In his reflection on the Primates’ gathering and their decision to limit the Episcopal Church’s involvement in Communion affairs for three years, Bishop Dorsey McConnell (Pittsburgh) spoke of how that decision had “opened old wounds” for many in TEC. Specifically, Bishop McConnell mentioned the pain the Primates’ decision brought to “lesbian and gay members of our diocesan family” as well as how the Primates’ inclusion of the Anglican Church in North America’s Archbishop Foley Beach brought pain to “our more conservative sisters and brothers who have remained in TEC out of their love for the Church.” In the former case, Bishop McConnell is mindful of how the Primates’ decision may have struck lesbian and gay Episcopalians as yet another refusal to recognize their genuine loves and their determination to belong fully to the Anglican Communion. In the latter case, the decision to welcome the ACNA bishop while suspending TEC may equally have struck many conservatives as confusing or equivocal: was TEC being somehow viewed monolithically as “liberal,” and were conservatives being implicitly told to look elsewhere if they wanted to find a genuine Anglican fold in which to worship and live out their faith?
What struck me most forcefully, though, reading the Bishop’s statement, is that some of us belong in both of those categories. Some of us, in other words, are both gay and conservative, both gay and conscientiously “traditionalist” in our views of Christian sexual ethics and members of the Episcopal Church. And for us, the question that is uppermost in our minds and hearts isn’t so much how to hold diverse groups within TEC together — the more “progressive” lesbian and gay Christians “over there,” say, with the more “conservative” traditionalists “over here.” Rather, our question is how to hold before God and before our fellow Christians (and indeed our fellow Anglicans, both in TEC as well as in the worldwide Communion), our own identity as gay and lesbian and our hard-won theological convictions about sexuality, marriage, and celibacy. How can we make people notice our existence and the complexity of our position — and, most importantly, how can we offer our lives as a gift to our Anglican family?
We may be few in number, but we are here. As I’ve described elsewhere, I came to understand myself as gay when I was still an adolescent. Around that same time, however, I was growing in my appreciation for what has (regrettably) come to be understood almost as a party in certain Anglican circles: “traditional,” catholic-minded, orthodox Christianity. Eventually, I came to believe that Christian marriage is the union of male and female, ordered to procreation, and that sexual expression was only sanctifiable in the context of that union. And so I embraced the calling of celibacy, seeking to live my gay Christian life inside (so to speak) that traditional Christian story of the meaning of marriage and sexuality. Happily, as the years have gone, I’ve discovered that I’m not alone in that pursuit.
What, though, is my place in the Church in light of the Primates’ decision? To return to Bishop McConnell’s way of framing the matter, how should someone like me seek to live in this tension-filled time in our Anglican Communion, as both gay and conservative? There is no one answer to that question, I’m sure, but in the wake of the Primates’ decision, I’d like to offer two possible responses as a goad to further conversation.
Those of us who are gay, conservative Episcopalians should perhaps learn to view ourselves, first, as stewards of a tradition. We shouldn’t, I think, expect many of our fellow Christians at this moment in Western cultural history to intuit what we’re about or to show much immediate sympathy with our sense of vocation. But that shouldn’t stop us from taking on the role of safeguarding or preserving a treasure — the Scriptural and traditional story of our creation and redemption as male and female with all that Scripture teaches that entails for our sexual lives — and thereby signaling that that tradition isn’t entirely moribund. Putting it a different way, those of us who are gay and conservative can understand ourselves as keepers of a Scriptural wisdom that’s being forgotten and, just so, as those who have a calling to protect that wisdom for a time when, please God, it is ripe for rediscovery.
I recently sat down with a wise priest in our Communion — not a member of TEC but a longtime and well-respected leader in another Province — and I asked him what he thought I, as a “traditionalist” gay Christian, could offer to the Communion at this difficult juncture. In so many words, he replied:
You can serve, with your very body, as a gentle, at times wordless witness to the fact that not every Episcopalian is a “progressive” when it comes to sexual ethics. You can serve as the conscience of your church, stewarding what you understand to be the teaching of Scripture and the Catholic faith and reminding your fellow Christians that it is a teaching with coherence and power and is not easily dismissed.
But, second, those of us who are gay and conservative can understand ourselves as contributors to the common ecclesial good. One of the temptations for those of us who see ourselves as guardians of a rapidly-disappearing biblical tradition is to become curmudgeonly, sectarian, and aggrieved. “No one is listening to us anyway,” we may think or say, “so we’ll just retreat and batten down the hatches and hole up for a long ecclesial winter.” But surely the more faithful way, the more Christlike way, is to ask how our gay, conservative lives can bless even our fellow Christians who are convinced we’re dead wrong in our theological convictions. How can we, in other words, bend the lives we’re living in the direction of self-sacrifice and love for our more “progressive” or “liberal” brothers and sisters?
I’ve written elsewhere about how I’m seeking to learn to view my gay, celibate life as an occasion for me to look outward, to observe and to try to meet the needs of others:
[W]e misunderstand celibacy if we think of it as a willpower-fueled project of self-improvement. Of course celibacy involves intense self-discipline and self-control, but it’s fundamentally for others — for love.
How is this so? Well, for starters, as the gay Roman Catholic writer Eve Tushnet has put it,
We [celibate gay Christians] offer witness that friendship, “chosen family,” intentional community life, and service to those in need are forms of real and sacrificial love which can shape a life as decisively as marriage and parenthood — if we let them. We offer hope that one day our churches and our communities will honor devoted friendship, extended family such as godparents, and lives of service. These are forms of love the Christian churches once honored publicly as part of the structure of society. Instead of maintaining this honor, we narrowed the public, “adult” forms of love down to the nuclear family and eventually the postnuclear family. I hope that by exploring our vocations, celibate gay Christians can suggest that there is more than one way to make a life filled with love. This witness will, of course, be relevant not only to our small subgroup, but to all Christians, regardless of sexual orientation or beliefs about sexuality.
As our Western cultures seem ever more in thrall to a tepid “moralistic therapeutic deism,” and as many of us gay, conservative believers watch in dismay as our church seems at times merely to mirror those cultures, we do well to remember the prophet Jeremiah’s counsel to Israel in captivity: “[S]eek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (29:7). In the wake of the Primates’ decision, and at all times, we may steward the witness of Scripture and the church catholic, and we may commit ourselves to blessing even those who disagree with us about the very shape of that witness in our fractured yet beloved Anglican Communion.
Wesley Hill‘s other posts may be found here. The featured image comes via Primates 2016.