so much *power* and privilege underneath your statements that can be deployed in very unwise ways.) I am a ‘revisionist’ who believes that no traditionalist should be forced to accept a practice that goes against his-or-her biblically formed conscience. But I believe that ‘biblically formed consciences’ can land in different places on the issue of the definition of marriage and the sanctity of LGBT relationships–but since there are creedally orthodox queer Christians like me who are offering the fruit of our lives and relationships to the Church, I am confident that the Church will eventually hear the truth of the Gospel in lives like mine.

      And lastly, about babies: if adoption is the primary metaphor in the New Covenant, than just because I propose a different way of viewing sex doesn’t mean the idea that making babies can be dropped in individual cases is fundamentally wrong-headed. Again, I think I could argue pretty strongly using texts that not a lot of Evangelicals even know exist, but it will come down, again, to hermeneutics, not to the biblical texts themselves.

      Still in peace,
      Rob

      NB: Edits for clarity before reading any further comments.

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      • theologywriter

        Something I realised last night reading _Non Violent Communication_ by Rosenberg: the conversation itself isn’t making me angry. I think I would like to know more about who I’m talking to. Do I know you personally? Have we met before? I think my sense of anger comes from a judgment I’ve made without knowing you. What I feel I need in this conversation is an acknowledgment that I hear traditional theologians profoundly damaging me and those I care about. I believe that they are trying to maintain some sort of abstract theological principle without empathizing sufficiently with queer Christians (never mind so-called heterosexual ‘revisionists’) about what they (I) perceive as the overwhelmingly destructive consequences of current Church teaching.

        All this as a way of trying to say: I’m sorry for judging you, Jonathan. I hope you will still want to be part of the conversation, and I will try to express my own perspective in terms of what I’m seeking in the future.

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  5. jt*

    Dear Rob,

    On “testimony”: I like your definition, I would just want to highlight that “what God is doing in the world” is known in and through a community formed and sustained by the Spirit.

    Yes, I think you’re right that these matters are predominately hermeneutical in nature. My comment lacked that clarity because I typed it from my phone and didn’t read it over before submitting. So, thanks for shedding some light there.

    I’d be interested in hearing you unpack this a little bit: “if traditionalists were willing to concede that sex outside of marriage is not always a sin…”. Indeed, this will likely be a hard sell for a traditionalist. And, if traditionalists conceded this, why would you care less about marriage equality within the church? Is your concern for marriage equality in the church primarily a pragmatic one?

    I must say, I am appreciative of you calling me out where you think I’ve erred in our discussion. i.e. “I usually hear arguments like yours as, “Read the Bible my way of your argument doesn’t count…”. Truthfully, this is all a struggle for me. As a traditionalist, I find myself wanting to be faithful to the ways in which the church has understood marriage and sexuality. Yet, I also want to be empathetic and open to correction from my LGBTQ brothers and sisters in Christ. I admit, I do not always know how to do this well, so thank you for your patience.

    The following statement interests me but I would need time to think about it further and the implications that might result: “But I believe that ‘biblically formed consciences’ can land in different places on the issue of the definition of marriage and the sanctity of LGBT relationships…”.

    This a really important discussion because matters of sexuality are really about what it means to be a human creature, who is born and who dies, and whose birth gives rise to a life, and whose death gives rise to what lies after death. I suppose one of my major concerns surrounds the question of church and culture. It’s clear that culturally how we think about sex and sexuality has changed in the last 100, 50, and 10 years. We live in a culture in which sex has been de-coupled from procreation, de-coupled from marriage, and de-coupled from social networks and norms (making sex and sexuality a choice made by particular people, in particular times, in particular places. But where are communities in this? Sex and sexuality are mostly a matter of individual choice). Of course there are many and varied reasons for all of this, from longer life spans, to contraceptive and reproductive technologies. There is more I could say, but this sketches out some of my concerns.

