Some Recent Watering Holes


Brenda L. Croft, ‘shut/mouth/scream’ (detail), 2016. Source


I haven’t posted one of these for a while. Here are a number of pages I’ve appreciated visiting this past week or so:

And this:

Nicholas Wolterstorff on homosexuality and same-sex marriage

‘Once one says that a homosexual orientation is no more culpable or disordered than a heterosexual orientation, and once one observes that Scripture does not teach that God says that homosexual activity is always wrong, I think we’re left to conclude that justice requires that the church offer the great good of marriage both to heterosexual couples committed to a loving, covenantal relationship, and to homosexual couples so committed’.

So stated Nicholas Wolterstorff, a conservative Christian philosopher, in a recent lecture (which you can listen to below) given at Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s not, as far as the Christian community can be concerned, what one would call a knock-down argument in support of same-sex marriage — the nearest we have to such, I think, has already been offered elsewhere; in Rowan Williams’s essay ‘The Body’s Grace’, and in Eugene Rogers’s Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way Into the Triune God, for example — but it is consistent with and builds upon Wolterstorff’s highly-regarded and mature body of work on the nature and implications of divinely-ordained justice for God’s world, and for the flourishing of its life, and so goes some way towards supporting the argument for why the state should champion such action, and for why the church can and should support the state in this its work. Clearly, the church has its own work to do on this matter, as does the state. The twain should stay out of each other’s way more often.

While some might lament the fact that Wolterstorff didn’t give this lecture many moons ago, perhaps to the board of Calvin College where he is, rightly enough, revered; and while some (although not I) may have considered this a missed opportunity to decimate more directly Richard Swinburne’s recent nonsense about homosexuality being a ‘disorder’; and while some may prefer that the argument for state support of same-sex marriage be defended on lines more Senecan, Grotian, or Hobbesian, and that any argument for church support of same-sex marriage be grounded on more explicitly christological and trinitarian grounds; and while some may charge that his argument would have been better served had Wolterstorff stayed in his more-traversed paddocks of philosophy rather than wandered off into the territory of biblical exegesis; his words here make a constructive and clear contribution to what is typically and lamentably an unconstructive (and very often a de-structive) and muddled discussion. I’ve learnt a lot from Wolterstorff over the years, for all of which I’m grateful. I’m grateful too for his gentle witness here this time, and for the conversations that it might open up.

‘Towards Global Inclusion of LGBT People Within Catholic Communities’

Acts 10. Peter in the House of CorneliusRecently, James Alison was in Rome speaking at The Ways of Love conference. He gave what was a characteristically stimulating, courageous, constructive, and timely lecture titled ‘Towards Global Inclusion of LGBT People Within Catholic Communities’. I repost it here:

I’d like to ask you to join me as we imagine ourselves as participants in a familiar scene from Scripture. The scene is from Acts 10, but imagined from a small distance: looking back a week or so after the events that are described. We are in the house of the Roman Centurion Cornelius, in Caesarea. Maybe we are family members, maybe servants or slaves. Along with Cornelius, we have long been accustomed to being second-class citizens in the house of God. When we accompany our master to the Synagogue, we are called “God-fearers” and are allowed to attend and follow the worship from a carefully separated space. This is because while we know the one God of Israel to be true, and we follow with attention the preachers of Moses, we have not fully converted. So we have not been circumcised if we are male, nor have we taken on board the full yoke of Moses’ law with its observances and commandments.

We attend, then, aware that we are considered impure, and not to be touched. We are often treated with courtesy, and even genuine friendliness by the insiders, though this is invariably tinged with a certain distance and condescension, as befits dealings with those who are not true insiders, and so can’t really be full participants in what it’s all about.

But last week something weird happened. Cornelius had sent three of us to Joppa to invite someone called Peter to visit us. Peter had accepted the invitation, and had actually come into our house, which was, in itself, an oddity, since he was religiously observant, and not a Gentile like us. It wasn’t some mistake: he was quite strong-minded about it, telling us boldly that even though we knew it to be unlawful “for a Jew to associate with, or visit a Gentile” he had become convinced that “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

When invited by Cornelius to speak, Peter began by telling us that he truly understood “that God shows no partiality, but in every people anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Then he told us about a message of peace that had been sent to Israel, one about which we had, in fact, heard some sketchy accounts before. This message had been sent through someone called Jesus, the Anointed One. It turned out that Peter was a friend of this Jesus, from Nazareth, who had been a prophet full of works of power. This man had been put to death as a seditious blasphemer, as if under a curse from God. But God, by raising Jesus from the dead, had shown that the so-called curse, which we had all heard read from the Torah of Moses, had nothing to do with Him. And Jesus had been seen since then by many of the people who had accompanied him beforehand. Indeed had eaten and drunk with them. It had become clear that he had been the long-awaited fulfilment of a series of prophecies, even though he’d fulfilled them in a way no one could possibly have expected. Having been treated by the religiously observant as someone worthy of condemnation, in fact he had turned out to be acting entirely with God’s approval. In this way, by his vindication, he up-ended much of the received way of understanding God among the religiously observant of his people.

Well, it wasn’t clear that Peter had fully grasped the bit he mentioned about God showing no partiality, since he seemed to think, at least at the beginning, that he was telling us something about Israel. And certainly the guys he’d brought with him hadn’t grasped it at all. Yet, as Peter talked, we all found ourselves on the inside of a great movement of the Spirit, praising God and talking in strange languages. We were all astounded, especially the guys who’d come with Peter, since they had seen this before, but among the circumcised. They just couldn’t believe that this was also happening among us second-class citizens.

And yet, as the scene developed, it became clear that what Peter had said about God showing no partiality among peoples, and God telling him not to call anyone impure or profane, was actually true, far truer than Peter himself had seemed to understand at first. We were finding ourselves insiders in this movement of the Spirit just as he and they were, and on absolutely the same terms of equality, without any distinction. What was even more astounding to all of us was how this then led Peter to tell his colleagues to baptize us.

We’d heard a bit about this sign: on being baptized, some among the circumcised people had found themselves sharing in some sort of being involved in Jesus’ life and death. They had discovered themselves emboldened to be sons and daughters of God, becoming part of a priestly people Jesus had inaugurated in his life and death: a priestly people that was in fact the fulfilment of what Israel had always been called to be. And Peter, there in our master´s house, suddenly recognized that the substance of what Baptism was about had evidently manifested itself among us who were Gentiles. How, then, could he withhold the sign from us? So he told his companions to baptize us with water. And we were amazed to find ourselves insiders in the life of God, sharers in God´s holiness, without any distinction based on any of Peter’s, or our own, previous understanding of what was needed to be an insider in the life of God.

