The Way Forward in the Church — Post #3

The Way Forward in the Church

Thanks so much Tim and Chris for engaging in Respectful Conversation. I look forward to your third posts as we consider what needs ongoing attention in our churches engaging LGBT members. Clearly there is much that we agree on and some disagreement, which is not surprising for a matter as controversial as sexual minorities in the church.

In this third contribution to our conversation, I want to identify what I consider to be the heart of the conflict and a way forward for the church. These matters are the heart of my ongoing effort to envision a pastoral way forward. I may not address all of your questions and comments explicitly but I hope that what I offer here implicitly speaks to your concerns.

I begin with what I consider to be central concerns in the conflict between “exclusion” and “inclusion” of members who are LGBTQ in the church. Then I will identify some resources that model The Way Forward and will help the church live into deeper understanding about sexuality, which is not only central to Christian identity but also ton what it means to be human. I believe these are essential for the future church that will no longer be dependent on heteronormative interpretations and determined by heteronormative power over sexual minorities. My hope is for a church living beyond “engaging with LGBT members” into full mutuality that welcomes, embraces, and honors all people on the same basis as valued and essential members of the body of Christ. The Apostle Paul’s beautiful body language of being one body with many members is dependent on difference honoring difference not dominating or dismembering difference (1 Corinthians 12:12ff.)

The heart of the Matter

In my experience the conflict over “homosexuality” circulates through three “issues” that dominate the divide and define the controversy:
1. Biblical tradition – scripture prohibits “homosexuality” as sin;
2. Church tradition — the church upholds the Bible’s prohibition of “homosexuality;”
3. Marriage tradition – the Bible and the Church uphold only a male-female marriage union.

The dominant tradition argument is that the Bible condemns “homosexuality” as sin in a few texts with no positive references, so the matter is settled in scripture. It is also unparalleled with other conflicted matters in the church, where great change has grown out of great controversy (e.g., slavery, divorce and remarriage, women in leadership) where numerous texts overwhelmingly portray one stance while a few texts hint of a different possibility.

The church has also faced changes over “homosexuality” in recent years, yet the divide remains. Changes have come over decisions and discipline, sexual identity and diversity, church policy and pastoral responsibility concerning LGBTQ members. But the traditional contention has not changed – “homosexuality” is not part of God’s created order and is, prohibited by the Bible and the Church. I use “homosexuality” here meaning the constellation of all that is projected onto sexual minorities.

Tim, this is why I say that select texts will not help us find a way forward. I am not saying disregard these texts but I am saying that traditional interpretations of these texts are not the only interpretations and not the only or even the best texts to help us find The Way forward. After 40 years I do not expect the substantial disagreement over those texts to be reconciled.  

The heart of my theology and pastoral experience and the heart of the congregations I have served, do not share this traditional approach to scripture or view of “homosexuality.” Our proclamation is that all members of the body of Christ have a full and equal place in the church with full and equal responsibility to live with integrity, fidelity, and faithfulness to God in Christ with each other in all relationships including marriage. This means honoring how God has created each of us in God’s own image. God’s ways are bigger and more mysterious than can be defined or confined by a finite understanding of being solely female or solely male as the sole embodied relationship of sacramental covenant love of marriage.

I find it incomprehensible to consider “homosexuality” to not be rooted in the biological creation of a human being. We are born into a vastly complex mystery of sexuality that we are living into and contending with all our lives. Some of us discover our sexual identity to be in a vast mystery we identify as LGBTQI. While that may be a minority sexual identity it is no less valued or valuable in God’s eyes or our eyes or the church’s eyes. There is no lesser or restricted status before God in Christ or in the Church.

Given a creation-based biological-sexual determination that all humans are born with, I find it equally incomprehensible for a sexual majority to must impose control that prevents a sister or brother who is a sexual minority from fully living their identity and calling, including the covenant love of sacramental marriage. God created us in God’s image as wholly-holy spiritual-sexual beings and created us to be in relationship. Yes, that has many manifestations, of which marriage is a primary human relationship. That truth and reality, not who is having sex with whom, is the heart of the matter.  

All that is to grapple with matters of sexuality. But sexuality is not the only “issue” at issue.  

Another dimension of what is at “issue” is who has the power to prohibit LGBTQ members, marriage, and ministry and how this power is wielded.   

Forgive me for reminding us, but from the beginning of this current conflict almost a half century ago, “homosexuality” was controversial precisely because our experiences, interpretations, world views, identities, personalities, and authority structures in the church were hugely different and highly conflicted on this very matter.

Yet it was not “homosexuality” alone that birthed differences and manifested conflict. I have yet to hear a coherent explanation of why “homosexuality” is our greatest church defining and dividing “issue” for the past half century.

I believe our reasons for it being church defining and dividing are rooted in “issues” deeper than “homosexuality.” What I have long known and often said as a pastor, is that for most matters we fight over in the church, “the issue is not the issue.” What is identified as the “issue” is often a manifestation of and triggered by much deeper matters we deny or don’t want to face.

