A Way Forward? (Part III of Three)

[Note, June 2016: This post was written when I was first beginning the process of trying to reconcile my past as a theologically traditional Christian and my (at that time) present as a non-believing open and affirming gay man. This post and the two others in the series mark the start of a long process, which has come to a beautiful and profound genuine reconciliation in my mind and heart. I leave the post here as is out of respect for my journey, and to the journey of others who may just be beginning. I will revisit these issues on my blog soon to more accurately reflect where I am now, but, considering how ungracious and ignorant my reflections under #4 below were, I have also edited this post to comment about that.]

In my last two posts I have discussed both the criteria I see as being important for any true Christian response to homosexuality and some of the serious issues which any such engagement would raise. I hope, if nothing else, I that I have shown for my more conservative readers that a Christian response needs to take the real experiences of people into consideration, and for my more liberal readers that simply saying that the acceptance of homosexuality by the Church is an issue of justice greatly oversimplifies the real issues in play.

Now, if I may be so bold, I would like to try to point to some possible ways forward.

The first, obviously, is for there to be engagement without change, to persist on biblical and traditional grounds in the view that homosexuality is proscribed and against God’s will and desires for the world. Hopefully, however, this would be absent the anger, lies, and cruelty that so often mark Christian opposition to homosexuality today. Hopefully as well, the focus would be on helping and supporting those brave Christian homosexual souls who choose to remain within the Church despite the confusion, frustration, and loneliness of their struggles. Moreover, it would hopefully be in the context of a greater appreciation of asceticism generally speaking; the call would not be for homosexuals to abstain from sex, but for all Christians to deal honestly and ascetically with the struggles to which they are predisposed, whether it be to certain sexual proclivities (even within marriage), to food, to alcohol or drugs, to gossip, to anger, or whatever. To some extent, this is pretty much where traditional Churches are already at their best; it is an attitude that helped draw me into the Orthodox Church. While it wouldn’t really make anyone happy or resolve any theological problems, it does meet the three criteria I suggested in Part I of these reflections: 1. It honours the teaching and wisdom of the Scriptures and Tradition while acknowledging there are difficulties present within them ; 2. It does not force homosexuals into misguided therapies, nor does it guilt or shame them for their struggles; and 3. While retaining constraints on sexual activity, it listens to and cares for the souls of gay and lesbian Christians, accepting them fully and lovingly into the fullness of the life of the Church, while increasing reflections on the need for all Christians to actively engage asceticism.

Secondly, there is a response I’ll call constrained partnership, wherein homosexuals within the Church could be free to pursue longterm romantic relationships provided that these relationships remain celibate. (This makes more sense in a context like the Orthodox Church where the faithful are asked to remain celibate within their marriages in Lenten seasons; in this way the constraint for homosexuals would be for their relationships simply to be Lenten.) This was an idea floated past me once by a clergy friend who was brainstorming through these difficult issues. I didn’t — and don’t — think it was realistic, as it would require not only people in loving and committed relationships to remain celibate, but also a somewhat arbitrary line to be drawn in terms of what would qualify as appropriate or inappropriate behaviour. Also, as long as such a relationship was marginal and looked at with some suspicion by the Church at large, it would seem to be offering both a half-relationship with one’s partner and a half-relationship with the Church; something less than full communion with both. Furthermore, this option makes me uncomfortable as it seems to obey the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law: the teaching of Christ consistently pushed attention away from obedience to laws and towards transformation of the heart. In a sense, this possible solution strikes me as a return to legalism, despite its grace and attempt to offer something. But, as it represents a genuine engagement and fits my criteria, it is worth mentioning: 1. It retains Scriptural and Traditional injunctions against homosexual sex; 2. (see the previous paragraph); and 3. It attempts to accommodate the experiences and plight of gay and lesbian Christians to the fullest extent allowed by a traditional reading of the Scriptures and recognizes the basic human need for deep companionship.

