Friday, May 3, 2013

A Gay Anglican Reflects On Obedience To The Church

Wesley Hill wrote an article at first things about the church and sex.
When I was in seminary, one of the hot topics we students debated was where each of us stood on the matter of women’s ordination. In our evangelical world, this issue was talked about in terms of “egalitarianism” (i.e., women are equally gifted alongside men and are called to serve at every level of Christian ministry) versus “complementarianism” (i.e., women are equal in dignity and worth but are called to different forms of ministry in the church than men are, and women are not permitted to be “elders” [presbyteroi]).
This was a huge issue in my church when I was protestant. What struck me is how everyone had an opinion on it. Everyone had a biblical justification for their opinion. The strange part was I didn't feel the biblical arguments were the reason people were on the side they were on. There were liberals and conservatives and they all ended up on the side you would expect them on and dutifully used the biblical texts and arguments that would get them there. I just had the feeling everyone started with the answer they wanted. I was double-minded. I really didn't start with any answer and wanted to accept whatever the bible had to say on the matter. I could not figure out what that was. So Sola Scriptura didn't really work for me. It worked well for all those who knew where they wanted to end up. It just did not work well if you just wanted to end up where ever God was.
It was only later, after seminary, that it occurred to me that our debate was, among other things, odd. We students interrogated each other, and each of us felt a (mostly self-imposed) obligation to settle “our position” on the matter. But in retrospect, I view that as strange—because whether women can be ordained to diaconal or priestly/pastoral ministry is not a question that can be “settled” by an individual Christian, even one who’s been to seminary and been ordained. Rather, that’s a matter for churches to decide. Even in the Baptist church to which I belonged at that time, it made no real difference what I as a seminarian thought on the matter; nor would it have made much difference if I’d been a pastor or elder there. What mattered is what my denomination had decided and whether I wanted to remain a part of it, working within its confines or else kicking against the goads.
He is getting closer. A matter for churches to decide?  But does it not matter how churches decide? The Baptist church does decide these matters by voting. If you might become a pastor or an elder you might be asked to vote on the matter some day. The truth be told there is likely to be much church politics over the issue. I can see having a spirit of obedience but is that really compatible with a church government that can be changed by consensus? If we are called to "preach the word in season and out of season" (2 Tim 4:2)  can we really do that if what qualifies as "the word" can change based on whether it is in season or out of season?
Some of the current discussions I follow, and am a part of, regarding gay and lesbian persons in the church, remind me of those seminary discussions. I read blogs and talk with friends who are trying to decide whether they, personally, are “Side A” (i.e., believing God blesses and affirms monogamous same-sex partnerships) or “Side B” (i.e., believing that God calls gay and lesbian Christians to abstain from gay sex). Listening into these conversations and participating in them myself, I find myself dwelling more and more on how this way of framing the discussion marginalizes the communal, ecclesial context in which all Christian ethical judgments must be made. Now that I am a member of the Anglican Church in North America, it matters very little, in one sense, what I believe about same-sex unions. My church has rendered a judgment on the matter, and so my question becomes, “Am I willing to be submissive to that judgment or should I look for another church?” (Or the bigger question: “Why am I a member of the Anglican Communion and not, say, Catholic?”)
I still think the matter of what God actually thinks has been lost. Are we willing to be submissive to the judgement of the church knowing that God works through the church to lead us to truth? But does He work through the Anglican Church? If Christian ethical judgements are to be made in a communal, ecclesial context then how are we to judge when leaving the church is the ethical thing to do? Can anything unethical be made ethical by starting a new church and thereby having a favorable communal, ecclesial context? King Henry VIII seemed to think so.

