"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Human Sexuality and the Church: A Time for Prayer, Study, and Reflection

(Preface:  I’ve been periodically toying with this post in various forms for nearly a year.  Because it deals with a controversial topic, and controversy ain’t my thing, I’ve intentionally delayed in publishing it.  I do so now for reasons which I hope will be apparent.  The thoughts here expressed are the product of a fair amount of reflection, but not as of yet a great deal of prayer and study.  Accordingly, please bear in mind the preliminary, rambling nature of this post: these are not fully formed conclusions, by any means.  I have tried to present these thoughts with honesty and humility, and I sincerely hope that nothing I have here stated causes hurt to any reader.  If I am disappointed in this hope, and if you feel so led, I would greatly value your input to help me understand that hurt, and how I can proceed with greater compassion.)  

A Prayer for Guidance
O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light riseth up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what thou wouldest have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in thy light we may see light, and in thy straight path may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

I have generally not supported the efforts within the Episcopal Church to see variant sexual orientations accepted as healthy, God-ordained expressions of human sexuality.  I am not homophobic, and I certainly bear no hatred toward such persons.  I recognize that there are people within the Church, baptized members of Christ, who feel themselves genetically inclined to same-sex attraction, some of whom have formed committed relationships accordingly.  I know such individuals, and consider them friends and brothers and sisters in Christ.  They should be welcomed in the Church as members of the Church, and invited to partake of the life of the Church as they seek to live out their faith in the world.  But there is a difference between a community of sinners welcoming sinners and a community of sinners saying 'we have no sin'.  My views are primarily based upon what seems to me to be the fairly clear opposition of both Scripture and tradition on these issues.  While many proponents for full LGBT affirmation seem to simply dismiss Church tradition as the misguided ignorance of bygone eras which no longer have much to say to us, they have gone to great lengths to demonstrate how homosexuality can be viewed as compatible with Scripture, but I have thus far not found such arguments very convincing.  They seem to me to be strained interpretations to justify an already agreed upon way of thinking and acting.  While there are also, I believe, rational arguments which may be mounted against the LGBT movement in the Church, there are certainly also well-reasoned arguments in support of the same.  In any event, I do not find these purely rational arguments, whether against or for, to carry as much weight in the context of the Church's wrestling with these issues.  This is because I think the idea, commonly expressed, of the Anglican tradition's 'three-legged stool' as consisting of three entirely equal sources of revelation and authority is not actually accurate.  The ideal that I think has held true for most of the history of the Church is Scripture as the foundation, its teachings interpreted through the use of our God-given reason, within the community of Christ that is the Church (i.e. tradition).  It's only in recent decades that we have seen reason (often of a very individual, experiential sort) in the ascendant, sometimes even over and against Scripture and tradition.  (I should note, I have read Hooker only very modestly, and I have not yet studied Anglican history and theology intensively; does this seem to be an accurate analysis, or am I off track here?)  In fact, I think there are indeed strong arguments, speaking strictly as regards reason and experience, for full inclusion of LGBT persons in society.  Consequently, I do not generally oppose same-sex civil unions, and other such rights as a matter of state policy.  But as to the question of how the Church should approach this issue, I am more conflicted.
One thing that troubles me is what may be seen as a double-standard of sorts.  First, permit me to go off on a tangent.  As a teacher and student of history, I am much opposed to the overly simplistic parallels so often drawn between different issues and events.  For example, the U.S. conflicts in Vietnam and Afghanistan -- similar, yes; 'exact same thing', no.  No issue or event is ever identical to another, and we do ourselves a disservice when we gloss over these differences.  Another example, and more to the point: more than once, in observing not so cordial online ‘conversations’ over questions of human sexuality, I've read charges to the effect of, ‘You gay-bashers are the same ones who used the Bible to justify slavery back in the day!’ Well, not necessarily. Those are two quite different issues. Okay, back on topic.
The possibility of such over-simplification notwithstanding, here’s what troubles me: speaking generally, the rationale which keeps me from supporting the normalizing of same-sex relations in the Church (i.e. opposition of Scripture and tradition, despite some reasonable arguments to the contrary within the context of a broader societal shift on the issue) is precisely the same rationale which can be used to argue against the practice of the ordination of women.The ordination of women, however, has never bothered me (my Anglo-Catholic bent goes only so far).  Perhaps it is because I've grown up in a time when this debate has largely already been decided, at least within the Episcopal Church.  I think it's also because I have personally known several women priests, by whom I have been immensely blessed.  In my interaction with these women, I believe strongly that I have experienced Christ present in His true ministers.

