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A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond

An Open Letter to Episcopalians on the Issue of Homosexuals and the Church

An Open Letter to Episcopalians on the Issue of Homosexuals and the Church

By Dr. J. Carl Ficarrotta
A Parishioner of Grace and St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA

September 3, 2003 © 2003. Author grants permission for this full letter to be copied, redistributed, posted on-line or published in any form. Editing of any kind without permission of the author is strictly forbidden.


On 5 August 2003, the national convention of the Episcopal Church confirmed its first openly gay bishop. The next day, they passed a provision ``recognizing that some members of the clergy were already performing blessings for gay couples in some dioceses around the country . . . [signaling] bishops that they had the broader church's permission to allow same-sex unions in their dioceses if they choose to'' (New York Times, 7 Aug 03). The weeks and months leading up to these decisions were filled with much acrimony and many unveiled threats of schism in the Church. Some of us must now decide whether to make good on these threats. Others of us are waiting to see what happens next, and are faced with the problem of how we should respond.

I have been a member of Grace and St. Stephen's Episcopal Church for over 15 years. It is Colorado's largest Episcopal church and one of the 25 largest Episcopal congregations in the United States. The staff and vestry, led by the rector Father Don Armstrong, are part of the national conservative opposition to homosexual clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions. I do not know to what extent their position is mirrored in the congregation, but it would not surprise me if a majority of our members, maybe even a large majority, share these views. Colorado Springs is well known as a stronghold of conservatism and churches often reflect the ethos of their communities.

I have heard a great deal from the pulpit, and read and heard a great deal more in the media, which articulates this conservative opposition. For the most part I do not agree with it and now feel compelled, as a matter of integrity, to share what up to now I have kept to myself. It is time to explain to my fellow parishioners, and anyone else who cares to read this, my judgment and the thinking that has led me to it.

Before making my case, I should say that I am at something of a disadvantage. I do not have formal training in theology, so there may be some fine points of the conservative position (put well in True Union in the Body, a monograph published by the Anglican Institute) that I am missing. But I have tried to use my own reason as best I can, and I think this is something any good Episcopalian ought to do. Indeed, this denomination's reliance on clear thinking and an open mind is one of the things that attracted me as a young man (and a lapsed Catholic) into the Episcopal Church in the first place. The Episcopalians told me in a slogan popular in the 1980s that I ``didn't have to check my brain at the church door.'' I was taught by many clergy I have known that the church has three pillars: Scripture, tradition, and reason. So I am going to take a crack at working through this issue before us, trying to make sure that my understanding of Scripture and tradition are conditioned by the best reasoning I can manage. I hope that if I have make any mistakes, my fellow reasoners about these important moral and theological matters will correct me in good faith.

The Central Issue

One of my professors many years ago convinced me that more than half the work in doing any careful thinking about something involves getting the question right. So I think starting out well requires that I say with precision just what I take the central question to be. We need to discover if homosexuality is sinful. Father Armstrong was quoted in the Colorado Springs Gazette (Wednesday, July 30, 2003) as saying this: ``What we will be left with after this convention is a form of postmodern worship that says you can't have sin. There's no more judgment, there's no more right and wrong, there are no more absolute truths, and there's no need for redemption. As a matter of fact, there's no reason to go to church at all.'' I do not know for sure if this is just what Father Armstrong said, or if he was fairly represented by the paper given the full context of his remarks. But I have heard similar sorts of things from the pulpit at Grace Church, from both him and his staff. So I will react to the remark as quoted, and to anyone else who thinks this is the right way to look at the convention's decisions: I think this is an unfair way to characterize the situation, and does not help us focus our attention on the real issue. Even if after careful thought we conclude homosexuality is not immoral, there will still be plenty that we all will rightfully and unambiguously condemn as sinful. No one is suggesting, even indirectly, that we do away with the notion of sin and redemption. No one is suggesting, and it does not follow that, if homosexuality is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. It will still clearly be wrong for priests to have sex with young boys. It will still clearly be wrong to be unfaithful to one's spouse. It will still clearly be wrong to rape. A very long list in the same vein would be lamentably easy to produce, for human beings are collectively prone to all sorts of wrongdoing, wrongdoing that we should name for what it is: sin. None of that would change just because we changed our minds about the sinfulness of homosexuality.

