Friday, May 15, 2015

How I Came to Change My Mind on SSU: Part 1. Obstacles

For years I have wrestled with questions about the faithful options for Christians who are romantically and sexually attracted to others of the same sex. It has been a topic of conversation and debate in the church for decades and has consumed the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion for the last ten to fifteen years. I have long described myself as ‘on the fence’ – open to considering a rethinking of the interpretation of scripture and tradition, but not persuaded by the arguments for doing so.

There are people who I respect who have come to differing conclusions. As one of my seminary professors liked to say, "Some of my friends say this, some of my friends say that, and I always agree with my friends." But over the l years I became increasingly uncomfortable with fence-sitting. Though cautious by nature, I knew I had to risk a more definite position on the subject however complicated, confusing, and contentious.

This all came to a head in the summer of 2012 when, as a deputy to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, I was called upon to vote for or against a provisional rite of blessing for same-sex unions (SSU). I voted yes. I could be wrong, but I am persuaded that same-sex relationships can be blessed and that such unions can be a means of sanctification (becoming holy, fully human, more like Jesus).

There a number of obstacles that made reaching that conclusion difficult:

1. It is no small thing to adopt a position that is counter to what has been the consistent teaching of the Church and remains the understanding of the vast majority of Christians. Any scriptural argument affirming the bless-ability of Same-sex Unions (SSU) is less than straightforward at best, as even some of its proponents have admitted, e.g., Walter Wink and Luke Timothy Johnson.

2. Most of the arguments for SSU seem tendentious and thus convincing only to those who are already convinced or want to be convinced.

3. Many biblical scholars and theologians I hold in high esteem who have commented on the topic have argued against the bless-ability of SSU, e.g., Raymond Brown, N. T. Wright, Richard B. Hayes, Oliver O’Donovan, Wolfhart Pannenberg.

4. While it is true that, one way or another, the topic of same-sex sexuality has been discussed in various contexts in the Episcopal Church for some decades, I have seen little evidence of genuine conversation, engaging the questions and concerns of those who disagree, and precious little deep and sympathetic listening. And much that has passed for conversation has been manipulative.

5. What exactly is our teaching? The argument in favor of SSU in the Episcopal Church has been ad hoc and uneven. It has been ad hoc inasmuch as there are multiple and not altogether compatible attempts at making the case. And it has been uneven inasmuch as the quality of the argument has varied considerably, much of it, frankly, quite bad. This makes it hard to know just what the Episcopal Church actually teaches on the subject.

What is that teaching?

Is it the same as John Spong’s (Living in Sin?), rooted in a reductionist, rationalistic rejection of anything like classic Christian doctrine and discipline?

Or maybe it is more like William Countryman in Dirt, Greed, & Sex, who reduces biblical sexual ethics to ancient obsessions with purity and property (simplistic and misleading in my opinion). In that case, do we agree that, “[T]he gospel allows no rule against the following, in and of themselves: masturbation, nonvaginal heterosexual intercourse, bestiality, polygamy, homosexual acts, or erotic art and literature [i.e., pornography]” (p. 243)?

Or is our affirmation ultimately based on modern individualistic, consumerist notions of self-actualization, disdain for limits, and individual rights? One gets the impression that for some in the church any argument that leads to the ‘right’ conclusion is acceptable – because that conclusion seems so obviously right to them that it needs no real defense.

Or are we advocating something more like Eugene Rogers who, in Sexuality and the Christian Body:Their Way into the Triune God, approaches the question in terms of what leads to the holiness of disciplined, self-sacrificial love conforming with the way of Jesus?

It is hopeful that Rogers was one of the authors of ,and his approach was reflected in, 'The Liberal View' (beginning on p. 40) in the document on Same-Sex Relationships in the Life of the Church submitted to the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church in 2010. If this is closer to our 'official' position, it would be helpful if our leaders publicly articulated it in those terms and, just as importantly, made it clear that we reject the other arguments.