Well, each one of us was as shocked as the person next to them: the first-class citizens finding themselves on the same level as us, with all their purity and sense of separateness deflated, and having to overcome a certain repugnance about dealing with people like us; and the second class citizens having to get used to taking ourselves seriously and behave as sons and daughters, rather than dirty servant children who had a sort of built in excuse for impurity.

As you can imagine, word of this got out pretty quickly. Some of Peter’s more scrupulous friends and colleagues were quite upset, and thought that Peter, who had a reputation for being impetuous, had been in some sense frivolous or cheap in having acted as he did. So Peter had to explain himself to them in Jerusalem. Luckily, he didn’t buckle. Even though there was a great pressure on him to backpedal and to apologize for what he had done (thus saving the face of those who really need there to be people like us, so that they can feel special). In fact he told them all quite clearly: “The Spirit told me to go with them and not make a distinction between them and us.” He also described how the Holy Spirit had fallen on us all while he talked, and how he had realized that “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” That gave the scrupulous cause to ponder, and little by little they began to realize that even we could be included inside the same gift of forgiveness as they, with the life that flows from it.

Well, that was a few days ago…we’re still waiting to see what the consequences are, what it’s going to look like for us all to be co-insiders in the House of God, sons and daughters with equal dignity, all sharing in a priesthood whose single purity requirement is of the heart. It’ll be interesting to see: will they drop their ritual food law for us? Will they treat our family structures as equal to theirs in terms of what counts as proper marriage? What will they make of us not having to be circumcised, not having to keep all the commandments that make up their purity code? And what will we make of the freedom of finding ourselves first class citizens, insiders, daughters and sons, not servants or outsiders in the life of God, but starting just as we are. What will be the shape of the holiness that is coming upon us?

I think this account gives a sense of where we find ourselves as LGBT Catholics at this moment, and I would like to develop with you four points that flow from it.

A Matter of Basic Christianity

First, owing to what we have been through over the last years as LGBT Catholics, it has become clearer and clearer to us what the shockwaves emanating from Jesus’ death and resurrection were really about. Jesus in his teaching and by his powerful signs had borne witness to God who had nothing to do with a purity code, no tolerance for any religious exercises, such as sacrifices, that replaced or got in the way of the reconciliation between human beings that he longed to bring about. He did, however, have a very great deal of interest in those considered unacceptable by the society of his day. Eventually he was considered blasphemous and seditious by a confluence of the religious and the civil authorities, and he was murdered. His murder was carried out in such a way as for him to fall under the officially designated curse of God.

The fact of his resurrection was much more than the demonstration of the existence of an afterlife, something many of his contemporaries believed in any case. It was the vindication from on high that the whole of the religious and political structure that had put him to death was under judgment from God. In other words, that he, Jesus, who had looked, to all extents and purposes, like a blasphemous and seditious transgressor, had been telling the truth about who God is in his teaching. This means that anyone at all, from any nation under the sun, who can perceive that he or she has been in some way involved in the sort of false and violent construction of goodness or badness which Jesus up-ended, can be forgiven for this, and so can enter into participating in the life of the Living God without any special external markings.

It is because of this that there is, formally speaking, no Christian religious law from outside us. The Image of Himself that God gave us in Jesus was not that of a Lawmaker, but that of the self-giving Victim of both civil and religious lawmakers. Given this self-definition of God, no definition of people derived from the outside of who they are, and which might make them pure or impure, sacred or profane, could stand. Instead there is only the understanding that starting exactly from where we are, exactly as we are, we are invited to become daughters and sons of God, insiders in God’s house. What God calls good is not some external definition, pleasing some lawgiver, but what is good for us. That which is human is loved, and is stretched through love into sharing in the life of God. It is not in our lopping off bits of ourselves, psychologically or physically, that we are saved: in spite of ourselves, by agreeing to jump through certain hoops, as it were. Rather, it is in our discovering and becoming who we were really meant to be all along, that we come to reflect the glory of our Creator. This, instead of the much-diminished version of ourselves that we had somehow got caught up in, and from which Jesus’ death and resurrection shocks us into freedom.

But this has been exactly our experience as LGBT Catholics over the last thirty or so years. It has become clearer and clearer, until it is now overwhelmingly clear, that what used to seem like a self-evident description of us was in fact mistaken.  We were characterized as somehow defective, pathological, or vitiated straight people; intrinsically heterosexual people who were suffering from a bizarre and extreme form of heterosexual concupiscence called “same-sex attraction.” That description, which turned us, in practice, into second-class citizens in God’s house, is quite simply false. It turns out that we are blessed to be bearers of a not particularly remarkable non-pathological minority variant in the human condition. And that our daughterhood and sonship of God comes upon us starting as we are, with this variant being a minor but significant stable characteristic of who we are. One, furthermore, which gives gracious shape to who we are to be. Of course, that daughterhood, that sonship, turns the characteristic into something more as we overcome the concupiscence that is proper to us all as humans, developing and humanizing our capacity to love so that we become ever fuller sharers in the life of God.

And this means something quite significant: the only way a teaching can genuinely be Catholic is if it is bringing to mind something that really is the case about the human beings in question. Thus, the moment it becomes clear that what used to seem like an accurate description of who we are, a description which imagined that it sought our good, is not in fact accurate, but quite simply mistaken, then at that very moment it ceases to be possible to maintain that the teaching that flows from that description is Catholic. For the Catholic teaching follows the discovery of what the Creator shows us really is.

In other words, as in the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit does not wait for Peter’s permission before starting to produce sons and daughters of God. Quite the reverse. In fact Peter finds himself learning that what he had thought to be something true about God´s holiness and the necessity of abiding by the Book of Leviticus in order to enter into that holiness, was not the case. As he undergoes this learning, so the purity code becomes relativized, coming to be received as a non-binding series of taboos: ways of defining people from the outside rather than saying anything about who they are starting from themselves.

And this is exactly where we find ourselves: without it being the case that there is anything at all that Peter and his companions can do to stop it. As the Creator has made abundantly clear to us what really is the case, through the normal, Spirit-inspired human process of learning about Creation by which we enter as insiders into God’s Wisdom, so the teaching concerning us being bearers of an objective disorder inclining us to intrinsically evil acts has revealed itself to be a taboo, thus not from God, and so not a proper part of Catholic teaching.

