‘Outspoken: Coming Out in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand’ – a review

OutspokenLiz Lightfoot (ed.), Outspoken: Coming Out in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2011). ISBN: 9781877578083; 218pp.

A guest review by André Muller

In mid-2009, Liz Lightfoot, an independent researcher working under the supervision of Dr John Paterson of the University of Waikato, interviewed eleven subjects as part of a project aimed at documenting the stories of gay and lesbian people within the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. Whatever the merits of the ‘Listening Process’ upon which the Anglican Communion embarked in the wake of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, it has become clear that many gay and lesbian Anglicans feel that their stories have not in fact been heard. In publishing the edited versions of her interviews, Lightfoot hopes, in a modest way, to redress this situation, if only by showing that at least some gay and lesbian people have been so hurt by the Church as to have abandoned all hope that the ‘Listening Process’ is anything other than a charade concealing a profound lack of courage on the part of those charged with leading the Church. If this reveals an irony at the heart of a project commended as a contribution to that process, it is perhaps one that brings a measure of clarity to the situation in which Anglicans (and, by analogy, members of other Churches), find themselves, by drawing attention to the limits of an official process that has, by its inability to bring about effective change, done a great deal to foster cynicism on the part of the very people it is claiming to serve. Such a process is yet to prove itself a means by which the complexity and depth of the often painful experiences of gays and lesbians within the Church is rendered audible to clergy and laity alike. To talk of the need for honest dialogue while in practice allowing a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy to flourish at both official and unofficial levels, is simply to have failed to hear the voices of gays and lesbians.

It may seem rather strange to press the logic of Lightfoot’s book in this way, since it is presented as a piece of qualitative research that aims to conform to academic standards (indeed, it is published by a university press). But Lightfoot is aware that the role she is playing is more than that of the neutral observer. She believes her research to be ‘primarily about justice and about what is done, how people are treated in the name of God’ (p. 15), and this as a way of outworking a ‘gospel bias … to the oppressed and towards justice … to the suffering and towards healing … to the captives and towards liberation’. Given such commitment, it is curious then that Lightfoot hedges at the very moment when most is at stake, claiming that when it comes to the issue of homosexuality, ‘the definitions of justice, healing and liberty are up for debate’. This is fine in so far as empirical descriptions of the way in which that issue, or rather, set of issues, is being played out within the Anglican Communion go, but it is clear that the justice with which her research is concerned is incommensurate with policies that would exclude gays and lesbians from full participation in the Church. To appeal here, as Lightfoot does, to the supposed ability of the Anglican Church to accommodate a range of views on the subject, or worse, to theological clichés that insist that ‘God is beyond theology’ and ‘sexuality is no barrier to God’s love’ (p. 16) is to beg the very question at stake. It is hard, particularly when reading the introduction, not to feel that Lightfoot wants to answer that question while, at the same time, pretending that she isn’t.

The bulk of Lightfoot’s book is, of course, taken up with the edited versions of the interviews she conducted between May and July 2009. The experiences of the eleven interviewees are, as one might expect, enormously diverse, and it would be perilous to attempt any generalisations were it not for the fact that Lightfoot herself encourages us to do so by offering at the end of each interview some reflections that ‘might help the reader’s understanding of the participant’s experience’, and by summing up the key themes that emerge from her interviews in a concluding ‘postscript’. There is a quite proper sophistication to the analysis Lightfoot offers in the concluding pages of her book, recognising that the process of ‘coming out’ is an enormously complicated one for gay and lesbian people within the Church. ‘The cost of integrity in the church is devastatingly high’, one of the interviewees remarks, and Lightfoot sees in this comment a way of approaching one of the key problems that gay and lesbian Christians face. Indeed, notions of personal integrity, and therefore, notions of the self, play a profoundly important role in many of the experiences of Lightfoot’s interviewees. To cite but one example, after coming out to his wife (of more than thirty years) and children, ‘Rob’ (all the names are pseudonyms) tells Lightfoot that he decided to write them a letter, saying ‘I love you and all the rest of those nice, humane and truthful things but I have to be true to myself too. There’s not much point living a lie and having you people happy and me not. I’ve got another thirty years perhaps, if I play it right’. If many of the other interviewees come off sounding less childish than this, the imperative to be ‘true to myself’ is one that continually resurfaces throughout the book as an explanation, even justification, for often painful, and sometimes tragic, decisions.

