by the Rev. Fleming Rutledge
This is a substantial portion of an address delivered in December 2003 in a parish where there was significant division and some rancor. In places where there are omissions, there is a double line. Omissions represent portions of the address that have not been worked out for general release. The name of the parish is withheld simply because I am trying to broaden the application. Note to the reader: the strong majority in this particular congregation favored the traditional position opposing ordination and marriage of gay people. There was a much smaller group strongly favoring revision. Some of these had already left; others were wondering if there could be a place for them. The emphases in this address are therefore somewhat different from those that might be made in a parish where the dividing line fell the other way. Since 2003 I have not had any strong feeling that I want to revise the general opinions here expressed in any significant way.
This presentation is divided into several parts. First is an address to each member of this congregation which I hope might be of some assistance to you as you face the issues that are before us. Then I will move on directly to the question of homosexuality. My heart’s desire and my prayer is that this blessed congregation would stay together and work through the pain. My heart’s desire and my prayer is that you would remain within the Episcopal Church and bear your witness by modeling your capacity for enduring the struggle. Many of you have spoken to me or emailed me about your distress. It has been my privilege to share some of this with you, but also my burden. I am comforted to know that this burden has the shape of the Advent life where conflict and struggle are expected but the promise comes to us from our Lord: In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) An important New Testament idea is formulated by St. Paul who writes to the Philippian church: Have this mind among yourselves which you have in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5). He also writes to the Corinthians, saying, We have received…the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit…we have the mind of Christ (I Corinthians 2:12-3, 116) I want to focus on two things: the teaching of the Spirit and the mind of Christ. In my judgment this is one of those times in the history of the Church when we are going to have to wrestle through to a new understanding of the mind of Christ. We may come to the same conclusion in the end that the Church has held for two thousand years, but my best judgment tells me that we cannot simply say “this is the way it has always been.” I think that God is requiring us to think it through all over again. We do not yet know the full mind of Christ for our time. Again, we may come out in the same place, but I do not believe we have the luxury of withdrawing from it. That is why I am standing here. I have tried to withdraw for too long. I am now going to offer some guidelines for the discussion. My particular goal is to make more room, to enlarge the space for our disagreements. The kind of example that I am suggesting to you is desperately needed in our church. Very few parishes are modeling this. Most have simply gone to one extreme or the other. It is much easier to withdraw into a group of people who are all in agreement than it is to endure this conflict close up. The wider Church desperately needs to see congregations that have taken a strong stand but continue to encompass personal relationships that are surviving not only deep disagreements but real hurt, real pain, real anger. This suffering will be hallowed by mutual acts of self-sacrifice. I have already heard of two striking instances of such acts within this congregation. This is what it means to take up the Cross. The great English poet John Keats wrote in a letter: “Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (Aileen Ward, Keats’ biographer, observes that this is what today is called “tolerance for ambiguity”). I have found this conception very useful (I have written about it in my book Help My Unbelief) but I would redefine it as the capacity for living within a situation of conflict and uncertainty without insisting that one’s own strongly held position be absolute. Again, I am hoping to make a contribution to your struggle by making a larger space for you to work together, remembering that in all things God is working together for good for those who love him (Romans 8:28). I bought a book at Waterstone’s bookstore in Boston and they gave me a bag with a quotation from the French writer Roland Barthes: “Literature is the question without the answer.” That expresses something of what I want to say. Jesus Christ is indeed the answer to all our questions, but we do not always know what shape that answer takes in this life. A theological book that I read recently speaks of the “painful and piercing questions that trouble all our answers” and notes that whereas faith sees the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living [Psalm 27], it sees this goodness not as deliverance from all danger and ambiguity, but as encouragement to see them through. (Charles L. Bartow, God’s Human Speech, 112, 89)
As I said, many people in this congregation are confiding in me their deep hurt. Drawing on Bonhoeffer, I read the situation this way: the biggest problem in situations like this is that people are not trying hard enough to understand one another. People are taking their own distress so seriously that they can’t see the distress of the other, or they give the impression that they don’t care about the distress of the other. People on both sides who have not already left the parish are drawing lines, not talking to one another. As in a marriage, that is very dangerous for a relationship. Then, too, there is the matter of money. Throughout the Episcopal Church, money is being used as a means of sending a message, This is inevitable. We all stop giving money to causes when they disappoint us. The problem─and this is a serious one─ is that the people with the most money have the most leverage and gain the most power, and the entire teaching of the Old and New Testaments warns against that. My impression of this congregation is that you have been deeply committed to one another as a Christian family, and it is obvious that you have had excellent leadership for many years. All that can be lost in a matter of months if you allow your divisions to fester and deepen. This is what the apostle Paul was worried about in the Corinthian