Catholicity, Rather than Inclusion

My second point is to try and draw out some consequences of this. You asked me to speak to the title “Towards Global Inclusion of LGBT people within Catholic communities,” and yet the theological approach which I offer you is not really about inclusion of LGBT people within Catholic communities, any more than Acts 10 was about the inclusion of Gentiles within Jewish communities: a cap-in-hand exercise in which second-class citizens request, and are given humble places at a first class table. No. What we have instead is the somewhat amazing realisation that, exactly in the degree to which it has become clear that we are simply the bearers of a not particularly remarkable non-pathological minority variant in the human condition, in that moment, as we find ourselves seeking the Lord, we are found to be bearers of Catholicity on terms of equality with everyone else. Catholicity gets to be redefined, through no merits of our own, by the objective element of humanity that we bring to the table simply being present as such.

Why is this important? Because it means that it is not we who find ourselves adapting to someone else’s house-rules. All those in the house find ourselves adapting to the fact that, together with Peter, we are all learning something new about being human  And that all our understanding of good and bad, insider and outsider is going to change because of this. The process is obviously much more painful and difficult, at least initially, for those who had a strong stake in promoting a form of public goodness in which we were bit-players, as necessary examples of what was wrong. And much more joyful for those of us who are finding that after all we have been telling the truth. It is not the case, as we were so often told, that we are simply being particularly self-indulgent, or that our love is harmful to others, or that we are crazy to think that we are normal, or that we have been misled by hedonism and relativism into purely subjective, unrealistic desires that are part of some dehumanising trap.

Please notice what happens as this work of the Spirit becomes evident, as our participation as joint bearers of Catholic truth-telling becomes apparent. First of all, there is rage and hatred from those who had a strong investment in what had seemed to be from God, but turned out to be just another idolatrous taboo demanding sacrifice. These people need help and mercy, our magnanimity rather than our resentment. Above all, we should not seek to provoke them or scandalize them, tempting though it be. Next there is something rather subtler, which I think we should look at carefully. This comes from those who are not full of rage, but who have a love for the old wineskins. These people wish to say something like “Well yes, we see that there has been a problem with how the Church has handled gay people in the past. And none of us want to continue with that. However the Church has a right, in tolerant, multicultural societies not to allow itself to be defined by what is in fact true about human beings. Instead we insist on the right to be able to keep alive our own, pious ways of doing things without interference.”

But here’s the trouble: the moment people head down that path they are refusing Catholicity and creating a church in their own image. Because they are turning the Catholic Church into a group defined by certain house rules, which are independent of reality. In other words, they are recreating a form of holiness that is over against others considered to be impure or profane. This is a regression to Second-Temple Judaism. At the very moment people do this, they automatically exclude themselves from the Catholicity of the Church, for they are seeking to turn it not into God’s sign of God’s longing for all humans to be reconciled with God through Jesus, but instead into their own sign of their own longing for a particular group with a strong group identity and carefully defined boundaries concerning who is in and who is out.

So please, I beg you, don’t, out of some misguided courtesy, think that such people define what Catholicity is. Catholicity is defined by God alone, as God shocks us by breaking down all our socially and culturally constructed barriers, by leading us into truth about our being Jesus’ brothers and sisters, creating equal-heartedly a way of being human together that doesn’t call for any form of comparison, one that flows from the Crucified One who forgives us.

Another slight variant on this theme comes from those who say: “Yes, there is something wrong with the way the church has handled LGBT people, but you shouldn’t be in a hurry to change anything. Let the hierarchy organize, in a proper and peaceful manner, any change that must be made.” That is to say, those who can’t even bring themselves to recognize publicly that we have been telling the truth, and they have been binding our consciences based on a taboo, are insisting on managing a change towards truthfulness on their own schedule. They should be so lucky! This is not how the Spirit of God works, as the account from Acts makes clear. The Spirit leads us into all truth, kicking, protesting, shocked and dishevelled, by insisting on producing boldness of speech in season and out, when it is convenient and when it is not. And those who are most shocked and come running along last are those who think that any change should be managed by them on their terms, preferably without their losing face by having to admit that they too need forgiveness.

No, truthfulness does not wait for the convenience of those wedded to untruth before peeking out. Itbreaks out, as if from captivity, bearing witness to the One who sent it to run wild among us, and takes us on a giddy, and ultimately joyful ride. The Spirit does bring the peace that comes with truth, but not by following the schedule of those whose fear would hold it back. Peter was truly Petrine in listening to the Spirit and recognizing he had been wrong about what makes for holiness. It was in doing so that he became a precarious-seeming centre of unity who was in fact a Rock, while all the forces of reaction sought to buffet him about. Neither he, nor his colleagues, set the agenda or the timetable.

Preparation for Evangelization

My third point is: what does this say about our life in different cultures? One of the things people say is: “All this about LGBT people is a decadent Western value and we should defend ourselves against it.” But the people they are defending themselves against are not decadent westerners, but their own brothers and sisters, Ugandans, Nigerians, Iranians, Russians, Saudis, Jamaicans. These are our sisters and brothers who have discovered something true about themselves, and about their capacity for love, and know that what is true makes sense to them. And here is what is remarkable: this discovering of something that is true is working in exactly the way that the Gospel said it would, and following just the dynamic of the Spirit that flows upon us from Jesus. And yet bizarrely, Christian leaders of all denominations are joining together with leaders of other religious organisations, ones that not only do not know of the Holy Spirit, but are in some cases adamantly opposed to the existence and enlivening effect of any such thing. Such leaders would rather fence themselves round with all the trappings of “religion” than spread the Good News of the One who has relativized all religious formalities in order to bring us into a new humanity starting from the rejected and precarious.

But this means that we LGBT Catholics can step into the forefront of the evangelization that Pope Francis has asked us to, and we can do so as delighted and joyful recipients of this new humanity. We, as well as anyone, know how the Spirit of God humanizes us, not destroying culture, but defanging it from all that is violent and destructive of who humans are called to be. We know that thanks to Jesus there is no such thing as religiously pure or impure food, there are no such things as religiously mandated forms of mutilation, genital or otherwise. We know that only culture, and never God, has demanded the veiling and covering of the glory of the head and hair of women. We know that the same Spirit that taught us these things, making available to us what is genuinely true, has enabled us to discover the graced banality of our minority variant condition, allowing it to be the shape of our love that turns us into witnesses of God’s goodness as we are stretched out towards those who are genuinely suffering from terrible injustice and deprivation.

This does not merely mean that we are able to pass on a piece of information to others. It means that we are bearers of Catholicity in our flesh. We have found ourselves prepared to be bearers of the Gospel precisely because of this most Catholic of things: we have been intimately part of the process of self-critical correction of culture which is how the Spirit keeps the church faithful and alive. So in each culture in which we live we are thus in a great position to help our sisters and brothers undo the quite local and particular taboos, violence, and structures which masquerade as being of God, but are in fact the work of idols. Who would have thought that it would be LGBT Catholics who could bear witness to the freshness of the Gospel, the way it brings creation alive, even the value of natural law, not as a trap but as an adventure? Talk about the stone that the builders rejected!