So, what does this logical incongruity portend for my views on TEC’s trajectory regarding human sexuality?  Well, I’m not sure yet, but I intend to embark on a focused time of prayer and study on this issue as I begin my summer.  (I’ve also never really studied the Biblical and theological underpinnings of the move to ordain women; probably something else I should get to sooner rather than later).  I feel that the time is right for me to engage in such a study, primarily because I am at the beginning of the process of seeking ordination in the Episcopal Church, and I want to be very honest and transparent throughout that process.  I think it would in some measure be irresponsible, or at least ill-advised, for me to continue further in the ordination process without having a more solid understanding of where I stand on issues of human sexuality in the life of the Church, and why.  To this end, I’m currently putting together a reading list; any suggestions would be appreciated.*

It may seem odd that I have not long ago settled this question in my mind.  There are a couple of reasons why I have put it off.  Perhaps the primary reason is not a very good one: by nature, I’m pretty averse to conflict, and this issue is as contentious as they come.  As an observer of the debate (sometimes it’s a conversation, but very often it’s a no-holds-barred debate), I’ve heard plenty of vitriol from both sides, and that grieves me.  It doesn’t strike me as Christian, and for that reason it’s not a debate I’ve been eager to wade into.  Fr. Matt Marino, who blogs over at The Gospel Side, said something a while back that really resonated with me:
"It is a difficult choice we are making as a church. 1/3 of our church sees the sexuality conversation as a justice issue. Justice must be stood for. 1/3 see it as an issue of revealed truth which therefore must be opposed. 1/3 wonder what will be left when the justice people and the truth people are done with all of this."
That pretty well expresses my view at this point, wondering what will be left after the dust settles.  And it also summarizes the second and more meaningful reason why I haven’t devoted myself to taking a stand in the debate.  Honestly, I just don’t view it as that important.  I’m sure that sounds harsh to those who are LGBT and to their close friends and family, and naïve to those who feel that this is indeed a fight for the soul of orthodoxy in the Church.  I think I can understand both of those responses, but for myself, definitive statements about human sexuality are not really at the heart of the gospel.  It seems that this issue has been blown quite out of proportion, and caused far more indignation all around than it ever should have warranted.   I’m quite willing to allow for different views within the Church – I don’t think answering this question ‘correctly’ should determine whether or not one is welcome in the Household of God.  To clarify, I’m definitely not an advocate for an ‘anything goes as long as we’re honest’ approach to Church doctrine and discipline.   It’s not possible to have true community without some boundaries, i.e. some degree of agreement and unity.  But I think we find such boundaries in the historic Creeds, built as they are upon the foundation of the Scriptures, and agreed upon by the undivided Church.  This is the summation of our common, catholic faith.  It is this faith that is presented so beautifully in the Book of Common Prayer. (Incidentally, this is also why I find it so disturbing when we have bishops and priests who cast doubt on or openly reject the Creeds, or who seem to have little regard for the authority of the prayer book.)  As one who has grown in love and devotion for Jesus through just this faith, in just this church, I sincerely hope that I will continue to find a welcoming home here in TEC, as I always have, regardless of where I may find myself on this issue after a period of prayer and study.

I would greatly value your prayers as I begin this endeavor.


* My reading list so far:

Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion - Oliver O'Donovan

Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views - Robert A. J. Gagnon & Dan O. Via

Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality - Tobias S. Haller

Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality - Wesley Hill

Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate - Justin Lee


  1. Since you specifically evoke the issue of whether this question is analogous to women's ordination and slavery, you might be interested to look over the book "Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis" by William Webb. The summary on Amazon describes the book well, and the reviews give more info (tho the latter of course at times reflect the contentiousness you reference above.)

  2. Hi, I'm an Episcopalian, and I'm gay. I grew up in a much more conservative denomination but joined my current church because it was a place I could be welcomed as a full member of the church, where I didn't have to lie about who I was.

    I'm glad you are reading Torn by Justin Lee. His book, more than any other, looks at the human aspect of being gay and Christian. My guess is that you have thought very little about your own sexuality. People who have thought about sexuality don't use phrases like "feel themselves genetically inclined to same-sex attraction." It's not that you are being offensive--it's just that the phrase doesn't make sense. No one feels "genetically inclined" to be anything. We just feel. Torn will give you insight into sexuality and probably get you to ponder your own.

    Feeling, more than the three-legged stool or any theological framework, is what we're talking about here. You said the ordination of women has never bothered you (despite the arguments against it). The ordination of LGBT people and blessing of same-sex unions probably does bother you, which is why you are conflicted about these things in the church (and why you are looking for theological reasons to oppose them). If it didn't bother you, you wouldn't question it. It's important to ask yourself why this bothers you.

    If you really want to get to know LGBT Christians and find out what we're really about, I would suggest joining the Gay Christian Network (gaychristian.net). It's a good place to ask questions...we welcome them! If you are able, you should also attend the conference, which will be in Chicago in January 2014--more information is available on the website.)

    I'll leave you with this--every position I've seen that is against full inclusion in the church has always been about justifying someone's fears about me. I have never seen an argument against same sex blessing or gay ordination that was about what is good for me.

    1. Hi Marty,

      Thanks for the conversation, and I'm happy to hear that you've found a home in the Episcopal Church.

      I think I have been fairly reflective about my own sexuality, though not to the extent, I'm sure, of most LGBT people. I agree that the phrase 'feel themselves genetically inclined' is awkward. All I was meaning to say is that who we are as individuals, including our feelings and desires, is influenced by human genetics. I'm no geneticist, for sure, but I don't think that's a controversial stance.