We must not give ourselves over to this kind of thinking. I propose rather to focus on the issue of homosexuality alone, and leave the rest of the wide world of sin pretty much as it is. I will try to present, in the Episcopal way of considering Scripture, tradition, and reason, the best arguments I am aware of for thinking homosexuality is sinful. At the same time, I will do my best to say why I am not convinced by these arguments.

What Evidence Do We Find in Scripture?

Let us start with the Old Testament. In Judges 19: 1-30, we read of a man, who rather than surrender a male guest to a wicked band of rapists, was more willing to give up his virgin daughter and a female guest. Again, in Genesis 19: 1-12, we read of Lot, who rather than surrender two men (who are in fact the angels come to destroy the city) to the predatory men of Sodom, offers instead to give up his daughters to the crowd. Some take this as evidence that according to Scripture homosexual rape is worse or more shameful than man-on-woman rape. I suppose one could further assert these passages at least imply that homosexuality, more generally, is wrong (though the passage does not say this explicitly).

Yet arguably, the thing being condemned here is the rape. What these passages have to teach about consensual homosexual and heterosexual relations, and which is better or which is worse, is not clear. Besides, just because this is what Lot and the old man in Judges were reported to have thought and done does not establish the interpretation that this is God's will, or that we should understand Scripture as portraying these judgments in a favorable light. After all, a few lines later, we read the report of Lot's daughters becoming pregnant by their father; not, I would assume, something we approve of, just because it is reported in the Bible as having happened. So these particular passages do not convince me there is a clear scriptural condemnation of homosexuality.

But these are not the only relevant passages. In Leviticus 18: 22, there is a crystal clear condemnation of at least one kind of homosexuality. God tells Moses to tell the Israelites of that time ``Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.'' We see the condemnation again in Leviticus 20:13. ``If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.'' Notice that this does not condemn lesbianism. And given the thoroughness of the list of prohibitions, and the fact that lesbianism is not mentioned, we should be led to judge woman-with-woman sex is permitted. But the condemnation, by God, of man-with-man sex, is clear.

For some Christians, this settles the issue. God said it through Scripture, and there is nothing else to talk about. But for Episcopalians (and many other Christian denominations), there is in fact much more to talk about. A complete survey of Scripture leaves us not with many things settled, but instead many problems of interpretation. Throughout the Old Testament, God tells his prophets to tell the Israelites not to do things we now judge rightly are not sinful; or in some other cases, tells the Israelites to do certain things we now judge rightly would be sinful. Examples are easy to come by:

  1. Right after one statement of the Ten Commandments, God tells Moses (Exodus 20: 24) to tell the Israelites: ``Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle'' and ``If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it.''
  2. God tells Moses (Exodus 21: 2-7) to tell the Israelites some rules for regulating slavery: ``If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything'' and "If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do.''
  3. God tells Moses (Exodus 20: 24) to tell the Israelites: ``If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife.''
  4. God tells Moses (Exodus 20: 24) to tell the Israelites: ``You must give me the firstborn of your sons. Do the same with your cattle and your sheep. Let them stay with their mothers for seven days, but give them to me on the eighth day.''
  5. God tells Moses (Deuteronomy13: 6-9) to tell the Israelites, in the passages following yet another documentation of the Ten Commandments: ``If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, `Let us go and worship other gods' (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death.''
  6. God tells Moses (Leviticus 20:10) to tell the Israelites: ``If a man commits adultery with another man's wife - with the wife of his neighbor - both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.''
  7. God tells Moses (Deuteronomy 14: 8) to tell the Israelites: ``The pig is also unclean; although it has a split hoof, it does not chew the cud. You are not to eat their meat or touch their carcasses.''
  8. God tells Moses (Deuteronomy 22: 11) to tell the Israelites: ``Do not wear clothes of wool and linen woven together.''