    Regarding your final comment, we don’t know each other personally. I came across your blog through the Act Like Men? conference (I’m friends with Nathan and Kevin who organized it). Actually, the other day I recalled something. I think we had a class together with Ann Jervis on Paul’s Ethics. You were auditing if I remember correctly, and I think you left for whatever reason after a week or two. I hear you when you say that traditional theologians have been profoundly damaging to you and those you care about. However, I disagree that they are simply trying to maintain “some sort of abstract theological principle”. Like I said above, these matters cut to the core of what it means to be and live as a human creature. That is hardly abstract. Could there be more empathy? Indeed, from all parties! And may this be so.

    Grace and peace.

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  6. theologywriter

    Jonathan,

    Yes, I absolutely agree with how you “tagged on” to my attempted definition of testimony. The problem becomes that some (not all) traditionalists are willing to claim (!) that I am outside the community because I am willing to enter sexual relationship if it seems good to me (I would say, “to me and to the Holy Spirit,” but those theologians I am thinking of would not be able to hear that). If I’m outside the community, then I am (by definition) not offering Christian testimony. But the claim that I am making is that “communities sustained by the Spirit” make claims that the fully engaged sexual lives of GLBTQ Christians are blessed. In some ways, my brother, this is something that we just *know*, and that means we will not be able to browbeat traditional Christians into submission, because it takes longer to work the implications out fully than the tradition is able to handle quickly.

    I am glad that we agree that hermeneutics is central to this! For some reason I breathe easier.

    The St. Andrew’s Day Statement, with Oliver O’Donovan as a co-author, admits (somewhat off-handedly) that the choice between marriage and celibacy for Christians depends more heavily on the tradition than it does on Scripture itself, a statement with which I whole-heartedly agree. For example, there is no undisputed consensus that the characters of the Song of Songs were ever married. There are sexual arrangements that evoke no moral comment whatever in the Biblical text yet would make most contemporary Christians uncomfortable. The word ‘porneia,’ in its original usage, probably included some kind of cultic transactional sex at its core, but since the ‘edges’ are hard to determine, Church tradition basically kept loading stuff into the definition until it got the definition I grew up with, “Everything that’s outside of marriage but not adultery.” Oliver O’Donovan and other traditionalists are fond of suggesting that if LGBTQ relationships should receive blessing, it would be for a different reason than marriage, since the relationship dynamics are (allegedly) different and need to be understood on their own terms. O’Donovan, somewhat cheekily, wants to know if there are reasons that gay men find valuable about why their relationships are often so “episodic”! (Affectionate eye-roll.)

    But, as you say, most traditionalists would resist the idea that some sex outside of marriage can be blessed. In fact, traditionalists I know who are willing to “bless” but not marry seem to recommend that gay and lesbian couples have as little sex as possible, since even though the relationship itself is holy, the sexual act is always sinful (or not in touch with God’s design). Thus, the only way that LGBTQ sexual behaviours can be considered holy by traditionalists is if they occur within marriage, and thus LGBTQ Anglicans and our “allies” (whether orthodox or not!) press the Church to extend the definition. They also argue against me that “separate but equal” is not something they are willing to accept. From my current standpoint, having been emotionally and liturgically hand-fasted (Celtic marriage ritual) and then going through a divorce in its emotional impact, I’m not sure what to think about the institution of marriage. If queer people want that sacramental, fine! If they don’t, there are perhaps other, equally important ways the church can explore that allow blessed sexual unions to occur. *shrugs* It seems to me that the Church is not willing to be that playful (and I mean that in a respectable way). All-or-nothing thinking is becoming the order of the day, and it stifles pastoral and theological creativity.

    “Where are communities in this?” That is a key question, and I am going to be bold. The Church missed on this one and traditionalists are flailing around trying to get the puck out of their zone. The reason why the Church has messed up is (among other things) that we have valourized the nuclear family and reproduction inappropriately. Queer communities do sexual decision-making in a much more communal way than most Christians in the West do. It may look less structured, but when gay men often stay in touch with friends and lovers for years, there can be quite a strong sense of community that builds. Some theologians argue (Kathy Rudy being one) that gay male consciousness is inherently community-centred, as individualistic and hedonist as it can appear to straight Christians. (I have a problem with her argument that perhaps anonymous sex can be theologically appropriate because it operates within humane community norms, but I find her overall treatment of sexuality as communal fascinating.) The nuclear family is not the primary identity-place of any Christian–the Church is.

