Thursday, July 31, 2008

Why Blessing Same-Sex Relationships Is a Gain—For Gays, Christians and Humanity

On July 29th Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams used his second presidential address at the Lambeth Conference of 670 Anglican bishops “to engage in what might be a rather presumptuous exercise—and certainly feels like a risky one.”

With evident courage and empathy, Williams role-played about the Anglican split on homosexuality, first speaking as a typical Anglican traditionalist and then as a typical Anglican progressive. Each said why they feel hurt and injured by the actions of the other.

In a telling bit of irony, besides the official websites of
the Anglican Communion and the Lambeth Conference, the site that was first to give Williams’ speech full, unedited coverage was that of the Episcopal Church USA—which stands to lose the most at Lambeth.

As the traditionalist, Williams said in part: “We want to welcome everyone. Yet the gospel and the faith you passed on to us tell us that some kinds of behaviour and relationship are not blessed by God… We don't see why welcoming the gay or lesbian person with love must mean blessing what they do in the Church's name or accepting them for ordination whatever their lifestyle… Isn't it like the dilemma of the early Church—welcoming soldiers, yet seeking to get them to lay down their arms?

“In this world of instant communication, our neighbours know what you do, and they see us as sharing the responsibility. Imagine what that means where those neighbours are passionately traditional Christians—and what it means for our own members, who will be drawn to leave us for a 'safer,' more orthodox church. Imagine what it means when those neighbours are non-Christians, delighted to find a stick to beat us with. Imagine what it is to be known as the 'gay church' in a context where that spells real contempt and danger.

“Can you find some way of being generous that helps us believe you care about us and about the common language and belief of the Church? Can you—in plain words—step back and let us think and pray about these things without giving us the impression that the debate is over and we've lost and that doesn't matter to you?”

As the progressive, Williams said in part: “Trying to speak the language of the culture and relate honestly to where people really are doesn't have to be a betrayal of Scripture and tradition. We know we're pushing the boundaries—but don't some Christians always have to do that? Doesn't the Bible itself suggest that?

“We are often hurt, angry and bewildered at the way many others in the Communion see us and treat us these days—as if we were spiritual lepers or traitors to every aspect of Christian belief. We know that no-one is the best judge in their own case, but we see in our church life at least some marks of the Spirit's gifts.

“And part of that is acknowledging the gifts we've seen in gay and lesbian believers. They will certainly be likely to feel that the restraint you ask for is a betrayal. Please try to see why this is such a dilemma for many of us. You may not see it, but they're still at risk in our society, still vulnerable to murderous violence. And we have to say to some of you that we long for you to speak up for your gay and lesbian neighbours in situations where they are subject to appalling discrimination. There have been Lambeth Resolutions about that too, remember.

“A lot of the time, we feel we're being made scapegoats. Other provinces have acute moral and disciplinary problems, or else they more or less successfully refuse to admit the realities in their midst. But those of us who have faced the complex issues around gay relationships in what we feel to be an open and prayerful way are stigmatised and demonised…

“We want to be generous, and we are hurt that some throw back in our faces both the experience and the resources we long to share. Can you try and see us as fellow-believers struggling to proclaim the same Christ, and to be patient with us?”

Williams observed that the animosity between the two positions has now become toxic: “At the moment, we seem often to be threatening death to each other, not offering life.”

Williams is to be commended for listening attentively to each side and pleading for his fellow bishops to do likewise. He did more than anyone has before to articulate how much pain both sides feel, and why. However, what he did not accomplish—and what Anglican progressives have not accomplished either—was a resolution of this decades-long stand-off.

I suggest that the only step that can get Anglicans and other Christian churches beyond the homosexual divide is for all sides to understand and affirm that blessing committed same-sex relationships would be an authentic gain—for gays, for Christians, and for the entire human race.

Traditionalists in several Christian churches are passionately committed to a few scriptural passages that they read as condemning homosexual activity altogether. I address why recent scripture scholarship questions this position in Part II, Chapter 2 of
my doctoral dissertation.