Holiness, Speech and Witness

My final point. What is the shape of the holiness that is coming upon us? The most debilitating effect of the taboo under which we have labored is not that it prohibited certain sexual acts. That has never held many of us back. Not even, as has become abundantly clear, many of those who took on the burden of some sort of formal commitment to avoid such acts. No, the debilitating effect of the taboo, as of any infection by idolatry, is that it damages the imagination, making it impossible to imagine the good. When our concupiscence was falsely defined as an objectively disordered form of heterosexual desire, then of course all of our acts were as bad as each other, and we had no incentive to humanize them. “No snacking between meals” might be a useful instruction if it teaches people to prepare for enjoying the next meal better. But “no snacking between meals, and in your case, no meal either” is a sure recipe for binge- snacking.

But now, thank heavens, we are beginning to discover what might be the shape of the meal, or meals, towards which it might be worth ordering our appetites. So please, as part of our discovering the shape of the holiness that is coming upon us, now that we are no longer second class citizens with a resentful victimary excuse for our lack of dignity, let us allow our imaginations to be enlivened by the Spirit. We are already discovering some of the ways in which we can share in Christ’s self-giving towards others – civil marriage, adoption of children, and in some cases freely chosen singleness of life. (This latter was, of course, impossible under the teaching of the taboo – we used to be taught that we had no option but to be celibate, and thus the option was not really free, since it was not leaving a good for a good, but avoiding an evil which it was our solemn duty to avoid anyhow). In what other ways are we going to discover what we are called to become as a blessing for others?

Here is a hint: let us not allow this holy work of the enlivened imagination to be overshadowed by those who would rather have the discussion without addressing the question of whether we are in fact objectively disordered or not. In the New Testament, no one who insisted that the Gentiles needed to be circumcized in order to be saved had anything genuine to offer in the discussion concerning appropriate shapes of holiness among the baptised Gentiles. Just so, no one who is unable to concede the legitimacy, the potential for purity, of our loving flowing from who we are, is able to offer genuine help in our working out of what sort of marriage or adoption laws are appropriate for us, let alone what the appropriate forms of liturgy might be.

Many religious authorities in different countries try to hide behind the claim that in “defending Marriage” they are not doing or saying anything about or against gay and lesbian people. If they are honest in this, then let them show that their own conscience is not bound by taboo. Let them clearly renounce the notion that gay people in partnership, about whom they claim they are not talking, are ipso facto indulging an objective disorder, are impenitent practitioners of grave sin, and thus would be seeking to sanctify something that can never be approved. Once these authorities have shown that their conscience is free, and thus that there is, in their understanding, no rivalry between the form of flourishing proper to heterosexuals in marriage, and what might turn out to be the appropriate forms of flourishing for us, then, by all means, they may have something genuinely helpful to offer us all. Because they will legitimately be able to contemplate something of how, in our case, as in theirs, grace perfects nature. Something, that is, which flows from who we are, rather than in spite of what we are. However, for as long as their allegiance is to the taboo, they can be no judges of our flourishing.

No, the truthfulness and peace, the zest for the real, that come with the consciousness of being a daughter or a son: only these dare birth the imagination of the arduous good that is coming upon us. An arduous good to which we may justly aspire, and in the working out of which we hope to be found. The boldness that flows from being able to speak truthfully out of an unbound conscience is not an extrinsic add-on to being Christian. It is intrinsic to what being Christian is all about. It leads to being able to bear witness, without which there is no Christianity. For us linguistic animals, being able to talk cleanly and openly is essential to being able to live cleanly and openly. It is as we talk and share with each other the experiences of love and of becoming that we will discover in our relationships who we are called to be.

Here we are, gathered in the city of Peter. Let us ask for the prayers of Paul the Apostle of the Gentiles, who was not afraid to call Peter out for backsliding, and who taught us: “Omnia munda mundis”—all things are pure for those who are pure. St Paul the Apostle, pray for us.

[The image, ‘Peter in the House of Cornelius, Acts 10:1–48’, is taken from The Official King James Bible Online. I figured that if the KJV was good enough for the Apostle Paul, then it’s good enough for the blog too.]

Some notes from e-land


October stations …



Link love

Leunig love

Leunig-iPad-The Lost Art

Leunig - Words for mystery

[Source: The Age]

‘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.

On William Stringfellow’s homosexuality

Since I started posting on William Stringfellow, I’ve received a significant number of emails asking if I might comment on Stringfellow’s homosexuality, and how, if anything, such might undermine or affirm his authority to speak to the Church on other issues. My initial reaction to these requests was largely one of dismissal, partly because I do not think that the blogosphere is the best place to have this discussion, and partly because this question should not dominate any of our thinking about what Stringfellow (or anyone else for that matter) has to offer us. I still believe both of these factors are true. That said, I have decided that some things can be said, and even that some things may be of help for our thinking about, and reading of, Stringfellow’s work.

There are a minimal number of references in Stringfellow’s own work to the question of homosexuality. That Stringfellow says abundantly more about Jesus Christ than he does about himself is, I think, significant in itself. One place where Stringfellow does speak to the question of homosexuality is in his essay ‘Loneliness, Dread and Holiness’, published in The Christian Century on 10 October 1962. Significantly, the essay is a reflection on 2 Corinthians 12:8–9a, ‘Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”‘.

In that essay, Stringfellow begins by recalling the loneliness which is ‘as intimate and as common to men as death’, and ‘the void [which] may be mere boredom’, and then proceeds to note all the places that exploit and profit from that transient loneliness and boredom ‘promising that time will be consumed for those who pay the price’ – whether it be a dance studio, a club, a bar, with ‘prostitutes or homosexuals or whatever one wants’  – even if it means relieving the loneliness in lust. ‘These are’, he writes,

‘establishments often populated by those who realize that loneliness is more than the burden of time and who are beguiled by another fiction: that loneliness can be conquered by erotic infatuation. Here are folk, whether men or women, whether looking for the same or the other sex, for whom seduction becomes a way of life, who insist on the importance of what meets the eye – physique, clothes, the appearance of youth. Here are the lonely whose search for a partner is so dangerous, so stimulating and so exhausting that the search itself provides an apparent escape from loneliness. But when a partner is found for an hour or a night or a transient affair, the search immediately resumes, becomes compulsive. And while erotic companionship seems more appealing – and more human – than resignation to boredom, while touching another may be more intimate and more honest than watching another, no one may really find his own identity in another, least of all in the body of another. Perhaps this is the most absurd fiction of them all: the notion that is present, primitively, in erotic partnerships but also very often in other relationships – between parents and children, in friendship, in marriage – that one’s own identity must be sought and can be found in another person’.