A similar and parallel state of affairs can be found in the New Testament. Of course, the only one casting stones directly at homosexuals in the New Testament is Paul. But his disapproval is clear enough. In 1 Corinthians 6: 9-11, he lists male prostitutes and homosexual offenders among the wicked. In Romans 1: 27-28, he characterizes homosexuality as a ``shameful lust'' and homosexual acts as ``indecent.''

But as we saw in the Old Testament, there are also clear prohibitions in the Pauline letters against things we now judge rightly are not sinful; and in some cases demands of us to do things we now judge rightly would be sinful. This is the same Paul who writes in Corinthians 14: 34 that ``As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says.'' In Corinthians 11: 5-6 he writes ``And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head - it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head.'' In Corinthians 11: 14-16 we are asked: ``Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice - nor do the churches of God.''

Nobody these days is outraged about eating pork or that we do not follow Paul's counsel on women and hair length. The Church is not facing schism over these issues. This is because what is said, even clearly, in the Old Testament or what Paul writes in his letters does not settle whether something is a sin. Disagreeing with what God told Moses to tell the Israelites of that time or what Paul wrote on this or that issue does not mean we cannot be Christians, much less mean that we are wicked and incapable of making any moral judgments at all. The living Word of the Bible must be, and for Episcopalians I would have thought always has been, filtered through the lenses of evolving tradition and reason. The biblical literalism and ``proof-texting'' appealed to by the conservative position is so far from my own understanding of the Episcopal mind-set, I get the sense I have somehow been transported, or my church was somehow transformed, into another denomination.

Mind you, my claim is not that Scripture alone clearly supports the opposite conclusion, that homosexuality is permissible, but rather that pointing to passages of Scripture just is not how we ought to decide the issue at all. We need further evidence, beyond simply pointing to or counting up passages of Scripture, to understand what is sinful, and what is not. In fact, whenever we consult Scripture, I think it should be in the light of our reason. Faith must always seek and be conditioned by our understanding, and we should have confidence that properly understood revelation will never conflict with right reason. The two go hand in hand. Far from asserting dogmatically that acceptance of homosexuality betrays the central tenets of the Christian faith, and the clear messages of Scripture to us, we should be using reason to check and revise our understanding of Scripture. We have done this with many other moral issues, and we can do this with homosexuality as well.

Finally, I mention only briefly another set of Scripture-based arguments I have heard and read (again in True Union of the Body, sections 3.1-3.4) in support of the conservative position. We may stipulate as obvious that Scripture and Christian tradition make a special and sacred thing of marriage, defined as the union of a man and a woman. These conservative arguments conclude that because of the special and sacred status of marriage, homosexuality and certainly homosexual unions are not permissible. I do not understand these arguments. Being for a certain thing (say marriage between a man and a woman) does not mean we must be against everything else one might choose (say singleness, or unions of other sorts). So long as the other options do not interfere with the practice of what one commends as especially good, then it does not make sense to say the other options are wrong because the commended thing is good. For instance, we might think it is very good, and consistent with Scripture, to give 10 percent of our wealth to the Church - this does not mean we cannot give another part of our wealth to another otherwise good cause. Closer in form to our present problem, we think it is very good that some feel called to the priesthood, and take sacred vows of service - this does not mean that those who do not feel so called are sinful. So analogously, Scripture makes out marriage to be special and sacred - I do not see why this should mean other kinds of choices relating to sexuality and unions automatically are to be deemed sinful.

What About Tradition?