At this point we begin to see the sort of work that is being done by Lightfoot’s insistence that ‘people’s lives are sacred ground’. Although it is not immediately clear what she means by this claim, it effectively functions as a way of forestalling any attempt to question the Emersonian framework that supplies the moral imperative to be ‘true to myself’. It was the American novelist and host of A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor, who once remarked that Ralph Waldo Emerson had a great deal to answer for, not least because his writings encouraged men and women who would have made fine accountants and bus drivers and lawyers, to become very bad writers and musicians and artists, and to find in their supposedly artistic temperaments the warrant for jettisoning ordinary virtues like kindness and patience. They were told to throw caution to the wind, to escape from the ordinary obligations and responsibilities that constrained their lives, and to be true to themselves. Only the selves they were being true to were selves in the process of becoming monstrous precisely to the degree that they were being extricated from concrete and unspectacular obligations to others. Monstrous and, we might add, incoherent (which may be the same thing), since the attempt to orientate myself, to find my bearings within the world, by appealing to myself is necessarily self-defeating. Not only does it trade upon an essentialism that is profoundly problematic – a stable self, at one remove from our interactions with others (a self, therefore, behind the public, historical self), that is simply there to be known; it also presumes that knowledge of that self is a rather straightforward affair. It was the early church theologian Augustine of Hippo who pointed out that we are not, in fact, perspicuous to ourselves; that we cannot simply lay ourselves out like a map. There is no vantage point from which we can obtain a clear enough vision of ourselves for us to be able to say, at any one point in our lives, ‘now, at last, I am truly being myself’.

The question here is whether the Emersonian logic to which many of the interviewees in Lightfoot’s book appeal as in some sense offering justification for actions they have committed can actually do the work it is claiming to do. When ‘Rob’ tells his family that he has to ‘be true’ to himself, or ‘Edward’ says that one of the best things about his new homosexual life is ‘just being open … just being myself’ (p. 33), or ‘Janet’ suggests that the root cause of the sense of emptiness she felt while married was that she was ‘unfulfilled in terms of who I am’ (p. 41), or ‘Gareth’ says that it is out of ‘my spiritual journey that I’ve discovered and come to terms with who I am’ (p. 151), even when ‘Naomi’ says that ‘the Church is my home, where I am myself’ (p. 118), one has to ask whether the sort of clarity that is being presumed here is the sort of clarity that human beings can have with respect to themselves. And if it is not, we have to admit that if we are to try to come to terms with the experiences of those interviewed in Lightfoot’s book, we must press them to provide deeper, more adequate, accounts of those experiences. ‘What precisely do you mean when you say you are just being yourself?’ is the sort of a question a good interviewer ought to ask. At the very least, we might expect Lightfoot’s postscript to contain some analysis of the Emersonian framework that plays such an important role in many of the interviewee’s account of their experiences. Instead, Lightfoot offers her readers an exemplarist Christology that has itself been thoroughly domesticated by that framework. ‘What I see in the life of Jesus’, Lightfoot writes, ‘is someone integrated. Not someone living, as we all do to some extent, on conflicting, disparate planes. He was what he seemed; he was what he claimed to be’ (p. 214). To point out that such a picture of Jesus bears little resemblance to those offered in the Gospels would be to misunderstand what it is that Lightfoot is doing here. She is not commenting on the historical, flesh-and-blood Jesus, but rather seeking to legitimate one particular – and highly modern – account of what it means to be human. ‘My understanding is that our Christian journey is one towards integration of the parts of us that we might prefer not to face’ (p. 214). Only an Emersonian could write of the Christian life in such terms, freeing it from any real connection to the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, indeed, reinventing that life so that it conforms to pictures of what it means to be human that would have been sheerly unintelligible to pre-moderns.