3. I will call the third option that comes to mind penitential marriage. This goes one, giant step further, openly blessing and normalizing same-sex relationships within the Church while still recognizing that they are a pastoral accommodation (oikonomia) and not reflective of biblical ideals of marriage. In our era, which seems increasingly averse to compromise, this might seem a shocking suggestion. However, a kind of biblical precedent could be available in the form of St. Paul’s oikonomia to widows seeking to remarry (the famous “it is better to marry than to burn with passion” passage). Obviously these are different issues, and great care would have to be taken to make sure this would be an acceptable option for the Church. However, again there is historical precedent in the Church’s evolving position on divorce and remarriage. For most of the first millennium the remarried were only received into full communion after years of penance; however eventually, at least in the East, a special ceremony was developed for second and even third marriages, a ceremony which emphasizes that such unions are not ideal and cannot reflect the full Christian vision of marriage as an icon of Christ and the Church (so for example, the couple is not crowned as they are in the ‘normal’ marriage service). I’m not sure this is a workable solution for the Church to extend to homosexual couples, but it strikes me as something that might at least be worth exploring. Regarding my criteria: 1. It wrestles with the Scriptures and Tradition and upholds the traditional, sacramental, and iconic vision of Christian marriage while recognizing that there are examples in Scripture and the Tradition of accommodation for those for whom the ‘ideal’ may not be possible. 2. It goes further than the first two options by recognizing the persistence of same-sex attraction and that accommodation may be necessary for homosexuals to prevent the psychological, spiritual, emotional, and physical trauma often brought on by warring against or having to ‘turn off’ one’s sexuality entirely. And, 3. This response is fully and entirely motivated by caring for the pastoral needs of gays and lesbians, bringing them in from the margins, and providing an outlet for sexual expression within the confines of a loving, faithful, ecclesiastically oriented relationship. It also recognizes that sexuality is only a small part of human life, that brokenness (so-called) in this one area does not leave one without the ability and even responsibility to cultivate the virtues and ‘fruits of the spirit’ in all facets of one’s life. It recognizes that all fall short of the Glory of God and we are all broken in our own ways and are all in equal need of God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness in and through the Church and her sacramental life.

4. The fourth possible response is full acceptance and marriage equality within the Church (I am not referring to ‘marriage equality’ within the State, which is an entirely different issue). This would obviously be the ideal for LGBT political activists, but their concerns are purely social and political and not theological. Those churches which have moved in this direction have, as far as I have experienced, similarly ignored the theological concerns raised by homosexuality. For the most part this is not surprising, as these communities have also largely abandoned traditional Christian teaching on many issues, essentially transforming Christianity into a moral and ethical philosophy with robes and candles. Objectively speaking, there is nothing wrong with such an approach. But it is not to these Christians these posts are directed. Certainly if theology is irrelevant, there is no issue in accepting homosexuality in the Church. The question I am asking is how can Christians who accept traditional Christianity in its metaphysics and theology as well as ethical vision respond to homosexuality. In all honesty, I have strong doubts it would be possible to make a successful argument for the full equality of homosexual relationships within the Church. I include it as a possibility only because theoretically it might be possible, even if very very difficult. (See Part II of these reflections for my discussion on some of the theological issues homosexuality raises.)

[June 2016 edit: There is much that could be said about the above ungracious paragraph. While it was written by ‘2012-me’, that ‘me’ hadn’t dealt with his post-evangelical-Anglican baggage and so the perspective was really that of ‘2005-me’, a me that simply assumed that ‘liberals’ had not engaged and had no intention of engaging the issue theologically and that it was simply a matter of identity politics. The fact is that I didn’t see theological engagement from progressives because I didn’t want to see it; for so long the prospect of a theologically robust Christian affirmation of homosexual relationships had simply been too much of a threat to me, my lifestyle, my identity, and my faith to even be able to entertain the possibility of it existing. For that, and many other sins, I must and do repent. At least I had the humility, if just barely, to admit the possibility that it might be possible. And since I now represent the very thing that was so threatening to me in 2005, I feel it’s time to speak up.]

5. Lastly, the Church could take an agnostic or aporetic approach. It could acknowledge the experiences and narratives of the homosexual community and simply say, “We hear your stories and experiences and acknowledge them to be true; yet they are not compatible with how God has revealed Himself to us and how we have experienced His presence. In deference to our God, we cannot bless you; but out of respect for the reality of your experiences, neither can we condemn you. Rather, we simply and lovingly entrust you to the mercy and love of God, who transcends all understanding.” This may seem like an odd approach, and certainly an odd note for me to end on. Perhaps, on the surface it seems like a hateful and unwelcoming response. But I don’t think this is the case. It would not be saying “We are right; you are wrong; so get out of our sight”; it would be a sorrowful acknowledgement that there are differences in experiences, expectations, and narratives that may be unbridgeable, that while Christians cannot abandon or reject the understanding of sexuality found in their Scriptures, neither can they be certain there are not new variables at play or that God’s providence might be working in and through homosexuals’ lives in a different way that is not yet entirely clear.

As expected, none of these responses feel really adequate to me. This is why I find it difficult to answer the questions asked of me which prompted this series of posts. And, because my stepping back from the Church was not primarily about my sexuality, I’m not sure if any response would have been able to change the outcome for me. But I know many people who continue on in the Church under largely the same circumstances as I did for so many years, who love God and find much joy and life in the Church, yet who are simultaneously exhausted, overburdened, and depressed that their participation in this life and communion with this God are contingent on their remaining single, and confused and confounded at why God would tell them they are broken yet do nothing to ‘fix’ them or even help them in their struggles and loneliness. And it is really for their sake that I have taken the time, thought, and effort to write down these reflections, as ultimately unhelpful as they may be. While I hope my lack of answers to the questions asked of me is not disappointing for those who asked them, I will say that, as a good friend of mine recently said, I’d rather live with the discomfort of not having a satisfactory answer than feel like I have a false one.