Or perhaps I could go for a bit more complexity and say, “Am I willing to (a) be submissive, (b) look for a different church, or (c) stay put and work for change?” If I harbored “progressive,” “Side A” convictions on homosexuality, I could see my role as an Anglican as akin to that played by James Alison or Andrew Sullivan in the Roman Catholic Church: to be a prophetic voice of dissent against an ancient prejudice. Or if I held “traditionalist,” “Side B” convictions in, say, The Episcopal Church, I could view my role the way someone like Christopher Seitz views his: I would be called to defend historic Christian teaching on homosexuality in a church increasingly unsympathetic to it. The one thing I couldn’t do, in any of the above cases, would be to behave as if my “personal” views on the question were the most important, decisive thing to focus on.
Is not anything but the submissive choice really putting the focus on your personal views? I am not sure how he thinks  James Alison, Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Seitz avoid this. I am still looking for a difference between a political fight and discerning God's will. If you think of churches like political parties then you would have the same choices in politics. Either (a) ignore the issue, (b) change parties, or (c) work to change the position of the party you are in. Do we believe Christians have anything better available to them? He seems to think so. He sees something as more important than his personal opinion. He does not dare say it. That a church needs a special grace of God to arrive at the right answer or it is not worth anything.
This, I take it, is not unrelated to the point Rowan Williams made, over and over and again, when he was asked about the apparent discrepancy between his own “private” inclinations to find some way to bless same-sex unions and the Anglican Communion’s opposition to such blessings. Shortly after he became Archbishop of Canterbury, Williams told Time, for instance: “I’m now in a position where I’m bound to say the teaching of the Church is this, the consensus is this. We have not changed our minds corporately. It’s not for me to exploit my position to push a change.” In other words, even the bishop who is primus inter pares cannot allow his convictions to be elevated unduly.
So what good is he? We need to know the Word of God. If God does not speak through the Archbishop of Canterbury then who does he speak through? At least the Catholic church makes the claim that the pope can do more than just offer one more opinion. That in some circumstances he can discern the Word of God for the church. That the special grace of infallibility can get us out of this uncertainty trap. Sure we need to scrutinize that claim. We need to look at scripture and tradition and history. Still it has at least a chance of being true. The claim that God is simply silent and nobody can know more than their own fallible opinion is just not good enough.
So where does this leave us individual gay Christians in our various churches? Certainly each of us must act. We cannot put our lives on hold. Even though our churches may take a long time to give us the counsel we need to act rightly, that doesn’t mean that we’re able to wait that long before we embark on life-altering courses of action. A well-meaning Anglican priest once said to me, “We don’t yet have the mind of Christ on the issue of loving, faithful same-sex partnerships.” Well, even if I believed that to be true, that wouldn’t remove the urgency of my own choice: should I pursue such a gay partnership or remain celibate? That’s not a decision that can be deferred indefinitely.
This is precisely why a non-answer or a changeable answer  is not good enough. People need to make choices. We can't ask someone to make huge personal sacrifices based on an ethic that might be repudiated in a few years. We need to know what God really thinks and we need to know it with certainty. The same is true of female ordination or abortion or divorce. Moral issues matter.
It is, though, a decision that can be recognized as not a matter for my own “personal” judgment only. Or, putting it a bit more precisely (and positively), if I am to act according to my conscience, I have to recognize that my conscience is in need of communal formation. As Alan Jacobs put it, writing about his decision to leave The Episcopal Church several years ago,
I believe that I acted according to what Cardinal Newman long ago called “the supreme authority of Conscience… the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.” For Newman, conscience is anything but “private judgment”: it is, rather, the testing of one’s own private judgments, and sometimes those of others, against Scripture and against the long testimony of the whole church of Christ. And if we test those judgments so, and invoke our consciences, we enter perilous territory: as Newman reminds us, the fourth Lateran Council (1215) affirmed that Quidquid fit contra conscientiam, ├Ždificat ad gehennam—Whatever is done in opposition to conscience is conducive to damnation.
Of course Newman followed this line of thought to it's logical conclusion and joined the Catholic Church. You can do it in an ad hoc way. That is you look at the long testimony of the whole church on a question like gay marriage but then you don't do the same on questions involving the papacy or the Eucharist or the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the church. If you are consistent and test your private judgements on all matters all the way back then you will end up Catholic.
If I am a Christian, then I belong (like it or not) to the Body of Christ. By virtue of baptism, I am no longer “my own person”; in belonging to Christ, I also belong to the other members of his body, the church. And so, these days, I find myself less and less interested in asking where each gay Christian, myself included, “stands” on the question of the morality of gay sex. Instead, I want—even, or precisely, as an Anglican—to explore the question Eve Tushnet, a Roman Catholic, raised recently: is there a way to see my own convictions as somehow less important than the matter of my membership in the church of which I’m a part?
I don't know how you get away from infallibility here. We tend to be quite sure of ourselves. If the church teaches something and we disagree with it then we are going to have this idea that maybe the church is wrong and we are right.  Even when we accept that the church is wiser than us in general we tend to think on this issue the church is actually wrong. In my experience on the female ordination question both sides were very firm. A vote of the synod in the opposite direction convinced almost nobody they were wrong. Without any notion of infallibility everyone just went straight to the conclusion that the church is wrong. That is the way these things are. Opinions are deeply held and changing them does not come easy. Unless you can say that this is the true Christian faith and it is not going to change the vast majority will be unmoved.


  1. The post appears to be cut off at the end...

  2. Thanks for that. I fixed it.