I see two deeper “issues” that drive this conflict and divide us. First, the church has a tragic history with sexuality – being embodied sexual humans created in God’s image. Our fears and fantasies about being sexual bodies are projected onto “homosexuality” rather than faced forthrightly. Projection always blinds us and keeps us from healthy honest sexual self-examen (both in terms of serious study and in terms of the Jesuit spiritual exercise; also both in terms of our personal embodiment and our communal embodiment). Our persistent denial or refusal to face these profound sexual matters in ourselves and in human relationship in the church tends to be projected onto “others” who are not “us.” Our projection is manifested as control over the “other” to keep them away so we aren’t reminded of something we need to face in ourselves. If we are afraid of our own sexuality, we are even more afraid of same-sex sexuality. In other words, we have both an obsession with sexuality and aversion to sexuality that subverts the centrality of sexuality in human life and relationship. Furthermore, our obsession and aversion manifested as denial and projection are a significant contributing factor to sexual abuse and sexual infidelity in the church, particularly where there are power differentials. These matters desperately need the church’s fullest attention. Our obsessive focus on “homosexuality” has not and will not help us find The Way Forward.   

This segues into the second deeper issue we face in the church over sexuality, which is power. At one level, a central “issue” in this controversy is over authority – authority of scripture, authority of church leaders, authority of the church, and our own personal authority. All of those embody multiple levels of meaning worthy of unpacking. That too is more than this conversation can bear. More to the point here, underneath these struggles with authority is the deeper “issue” of power. Who decides and how are decisions enacted and enforced? Equally important is who doesn’t have power and who is the recipient of what is enacted and enforced?

The power for “exclusion” and the power for “inclusion” are opposing forces, to be sure. But they are not parallel approaches or access to power; they do not have parallel strategic or substantive purposes. 

From the beginning a decade ago, our Inclusive Mennonite Pastors effort has been invitational and formational rather than dominating and disciplinary. We don’t demand that everyone agree and act with us. We don’t threaten to take our congregations and leave the denomination if those who exclude LGBTQ members remain in the denomination. We don’t have and wouldn’t use power to discipline and dismember congregations or pastors who are “exclusive.”  We believe we can be and must be the Church together even with these differences.

Chris, in your first post, you spoke of your own denomination, The Episcopal Church, wielding power in ways, I understand to be troubling for you. As I followed TEC’s process when Gene Robinson was elected as a bishop, two questions arose for me: What makes it permissible to be an ordained priest, as a married gay man and impermissible to be a bishop?  Is not the deeper “issue” how power is used to make that happen or prevent it from happening?

I understand your discomfort with this TEC action and your tension over it. You described this as having, “set off a conflict that has resulted in many…leaving TEC, and has brought the global Anglican Communion to the brink of schism.” There are multiple levels of “issues” running through that TEC controversy and certainly power is wielded in multiple ways. Do not these matters and methods call for deep reflection to understand them?

Chris, as a committed compassionate pastor, you wisely “listened to angry, frustrated, and confused straight people….running the gamut” of views over this conflict in TEC. You also share why you left TEC and your concern and commitment to “historic and global Christianity” in order to align yourself with Christians in the Global South and other Christian streams. Again I understand this and support you in it because I trust your faithful discernment and pastoral commitment to Christ and the church.

In my involvement with the Mennonite Church and Mennonite World Conference, I too have listened to “angry, frustrated, and confused straight people.” I have also listened deeply to voices of LGBTQ sisters and brothers and families across this country and in the Global South. A Mennonite gay man in Latin America contacted me to share his story and struggle when he heard that I was being disciplined by the Mennonite Church. He longed for a pastoral connection he could not find in his country. Many LGBTQ family members who contact me are from traditional Midwest rural Mennonite communities where they also find little care from their pastor or congregations. While there are differences in how various racial and religious groups across the country and around the world feel about “homosexuality,” there are vulnerable sexual minorities in every culture, country, race, and religion crying to be heard and held as fully human rather than hated and harmed. 

In another tangential yet connected comment: Fear drives our political culture today and fear drives much of our ecclesial culture today. In this country our church and political culture are deeply intertwined. But that too is far more than I can address here.  

The Heart of The Way Forward in Three Bodies

Three “bodies” merit renewed attention: the body of scripture, the human body, and the body of Christ. I believe that it is essential to attend to all three “bodies” in fresh ways and offer the following resources as deserving particular attention for this purpose.

Sandra M. Schneiders’ life and vocation integrates New Testament scholarship and Christian spirituality. Her book, The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture (Liturgical Press, 1999) demonstrates that scripture does far more than contain divine revelation, it participates in divine revelation. Thus sacred scripture interpreted and integrated in the life of the church is transformational. Sacramental imagination informs our communal encounter with and interpretation of the biblical text that is the Living Word of God. Schneiders applies her hermeneutical model to Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well (John 4) that is embodied transformation integrating the body of scripture, the human body, and the body of Christ.

