17 August, 2008

Prophetic Actions?

A lot has been written on the topic of gay clergy in the Church and there are doubtless millions of trees yet to give their lives for the cause. Much of what has been written by those opposed to it has been written from a fundamentalist (a. k. a. biblical literalist) position which I simply do not share. For me, there are many sound reasons to oppose actively gay clergy other than "God said it, I believe it, that ends it." In a recent post at The Anglican Curmudgeon, I was reminded of how sound biblical exegesis combined with unflinching logic not only suffices, but is ultimately more satisfying. The point made was that in calling a tax collector (Matthew) to be one of the 12, Jesus was doing more than simply "including" one of the social outcasts of his time in his inner circle. He was calling the sinner to renounce his life of sin and dedicate the rest of his life to the service of God. This point is difficult if not impossible to make often or loudly enough in the current debate re: "full inclusion of the LGBT community" in the church's life.

With the admission of one of Britain's most outspoken gay activists that apparently the holy grail of the LGBT community, namely the "gay gene" does not exist, the argument that gays are "hard wired" to be the way they are is now collapsing, but their advocates in TEC certainly aren't going away. If Christ called the sinners into his inner circle, the advocates of gay ordination would say, then doesn't it follow that he would also call the LGBT community into his fellowship and not exclude them? Well, yes, he would, but recall also that the call to follow came with a cost, viz., one's former sinful ways. Make no mistake about it, in the 1st Century C. E., same sex attraction was seen in Jewish circles as definitionally sinful, and Jesus was nothing if not a faithful Jew!

But, you might say, wasn't Jesus also constricted by his times? Wasn't he a man of his times, even if he was God at the same time? Yes, and no. Yes, Jesus lived in a First Century Jewish milieu, with all the preferences, biases and cultural presuppositions that came with the package, but he was also the original bull in the china shop. One doesn't have to read too far in the gospels to find examples -- the cleansing of the temple, the audacity of forgiving sins, mixing with social lepers, and the like. That he angered those of his times by his actions is no surprise at all. Like the prophets before him, he was an uncomfortable person to have in society, a nag and an irritant. Make no mistake about it, the prophets were often despised in their own times, as was Jesus. They were also right, and that is the precise reason we still have their writings today. Israel was not about to allow itself to forget!

But saying that Jesus was a man of his times is not the same as saying that he told his followers to continue in their sin while following him. His was a call to metanoia, to repentance and conversion.

What does this have to do with gay clergy? The answer is that in the absence of any proof that the gay lifestyle is predetermined by one's genetic makeup, the conclusion must be that it is a choice. If it is a choice, then abstinence is also a choice. In fact, in Moral Theology class, the issue of priestly celibacy often came up (this was an RC seminary, remember!), and one day I can recall being told that celibacy is a valid sexual expression for one to choose and if it weren't, it would be immoral to choose it. Chew on those words for a moment. If celibacy were not a valid expression of one's sexuality, choosing it would be immoral. When one opts for celibacy, one is, in effect, sacrificing one of the most intimate, personal and loving dimensions of life for the greater good of serving one's God. Perhaps this is the sticking point for so many of the LGBT advocates. Abstinence = Sacrifice, and if same sex relations can be holy, as the Archbishop of Canterbury was recently quoted as saying, then asking our LGBT brethren and sisters to sacrifice their sexual activity for ordination or consecration is unjust, and justice, as we all know, is a major component of contemporary liberal theological reflection.

One of the problems with this view, especially when the episcopacy is concerned, is the fact that bishops, as part of their function, serve to unify their dioceses as individuals, and as a body, i.e., the House of Bishops, to unify the church, and we can all see what a unifying force the consecration of Bishop Robinson has proved to be! The fact that his consecration has torn TEC and the Anglican Communion apart at the very least should give pause to those who agitate for LGBT inclusion in the ordained ministry, but it doesn't because of the mistaken notion that by doing something outlandish, they are acting like the prophets of old.