      You're right that feelings are a vital factor in this conversation, but I can't dismiss the theological and Scriptural aspects as secondary. Honestly, I don't trust my own feelings to lead me all the way home. I'm aware of the brokenness in my own self, and the disordered and sinful feelings that I struggle with on any given day. By actively engaging (rather than just blindly accepting) Scripture and tradition, I find myself part of a community that helps me discern truth more accurately than I could in isolation. I should clarify that I'm not 'looking for theological reasons to oppose' LGBT ordinations and blessings. I'm already fairly familiar with that side of the debate; if anything, the opposite is true. Frankly, it would be great for me to be able to fully affirm LGBT persons in the Church; it would certainly make my life a lot easier. But I've got to be able to do that in good conscience, which compels me to go off of more than just my personal feelings. In truth though, this is not the spirit in which I'm beginning this period of discernment, i.e. looking for theological ammunition to bolster my already decided position. Rather, I hope to approach these issues with a truly open mind and heart (God grant me grace) and prayerfully arrive at the place where God would have me be.

      Thanks again for your insights, and for referring me to the Gay Christian Network.

  3. I see that you are trying to figure out what you see as the truth. Don't ignore your feelings, either for or against LGBT people. Examine them and pay attention. God works through feelings too, not just dusty books.

    I get pretty passionate about this because I was the kid who grew up knowing he was gay but never finding a place where that was acceptable. I feel called to make the church a welcoming place for all gay people and hope that we can reduce the suicide rate among LGBT youth. I am speaking as a gay person when I say you are not at a place to help do that. Ignoring gay people is not the same as welcoming us. (Justin Lee has a great blog post today about that very thing. How's that for God's hand at work?)


  4. Replies
    1. Sorry for the late response; I've been offline for a few days.

      I just finished Justin Lee's book 'Torn'. It was quite a compelling read. I'm glad Justin had the courage, compassion, and skill to write it, because I think it's really important that people (especially those in the Church who oppose same-sex marriage) hear his story. At the very least, I don't see how any Christian who takes the time to listen to a story like his could not then approach the issues with a greater sense of compassion and understanding. And both those qualities are so needed now, when many in the Church continue to see this through the lens of cultural warfare (i.e. the 'take back our country for God' approach).

      I found myself agreeing with and empathizing with Justin throughout the book - I think it's pretty hard not to. At this point, I can't say I agree entirely with his biblical interpretation, but it's a reasonable interpretation nonetheless. And in any event, that was just two chapters of the book, which is a memoir, not a theological or exegetical treatise. One of the things that stood out to me was the (at least as Justin chronicles it) futility of the various 'ex-gay ministries' and the damage done by the same. Pretty timely reading, given the recent public apology from Exodus International president Alan Chambers, and the closing of that organization.

  5. Great post! I wish everybody in TEC had your kind of reasoning when approaching controversial issues. The vast majorities on both sides made up their minds long ago and there is no real interest in having an honest discussion. For myself, I'm generally quite supportive of the inclusion of LGBT individuals into the life of the church. That being said, I still am very open to listening to the opinions/conclusions of others when it comes to this issue. I will also readily admit that the idea of having a gay marriage in my parish is one that makes me feel a little uncomfortable. I would also like to say that I agree that this issue is taking up way too much of the TECs time and resources. Frankly, I'm much more concerned with the leadership's drift toward a unitarian universalism and a hostility to the historic creeds.

    1. Thanks, Sean. I appreciate your honesty and openness, and I'm always encouraged to find others in TEC who are still sincerely interested in "continuing to listen" (a phrase I remember being very much in vogue just a few years back). I think it's so important, both for our witness and for the health and future of the Church.

      I share your concern about the seeming dearth of theological leadership in our church (I hope it's not as bad as it sometimes seems; sensational news gets the headlines), and I agree that the tendency of some to want to jettison or ignore the most basic articles of the faith is much more worrying in the long run than our disagreements over human sexuality. It continues to baffle me how those way out in left field (some of them aren't even in the ballpark anymore) continue to remain in TEC; regardless of the political statements that come out of General Convention, or the latest embarrassment to come from a bishop's pulpit, the Book of Common Prayer remains as thoroughly Trinitarian and orthodox as anything out there. And it's the BCP, more than anything else, that drives and shapes the life of our church, and from which we derive our doctrine and discipline. It's the BCP that keeps me in this church, and gives me hope for our future. Despite some evidence to the contrary, I still believe 'lex orandi, lex credendi'.

      I've also begun to hope that such antipathy towards tradition might to some degree be chalked up to being a baby boomer thing. Hopefully it will pass before it does too much damage. It does seem to me that there are no small number of us younger folks who very much want to see the church continue to hold fast to Christ as the Head. Affirming the catholic faith helps us to do that. Taking an unmitigated 'do what you feel' or 'let's see where this path takes us' approach to theology doesn't.