6. The Episcopal Church has done a clumsy job of it. Consecrating Gene Robinson before/without revising the marriage canon was an end-run around the hard work of building a new consensus that such revising was meet and right so to do. However uneven, difficult, and drawn out it seemed, there was a conversation that might have led to more of a consensus if that conversation had not been prematurely cut off.

One does not need to be narrowly conservative to wonder if some inconvenient bits of the Book of Common Prayer and Canons got ignored or finessed. I am convinced that the exercise of more patience and prudence would have avoided much of the turmoil and division we have experienced over the last ten years. As Aquinas would say, how we achieve something is as important to it's being virtuous as what we achieve. And while those who have resisted or pursued schism as a result share the blame, the general dismissiveness by ‘progressives’ toward ‘traditionalists’ has belied their talk of inclusivity. Schism can be provoked as well as pursued.

7. Too often, those arguing for SSU offer no comprehensive sexual ethic that has any continuity with what has heretofore been considered faithful Christian discipline. Indeed, much is dismissive of anything like that discipline or has been indistinguishable from what one might expect to hear from Oprah or read in the heirs of Dear Abby.

8. Given the Episcopal Church’s seeming inability generally to discern the difference between a gospel imperative and liberal/progressive prejudice it is no wonder many suspect us of merely accommodating one segment of worldly culture. As I have written elsewhere, there is a sort of idolatry in the Episcopal Church that compromises our witness (the fact that “conservative” Christianity is just as culturally compromised does not change this).

9. The giveness of male and female and their sexual complementarity cannot be dismissed – as even some advocates of SSU acknowledge, e.g., Jeffrey John.

10. I respect the sacrificial self-discipline of those like Wesley Hill and Eve Tushnet who have embraced celibacy in their determination to live faithfully according the traditional Christian sexual ethic.

11. Our understanding of abstractions like love, holiness, justice, etc. is provisional. So is any interpretation of scripture This side of the kingdom they will be incompletely understood, let alone lived. Thus, it is in the widest communion possible that interpretations and definitions of Christian faithfulness, however provisional, are best discerned. As an Anglican, I take the Anglican Communion to be the most adequate body for such discernment.

12. Being part of the Anglican Communion– a trans-national Christian body– is a basic reason I am an Episcopalian. The actions and reactions on this issue have done great harm to that communion. This has perhaps been the most significant obstacle for me. I have been an advocate for the Anglican Communion Covenant. I would still like to see something like the Covenant adopted – even if that meant that the Episcopal Church might serve some time on probation or something.

So . . .


  1. Right Reverend Sir,

    Thank you for sharing this. I was taught that sin is a very serious subject and that all sin derives from a desire to "be like God" (gen 3:5). If we are going to now say that homosexual sexual relationships are blessed instead of sinful, shouldn't we come to a consensus before we start doing so? The history of blessing same sex unions (and much of the other changes to TEC's teaching and order) seem to follow a pattern
    1. Start suggesting a change to teaching or order. Get loud about it.
    2. Say that, because some are questioning the old order, we should be allowed to "try" the new thing to see how it fits.
    3. Begin to practice the "new thing" - hoping your Bishop won't call you on the carpet too badly
    4. Because this is now part of the practice of the Church, try to get trial use codified
    5. Expand - claiming that those who oppose the new thing are hateful, fearful, or more interested in their power than the Holy Spirit.
    6. Start taking over dioceses - running those who opposed the "new thing" out by ridiculing them.
    7. Make the "new thing" madatory - as a trial use item - assure Bishops that no one will ever be required to accept the new thing.
    8. Because of Justice requirements, now require that all Bishops and Clergy will be required to accept the New Thing.

    Look at the history of Women's Ordination as confirmation of this.

    I would urge you to take a "Halt" stance on any new canons or resolutions regarding same sex blessings until the Communion and TEC come to a consensus and until canonical safeguards can be put into place that allow those who accept what the Church has always taught on this matter to continue in good conscience within TEC.