The prophets of the Old Testament did in fact engage quite often in what we would call "street theater." When God told Hosea to take a harlot for a wife, for example, does anyone seriously think that he had any delusions that his new wife would be faithful to him or that he had any confidence that any children produced would be his? He was taking her as his wife to make the point that just as his wife could not but cheat on him, Israel had been unfaithful to God as well. It was, open, out there, in your face preaching. Why wouldn't ordaining LGBT people be the same sort of action?

We can start to answer this question by remembering that in the case of the prophets, their message was consistent with what God had been telling his people all along. Very little was new in their message, which almost always was a call to return to their covenant fidelity and live. This point is crucial to properly debunking the notion of "prophetic actions" in TEC. The call of the prophets was a call to return to the relationship God had established with his people, to return to fidelity and to return to obedience to God. Nothing was new except the rebelliousness of God's people. Using outlandish actions to make a point is not the same as being a prophet. It is nothing but outlandish and willful.

But doesn't the Church believe that the Spirit will lead her "into all truth?" Isn't failing to heed the "gospel imperative" to include the LGBT community fully in the church's leadership going against the Spirit? Jesus did in fact say that the Spirit would lead the Church into all truth. What he did not say is that the church would necessarily follow. To equate one's desires or motivations with those of the Spirit of God smacks at the very least of the sin of pride. If you want to know what God would have us do, follow me! It is hard for me to imagine words any scarier. Yet, our church has been hijacked by those who would not only utter those words, but also oust those who refuse to follow the lead of the newly minted prophets. Their rejection only emboldens them because after all, the prophets of the Old Testament were also rejected in their own times and among their own peoples. Doesn't that prove that we're right -- the very fact that the people of God are so roiled by what we're telling them? Just remember the reactions typical of those called to the prophetic office when we have a record of their commissioning by God -- SEND SOMEONE ELSE! When Moses was told to go to the people of Israel, his first reaction was to ask God to send someone else because he had a speech defect! God said "alright, I'll talk to you and your brother Aaron will be your prophet." Jonah, we are told, when God told him to go to Nineveh, ran away rather than take the job. As often as not, however, there is no account of God calling the prophet to his work. The book simply opens with the initial message the prophet was to deliver. The book of Hosea opens with God's commission of the prophet, not his asking God for the gift of prophecy. None of the writing prophets asked God for their preaching mission. In fact, it's a safe assumption that they would have preferred their previously uneventful lives to have continued as such. Of course they didn't, and we are the better for it, but the point remains. Search as one might, there is no record in either testament I have ever found of one asking to be sent as a prophet. That someone or some institution would arrogate that role to themselves says all one needs to know about the message they bring and whom it is from. Remember, a prophet is someone who speaks for another (in this case, God's spokesman). When one assumes the role of modern day prophet, he is saying that God is speaking through him. Can the suspicious and incredulous be blamed, especially when the message goes against what has been believed and taught for centuries? It seems that the burden of proof in this case is insurmountably onerous for our liberal friends, but after all, they are on a mission from God, at least so they say.


Anonymous said...

"The answer is that in the absence of any proof that the gay lifestyle is predetermined by one's genetic makeup, the conclusion must be that it is a choice."

I don't think that is necessarily the case. The fact that there is not YET any conclusive proof does not mean that there will not be in the future.

In any case, the most conclusive proof for me, as someone who has known, worked with and read about hundreds of gay people, religious and no, is that almost all the people who have desperately wanted to be heterosexual, who have tried, for decades, to change themselves to be who they think God wants them to be, have failed. If homosexuality were a choice, we would not have so many British teenagers committing suicide because they are cannot bear their sexuality (gay teen suicide rates are six times the national average). If people can be so desperate to change they kill themselves when they are unsuccessful, I don't think homosexuality could be argued to be a choice, regardless of current genetic research.

Gene Robinson, whom you mentioned in your post, is an example of this thwarted desire to change. He got married and had two children, but couldn't become the heterosexual he desperately wanted to be. Eventually he admitted this to himself and is now happily married to a man, and by all accounts, is now a caring and effective minister to the people of New Hampshire.