I am sympathetic to the idea that unless we have reason to think otherwise, traditions are deserving of our respect. They provide us important connections to our past, promote much-needed stability in our conceptual schemes, and can carry an accumulated wisdom of the ages, hard won through centuries of trial and error. But of course, traditions can also carry some of the folly of the ages, and often have. Shedding error as it is discovered, or changing our minds when what once worked no longer does or is no longer relevant, keeps a body of tradition strong and alive. Traditions evolve. Old elements fall out, and new elements are added. None of this need be a sign of decay or degradation. Indeed, Christianity, with all its denominations, is a story of both continuity and change. This is what I would suppose most people mean when they refer to a living and growing tradition. So in my view, that we have traditionally condemned homosexuality as sinful cannot, by itself, trump other arguments (which I will list in the next section) that might point toward permitting homosexuality.

I must emphasize that not all changes in our traditions have been just an ``accommodation'' of sin, as some conservatives seem to think. Indeed, some changes in our traditions plainly have been for the better. Think of all the discarded traditional practices in Christianity we are better off without. I am assuming that no Episcopalian wants to return to burning heretics at the stake, inquisitions, crusades, a belief in a flat Earth, the state controlled by the church, approval of slavery, prohibition of interracial marriage, single priests, only male priests, or the excommunication of divorced people. And other traditions do not seem to have much to do with sin at all. Changes in the prayer book, or the hymnal, or where we put the altar, and changes like them, do not address what is sinful and what is not. Naturally, a change to tradition could represent a slacking off or a corruption, an ``accommodation'' of sin. But most of the time, I think the conscientiously made changes throughout the history of the Episcopal Church have been harmless, or represent thoughtful, moral improvements; we should be open to the possibility that a change might be part of a gradual triangulation on the truth, rather than simply assuming it is a symptom of groundless relativism.

Of course, not everything is up for grabs. There will be central tenets of Christianity that are essential to the faith. I will defer to the theologians to enumerate them with authority, but I can take some guesses as to what we might find as non-negotiable. We can confidently start with the core messages of Christ (who by the way, near as I can tell, says nothing about homosexuality). The Decalogue comes to mind as another essential part of Christian doctrine. Perhaps the Nicene Creed is part of the center that must hold, lest it be hard to tell who is a Christian at all. But there surely are things in our doctrines, rites and traditions that are, frankly, peripheral to our core identity as Christians. As with Scripture, we must always live our traditions in a mutually conditioning partnership with reason. And I think only careful reasoning about those traditions can help us tell the difference between what must stay and what might go.

I make this claim with full awareness of my target readership. Episcopalians as a lot are reputed, fairly or not, to hate changing anything. One of my favorite jokes (which I owe to Lawrence Wall of Chapel Hill, North Carolina) asks how many Episcopalians it takes to changes a light bulb. The answer of course is the whole congregation: one to change the light bulb and the rest of them to stand around and talk about how nice the old one was. But take heart, and have courage. Maybe the reasoned arguments should move us away from the conservative position, and maybe they should not; but however we decide, it should not be based solely on things staying the same as they have always been. I think that as Episcopalians, given that Scripture and tradition are not conclusive, if the best reasons lead us to change our minds about the sinfulness of homosexuality, then this is where we as members of a living, Christian tradition should follow. So where the reasons lead is crucial.

What Does Reason Demand?

By my lights, thinking about the sinfulness of homosexuality must start with the strong and most often cited argument for permitting it: in the absence of some countervailing reason, we should judge private, intimate expression and action between consenting adults as morally permissible and none of our business. I believe that unless and until we are able to produce such a countervailing reason, we are rationally compelled to judge that homosexuality is not sinful. Indeed, when we properly judge any activity or way of being as sinful, it is for good reasons, and not arbitrary. And as a general default, we should not judge self-regarding behavior, and behavior between consenting adults, as sinful unless we can produce good reasons to think that it is.

