Having inspired no one to touch the hot potato of why homosexuality is such a hot-button issue for religion and politics, let me try a new tack. A chat group I’m involved in has been asked by one of its members to think together about the issues of the Church’s blessing same-sex unions (whether called marriage or not) and, ultimately I suppose, ordaining non-celibate gay persons to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. Here I try to set out, with the greatest timidity, a witness about that question. In a nutshell, I ask, “Why may not my – and, I am confident, millions of people’s – positive experience with gay and lesbian couples be legitimately considered – alongside all the other data, including (pre-eminently) the scriptural record – in determining whether the Holy Spirit may be calling the Church to a new understanding of its traditional teaching?”
Unaccustomed as I am to wide-flung statements of truth (!), it seems to me that there are two poles which constitute the “heretical” boundaries of theological thinking. The first, and most natural I suppose to those of the so-called “liberal” persuasion (I must sometime think through the inaccuracy of that label), is to begin with our own situation and reason backward to what revelation has to say about it. We, in a sense, predetermine the Scriptural interpretation we seek to divine by running the Scriptures through a series of filters (our experience, our political agenda, certain of our key “values”) which will eliminate any chance that our already-arrived-at conclusions are questionable. The chief problem with this approach, as though I need say it, is that it sets the “thinker” in God’s place and uses the Scripture only as a tool to enforce the agenda, which agenda may in fact be exactly counter to the will of God. (This is by no means a sin limited to left-leaning do-gooders; you find this in all camps – perhaps even more so among the so-called “fundamentalists,” despite their denials, or “conservative Christians.”)
At the other pole is a strict text-based process. Read the Bible and weep; read carefully and analytically, of course, but “what is written is written,” each word means what it says. Forget any “hermeneutical” lens or circle; forget about any supposed inner logic to the Scriptural record; forget the cultural milieu in which the text(s) were written to make sense. When texts contradict, harmonize them, but beware trying to “trump” any passage with another. While I generally hold to that latter line (and won’t my friends be surprised to see that!), I also contend that there is a kind of nonsense to it. It may be my Lutheran upbringing showing through (I should be so lucky), but I buy the notion that there is a kind of “canon within the canon” of Scripture, a core proclamation around which all the rest makes sense only when seen in light of that core proclamation. So, for example, as Luther said (well, sort of said), it’s clear from a complete reading of scripture that God justifies the sinner purely for gracious reasons, quite apart from the sinner’s doing anything (even religious) to earn that gracious justification; all of Scripture can be shown to expound, elucidate, or complement that basic pronouncement. This canon-within-the-canon becomes a kind of lens for reading the entirety of scripture. (Of course, the “canon within the canon” school has its own problems, some of which align with those of the first school, but this is a blog, not a thesis.)
Let’s move forward to the area of homosexuality.
On the one hand, I am human and my humanity colors the way I read and think about issues theologically: To get personal, it seems that most – though by no means all – of my closest personal friends are gay or lesbian. (For clarification and to keep the record clear, lest their Bishops and/or vocations committees be concerned, neither of the “holy friendships” I have extolled on this blog involves a gay man,) Furthermore, most of my gay friends are “partnered”, some in relationships of more than twenty years. One of my longest-term and closest friends, six years ago joined his life with another man’s. I have never seen my friend better – more stable, secure, settled, and creative. The couple’s sense of love, commitment, compassion, care, and respect for each other are almost palpable – something we’d hope for for every marriage (i.e., a Church-blessed union in love and commitment of a man and a woman). Those facts most certainly color my view of the issue of how the Church ought to teach about homosexuality.
I place my personal experience in the context of the increasing acceptance of gayness in the secular society and even in the Church. (Yes, I know all about the recent elections. I challenge anyone convincingly to demonstrate to me that the votes on “gay marriage amendments” resulted from reasoned, discerning, carefully considered judgments.) The APA has removed homosexuality from its list of “disorders”; legislatures are passing equal protection statutes for gay people (I won’t even discuss Massachusetts’ Supreme Court); there are sit coms featuring gay people (if it’s in a sit com, it’s considered so acceptable as to be almost trivial – but of course, it may just be that it involves sex, which is the most trivial subject of all for TVAmerica). Even the United States Supreme Court (that bastion of liberal thought) is increasingly sympathetic to gay people’s concerns, well-being, and legal status. In addition, many Christian denominations are unsettled about the place of homosexuality in the faith (with most, admittedly, holding a so-called “conservative” ground -- which is as it should be, absent serious study and discernment about sexuality in general), but none that I know of has rejected gays for membership in the denomination. These are examples, voices, and movements that I find difficult to ignore (if for no other reason that I commune with gay brothers and sisters every Sunday – and sometimes during the week!). So the cultural picture is at least more ambivalent than it used to be.