I don't think Bishop Robinson wanted to be a symbol of the struggle for LGBT inclusion, though I don't know. But I do know he did not put himself forward to be a bishop, others did, and others elected him, and in keeping with his ministry, he answered that call with courage (he wore a bullet proof vest under his consecration vestments). I have always assumed that as God is the cause of all things, every bishop of the One Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church of Christ was appointed by Him as the right person for the right time, including Robinson. What is the Holy Spirit trying to tell us through his election?

I applaud your appeal to scripture, so few people seem to care about what the Bible has to say rather than what their culture tells them. But the biblical exegesis you refer to is not as sound as you suggest. Jesus himself, for example, said nothing on the topic of homosexuality, but when the centurion came to ask for his servant (whom 1st century Roman culture and the Greek choice language would suggest he was almost certainly in a sexual relationship with) to be healed, Jesus merely praised his faith. That Jesus chose to ignore a man's choice (which in this case was indeed a choice) of sexual partner and chose to praise his belief in him instead, I find significant.

Ultimately, God will settle this debate in His own time. Looking back over historically similar spats, I personally cannot imagine this will end in any way other than the full inclusion of God's chlildren into His family. But regardless, LGBT people are God's people whatever choices they may or may not have made in their lives, and I hope everyone on both sides will see and recognise them for who they are, with love, compassion, and respect.



mark slaw said...


Two comments. First, I never implied that Bp. Robinson wanted to be a symbol prior to his consecration, although his actions since then, most recently at Lambeth, tend to argue that if he didn't then, he certainly embraces it now. It wasn't Gene Robinson who engaged in the "prophetic action" of consecrating him, but the bishops of TEC!

Secondly, if as I have long argued, the norm for being ordained is celibacy outside of marriage, then why is it okay to enforce this norm on unmarried straight ordinands, but somehow okay to look the other way in the case of gay ordinands? In my opinion, it isn't. Either you can live in an unmarried relationship with someone else and be ordained or not. No, celibacy is the norm for the unmarried aspiring to Orders, or should be. To do otherwise is to cause a scandal in the Church that is ultimately counterproductive of the church's witness to society on the one hand and divisive on the other.

In any case, I thank you for the open, engaging and frank tone of your post.


Sarah said...

Thank you for your reply. In regard to Bishop Robinson, I would suggest that he has not had much option between embracing the role as a LGBT symbol or accepting the death of his reputation by a thosuand cuts. Given how strongly he believes in equality, I'm not surprised. See his chocie of blessing here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1JyrWr0c6w

You write "why is it okay to enforce this norm on unmarried straight ordinands, but somehow okay to look the other way in the case of gay ordinands?" My answer to that would be: it's not. But the alternative to celibacy for straight ordinands is to get married, homosexual ordinands in most parts of the church cannot. St. Paul said, "it is better to marry than to burn", but in denying same-sex marriages, the Church is not making it easy. And you canot demand lifelong celibacy from people unsuited to it: look at the disasters that have befallen the Catholic Church.

I would suggest that in order to bring an end to this double standard the Anglican Communion recognises same-sex marriages and then demands celibacy for everyone outside those bounds. Then any ordinand disobeying that could be rightly rebuked. This does of course, pose its own problems...

mark slaw said...


You hit the nail right on the head when you said: "you canot demand lifelong celibacy from people unsuited to it: look at the disasters that have befallen the Catholic Church." Bingo! That is one of the reasons Anglicanism has always allowed clergy to marry. It is also, in my never humble opinion, one of the prime reasons for the sex scandals in the RC Church. That much said, if one is incapable of handling the demands of a celibate life, is he fit for ordination? The answer is no, he is not and should not be ordained.

As to the Anglican Communion recognizing gay marriage, TEC is in the process of doing just that right now, and that is the prime cause of the strife communion wide. Most of the Anglican Communion (myself included) cannot in good conscience redefine Christian marriage as anything other than one man and one woman.

The crux of the issue really is that many, too many, in fact, have equated a human rights agenda with what is clearly sacramental theology and tried to impose one onto the other. We can all see the results and they are not pretty, or healthy for that matter. Ordination is not a right; voting is. Those who cannot or will not recognize the difference are, in my opinion, largely responsible for much of the turmoil we are seeing today.

Again, thanks for the measured response. We simply come at it from two seemingly irreconcilable angles.