I do not mean to be overly restrictive about what might count as a good reason. Among other things, that something is harmful (to one's self or to others), that something fails properly to respect human dignity, or that something is blasphemous or profane would all be good reasons to refrain. For instance, I am sure we can make a strong case against incest, even between adults who are fully aware of what they are doing. Should contraception fail or not be used at all, the genetic risks to the potential offspring are enormous. We should also worry about the possible psychological harm to be done by mixing the emotional dynamics of families and lovers. Adultery, even between consenting adults, violates a solemn promise and harms the one cheated on. Also, there are plausible arguments against fornication, defined as sex between a man and a woman outside of marriage. Without the commitment to marriage, there are reasonable concerns about the welfare of the children that might come along. There are plenty of good reasons to eschew promiscuity, even though this activity is between consenting adults. At the very least, it cheapens sex, has emotional costs, and will invariably involve fornication or adultery. Prostitution is normally not a fully consensual activity, since most who find themselves in the sex trade are pressured by drug addiction, fear of pimps, desperate poverty and other factors - but even in the rare cases where it might be fully consensual, it makes a commodity of our sexual selves in a way that is morally objectionable. (In all these examples, if the incomplete reasons, which I have only gestured towards, are not part of an obvious case for the reader, then I will in the interest of brevity wait for another letter to lay them out in more detail).

So this default position is not a radically permissive one to take - good reasons to condemn many practices are often not hard to find. But where we find no good reasons to refrain or condemn, we rightly judge the conduct or the character trait to be morally permissible. Let us consider the best reasons those in the conservative camp have produced against homosexuality, and see if they are compelling.

Some Preliminaries

First, we must keep clear the difference between finding something odd, or even disturbing, and judging a person sinful for not sharing our reaction to it. Homosexuals are indeed ``queer,'' in the original sense of that word - their sexual orientation is unusual and different from the majority of us, maybe even (depending on which studies are correct) the vast majority of us. But the issue here is whether or not the deviation is morally wrong, that is, sinful. I for one find eating liver disgusting, and cannot understand what it would be like to be a person (like my wife) who finds it delicious. But I do not and should not judge the liver-lover to be sinful. Unusual body piercing seems to me another example of this same sort of thing. To judge homosexuality sinful, we will need to find reasons that go beyond its perceived oddness or our reaction to that oddness.

Second, we must take care not to conflate homosexuality per se with other things like pedophilia, promiscuity, immodesty, and other issues we rightly judge to be sinful. This sort of conflation would not help us answer the question at hand. Some sexual practices and proclivities are sinful, and some are not. I mention this preliminary matter only because I have heard argumentation which lumps all these things thought sinful into one set, then concludes the sinfulness of one establishes the sinfulness of them all. This is a logical mistake or perhaps a purposeful and disingenuous bit of rhetoric designed to convince us about the sinfulness of homosexuality by illegitimately identifying it with other things that clearly and uncontroversially are sinful. But if we conclude that homosexuality (while different and hard for many of us to understand) is not immoral, this would not be the same thing as concluding rape, sex with children, sex with animals, and other sorts of wicked sexual practices are all OK too. Using the same kind of bad argument, we would also wrongly condemn heterosexuality, since some heterosexuals rape, have sex with children, are promiscuous, or whatever.

Some Arguments

So, assuming that we avoid the non-starters I mentioned in the preliminaries, what other countervailing reasons should we consider? What arguments go beyond simply pointing to the ``queerness'' of homosexuality? Is there a consideration that might have the power to override the default position of leaving people alone to live their lives as they choose? Why should we think homosexuality, in itself, is sinful?

  1. If we could show that homosexuality is unavoidably bad for the health of those who engage in it, or is an inextricable part of a larger public health problem that affects us all, then that could certainly count as a reason for calling it sinful. I have heard some conservatives make the argument that homosexuality is bad because it passes or ``causes'' AIDS. Indeed, some have proclaimed that AIDS is God's punishment for homosexuality. First, we know better than to think this disease is a sign of God's displeasure with homosexuals, any more than it is a sign of God's displeasure with some poor soul who went in for surgery and received contaminated blood, or God's displeasure with an emergency room doctor who is infected while treating a bleeding accident victim, or God's displeasure with an innocent child who is born with it. After all, these too are ways of getting or spreading AIDS. But God's alleged displeasure aside, could homosexuality be something that inevitably results in a natural evil, and hence something we should avoid? I do not think so. Homosexuality in itself is not harmful to anyone. One kind of homosexual act, unprotected anal intercourse, is only one of the many things that can spread AIDS. Yet we do not say eating in general is harmful when eating food that has gone bad makes us sick. Rather, we find out how to prevent and treat food poisoning. Likewise, AIDS, along with all other diseases, needs to be treated and prevented - identifying those infected, educating people about how it is spread, taking care with blood, discouraging promiscuity (straight and gay), etc., are the right responses. We would have a better case for condemning cigarette smoking as immoral, since the harm issues directly and unavoidably from the activity. So the AIDS-based argument against homosexuality is misguided. As an aside: even if these considerations do not convince the conservative, surely he would have to agree that this AIDS argument does not weigh at all against lesbianism, and hence even if it worked would only make one kind of homosexuality a sin.