Church─the congregation was dividing into factions, each thinking itself superior to the other. Paul writes to them in the most impassioned terms, pleading with them to work through their divisions. I would also point to his letter to the Philippians where he is entreating his most beloved congregation to pull together. Two leading women of the church are fighting. He speaks to them directly, and to an unnamed colleague, saying, “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. And I ask you also, true yokefellow, help these women, for they have labored side by side with me in the gospel” (Philippians 2:3). This is one of the most important passages in the whole Bible about the role of women, yet it is often overlooked. Paul addresses the two women in Philippi as leaders whose dispute is significant enough to affect the whole congregation. Now “agreeing in the Lord” does not necessarily mean holding the same opinion. It also means “having the same mind,” that is to say, having the “mind of Christ.” I would offer an example of two people who serve together on the faculty of the Duke Divinity School, Richard Hays in New Testament and Stanley Hauerwas in theology. They have opposing views on homosexuality and complementary views on almost everything else. They have worked together for many years. For a congregation like yours, however, this will not be easy. Specific decisions will have to be made about your relationship with the diocese, the bishop, and the AAC. Votes will be taken and there will be winners and losers. It will then be incumbent upon the “winners” to bend over backwards toward those who voted differently. A great deal will depend on the conduct of those in the majority. The party or person in power always has the most responsibility to wear that power as Christ wore his. Thus Paul wrote to the Philippians: Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love…Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who was in the form of God but emptied himself and took the form of a servant or slave (Philippians 2:3-11). Paul knows that Christians will have fights. He is teaching them how to fight. Here he is speaking there especially to those who are on top, so to speak, calling them to humility. But the minority, too, will have to struggle. The “winners” are tempted to charge ahead with little regard for the feelings of the minority─that is their danger─but the minority is in danger too. The minority will have to fight off the temptation to self-righteousness. Those in the minority will find it difficult not to think of themselves as superior because they feel that their position is more loving, more “inclusive.” It takes a lot of work on both sides to avoid these traps. Let me suggest some questions that you might ask yourselves. Can you ask another person the question “Why does this issue bother you so much?” Can you give the other person lots of time to answer? Are you willing to struggle to understand the answer even if you do not agree? Can you grant that the other person holds his or her position with integrity as you hold yours? Are you willing to offer something of yourself to another person who has deeply offended you? Brothers and sisters in Christ, that is the way of the Cross, and though we disagree about human sexuality and many other issues, there can be no disagreement that our Lord calls us to the way of the Cross. Perhaps most important of all, when you have overstepped or failed, can you apologize and ask for forgiveness ? For 22 years, from 1975 to 1997 I worked in parish ministry, and it is my experience that repentance and forgiveness is a factor that outweighs all others. It affects relationships on the deepest level. When old friends of many years, or even family members, find themselves on opposite sides of an inflammatory issue, the pain and the recriminations can be ferocious. During the Civil War, not only the nation but also families were split. This was the situation faced by a great theologian, Abraham Lincoln. He was a theologian profound enough to stand alongside the giants of Christian history. I am quite serious about that. A recent book discussing his theology is an examination of the Second Inaugural called Lincoln’s Greatest Speech. It is well known that Lincoln changed his mind about slavery. Lincoln wrestled long and hard with theological questions raised in his mind by slavery and the Civil War. In a private letter to a newspaper editor in Kentucky, a slave-holding state, he wrote that both the South and the North would be judged for complicity in the sin of slavery, and that such judgment would ultimately cause men “to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.” In his essay “Meditation on the Divine Will” he mused, “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party…”1 My own feeling is that this must be true of the present conflict, which is probably just beginning. It will be another full generation at least before we begin to see what the sexual revolution has wrought, but we must always be aware that God’s purpose is probably something different from the purpose of any party or group. Therefore it is not a good idea to act as though one side or the other is in possession of the absolute unmitigated truth. I have been speaking for many days here with you about God’s judgment and the way that Christ took God’s judgment upon himself, commanding us not to judge others (Matthew 7:1). At the same time we should note that there was a very strong note of judgment in our Lord’s words on certain occasions. Who he would judge in the present situation is not clear to me. ==============================
I do not wish to speak to you as though you were a problem. I do not wish to speak to you as though you were in a different category from the rest of us, as though you were sinners of a special sort more serious than the sinfulness of the rest of us. I do not wish to speak about you as if you were not present. My sense of our Lord is that he always spoke to, not about, every one who was present and that he continued his gracious address to those who were considered beyond the pale even though he knew it was deeply offensive to the “godly.” ==============================