Luke Timothy Johnson acknowledges Schneider’s revelatory approach and builds on it with his new book, The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art (Eerdmans, 2015). He reveals his purpose in the “Introduction: Toward an Inductive Theology:”

Two simple convictions animate this exercise in theology. The first is that the human body is the preeminent arena for God’s revelation in the world, the medium through which God’s Holy Spirit is most clearly expressed. God’s self-disclosure in the world is thus continuous and constant. The second conviction is that the task of theology is the discernment of God’s self-disclosure in the world through the medium of the body. Therefore, theology is necessarily an inductive art rather than a deductive science. An even simpler premise underlies these convictions: authentic faith is more than a matter of right belief; it is the response of human beings in trust and obedience to the one whom Scripture designates as the Living God….of whom Scripture speaks both creates the world at every moment and challenges the ways in which human freedom tends toward distortion of creation – and indeed the Creator. Among the idols that authentic faith must resist are the idols of human thought concerning God.

I find The Revelatory Text and The Revelatory Body to be particularly relevant for the Church to find The Way Forward. I am confident this approach transforms biblical interpretation, transforms God’s people, and transforms the Church. That three-fold embodied transformation may even transform God’s world.  

Christian ethicist Margaret A. Farley’s Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (Continuum, 2006), recognizes “There is nothing new about questioning the meaning of human sexuality or the criteria for its incorporation into a moral view of human life…..Yet the questioning that goes on today is decidedly different from most of what has preceded it in the history of Western culture” (1). She explores historical and cultural views of sexuality before focusing on “Sexuality and It’s Meaning” including “How the Body Matters” through “Theories of the Body” and “Transcendental Embodiment.” Getting to the heart of her work, Farley is then prepared to address “Just Love and Just Sex” to pose a “Framework for Sexual Ethics.” Farley climaxes her work with “Patterns of Relationship” as a “Context for Just Love” applied to “Marriage and Family, Same-Sex Relationships, [and] Divorce and Remarriage.”

Farley speaks of being “embodied persons” and “inspirited bodies” and unpacks two arenas of embodiment through which most concerns about the human body swirl: “the relation between soul (or mind or spirit) and body” and “social constructionism; that is whether and how the meaning of the body is culturally and socially formed, influenced, constructed” (111).

Farley concludes:

In the end, I have attempted to contextualize and illuminate our understanding of sexuality and its possibilities for human fulfillment. Looking to the past and present, to cultures far and near, I have tried to sort the multiple meanings and goals of sexuality, sex, gender, and embodiment. Above all, I have asked and tried to respond to the question of when sexuality and its expressions are appropriate in human relationships. I have promised a sexual ethic grounded in and specified by concerns for justice. Justice, I have tried to show, is not a cold notion apart from love; it is what guides, protects, nourishes, and forms love, and what makes love just and true. It concerns our loves and our actions; it concerns the sort of persons we want to be. I repeat what I have said before: it is not an easy task to introduce considerations of justice into every sexual relation and the evaluation of every sexual activity. But if sexuality is to be creative and not destructive, then there is no substitute discerning ever more carefully whether our expressions of it are just (311).

The Way Forward? Christian Voices on Homosexuality and the Church (Timothy Bradshaw, editor; Second Edition: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003) is an Anglican Church effort to address this conflict in the 1990s. This volume shares thirteen diverse Anglican voices acknowledging that “homosexuality is an ecclesial-political as well as theological matter” (vii) in an effort to consider how “we conduct ourselves so as to live out the creative intention of God for the common good of humanity” (xiv) with a “desire to seek common ground on which proper theological discussion might take place in an appropriate spirit of Christian courtesy” (xiii).

I am impressed with the rigor and diversity of the theological conversation made available in this book and can imagine with gratitude the dialogue that took place in this symposium.  

For more than a decade I have envisioned a Mennonite Church face-to-face respectful conversation and have urged Mennonite Church leaders to host it. I envision a series of seminars addressing every biblical, theological, ecclesial, pastoral, psychological, relational, spiritual, and sexual dimension we can imagine from this controversy. From that ongoing wholistic integrated effort we might see each other and the matter with new eyes of love and trust. Needless to say it has never happened. What has happened is that the Mennonite Church has become mired in a predictable impasse that we falsely blame on “homosexuality” with “exclusive” churches leaving when they can no longer discipline or dismember “inclusive” churches. Beloved sisters and brothers in Christ that is not being faithful to God and is not The Way Forward in Christ. It isn’t the only answer and it may be too late, but I still fervently believe that it would be a refreshing and revealing conversation that might let God surprise us into a new unity in diversity as a Mennonite Church.  

With deep gratitude to you Chris and Tim, I conclude this third post, knowing our respectful conversation is a work-in-progress deserving more than I have offered.  

I let a cherished spiritual guide have the last word emanating from the First Word:  

God’s love is an endless sea of mercy and unconditional acceptance.
The deeper you go, the more you fall into the Mystery.
As you fall into the Mystery of an ever-loving God,
you are able to accept the mystery of yourself.
And as you accept the mystery of yourself,
you fall into the Mystery of God.
People who love God love themselves and everybody else.
People who love themselves and everybody else love God.
You see, love is one. Love is whole.
Love is an endless sea that you fall into. 
And once you fall into it, you can’t fall out.
It’s not something you do.
It’s something that is done to you, and all you can do is let go.

Richard Rohr, OFM, Center for Action and Contemplation Morning Meditation, 2/20/16


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