  2. I take it the argument from AIDS is a weak one, but there is another set of arguments that are more interesting and difficult to be sure about. They revolve around the question of whether homosexuality is ``unnatural.'' For many Christians who are committed to the idea of a natural law, this might be an important reason to judge homosexuality as sinful.

One of the things that make this line of argument difficult is that the concept of ``natural'' is fraught with ambiguity. It is hard to know, even on reflection, just what we mean by ``natural'' as it pertains to sinfulness. To begin, we should notice that this is not essentially about whether homosexuals are born this way, are helplessly socialized, have freely chosen the life, or some combination of these. Many who focus on this question have the idea that, somehow, if people are born or helplessly socialized to be homosexual rather than choosing to be this way, then we should not consider them sinful. I think this focus misses the target. Consider that we do not and should not care whether someone is born to, is socialized into or chooses, say, a life of murder or pedophilia when pondering whether murder or pedophilia is sinful. These interesting questions are not completely irrelevant, but they seem more to the point if you have already decided homosexuality is sinful, and you wish to know how best to respond to the sin - then the voluntariness of the ``condition'' seems to matter. But the answers to these questions, and the sense of ``naturalness'' to which they are appealing (``born that way'' or ``cannot help it''), do not seem that important for determining the sinfulness of the practice in the first place. That something comes to pass by birth, socialization or choice does not determine whether it is good or bad. We are not born to use a toilet, but doing so is good. We are born to sickness and death, and these are evils that we try to avoid or put off. Goodness and badness must be judged on other grounds.

Might we retreat from the ``born that way'' sense of ``natural'' and appeal instead to ``natural'' in the sense of ``statistically normal''? Perhaps those human tendencies that fall under the fat part of the statistical bell curve are somehow more appropriate than others. This approach seems even less promising. Some things that are ``natural'' in this sense of being very common in human beings are terrible, in both practical and moral ways. Eating as much fat, salt and sugar that we all tend to want seems like a problem (gluttony is, I think, the proper Church label for one form of this problem). So do the ``natural'' tendency to occasional violence, the ``natural'' tendency to reason poorly in many contexts, and the ``natural'' tendency to infidelity. We are fallen creatures, and our ``nature'' can and often does lead us astray. And along the same lines we noticed before, some things that are ``unnatural'' in this sense are very, very good. Loving your neighbor is sometimes bloody hard work and not all that common. There are not that many of us who are fine concert pianists or good marathon runners, but we do not condemn those who are for being outside the norm. So again, there must be another sense of ``natural'' that would do the work in this argument for the sinfulness of the ``unnatural.''

I think the best way to understand ``natural'' in this context is one that harkens back to the ideas of some of the ancient Greeks. Aristotle proposed that living things, including human beings, have a natural telos, that is, something like a built-in blueprint that we use to determine if an organism is flourishing. When things go well, we are unfolding those natural potentials; but things might also go badly, which we should take pains to avoid. Some people are born or develop into states that depart from this ``program,'' and we can rightly call their conditions defects. It is even possible that a majority of any given population might be ``natural'' in the sense of conforming to the statistically most common but ``unnatural'' in the sense that they are not flourishing, or doing well, given the kind of creatures that they are. Christians who take up these ideas identify the telos with what God intends for us. Here ``natural'' means something like ``in accordance with God's purposes.'' Very plausibly, God intends for mankind to procreate, and the conservative concludes homosexuality runs contrary to this important divine purpose.