Later in the essay, Stringfellow exposes his own cards: namely, that the issue is not primarily about sexuality but is about our hope in Christ who alone fills the vacuum of the human heart. There is no attempt here to justify, nor to call that which many name evil good. There is only one man’s witness to him who in subjecting to death takes the dread out of loneliness and who calls us to love, to abandon our idols and to worship God above all else, and to enjoy God’s love not just for ourselves but for all, ‘including those who do not yet enjoy God’s love for themselves or for anyone or anything else’. This posture of enjoyment of God is, Stringfellow insists, ‘the estate of holiness’. ‘Holiness’, he writes, ‘does not mean that you are any better than anyone else. Holiness is not about goodness; holiness is not common pietism. Holiness is not about pleasing God, even less about appeasing God. Holiness is about enjoying God. Holiness is the integrity of greeting, confessing, honoring and trusting God’s presence in all events and in any event, no matter what, no matter when, no matter where’.

The question of Stringfellow’s sexuality has been taken up by Marshall Ron Johnston in his fascinating PhD thesis entitled ‘Bombast, Blasphemy, and the Bastard Gospel: William Stringfellow and American Exceptionalism’ (Baylor University, 2007). In his thesis, Johnston notes that ‘while it is true that fundamentalists and many evangelicals would have rejected Stringfellow’s thought outright in light of his homosexuality, he seemed to have managed to keep that fact of his life private, identifying himself in many forums as “celibate by vocation”’.

Johnston recalls Stringfellow’s thorough engagement in his two passions – religion and politics. He writes that Stringfellow’s interest in issues of faith were transformed from one of intellectual absorption to one of existential centrality, and that Stringfellow credited this transformation to the awareness that while religion must be intellectually respectable, it ‘must also provide the core and motivation of one’s whole life’. While Stringfellow does refer to an ‘unusually close relationship with another fellow’ (i.e. Anthony Towne, whom he would later refer to as ‘my sweet companion for seventeen years’. A Simplicity of Faith, 115. This was, in Anthony Dancer’s words, the ‘closest Stringfellow ever came to becoming uncloseted’), he also confesses their decision that their friendship would not endure if it were self-centered, but only if it were God-centered.

Johnston contends that Stringfellow never openly declared his homosexuality, and recounts Andrew McThenia’s observation that ‘the taking up of joint residency with Anthony Towne was Stringfellow’s “first and only ‘public’ acknowledgement” of his sexual orientation’. Of course, those who have read Stringfellow’s Instead of Death will recall his description of himself as vocationally committed to celibacy (p. 10). As for Stringfellow’s relationship with Towne, in a memorial address entitled ‘The Felicity of Anthony Towne’, Stringfellow stated that Towne’s ‘vocation – as that may be distinguished from his occupation – was, in principle, monastic, as is my own’ (A Simplicity of Faith, 52). Parenthetically, he added, ‘That is the explanation of our relationship’ (A Simplicity of Faith, 52).

Johnston (on pp. 57ff.) later recalls that while Stringfellow was never public about his own homosexuality, he was not reticent about identifying with those devoted to homosexual advocacy. Stringfellow served for several years as the general counsel for the George W. Henry Foundation, an organisation established to help homosexuals and others who were, in the words of the time, ‘by reason of their sexual deviation … in trouble with themselves, the law, or society’. This association apparently afforded Stringfellow opportunities to speak about homosexual advocacy to various groups. For example, in 1965 he delivered an address at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, Connecticut, entitled ‘The Humanity of Sex’. In that address, Stringfellow offered a brief comment on the theology and ethics of homosexuality before turning most of his attention to various legal issues surrounding the gay lifestyle. He framed his address in the context of a Christian’s identification with the marginalised in American society. In his introductory remarks Stringfellow noted that ‘according to the ethics of American society’, homosexuals ‘are not respectable’. Identifying himself as ‘a Christian, not a moralist’, Stringfellow referred to Christ’s care for the outcasts as one reason for interest in their legal situation. He stated, ‘If homosexuals in this society are orphans or prisoners, for a Christian that is itself enough reason to be concerned with them’. Beyond his interest as a Christian, Stringfellow was also concerned with the legal situation of the homosexual from the constitutional perspective of equal treatment. He noted that he was ‘bred in’ a legal tradition ‘which believes that if anyone is not represented or cannot secure representation before the law, whatever his cause and whatever the popularity or social approval of his cause, the whole society is imperiled’. Later, in the same address, Stringfellow suggested an association between legal cases involving homosexuals and civil rights cases associated with the ‘present racial crisis’. So, Johnston continues, for Stringfellow the justification for an interest in the issue of homosexuality and the advocacy for homosexuals was based upon a sense of Christian responsibility to identify with the outcast and upon a sense of legal responsibility to provide equal treatment under the United States Constitution.

Johnston proceeds to suggest that Stringfellow’s ethic of homosexuality is best understood in light of his overall theological framework. Certainly, Stringfellow assumed a certain ‘givenness’ to homosexuality that was associated with his overall view of the diversity of sexuality, complaining in a 1979 address to the national convention of the group Integrity, Gay Episcopalians and their Friends, that ‘[the] matter of sexual proclivity and the prominence of the sexual identity of a person, are both highly overrated’. Consequently, he continued, ‘the issue is not homosexuality but sexuality in any and all of its species [because] there are as many varieties of sexuality as there be (sic) human beings’.

Here’s Johnston:

In light of that understanding of sexuality, Stringfellow explained that at Christian conversion ‘all that a particular person is, sexuality along with all else, suffers the death in Christ which inaugurates the new (or renewed) life in Christ’. This new life does not mean the sublimation of sexuality in any of its forms. Instead, according to Stringfellow, conversion means that Christians ‘have exceptional freedom to be who [they] are, and, thus, to welcome and affirm [their] sexuality as a gift, absolved from guilt or embarrassment or shame’. Stringfellow’s understanding of Christian conversion is important here, because it was essentially anthropocentric. In the address at Christ Church in Hartford in 1965, he had explained it: ‘To become and to be Christian is to become utterly vulnerable to God’s own affirmation of one’s existence . . . and, as it were, to participate in God’s affirmation of one’s self and of all things’. Based upon such a perspective of homosexuality and Christianity, Stringfellow asked rhetorically, ‘Can a homosexual be a Christian?’ He answered with further questions: ‘Can a rich man be a Christian? Can an infant be a Christian? Or one who is sick, or insane, or indolent, or one possessed of power or status or respectability? Can anybody be a Christian?’ He considered such questions ‘theologically absurd’, since ‘[nothing] . . . familiar to the human experience, including all the varieties of sexuality deprives any man of God’s love’. Consequently, Stringfellow answered, ‘Can a homosexual be a Christian? Yes: if his sexuality is not an idol’.

