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'Can We Talk?"
Now is the time for your loving, Dear, And a time for your company, Now when the light of reason fails And fires burn on the sea, Now in this Age of Confusion I Have need for your company.
— RICHARD FARINA
"Can we talk?"
Most of us don't like hearing that question. We're not sure if it's an inquiry, the introduction to criticism, or the prelude to an ultimatum. It often signals a return to a topic we started finding tedious some time back.
Something like that is going on in the Episcopal Church. Some of us want to "talk" more than others. For more than thirty years members of the Episcopal Church have been poking at the question, "Can we talk?" — about the sacramental equality or inequality of our gay and lesbian fellow worshipers.
What do I mean by sacramental equality/inequality? I mean that, like the rest of us, gay and lesbian church members are entitled to Baptism, the Eucharist, Confirmation, Penance, and Unction. And they get stewardship visits each fall. But their access to Ordination has been restricted to the celibate until quite recently — and the church as a whole has not officially changed her mind about that access yet. The church still officially, if no longer uniformly, restricts gay members from Holy Matrimony. So long as homosexual members are not equally entitled to seek the latter two sacraments they are not sacramentally equal to the rest of the church.
The matter of the sacramental status of homosexual church members has been on the church's table since the Sixty-Fifth General Convention in 1973. Though that convention reiterated the church's teaching on sex (sex is only godly between married people) and went on to wield it as a prohibition specifically against homosexual Christians (because homosexual couplings do not occur within marriage, they cannot be seen as godly), the convention nevertheless recognized a "discontinuity" between this teaching and the experience of some of the church's homosexual members. That convention launched the first of many appeals for discussion of these topics.
In my observation it's mostly liberals who have responded to the request for dialogue and conservatives who are less willing. The conversations I've been a part of typically have been launched with a set of rules, sometimes with actual training exercises in exploratory listening, all designed to assure a fair hearing for differing opinions. Those rules derive from studies of group dynamics and conflict management that are of more interest to liberals than to conservatives, judging from the people you normally see at such training sessions.
Has any fruit at all emerged out of those three decades of talk? It's difficult to tell. I cannot presently recall one person who has reported a change of mind as a result of such discussions, though you'd expect they would have some effect. Psychologists tell us that when people argue, a "drift toward the middle" tends to occur, as though the very process of allowing your meanings to move through my neural circuitry leaves some of my switches permanently on. That drift can expand my thinking even if I'm not aware of changing my mind. Perhaps the drift to the middle accounts for the General Convention's recent decision to allow the election and subsequent consecration of a gay priest living openly "married" to another man. The majority of deputies and bishops assembled in 2003 were better able at least to imagine such a thing than their predecessors had been in 1973.
Certainly secular culture has moved in a more permissive direction in recent years. Several European countries currently offer marriage to same-sex couples, as do parts of Canada. Many others offer civil unions with the legal standing of marriage. In our country, Hawaii's Supreme Court first flirted with the notion; New Jersey instituted domestic partnerships; Vermont recognized civil unions as tantamount to marriage; and the Massachusetts Supreme Court recently took the whole plunge. The mayors of several towns — beginning spectacularly with San Francisco — began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Yet the sentiment in favor of sacramental equality in the Episcopal Church is anything but uniform — and the opposition is stiffer, better organized, more precisely networked, and better funded than previously. So I think we must conclude that our talk so far has not gone fully to anyone's satisfaction.
I AM WRITING this book to friends. I treasure friendships on both sides of the debate — and among the complacent middle 60 percent. I have been in enough conversations with friends all over the spectrum to know that no one's mind is going to change as a result of reading my thoughts in favor of sacramental equality. But I have stood on both sides of the divide somewhat publicly and have loved and respected the people I stood with. I know from personal acquaintance that we can all do a better job of talking than we've managed so far.
To begin with, what do friends call each other? Let's use the label "liberals" on the 20 percent of us who favor Bishop Gene Robinson's episcopate and are hopeful for the thaw into sacramental equality for gays and lesbians that it may betoken. Historians remind us that a century ago the word "liberal" (applied to theology) meant things most of us would neither recognize nor espouse. Still we can use that label as a convenience, however cautiously. And the 20 percent who energetically regret that action and don't welcome its implications? Let's call them what most call themselves: "conservatives," many of whom are Evangelicals.