This argument, and the sense of ``natural'' it employs, could also be made outside the Christian context: ``God's purpose'' could be replaced by a normative ``biological imperative'' or ``principle of reproduction and natural selection,'' and the gist would remain much the same. Indeed, if we were all to become homosexuals, there would be a danger that within a generation, there would be no more human race (unless, fantastically, all reproduction then took place via some kind of new in vitro technology). And I assume we could all agree that extinction would be a great evil. Is this a persuasive reason to condemn homosexuality as sinful? I do not expect that, in the absence of a moral prohibition, we would all become homosexuals. I think I am safe in assuming that those who happen to find homosexuality appealing are already that way, and those who do not find it appealing would not be likely to change orientation in large numbers. And if God's purpose, what it is ``natural'' for mankind to do, is to procreate, then all that is really required is that sufficient numbers of us have children. Biologists have for some years realized that members of species, especially species that normally are found in groups, are not best examined and understood one at a time. Advantages and disadvantages, success and failure, purposes and what runs counter to those purposes, all must be reckoned over the whole population. So again, all we really need is that a sufficient number of us reproduce, and until that stops happening, we will not have a problem.

For this basic argument from the need for procreation to work, it would have to be bolstered in one of two ways. First, it could add the additional premise that none of us ought to do something if there would be bad consequences if all of us were to do it. Then failure to reproduce by any one of us could be condemned because if we all failed to reproduce, it would run counter to God's purpose. But this general formula is not a reliable way to deduce what someone ought and ought not to do. It is certainly all right under most circumstances for me to walk out of a crowded room, even though a stampede would result if everyone else chose to do so at the same time. (Good Kantian philosophers will have already figured out why this counterexample, while an effective rebuttal of the present reasoning, is not a good critique of the Categorical Imperative - yet another letter). Second, we might insist that it is not God's purpose that the species reproduce, but rather God wishes that each and every one of us reproduce. But if this criticism of homosexuality really worked, it would at the same time condemn single people (even clergy), married couples who choose not to have children, and anyone else who does not procreate, as sinful (and it would let any practicing homosexual, as long as he or she also had children, ``off the hook''). This strikes me as a reductio ad absurdum (a reduction to absurdity).

No, it is not plausible to think that God intends for each and every one of us to have children; and it seems that within the human family, given the large number of people that already do reproduce, we are collectively doing a splendid job of fulfilling this more plausible understanding of God's procreative intentions for us. We might even be on the brink of overdoing a good thing. Consider that some social scientists have suggested homosexuality is a perfectly ``natural'' and programmed response to overcrowding and overpopulation (see, e.g., Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape, London: Jonathan Cape, 1967, p. 99). So in all, even this interesting argument from a ``natural law'' for procreation of the species does not convince me that reason demands we judge homosexuality is a sin.

The only way I can see to make this basic argument more persuasive is to restrict our understanding of God's purpose yet again. Perhaps God's purpose is not merely that the human race (or each and every one of us) should procreate. Perhaps God also intends that part of the mechanism by which we normally reproduce, namely sex, should be used for no other purpose than procreation. (My rough understanding of Catholic thought along these lines is that sex has both a procreative and a unitive function; but in their doctrine these functions may not be delinked, and any other use of sex is unnatural and hence, with only a few exceptions, wrong.) This ``single-function'' or ``restricted-function'' view of our sexuality would condemn homosexuality as ``unnatural,'' but it would also condemn masturbation, contraception and indeed all sexual activity, even between married couples, that did not carry the intention to procreate. I do not understand why God would want us to so restrict our enjoyment of the gift of sexuality, and know of no persuasive evidence that this is His intention. We have appetites for food so that we might be nourished, but may rightfully enjoy eating for its own sake, as long as we do not harm ourselves. We have eyes and hands that may rightfully be used for an almost infinite variety of purposes, provided we otherwise commit no sins. I cannot follow the thinking that asserts sex is somehow different and radically more restricted by the natural law. Rather, I believe sexual impulses may rightly be satisfied in ways that do not lead to reproduction.