In light of the anthropocentric description of conversion, Stringfellow’s view of idolatry logically follows. An idol is something that hinders a person ‘from accepting himself in a way which means loving the whole world just as it is and thereby following Christ’. Thus, in Stringfellow’s view homosexuality, which is inherently morally neutral, is paradoxically acceptable for a Christian as long as the homosexual accepts him or herself in Christ, acknowledging and receiving God’s love …

Anthony Dancer, in his dissertation on Stringfellow, devotes a section to the nexus of the latter’s homosexuality, his work, and his thought. Dancer notes that as a homosexual Stringfellow certainly had a personal point of identification with the marginalized, which ‘put him in touch with reading the gospel from “below”’. I would agree with Dancer’s assessment and add further clarifying comments … Stringfellow, as a gay man, remained for his lifetime outside of the traditional family structures that have in many cases characterized the so-called ‘American dream’. Arguably, as an outsider he was more capable of observing the various hypocrisies of ‘family values’ as they have been promoted by various conservative groups. By the same token, however, his critique of the notion of American exceptionalism, a concept which depends in part on the centrality of family values, could likely be dismissed as the rantings of an angry man, excluded from much of the promise of American society. Perhaps, paradoxically, both are the case. Ultimately, his exclusion from the essentials of the American dream helped fuel his critique, substantively and motivationally, of America’s claims to moral superiority.

One of the emails that I received recently came from someone who is ‘working in a very conservative theological context’, but is also ‘very happy to learn from Stringfellow’. This person suggested that ‘there is something about Stringfellow’s insights as a lay theologian of the highest order (along with Ellul) that … transcends the “suitability for teaching office” question – although’, he adds, ‘I do take those concerns seriously’. He continues: ‘From my last decade or so working and living in community – as an Anglican non-layperson – in the inner-city Sydney areas of Darlinghurst, Kings Cross and Glebe, I’ve found that Stringfellow is more than qualified to speak into such contexts. More so than many others who might “tick all the right boxes”. Not that I mean to glorify brokenness or make it “the” qualification that trumps all others … But Stringfellow’s struggle alongside the forgotten ones, personal illness and grief (and I suspect being gay) combine to afford him insight and practical wisdom that is a pearl of great price in the types of contexts I’m used to and somewhat rare in the scholarly circles I am now “playing house” with’. I think there is much wisdom here.

I also think that Mike Higton, summarising Rowan Williams’ essay ‘The Body’s Grace’, has outlined a very helpful beginning point for this conversation to take place. It certainly seems to me to be consonant with Stringfellow’s own approach. Higton writes:

  1. The gospel, the good news spoken by God to the world in Jesus Christ – is God’s command. To put it the other way around, the command of God is not extraneous to the gospel, as if God, while saving us in Christ by the Spirit, said, ‘Oh, and there’s another, unrelated thing I wanted to talk to you about’.
  2. The connection between gospel and command is intelligible. That is, it is possible for us by attending to the Gospel to understand how and why we are commanded and such understanding is the fundamental task of Christian ethics.
  3. The gospel so understood provides the criterion by which we discover what truly is a binding command upon us. Faced, for instance, with a range of biblical commands about slavery, women, usury, polygamy, and sexual relationships, the fundamental theological question is not, ‘Which of these is culturally conditioned?’ but ‘How, if at all, do these matters relate to the gospel?’ Theological ethics is a matter, we might say, of taking every thought captive to Christ.
  4. Because this attention to the gospel is the fundamental task of Christian ethics, any approach that simply stops with the apparent demands we find in Scripture, without asking whether and how they connect to the gospel, fails to take the command of God seriously.
  5. If there is some intelligible connection between the gospel and sexual relationships, there would be a binding Christian sexual ethic (a command of God regarding sexual behaviour) even if there were no passages in Scripture that explicitly treated sexual matters.

In his book Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace, James Torrance recounts an experience that a colleague of his, Roland Walls (who was a member of the Community of the Transfiguration in Roslin village, a few miles out of Edinburgh) had. One day, James noticed in his garden a piece of sculpture he had not seen before. Roland told him about it. A young sculptor, brought up among the Exclusive Brethren, one day confessed to the fellowship that he was gay. As a result, he was asked to leave the Assembly. In his distress, he found his way to the Roslin Community, where Roland found him on his knees in prayer in the chapel. The young man poured out his story and unburdened his heart. At the end of their conversation, Roland simply put his arms around him and gave him a hug! That hug symbolised everything for the man. He knew he was loved, accepted, forgiven. He went back, found a block of sandstone and carved out a figure of the two Adams. They are kneeling, embracing one another. Christ lays his head on the right shoulder of fallen Adam, and fallen Adam lays his head on the right shoulder of Christ the second Adam. The only way in which one can distinguish between the two Adams is by the nail prints in the hands of Christ. That sculptor saw himself in fallen Adam, and in that symbolic hug he saw himself accepted in Christ, the second Adam. There one sees the Pauline theology of an Irenaeus – that what was lost in Adam has been restored in Christ. That is the biblical concept of ‘the one and the many’ – that we, the many, can see ourselves accepted by grace in Christ, the one Mediator, who fulfils God’s purpose – to gather together all things in Christ, the head – the doctrine of ‘recapitulation’.

Irenaeus used the metaphor of ‘the two hands of God’ in his criticism of Marcion. God our Father has ‘two hands’ – the Word and the Spirit – by whom he created and redeemed the world. Marcion had taught that the Creator God of the Old Testament was different from the Redeemer God of the New Testament. No, according to Irenaeus, the God who created this world (and Adam) has redeemed this world (with Adam) by the same Word and the same Spirit. The one by whom and for whom all things were created has taken our humanity upon himself in order to redeem us, i.e. ‘to bring many sons and daughters to glory’. It is by these ‘two hands’ that God gives himself to us in love to bring us to intimate communion. We can extend that metaphor further. Think of a hug! When we hug somebody whom we love there is a double movement. We give ourselves to the beloved, and in the same act by putting our arms around the other, we draw that person close to our heart! That is a parable of the double movement of grace, the God-humanward and the human-Godward movement, that takes place in the hypostatic union and in which we participate through the ministry of the Spirit. In Christ, the Word made flesh, and in the Holy Spirit – his ‘two hands’ – God our Father in grace gives himself to us as God. But in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, and in the Spirit we are led to the Father by the intercessions of Christ and the intercessions of the Spirit. We are lifted up by ‘the everlasting arms’. As in the mediatorial ministry of Christ, the Spirit is the interceding Spirit, through whom Jesus Christ our ascended High Priest presents us to the Father.