Lightfoot’s book is marked by a curious naivety. She wants to make a number of substantive claims without engaging in the sort of critical analysis that those claims demand if, that is, they are to be convincing. She asserts, and then pulls back at the very points when most is at stake. In so doing, she is not serving the subjects of her interviews, but abandoning them. Neither is she serving her readers, who find that they are unable to gain real purchase on the experiences of those they are reading about precisely to the extent that the notion of ‘being myself’ remains unexamined. In the end, what we are left with are stories that in themselves are rather unremarkable: a man leaves his wife for his gay lover, only to find that some people in his local church are not sympathetic; a devout woman discovers that she is a lesbian, and has to rethink certain aspects of the conservative theology with which she was brought up; and so on. Such stories are valuable in their way, but not very interesting. And this because Lightfoot does not allow us to get into the inside of them, in the way, for example, that Conrad enables us to gain some purchase on the experiences of Tuan Jim, or Stryon on those of Peyton Loftis. If Lightfoot is right to say that selves are ‘sacred’, then this must be an invitation not to call a halt to our enquiry, but to probe further, knowing that in the end, as Augustine understood, it not we who confer meaning on our lives, but one who is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

9 thoughts on “‘Outspoken: Coming Out in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand’ – a review

  1. Apart from the review of the book, Jason, your analysis of the Emersonian me-first approach to life is excellent, and very helpful. Trying to be ‘who I really am’ is fine up to a point; but then it starts running up against other issues, not least that of who GOD thinks we are. Which may not be quite the same thing.

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  2. I agree with your comment, Mike; that is, I agree except for the bit where you suggest that I wrote the review. The fine review is by my friend André Muller ;-)

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  3. Ah, so it is. I just read the bit where it said ‘by Jason Goroncy.’ A belated New Year’s resolution. I will not skim when I read on the internet….

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  4. Thanks, Jason for passing along this review. The Emersonian anthropology that is (apparently) assumed is a genius observation, and a helpful tool. This extends beyond the conversation on sexuality, obviously, and gets at other ways in which our desire for “self definition” fall short of being instead shaped by baptism, Scripture, the Holy Spirit and the people who make up the Church.

    This will be helpful in talking with the evangelical folks in my congregation about infant baptism. (i.e. God gets to explain and claim your child first!:-)

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  5. Many thanks, Andre (via Jason!). I am taken by the congruence of pastoral concern and critical anthropological insight in your review. It suggests that to make a pastoral response in this context is a much more demanding thing on many levels than the glib sloganizing so often heard among Anglicans, particularly here in Canada. Really listening to the experience of gays and lesbians on your account of the matter is going to call forth from us so much more than many, if not most, of us have reckoned.

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  6. Thank you for this piece, Andre.

    BTW, could you provide a reference to the Garrison Keillor quote or summary?

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  7. Thanks for a thought provoking review. The discussion of the desire to “be myself” reminded me of comments made by the late past-president of Princeton Seminary, Thomas Gillespie. He quoted someone (I’ve forgotten the source) saying that in current discussion “sexuality” has taken the place of “the soul” in medieval thought. Both this and the Emersonian ethic discussed are troubling.

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  8. Many thanks all for very helpful comments. Ian – I wrote this piece over a year ago, so my memory is a bit rusty. But I think what I had in mind was a talk that Keillor did at the Unitarian church where Emerson used to minister. It’s a lovely talk. He sings some nice Christmas carols, and he recites a version of the creed that Unitarians could join in! Or was it a carol? I can’t remember. Anyway, a great thing to watch. I think it might be on youtube maybe.

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  9. I am the husband cast aside during Lightfoot’s Emersonian journey to self-integration. It is very interesting to read this review. There is absolutely no acknowledgment in the book of the pain and anguish caused to me during her process of ‘coming out’, which (more than incidentally) led to me being pushed out to the edges of the lives of our children. Children who are not encouraged to follow the Commandment that says “Thou shalt honour thy father and thy mother”.

    “They were told to throw caution to the wind, to escape from the ordinary obligations and responsibilities that constrained their lives, and to be true to themselves. Only the selves they were being true to were selves in the process of becoming monstrous precisely to the degree that they were being extricated from concrete and unspectacular obligations to others.”

    This narcissistic approach to life leads to a narcissistic Christology that is indeed far from the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

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