Now nobody likes labels — and nobody likes being labeled. As the girl in the bar ironically quipped to Woody Allen, "Oh, I don't mind being reduced to a cultural stereotype." But of course she did. Still labels save time if we use them to launch or pursue a conversation rather than to close one. These labels are shorthand and in no way betoken disrespect or reductionism — at least not from my fountain pen. "Liberal" and "conservative" are somewhat more descriptive than, say, "shirts" and "skins."
I wish this little book would change people's minds, but I doubt it will. So short of that I'd like it to have some impact on the way we talk among ourselves on each side of the ditch — and the way we holler across it. It's possible that some of these suggestions may be of service to friends who oppose the Robinson decision.
I also want to alert both sides to a truth that gets routinely disregarded: those who favor the Robinson decision have substantive biblical, traditional, and reasoned warrant to do so. It does not enhance the accuracy of thinking on either side of the aisle to describe one party as the biblical or orthodox party and other as worldly or trendy or revisionist. In discussions I carry on with conservative friends, that reality almost never gets acknowledged; nor do I find traces of it in conservative writings and documents. What is more surprising and troubling is how often friends on the liberal side of the aisle are unaware of the biblical, traditional, and reasoned substantiation for their humanistic sensibilities. When liberals get tempted to abandon rigorous attention to the three-stranded cord of Anglican authority — most especially the biblical strand — the conservative indictment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I'd like for this book to correct that — on both sides.
I am pleading this not only to reinforce the liberal position with biblical and traditional proof-texts. Liberals must go beyond the surface of the argument. They must acknowledge that conservatives and Evangelicals love the Bible deeply and sincerely. Many also embrace with gratitude to God what they understand as Christian traditions. If liberals oppose conservatives on the matter of sacramental equality for gay and lesbian believers — as in justice we must — while refusing to demonstrate rigorously the biblical and traditional underpinnings for our stance, we estrange our conservative siblings from their own scripture and tradition by inadvertently maneuvering them to clutch defensively only restricted portions of it — the portions that appear to them to sustain their current beliefs. Liberals would do well to respect conservatives enough to trust that the latter love the Bible itself more than they love their own opinions. We serve them when we offer something solid to push against — as indeed they serve us. Glibly replying to a "biblical" argument with something like, "The Law of Love supersedes the Love of Law" sounds cute. But it's not a response; it's a disengagement.
Our talk would be enriched if liberals did not struggle with an undeclared guilty conscience about having ceded the Bible and Christian tradition to the Evangelicals. Some of us indeed have abandoned those treasures, assuming that they were inimical to justice. But in so doing, we left our own money on the table. In a recent (cordial) exchange of e-mails, Professor Robert Gagnon complained to me about an Episcopal liberal's comparison of the Levitical prohibitions against male-male coitus with the prohibitions against eating shellfish; such glibness trivialized the discussion in his opinion. I sought to excuse the comment (from a bright man who is also a personal friend) as the sort of remark that high-velocity interviews provoke. But I conceded that at least some make such glib comments in the absence of any serious engagement with the Bible on this question.
We liberals tend to be somewhat chary of the Bible and of church tradition. Some of us are refugees from religious backgrounds in which scripture and/or tradition were instruments of oppression. All of us liberal clergy shelter people in our congregations who're trying to recover from religious abuse. Yet in the process of becoming refuges that embody a Christ-like humanism, we have as a party tended, I think, to move the discussion away from the Bible as though fearing what we'd find in its pages.
That was brought home to me forcibly in August and September 2003 following the General Convention in Minneapolis. I had a flurry of phone calls and e-mails from fellow clergy who were under bombardment from aggrieved parishioners.
They knew that my parish and I had undergone such an upheaval a decade ago during an adult Sunday school investigation of these matters that had turned explosive. Indeed when I, as an openly avowed "Charismatic," announced that God had changed my mind about the sacramental equality of gay people, the next few years became what the Chinese call "interesting times." But that imbroglio had made me do my Bible homework finally. Both the Bible itself and my new convictions survived the homework handily. I was now hearing from friends who were doing their own homework and wanting some collaboration. (Once you're graduated and ordained, that's no longer considered cheating.) They knew in their hearts and in their prayers that the Gene Robinson decision was impelled by the Holy Spirit — but how to display its congruence with the church's Bible and tradition? I originally drafted the contents of the following chapter as an offering to my colleagues. My hope in spreading it further is that liberals reassert our claim to the Holy Bible and do so in a rigorous manner. Surely Evangelicals would benefit from such an engagement.