One of the reasons that I found Ray Anderson’s posts on Homosexuality and the Church so encouraging is because Anderson is at least wanting to allow the gospel and its shape to determine our ethics, rather than some vague commitment to natural theology or to so-called Christian moralism. Regardless of whether one agrees or otherwise with his conclusions, this is the right ordering. He also takes sin seriously enough, and the tragic condition of human fallenness seriously enough, and the gift of Holy Scripture seriously enough, that he is not prepared to simply dismiss those texts in the Bible which speak to this issue.

In response to a recent comment on my blog, I wrote that ‘if I was at some stage to try and articulate a theologically-robust reflection on the issues of sexuality, sin and ministry, I think that I would try to explore the relationship between these issues twofold: (i) in light of an ethic determined by eschatology, i.e. by the coming of God in Jesus Christ, and (ii) in light of the Church’s two sacraments – namely the Baptism by which we are put to death and inaugurated into a new humanity, and the Table at which sinners feast in anticipation of the great banquet which is to come. Clearly, it is christology that must determine a Christian response to these questions. If the word one of us is given to speak during this time-between-the-times comes via something of a contradiction in one’s own personhood, then this, it seems to me, does not abrogate the message. Clearly I have no problem with learning from Stringfellow’. I do not think that one’s sexual orientations disqualify or qualify one from being heard, nor from being ordained.

NT scholar Richard Hays devotes a chapter to homosexuality in his excellent book The Moral Vision of the New Testament. While that particular chapter is in some ways among the least satisfying in the book, his response to the question ‘Should persons of homosexual orientation be ordained?’ is worth recalling here in the context of thinking about Stringfellow’s own life and witness. He writes:

‘I save this question deliberately for last, where it belongs. It is unfortunate that the battle line has been drawn in the denominations at the question of ordination of homosexuals. The ensuing struggle has had the unfortunate effect of reinforcing a double standard for clergy and lay morality; it would be far better to articulate a single set of moral norms that apply to all Jesus’ followers. Strictures against homosexuality belong in the church’s moral catechesis, not in its ordination requirements. It is arbitrary to single out homosexuality as a special sin that precludes ordination. (Certainly, the New Testament does not do this.) The church has no analogous special rules to exclude from ordination the greedy or the self-righteous. Such matters are left to the discernment of the bodies charged with examining candidates for ordination; these bodies must determine whether the individual candidate has the gifts and graces requisite for ministry. In any event, a person of homosexual orientation seeking to live a life of disciplined abstinence would clearly be an appropriate candidate for ordination’ (p. 403).

There is, of course, much more to be said, not least on the relationship between Christians who are non-celibate homosexuals and the Church’s teaching ministry. But this post is about Stringfellow, and what I’ve written will have to do for now.

Reviews … et al

The Public Purpose of Marriage

In a recent article entitled ‘Focus on the Public Purpose of Marriage: Protecting Children’, Colleen Carroll Campbell, writes:

‘Battles over same-sex marriage typically turn on arguments about gay rights, judicial activism and views on homosexuality. Absent are answers to a more fundamental question: What is the public purpose of marriage?’

She concludes by asserting that marriage only survives in a culture for as long as a critical mass of the population views it as the socially acceptable context for childbearing and childrearing. When popular support for marriage drops too low and public policy denies the unique value of marriage between a man and a woman as a guarantor of social stability, fewer men and women marry. More children, she argues, are deprived of the presence of their mothers and fathers. Thus marriage ‘no longer serves its civic purpose, which always has been more about defending child welfare than validating adult desires’.

It is only when marriage passes beyond mere consent that it becomes concerned with its real nature as ethical, and so related to matters of family, of kinship, and so of the State. That is why Forsyth argued that we must always bar unions that do not conform to the conditions of the State’s welfare. [I would want to say more here than Forsyth does, especially about the proleptic and prophetic aspects of marriage, and of the life of the church as the foretaste of the kingdom, a life in which all relationship are re-defined]. While it is a lot more, marriage is no less than a social act. The social form, therefore, is not indifferent. Forsyth avers, ‘It is part of the substance. It is a piece of social morality, i.e. of social existence. It is bound up with the safety, honour, and welfare of society’.

Thus what mere civil marriages betray is any sense that the relationship concerns more than the two selves. Forsyth is worth recounting here: ‘If anything is ethical on that universal scale, it has already begun to be more than ethical. On that wide scale, and on such an intimate subject, it becomes also deep and sacred, it becomes religious. Even if you own no more than the religion of Humanity that is so. You cannot treat human society as one whole without your ethic becoming religious. Even the Positivists, since they worship Humanity, treat marriage in their religious ritual as a sacrament. And I do not wonder that the Roman Church treats it so. I do not agree with that Church in so doing, for reasons which would be misplaced here. All I do say is that the more one ponders the solemn implicates and slow effects of marriage, moral and spiritual, the more one feels that it has something sacramental in its nature. It may be less than a church sacrament, but it is a moral; it is certainly more than a contract … If not a sacrament, it is a means of grace; and, like every means of grace, it sweetens or hardens according as it is used’.

What Forsyth betrays here in an appreciation that a merely social view of marriage is quite inadequate, even if humanity be all we have in view. Sorry Colleen, but marriage calls for more than social sanction and exists for more (though not less) than ‘defending child welfare’. Marriage calls for divine sanctification (if life do so at all) and exists to bear witness to divine blessing, and to the divine life itself. Forsyth again: ‘If [marriage] means so much for the soul and for society, that is really because it belongs to the Kingdom of God, to the will of the God Who ordered society and its destiny. If it is organic to the structure of society, it is vital to the purpose of God. It is a union which reflects a union deep in the eternal nature of a triune God Himself’.

[There is much that Forsyth fails to say about marriage, and not all that he says will – or should – fly with us today. He was, as we are, a person of his age and who was responding to the pressing questions of his age, and must be read in light of such. This, however, is not to let him off the hook so much as it is to encourage reading beyond the boundaries of his corpus.]

McCormack, Willis and Bush Challenge Efforts to Amend the Heidelberg Catechism

A few days before the 218th General Assembly of the PCUSA, a letter was issued by a group of seminary professors supporting the efforts of three overtures sent to General Assembly seeking to amend the Heidelberg Catechism.  By way of response, Bruce L. McCormack, E. David Willis, and Michael D. Bush have since issued the following letter:

Dear Commissioners and Advisory Delegates to the 218th General Assembly:

Some of our Presbyterian colleagues in the fields of theology and church history have petitioned the General Assembly to take steps toward changing the theological teaching of the P.C. (U.S.A.) by changing the Heidelberg Catechism as it stands in our Book of Confessions.