While traditionalists may be unwilling to buy that scripture scholarship, they should at least admit that scripture records no instance in which Jesus himself condemned homosexual behavior and that the biblical writers who do condemn it have some very specific activities in mind. What they could not have in their minds were two experiences that did not emerge until centuries later:

(1) that generation after generation on every continent a significant number of individuals experience in themselves an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction to members of the same gender; and

(2) that in recent centuries especially some of those individuals connect with one another and feel themselves called to live together in committed relationships.

Whatever negative remarks the biblical writers may make about homosexual activity, they do not say that God disowns these experiences.

Given that, it is incumbent upon contemporary human beings and contemporary Christians to ask if these experiences add value to the creative advance of humanity and the universe. An analysis that looks at facts instead of stereotypes and fears must answer with an unequivocal “yes.”

The most obvious fact is the kind of life gay people experience apart from committed relationships. It is very much like the kinds of homosexual activity that scriptural passages condemn.

Despite the growing push for same-sex marriage or civil unions, the predominant gay culture is still a quest for ever more intense sexual experience with the hottest same-sex person one can find. The hunt is always on for a new hook-up to boost the ego by out-doing the hook-ups of the past. The toll this takes on the physical and emotional health of gay people is readily apparent and widely understood.

Against this background, Christians ought to rejoice that at least some gay people feel themselves called to committed, stable relationships. Granted, such relationships are not the sex-free celibacy traditionalists think the Bible prescribes. But they do in fact bring gay people closer to the model that traditionalists claim is most Christian: life-long commitment to a fellow human being.

There are sound reasons to uphold the marriage of one man and one woman with offspring as the theological pinnacle of sexual experience. Without it the human race could not survive or prosper. It makes perfect sense as a Christian ideal, and all who can strive for it should.

But it is also undeniable that heterosexual marriage produces a significant number of children who are gay, perhaps in the range of ten percent of the global population. Unless the gay people produced by every generation of heterosexuals are to be regarded as evolutionary waste or God’s standing joke on straight people, isn’t it important for Christians to listen to what God may be saying in the experience of gay individuals?

What progressives in several Christian churches hear is God calling gay people to committed, stable relationships. The gay experience is that such relationships make them happier, more fully human and, yes, more Christian.

If that is the case, what do the churches gain by placing another obstacle in the path of those relationships? Why do the churches get to denounce gays for being dishonest, manipulative, promiscuous, and unsafe, when the churches actively try to prevent them from behaving otherwise?

Rather than fearing committed, stable gay relationships as threats to sacramental marriage and the nuclear family, shouldn’t Christians bless them for the metanoia they truly are: conversion from the pursuit of ever more intense anonymous physical coupling to sex as an expression of committed love for another human person? Aren’t these gay people following Jesus and embodying Christianity according to the gifts God has given them? Why shouldn’t the churches be encouraging that and recognizing it and celebrating it?

Even with support from the churches, gay couples face major challenges staying together. In his 2008 book
Dynamic Duos: The Alpha/Beta Key to Unlocking Success in Gay Relationships, Denver psychologist Keith Swain argues from survey data that in the gay dating pool assertive, in-charge alpha males are outnumbered by more compliant, cooperative sidekicks about four to one. Swain says the longevity of gay relationships depends on paying attention to these divergent personality traits and teaching gay people that a stable relationship requires both. But that’s less likely to happen the more churches and societies assert that there is nothing positive about committed gay relationships.

One of Jesus’ most memorable sayings was that humans can have no greater love than to lay down their lives for their friends. Gay people who want to commit themselves to one another have clearly taken that message to heart. In the process, they have also turned away from the kinds of homosexual activity that some scriptural passages condemn. Certainly that should be counted as taking the Gospel seriously. Certainly Jesus has blessed them already. Why shouldn’t his churches do the same?

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