    Phil Snyder

  2. I am highly impressed with this introduction and its candor, and I look forward to reading what the Bishop has to say about SSU's. I do wish that more in the church would better understand the obstacles to blessing SSU's for the church, which are presented very honestly here.

    On the other hand, I wish more in the Communion and the world wide church were generally less obsessed with sex / gender issues, and were aware of the state of Christology in TEC, especially at the top level - which anyone googling Presiding Bishop Resurrection (or a few other terms) can very easily discover - and about which we have had an almost deafening silence, compared to the gravity of the circumstances at hand.

    Many blessings to you, Bp. Gunter.

  3. James - I submit that there is a very large correlation (if not causal relationship) between Christological heresies (or the tolerance thereof) and the blessings of same sex unions. I was on The Episcopal Cafe around Easter and the idea that Jesus physically rose from the dead was ridiculed - as was the Virgin Birth and the Incarnation. Many of the leaders there wouldn't even condemn Bishop Spong for his theology or writings.

    The problem is that our anthropology (what is mankind) informs our soteriology (how are we saved). If we assume that mankind is a sinful, fallen creature, then being saved means being rescued from being sinful and fallen and being given new life. However, if we assume that we are basically good people who need a little help to overcome our bad tendencies, then being saved means being enlightened about what our bad tendencies are so we can work to exclude them from our lives.

    Soteriology leads us to Christology (Who is Jesus). If salvation means being given new life and having the old debts wiped away, the we need a person who is fully human (to pay the debt) and fully divine (to give us new life). Thus Jesus must be fully human and fully divine. However, if salvation is enlightenment, the Jesus is a fully human person in touch with his divine nature and who "becomes" or is "proclaimed" divine.

    Christology, in turn, informs ecclessiology - what is the Church. If Jesus only a human being that was more elightened than us and did not defeat sin and death on the cross, then the Church is also a human construct and can be changed as we become more enlightened. But if Jesus is fully human and fully divine, then The Church (his Body), must also be fully human and fully divine. The human aspects (governance, budgets, etc.) are also divine, but the Church needs a way to deal with those and that is the task of General Convention, Diocesan Conventions, etc. However the Theology of the Church - the teaching of the Church is not something that can simply be changed by a vote by orders. The question comes down to this: Are the proscriptions against homosexual behavior in the Scriptures and in the Tradition of the Church part of how the Church expresses its faith or are they part of the faith itself? If they are only part of how the Church expresses its faith, then we can look at changing them. However, if they are part of the Faith itself, then we cannot and anyone who claims to change them is actually mis-representing God. That, of course, brings up the question of how do we know what is part of the expression of the faith vs what is part of the Faith itself.

  4. Bishop Matthew, I want to thank you for your comments. As a partnered gay priest, I thank God for the welcome I have received in the diocese of Western Michigan and others and grieve the rejection I have received in some simply because of my sexual orientation. I chose to earn my living outside the church some years ago because I believed my honesty to myself and my partner was more important - and more costly - than hiding within the church. My partner and I are Jesus disciples and we are fully orthodox. I do not "cross my fingers" when saying the creeds nor do I believe that contemporary men and women are wiser than our forebearers in the faith simply because we are contemporary. On the other hand, I do believe the Holy Spirit is teaching us new things that we still have trouble receiving because of our inability to see God's hand at work in the world. I believe the lives of Christian GLBT persons are known by their fruits despite - despite - the rejection given us by parts of the church. How much more faithful can we be? What further sacrifices do we need to make? Blessings, if I may.

  5. If homosexuality was deemed an abomination in Leviticus, and if Paul describes such acts as unnatural and shameful, and if the church agrees that the canon of scripture remains the canon of scripture, where is the disagreement? Can you really imagine explaining to Jesus that you have modified His plan of male and female into something entirely different, unnatural and unhealthy for the temple of the Holy Spirit, but that erotic love trumps everything? Yes, LGBT people are known by heir fruits and their sexual fruit is sinful, not because I say so but because the God of eternity has spoken.