We are writing to you as well so that you may have a fuller scholarly account of the issues before you. We apologize that we must say so much: we have found that theological and historical scholarship cannot be well done in sound bites. Please bear with us!

Our colleagues wrote to you in support of overtures from the Presbyteries of Northern Kansas, Boston, and Newark.  Not all the claims in the rationales for these overtures are mistaken, but those that are not mistaken seem hardly worth the emotional and financial expense the Church will incur by changing them, since no one of our eleven confessions is definitive.

We would like to point out three historical and theological problems in the rationale for these overtures, expressed most fully in the version from Northern Kansas, which appear to be endorsed in our colleagues’ petition.

First, this overture, endorsed by our colleagues, claims that the writers of the Heidelberg Catechism did not contrast the concepts of an Old Covenant and a New Covenant. The rationale describes such a contrast as “not very well represented” in the Reformed tradition and “not supported” by the Catechism.

These claims are simply incorrect. There have been many forms of covenant theology in the Reformed tradition, and no one form has definitive authority. The Northern Kansas overture identifies one of these several forms, one that emphasizes a unitary covenant with different expressions through time. Such a view has had advocates in our tradition. Even Zacharius Ursinus, the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, sees the old and new covenants as “one in substance,” and even writes that “there is but one covenant,” in the sense that God promises forgiveness both before and after the coming of Christ.

However, it is precisely through the Heidelberg Catechism that much of Reformed theology receives from Ursinus (and, perhaps Caspar Olevianus) the distinctive form of covenant thinking that uses an old covenant God made with humankind at the creation of the world as a foil for a new covenant in Christ. Ursinus makes it abundantly clear in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism that he understood God’s covenant in just these terms: “The old testament, or covenant, is often used in Scripture…for the law… For in the old covenant, the law was enforced more strenuously, and there were many parts of it. The gospel was also more obscure. The new testament, or covenant, on the other hand, is for the most part taken for the gospel, because in the new a great part of the law is abrogated, and the gospel is here more clearly revealed.”

Thus, denying that the Heidelberg Catechism, to say nothing of the Reformed tradition as a whole, makes use of a two-fold covenant scheme is akin to denying the roundness of the earth. It is manifestly untrue in light of the evidence.

Second, the Northern Kansas overture points out that the terms “testament” and “covenant” are not synonyms. Indeed, in order to make sense of the whole range of covenantal thinking in the Reformed tradition, it is important to maintain this distinction. However, here again, in the case of the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus makes his intention clear in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism: “In the Scriptures, the terms Covenant and Testament are used in the same sense, for the purpose of explaining more fully and clearly the idea of this Covenant of God.”  Since the major author of the Heidelberg Catechism sees the terms as synonyms, even though some of his contemporaries would have disagreed, it is clear that the P.C.(USA)’s Heidelberg Catechism is faithful to the theological perspective of the original version of this Catechism.

Third, we come to the point that we all know is behind this apparent fishing expedition for problems in the P.C.(U.S.A.)’s Heidelberg Catechism: Did Ursinus have in mind 1 Corinthians 6:9, with its negative view of homosexuality, when he composed the answer to question 87?

Once again, Ursinus has recorded for us a definitive answer: he did associate this verse of Scripture with this question and answer. In his Commentary, Ursinus mentions this verse as having particular relevance for understanding what is at stake in question 87.  The translators of the P.C. (U.S.A.)’s Heidelberg Catechism, as good translators do, took into account the stated intention of the authors in order to show us what the passage meant in its historical and literary context. They did this faithfully.

Unless these overtures and scholars wish to claim that Ursinus did not know what he meant by the words he and his collaborators chose, we can only conclude that the overtures have made serious historical and theological mistakes.

If we as a church are going to look for theological guidance in the sixteenth century, then it is only responsible to respect that period in its distinctiveness, and not to flatten its witness into the kind of one-sided sloganeering with dubious historical and theological claims that we read in these overtures. It is unworthy of our academic and ecclesial calling to reduce these complex issues to sound bites and then deploy them, with a scholarly patina, in the service of church politics.

These overtures show signs of wanting to find a kind of inerrant Ur-text to treat as the “real” Heidelberg Catechism, playing this original off against the actual text of the P.C.(U.S.A.)’s Heidelberg Catechism. Such an approach fails to understand how the Confessions function in the P.C.(U.S.A.). It is not the Latin and German texts from the sixteenth century that guide our Church, but rather it is the English texts adopted by the deliberative assemblies of the Church and published in the Book of Confessions by which every officer of our Church has vowed to be guided. These English versions have been responsibly translated and carefully chosen as “faithful expositions of what Scripture teaches us to believe and do.”

Will the Presbyteries who have sent these overtures, together with their academic sponsors, next ask that we revert to the seventeenth century texts of the Westminster standards, without the chapters on divorce and the Holy Spirit, and restoring the claim that the Pope is the anti-Christ, as the original indisputably said? Will they question the translation of the Second Helvetic Confession?

We suspect not, because we suspect the goal of these overtures is not to restore early modern texts or their embodiments in our Constitution to some pristine state, but only to remove from the Constitution of the P.C. (U.S.A.) a single phrase they find disagreeable. These other issues, with the infelicitous scholarship that underwrites them, have apparently been sought and found to provide cover for this one goal.

In other words, these overtures appear to us to be a disturbing effort to change the church’s normative teaching about homosexuality under cover of historical-theological scholarship, instead of using the legitimate, above-the-table process our Constitution provides for considering such a change. Trying to slip a change by the church under cover of correcting mere errors of translation is inappropriate as deliberative process, short-circuiting the P.C.(U.S.A.)’s ongoing contemporary discussion of this issue, even as it undermines the trust the church places in its seminaries and teachers.

Bruce L. McCormack, Frederick and Margaret L. Weyerhaeuser Professor of Systematic Theology
Princeton Theological Seminary

E. David Willis, Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology Emeritus
Princeton Theological Seminary

Michael D. Bush
Erskine Theological Seminary

Gay and Lesbian Bible

With the availability of kid’s bibles, men’s bibles, women’s bibles, worship bibles, teen bibles, backpack cinnamon strip bibles, spirituality bibles, compact wedding bibles (presumably for compact marriages), praying woman bibles (I think we get the point) it ought come as little surprise that there is now a Gay and Lesbian Bible, available for purchase or download. This new Study New Testament comes from Dr Ann Nyland, translator of The Source New Testament and is based on her The Source translation with new study notes which she claims are aimed at the spiritual needs of gay and lesbian followers of Christ. More information here.