Do not misunderstand my rejection of the present ``unnaturalness'' argument for a more sweeping rejection of the whole notion of a natural law. There may well be a natural law, in which we discern God's purposes for human beings - here I am taking no position on that issue. What I am making a point of dispute is what the content of that law might, or must, be. Even assuming that God's will is known to us in the form of a natural law, I am nevertheless unable to accept that this law is a complex and pharisaical set of prescriptions and prohibitions. Much more plausible to me are a small set of broad human purposes, inside of which we may all express and live our lives in a variety of permissible ways. If while living those many different kinds of human lives, we are sure to love God and our neighbors as ourselves, I am willing to wager God's purposes for us will be fulfilled.


Given all the foregoing, I do not judge that homosexuality is a sin. I offer that if homosexuality is not sinful, then we should not oppose the ordination of gays and lesbians. And if homosexuality is not sinful, then the church should be willing to allow the blessing of committed same-sex couples. After all, we even have a rite for blessing animals. That the National Church has decided courageously, as a body, to move in this direction has made me proud to be an Episcopalian.

But even if you disagree with me, acknowledge this much: there are perfectly plausible reasons a good Episcopalian might have for thinking homosexuality is not sinful. This letter rehearses several such arguments. So this is at least something we should be willing to talk to one another about. And if the talking should cease, and there remains reasoned disagreement, then it should be disagreement that we as Episcopalians should accept. It strikes me there are only a few things one must believe to be a Christian in general, and only a few more things one must believe to be an Episcopalian. To be an Episcopalian I am not compelled to take a stand one way or another on the abortion issue, I am not compelled to think in one way or another about many issues of war and peace, I am not compelled to condemn or condone (some cases of) divorce, I am not compelled to approve in my heart of married clergy or ordaining women - rather, Episcopalians have long tolerated in each other deep disagreement, and brooked serious differences of opinion, under the umbrella of an all-important unity of the Church in the love of Christ. Even when there is controversy over an official Church position or policy, we have been at our best when we have agreed to disagree, and remained in the fold. The US military has found a way to function well while tolerating a lack of consensus on homosexuality - the Church should be able to do at least as well or better.

When reasonable people disagree, making others out to be stupid or immoral is a positively un-Christian stance to take. I implore those in the Church (bishops, priests, and parishioners alike) who are fomenting for schism, a new province in North America or any other kind of division of our beloved Church family, to rethink their positions. At Grace Church (and apparently, others around the country as well), we have been shown a way for unhappy parishioners to withhold the part of their contributions that would otherwise have gone to the Diocese of Colorado and the National Church. This reaction is also divisive and not appropriate. Imagine the same logic being used by those of us on the other side of this issue. Some of us at Grace disagree with our staff and vestry's efforts to somehow undo what has already been decided by the due processes of the national convention. But it would not be appropriate for us who disagree to now send all of our contributions to the National Church alone, cutting out our local parish because we disagree with the aims of the staff and vestry on this one point. It would be no more appropriate to withhold our federal taxes were we to disagree morally with a single policy of our US national government. The Episcopal Church at all levels is involved in an incredible variety of much good work, and it seems to me plainly wrong to withdraw our full support over disagreement on only one issue.

This is certainly not the ``end of the church as we know it'' (to again quote Father Armstrong, in the New York Times, Monday, August 11, 2003). I will not support a division that is defined by disagreement on this question of homosexuality alone, and hope that all Episcopalians will set their faces against such a division. If you agree with me that homosexuality is not sinful, make your thinking known. If you think that it is sinful, but judge this to be yet one more hard problem we as Episcopalians can approach with d tente, make your thinking known as well. The unity of the Church is far more important than all of us speaking in one voice on this controversial issue, and unless something is done soon, that unity is in grave peril.

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