So this is an attempt to demonstrate — in the most readable form someone like me can produce — that the liberal position on sacramental equality has biblical integrity, that it conforms to what is reliable in Christian tradition, and that it accords with reason. Indeed, as Richard Hooker intended, we shall be reasoning about the Bible and about our tradition.
For the reader for whom Richard Hooker (1554–1600) may not be a household name, he was the English Reformation theologian who in The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity developed a distinctly Anglican path through the fracas between Rome — who insisted that church tradition (the papacy, for example) trumped every other consideration — and the local Puritans and continental Reformers who insisted that the Bible alone was the sole authority in matters of faith, morals, and (increasingly) church order.
Hooker agreed with the Protestants that papal abuses demonstrated that tradition alone is an unsafe authority. He agreed with the Romans that the scripture alone was unworkable and vulnerable to subjective interpretation.
Therefore, he proposed a "threefold cord not easily broken" comprising scripture, church (tradition), and reason. While Rome demonstrates daily the corruptibility of tradition and the various Protestant denominations demonstrate daily the awkwardly unworkable nature of the sola scriptura position, Anglicans have managed to muddle through using Hooker's threefold cord.
Hooker knew that the Bible was vast, complex, and multilayered. To apply it reliably meant you had to use your noggin. You had to do so in full awareness of what previous Christian generations had undertaken — without servilely assuming that anything in the past was preferable to the novelties of the present. You also had to use a heart melted and reshaped in the crucible and on the anvil of prayer. The combined use of the head, the heart, and the spirit composed what Hooker understood by reason.
Trying to be a loyal Anglican I've structured this discussion to examine sacramental equality in the light of scripture and tradition as focused by reason. As Hooker would have wished and predicted, the discussion of scripture is by far the longest and most detailed. Tradition is deservedly the briefest. Reason comes behind scripture in size and influence.
Though Hooker himself preferred a different order (scripture, reason, and church — i.e., tradition) I address them in their more recent conventional order. Scripture comes in for the severest misuse these days, so we must consider it first. Tradition is also being misused, so we'll glance at it next. The brevity of that discussion reflects the reality that the quarrel in the Episcopal Church is getting waged on scriptural more than historical grounds. In discussing reason, we have to employ that faculty to understand why our decades-long conversations have produced so little mutual understanding or respect.
In addressing friends and attempting to deepen our discussions and perhaps enrich our proclamations, in the next chapters I am putting some thoughts into play that may not be familiar to most readers. At any rate they are considerations we do not often hear voiced.
In discussing scripture I'll acquaint readers with the fruits of recent researches in several fields that indicate that our whole apprehension of sex and sexuality has undergone so radical a shift in recent centuries that we simply no longer get what the biblical writers thought they were talking about when discussing sex. Phrased technically, the means and norms of gender construction in the ancient world differed markedly from our own. If we could stand Moses and Paul before us and congratulate (or fuss at) them for their condemnation of homosexuality, they would almost certainly stare at us in blank incomprehension. Homosexuality per se simply isn't anything they'd ever been aware of. No kidding.
In discussing tradition, I examine the necessarily political nature of tradition—who decides what tradition is and what it is not — and why. It's important to grasp the connection between tradition and privilege — and to consider how easily privilege elides into an addictive process. I examine some essentially Anglican traditions that we are in peril of jettisoning.
Discussing reason I (as gently as possible) insert developmental considerations into the differences between liberals and Evangelicals with suggestions about how both sides might meet one another on a common level of values-maturity.
Meanwhile, a couple of additional considerations may help our discussions.
A number of years ago I read an interview with the Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger. In it he complained something like, "The church today is telling the world, 'Speak up; you have our attention; we're listening.' But 'listening' is not the church's job. The church's job is to proclaim."
You may or may not agree that proclamation is the church's primary job. But Berger was onto something that could alert us to why our talk for the last three decades has not been more satisfactory. That is, liberals really do like to listen — or at least we like to appear to. The overwhelming number of attempts to initiate "dialogue" in the church emerges from the liberal camp. That fact alone makes Evangelicals and other sacramental conservatives cautious, sensing that dialogue is merely a delaying tactic until the so-called liberal media and Hollywood have nudged public sentiment about homosexual people leftward. Let every liberal reading this think long and hard before saying that's entirely wrong.
Excerpted from GAY UNIONS by GRAY TEMPLE. Copyright © 2004 Gray Temple. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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ONE "Can We Talk?".................... 17
TWO Scripture.................... 35
THREE Tradition.................... 101
FOUR Reason.................... 121