    Again, about making babies. I believe it’s John Zizioulas who argues that reproduction, while blessed, very good, and human, is not a specifically Christian task. This is why so many of the Church Fathers made virginity a reflection of the Eschaton. (Whether or not this was exegetically justified or psychologically healthy is another issue!) There are Evangelical theologians I have met that make reproduction so central to an account of human sexuality that, to my ear, they risk the idolatry of the fertility cults so roundly condemned in Scripture. How to eunuchs (sexually active men who lack their testicles) fit into this picture? Barren women? Adopted children?) The synoptic Jesus traditions are much less marriage- and biological family-friendly than most Evangelicals are willing to countenance, as well. Marriage ends in the Eschaton (but the text never says whether or not having sex, sexuality, or gender does).

    I realize that for most traditionalists, it must sound like I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid of modernist hedonism, but I assure you that this is not my intention. Queer people, in my estimation, cause such a stir in the Church precisely because our notions of what it means to be human and Christian have been thoroughly disrupted. An adopted child raised by gay parents (and more than likely an extended chosen family of all genders) has been “grafted in,” strictly by grace. Theologians who argue (like one I read recently did) that gay marriage is profoundly damaging to children are in fact arguing an abstraction, precisely because they have no credible evidence that it does (and increasing numbers of sociological studies confirm this). Hell, even Tony Campolo, who opposes extending the sacramental definition of marriage, admits as much while wearing his sociologist’s hat!

    If Jesus was not enamored of marriage or family, why then did he love children so much? I would suggest that his blessing of children came not because he was trying to shore up “biological continuity,” (as his cousin John says, ‘do not say, we have Abraham as our ancestor,’) but because he loved and honoured these most vulnerable persons in his society. Children, in fact, were political ‘no-bodies’ with very few protections that depended completely on the magnanimity of the patriarch in a household. Yet Jesus wants his people to be like children, stripped of all power, completely vulnerable (of course, this is not the only image of what citizens of the Kingdom are like). This is a powerful statement about the place of children in Christian communities, and for my money it’s good enough. Because I believe that the Song of Songs is a completely appropriate paradigm for some Christians in today’s Church, I don’t worry so much about who is making the babies–but I do care that all Christians love them well and teach them to grow into the Victor’s Crown that we’re promised in Baptism.

    Forgive me if I have overstepped about abstraction. But I often see a very real sense of panic in Western Evangelical theology about GLBTQ people: “If they explode this, what will we have left?” Trust me please, as someone who has been a traditionalist and come out as a gay man (still fairly traditional, at least as the creeds are concerned!), this issue, though it is about what it means to be human, is not as important as a lot of people think it is. Why do I say that, even though I’ll have a PhD in the debate soon enough? Because regardless of differences in our theological anthropology, there are facts that will not change. Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life of obedience to God with all the preaching, healing, exorcism, and other wonderful that entails, died on cross at Calvary for to demonstrate the saving love and justice of God for the whole universe, descended to the dead, and was bodily resurrected. He ascended to the Father, sent the Holy Spirit to empower his people, and is coming again in glory to set you, me, and everything right again. Nothing I am saying about marriage or even sexual behaviours changes any of these facts. The this-world question I want to ask is, “Does the theology of sex and marriage I am proposing consistently damage the lives and bodies of people (even given its best implementation), or does it rather free them from fear or otherwise enable the love of God and neighbour?”

    In peace,
    Rob

    PS. Ann Jervis is awesome. Yeah, I only came to a couple lectures because I had so little energy that semester. Kept the text-books, though!

    PPS. I honestly wonder, sometimes, if sexuality cuts quite as deep as we say it does. Mostly because our society is obsessed with it, and yet we produce so little in the way of sanity and erotic maturity.

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