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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church

Reply to Dean Paul Zahl's Last Signal to the Carpathhia

Reply to Dean Paul Zahl's Last Signal to the Carpathhia

By The Rev. Tobias Stanislas Haller, BSG

In his address to the Episcopal Church Foundation Fellows gathering Dean Paul Zahl lays out the theological rationale for opposition to the ordination of openly gay and lesbian persons, and the blessing of their unions.

He does this first on the basis of what he sees as a flawed anthropology, which naturally leads to an erroneous soteriology, Christology, and defective notions of the Trinity. This argument arises from his reading of the statements of gay and lesbian persons who feel that their sexual orientation and identity is an intrinsic part of them. He thinks that by saying this gays and lesbians feel they are somehow "off the hook" of sin.

But gays and lesbians no more claim they are free from sin because they believe God created them that way, than heterosexuals could claim to be off the hook by saying that _they_ are created the way they are, or indeed that God instituted heterosexual sex at the beginning of creation as a means to fill the earth with living things, as part of his "divine plan." There are indeed some in the anti-gay community who have advanced (particularly in recent theological discussions) the idea that there is some intrinsic goodness in heterosexuality which suggests the belief that heterosexuals might have an edge on sinlessness. For instance, in the lead-up to General Convention, in response to the clear teaching of Christ on remarriage after divorce, the Rev. Don Armstrong said that remarriage after divorce was acceptable in part because it was carrying out the heterosexual mandate established at creation. But I will not suggest that all heterosexuals have misunderstood the concept of sin.

The moral claim made by gay and lesbian theologians is not that their relationships be seen as intrinsically good but that they _not_ be seen as intrinsically bad; it is a response to the false charge that homosexuality is inherently "disordered" or "unnatural" in and of itself and in all circumstances. Rather, we would say that all sexuality is morally neutral, and sexual acts fall within or outside the bounds of morality and sinfulness not on the basis of the sex of the participants, but on the same bases of fidelity, exclusivity and charity applied to all persons regardless of sexual orientation. (This was clearly articulated in the Koinonia Statement, and in the actions of the 2000 General Convention.)

Since Dean Zahl's whole argument is based on his misunderstanding of this matter, all of the talk about defective Christology, imputed Arianism, and so on, must simply fall as so many dominoes (the image is Zahl's, not mine). Christian gays and lesbians do not believe themselves to be free from sin (any more than their strait brothers and sisters), and accept Jesus as their savior, and, for all I know, can say the Nicene Creed without crossing their fingers.

Zahl's second argument, which he doesn't argue but simply asserts, is the hermeneutical one: the Bible opposes homosexuality. However, as this is the nub of the debate, simply flagging it in this way does little to advance Zahl's overall argument. As was said in the days when divorce and remarriage were being debated by General Convention, "If Jesus were so clear on this we wouldn't be debating it." Unanswered is the prime question as to how much of the sparse but admittedly negative biblical comment on homosexual practice is based upon cultural understandings as opposed to the divine will - - and how we tell the difference.

Zahl's third "theological" argument (he puts the word in quotes to indicate it isn't really theological but ecclesiological) is based on tradition. Well, yes, there is a tradition against the ordination of openly gay people; but there is also a long tradition _for_ the ordination of closeted gay people. What is at issue, the substance or the notoriety? There is nothing hidden that will not one day be seen.

Zahl's final argument is the ecumenical one: yet as he acknowledges, many in his own reformed theological party in the Episcopal Church would find little support in Roman Catholic or Orthodox circles on some of their most deeply held convictions, nor are they impressed by the overwhelming majority that the "catholic" party represents in global Christendom.

After this failed attempt to outline a theological argument (failed because based on a false premise) he then launches into an essentially "pathetic" argument based on the fact that he and others who see things his way "no longer feel safe" in the Episcopal Church. He appeals for Alternative Episcopal Oversight by calling on the Episcopal Church to give up some of its authority; and he puts this in kenotic terms. The problem is, he is on the side asking for _more_ power, so he is setting a very poor example. It is his side, which he portrays as "the losers," who want to have the right to self-determination, self-governance, autonomy and self-sufficiency. He wants his side to be able to "call their own shots" (his words). Sorry, but this doesn't sound like kenosis to me.

Finally, Zahl comes to the end, with an appeal for "love" - - which to him means having his way and being left alone. He cites the example of Lincoln having "Dixie" played by the Marine Band at the end of the War Between the States. As with many of Zahl's troubling analogies (the Titanic and Janet Jackson) I would have to say that playing "Dixie" is not the same thing as allowing the Southern States to continue in secession with their own presidency and government apart from the Union. I believe that was the whole point of the conflict.

And yet, I do understand what he is saying, and hope a truly loving charity can prevail. No parish should be forced to bless same-sex relationships; no diocese forced to elect a gay or lesbian bishop; no one censured for continuing to speak out against such acts if they disagree. And if a parish is so dead set against their bishop that they cannot abide to have him or her lay hands on their confirmands or ordinands, surely we have enough bishops to allow a peaceful interchange. But let all be done decently and in order, in keeping with the great law of hospitality and charity. Let us not become dismembered inwardly in an effort to remain in communion outwardly. Let us not lose the substance in order merely to preserve the form.

Tobias Stanislas Haller, BSG
+Soli Deo Gloria+

You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.


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