Here are my beliefs, based on considerable research and observation: First: Gay men do not choose their orientation (though I do not believe it is a gene). No one would choose a way of life that causes them so much social difficulty. I do not wish to go into this in any detail but I hold the view (which is more widely held by specialists than most are willing to admit) that male homosexuality is largely a result of the boy’s inability at a crucial time (early in life, in the 4-to-7 range) to make the shift from attachment to the mother to attachment to the father, a difficult shift to make at best, but especially so in the absence or perceived absence of a warmly empathetic, emotionally accessible, dependably supportive father or father figure with whom the boy can joyously identify. My various male friends who have gay sons obviously did not know that was happening to their sons and did not intend it, but their ways of trying to compensate were too little too late. I therefore believe that the Church would do well to give much more attention to the whole matter of fathers. There has been too much idealizing of mothers and too little support and encouragement of fathers. Second: I do not believe that a male with an exclusively homosexual orientation can be changed. 3 Twenty years ago I was very interested in two cases that were widely written about in church publications. One man wrote extensively about his own “cure” and subsequent marriage and it sounded extremely persuasive. Another was held up by one of our leading traditionalist clergymen as an example of a “cured” or changed homosexual. I was duly impressed by this at the time, and consequently very sobered when, ten and fifteen years later, it emerged that these cures or changes had not in fact occurred. Third: I have been considering the argument that the Biblical writers did not know anything about people with an exclusively homosexual orientation. This point has been widely made and I find it somewhat persuasive, in a provisional way at least. Third: I have great respect and reverence for people who maintain celibacy if they are unmarried, divorced or widowed. This certainly remains the classical Christian standard. However, I do not believe that many people are granted the gift of celibacy. Even St. Paul, who put a high value on celibacy, recognized this in his teaching on marriage. I therefore believe we must find a way to support healthier lifestyles for Christian gay people who are beset every day by invitations to participate in the anonymity and promiscuity of the street, the bathhouse, the bar and the club. We will do well, I think to make an honored place for the devoutly Christian gay people who sincerely want fidelity and stability in their lives insofar as that is possible for them. These couples are in the distinct minority and it seems to me that we should support them in their wish to carve out a more responsible style of life. I therefore agree (I think) with those who say that we should be discussing the possibility of some sort of blessing for gay couples who fit this description. However: those who take comfort in what I just said will probably be very disappointed in the sequel, which is this. Fourth: Homosexuality is being called by many a “normal variant of human sexuality”. This seems to me to be an entirely untenable view, even from a completely secular perspective. Everything we know about men and women and reproduction, it seems to me, argues against that position, beginning with human anatomy. What then is homosexuality? Is it a “perversion”? Many heterosexual people will always have difficulty understanding it any other way, no matter what they may say publicly. Is it a “disorder”? “Disordered,” theologically understood, means “not according to the order God intends.” In that sense homosexuality is a disorder, but there are a great many disorders─many. If we compare the standard set by our Lord, which is “one-flesh” union between one man and one woman, a great number of human relationships are disordered; and there are many long-married, monogamous couples who have disorders within their marriages like alcoholism, abuse or sexual problems. Indeed, a truly “ordered” marriage is rare and is a gift of God when it exists at all. For the phenomenon of homosexuality I would suggest the word “adaptation.” Homosexuality is not a normal variant of human sexuality but an adaptation to the circumstances, whatever they are, that have produced exclusively homosexual desires in a person. Therefore I do not believe that gay couples should be “married” as heterosexual couples are married. There needs to be some tacit acknowledgement that this is something less than the full intention of the Lord in creation. My own sense at present is that gay unions would be conducted rather like second marriages after a divorce─quiet, restrained, and dignified (at least that is the way second marriage ceremonies used to be). The Church has been quite permissive lately with regard to premarital sex and divorce, even extramarital sex. Indeed, we have been largely voiceless and impotent in these matters. I have the impression that the mainlines are not even trying, and as for the Christian right, I have read in an evangelical magazine that there is even more divorce among American evangelicals than in the population as a whole. Therefore I do not think that those of us who are evangelicals can afford to be toplofty about our superior Biblical sexual standards.
About withdrawal from the Episcopal Church: I do not believe that there is such a thing as a pure church. Do we want the church to be purified of gay people? In a “reconfigured” church, there will be virtually no openly gay people and, I should think, very few closeted or celibate ones. This, in my judgment, would be a situation we cannot allow. If the Church is anything at all, it is an image of the mercy of God for a widely disparate and unlikely assortment of people who have been made one in Christ in spite of their continuing condition as simul peccator et iustus (simultaneously saint and sinner). Some are saying that if the Episcopal Church splits it will warn other denominations not to go where we have gone. This may be. On the other hand, I met a leading Presbyterian the other day in Charlotte who was in great distress at the possibility that an Episcopal split would mean a greater likelihood of a Presbyterian split, which would be almost unbelievably tragic since the Northern and Southern Presbyterian churches came back together only a few decades ago. This ends abruptly because it does not include my concluding remarks which were not written down. I did not write them down because I wanted to be free to speak extemporaneously and personally as I addressed a large crowd of people whose faces I could see and whom I had come to know fairly well in my several visits to this parish. Unfortunately, this portion of my remarks was not recorded.