On the other hand, I am a Christian, and that imposes certain restraints on my liberty to “be me” when reading and thinking theologically: In my case, I was once ordained into the ministry of Word and Sacrament, and while I am no longer a pastor, I still feel bound by my ordination vow to teach (and, now rarely) preach in strict accordance with the Word of God. As a Lutheran, I confess that a primary (but not the only, I think) on-going source of the revelation of the Word of God is Holy Scripture. As a catholic evangelical, I understand that Word of God is brought down through time to the current age by means of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church and that any effort to come to terms with what the Word of God “means” in our time must be cognizant of what that Word of God has “meant” for and to the Church in the times before. Of course, that process of saying in the current milieu what has been said “in all times and in all places” involves an active involvement with the texts of the past – and that requires consideration of setting, history, culture, and the like of those relevant texts over against similar and dissimilar issues in the present. (I think that this is what Douglas John Hall - no raving liberal, I think – calls “contextualizing” the witness of Scripture.)
I am, therefore, on the issue of whether the Church ought to bless or otherwise sanction and support among its membership same-gender relationships (whether we call it marriage or not) in tension. On the one hand, my experience and instincts – instincts, not incidentally, formed by lifelong involvement in the Church, training in her colleges and seminaries, and enthusiastic on-going intellectual engagement with theological argument by her scholars and teachers – lead me primarily in one direction, namely, to offer nothing less than full sacramental recognition of same-gender relationships. On the other hand, a hand I may not and cannot ignore, the virtually univocal witness of the catholic (note the lower-case “c”) tradition is to deny any such recognition and, indeed, to sanction in other sense of the word, namely to denounce them as contrary to intention of God for the order of the world.
I regret, frankly, that I cannot willingly, guiltlessly, enthusiastically, and in good faith subscribe the “traditional” teaching of the Church on this matter. I can and must, of course, describe the teaching, explain it to some extent, and affirm that it is the Church’s teaching and is, consequently, binding on my conduct and on that of all Christians,
Please note: I am not willing – and I will oppose anyone who seeks – to defy the Church’s teaching, and for that reason I oppose any “civil disobedience” by pastors and parishes – such as that involved in the recent “irregular ordination” of a non-celibate Lutheran pastor in Minneapolis. The way to change the Church is through prayer and mutual discernment of a new way; it is not to overthrow the structure irrespective of any consensus. In the Church, the way of discipleship is “bearing the cross”; and that leaves no room for “civil disobedience” of the Church’s structures and leadership. In that regard, we Lutherans have much to unlearn about the glories of the Reformation’s approach!
As a Christian, I am rightly distrustful of my personal experience as a guide to God’s truth. We know that from the time of Eden that that approach has been trouble. But as a Christian, I know, too, that experience plays a part in the interpretation of Scripture. Else why would the Church’s teaching on slavery have changed? Or why would women now be ordained in certain quarters of the Church? Was it not new experience that opened the door to new understanding? Was it not such for Peter, who originally balked at the inclusion of Gentiles among the Christian flock? He was a Jew – as were all the original Christians – who thought that The Way (as Christian faith was called) required that one first become a Jew to be a Christian. Following his experience with Cornelius, however, (and I suspect with numerous other Gentiles) he realized what God had been telling him for some time – namely, that Gentiles, too, should be included in The Way, without first becoming Jews. (Acts 10)
My reading of that passage is that Peter’s experience was a factor in his discerning the Spirit’s guidance. It has seemed that throughout history, the Church has been called to clarify or modify its teaching as a result of changed conditions in the world. Such change was in no way a denunciation of the past; it was a “contextualizing” (Hall), a coming to terms with the Tradition in changed circumstances. Such change has often been accompanied by great turmoil (the Reformation springs to mind: sorry “conservative” Roman brothers and sister, but I really do see the Reformation as a reform movement within the Church) and by bombast on both (or all) sides arguing the “I have the truth and you seek to destroy the Church.”
If any of this is near true, then let me set out (with his permission) a portion of a letter I sent to one of my “holy friends.”
Might the all-Holy Spirit be summoning the Church to a new teaching? Might the current upset be God’s way of urging us to move out of a mistaken position (or even the right position at the time) to a new openness, a new attitude, a new teaching? [Note: I’m not saying that such is the case, merely that it is not faithlessness to raise the possibility.]
A recasting of my issue is this: What is the appropriate place of [one’s own] experience in the integration, affirmation, or questioning of Church teaching? I do not assert my [own, sole, personal] experience as a kind of ultimate test – of course not! But what am I to do when the Church’s teaching is being far from univocally supported – questioned even by those of good faith. (I do not claim that all who question the Church’s teaching as a part of the ELCA’s sexuality study have the best interests of the Church at heart. But many who are in turmoil around this issue do seek diligently to be faithful and to promote the Church’s well-being. After all, such questioning is occurring within a discernment process within the Church, is it not?)
None of this proposes even the beginning of an answer to where the Church ought to go. I know that there are many whose minds are made up already, and I envy them. It’s difficult for me to be in this “in between” land. But at this point I am as concerned about the process as I am about the outcome. So here I propose one subject of conversation about the process, to be addressed in advance of answering the ultimate question.