A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
By Robert L. McCan Ph.D.
I begin with the word “toward” because I realize that in Christian community it will take my experiences and insights alongside those of others with differing views to finally help us discern the mind of Christ. My own convictions have evolved, based on extensive experience with gay and lesbian friends, as well as through study and reflection. This article is a personal account of my journey.
I now strongly support same-sex love and marriage as part of my Christian commitment. I rejoice at the election of V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. Of course, the rupture within the Episcopal Church alarms me and I am saddened that every denomination faces disruption over gay and lesbian issues. Yet I believe that because this issue is so important for homosexual persons it cannot be brushed aside even though it is disruptive. For me, it has become a matter of justice for one-tenth of the population, and a divine call for us to provide a home for persons who long to be recognized and accepted for who they are, within the context of the Church.
I note that a survey of Episcopal clergy and laity gave neither a clear endorsement nor clear opposition to the action at General Convention. Church leaders estimate there is a 20-20-60 breakdown. Twenty percent is clearly in favor of accepting a gay bishop; 20 percent is clearly opposed; 60% is “somewhere else.” (William C. Sacks, Director of Research at the Episcopal Church Foundation in THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY, August 10, 2004) A New York Times article of May 17, 2004 cited a Gallup Poll that supports this finding. It concluded that there is a gradual increase in acceptance. The majority is undecided, open to change, finding its way and rethinking its positions.
What I have observed is that General Convention—bishops, clergy and laity—with “fear and trembling”, yet with a sense that the gospel required their vote, decided to support the Diocese of New Hampshire in its decision to ordain Bishop Robinson. Since that time honest opponents of the decision have reacted with a sense of betrayal they feel for the sanctity of marriage and for failing to give time for discussion and consultation before making a final decision. The worldwide Anglican communion has expressed dismay and has asked for an apology because they were not consulted sufficiently before such a major decision was made. Christ Church clergy have spent a great deal of time and energy son the necessary priestly function of reconciling, of seeking to maintain the unity of the Church. This leaves very few voices speaking openly on the side of those who support the action of General Convention. It is in this context that I venture to write.
II. LIFE STYLE CHOICE OR A MATTER OF GENES?
To me this question is fundamental. Is homosexuality simply a lifestyle choice for which persons are morally accountable? Or, on the other hand, is homosexuality a more fundamental orientation of personhood based on genetic factors? Is it simply a cultural preference or is it a psychic given? If it were purely a lifestyle choice, I would probably take the opposite position. I have concluded that it is more.
Homosexuality was removed from The American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental illnesses more than twenty years ago. This society of leading psychiatrists concluded that homosexuality is neither an illness nor a moral lapse. Determining one’s sexual orientation is not about making a choice, but rather a discovery. Study continues on whether the cause is genetic, the result of the intra-uturine environment, brain cell formation or from early life experiences. While homosexuality is a life-style choice for some, for the vast majority it is a given.
There may be about as many homosexual persons in America as persons of color. The Kinsey study of sexuality conducted fifty years ago placed one in twenty persons as exclusively gay or lesbian. Since that study many more people have “come out” and the estimate now is that as many as one in ten persons falls into this category.
The Metropolitan Community Church in California is a large congregation composed of mostly gay and lesbian members. It has grown into a denomination with over 100 local congregations around the world. Troy Perry, a defrocked Pentecostal preacher, who is homosexual, founded the church in 1966. Perry immersed himself in the Los Angeles gay subculture in the early 1960’s, where he found persons longing for acceptance by their chuch communities and from God. At the founding service of the Metropolitan Church he spoke from his heart in his first sermon when he said, “I was born gay.” Then he went on to say, “with the full knowledge and blessing of God.” By 1972 he wrote with conviction, “God created homosexuals and homosexuality.”
In a recent book, COMING OUT IN CHRISTIANITY: RELIGION, IDENTITY AND COMMUNITY, Melissa M. Wilcox found that a high percentage of lesbian and gay persons who are avowed Christians say their sexual orientation is a given, not a choice. Most of the persons interviewed grew up as active Catholics or Protestants. Most experienced agonizing trauma in trying to reconcile their religious and sexual identities. Most came back to church only after their reconciliation was well under way. A common refrain was, “Why would I ever choose to be a homosexual in a culture where we are so vilified and abused?”
Melissa Wilcox looks at the serious psychological and genetic literature that hypothesizes “a gay gene.” She concludes that there is not yet proof beyond doubt as to a specific gene that directs sexual orientation, yet the evidence points in that direction. While the hypothesis has not been proven, I believe the evidence is so strong that I have to agree with those who say God made homosexual persons that way. At that point I take a further leap of faith and affirm that God made gay and lesbian persons good, and God wants us to accept, respect, and welcome them into church and society. That is the nature, I believe, of a loving God.
The term “gay Christian” is an oxymoron to some in our churches. They feel that one cannot claim to be living a Christian life if one is a practicing homosexual. The term is equally bewildering to many in the gay and lesbian community. It takes courage to “come out” into the Christian community. It takes equal courage for a practicing Christian to come out for Christ in the gay and lesbian community. Most homosexual persons ask why or how anyone could identify with a religion that so misunderstands and rejects them.
Members of my family belong to evangelical churches whose members strongly believe that any expression of homosexuality is a sin. They draw an analogy with addictions such as alcoholism or drug abuse. They believe firmly that with counseling, prayer, a support group, and God’s help, people can overcome the addiction. I strongly respect the fact that their churches have employed addiction counselors to work with persons in their congregations who are homosexual, even while I question their assumption. And I ask: “If we believe homosexuality is a sin rather than an innate condition, why don’t we have such counselors on our staff?”
III. A BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE
Those of us in church who oppose acceptance of gay and lesbian lifestyles do so primarily on scriptural grounds.
In this brief discussion it is not possible to do a thorough analysis of my understanding of scripture or explore all references to homosexuality. The first issue is that of understanding the authority of scripture. Is every word in the Bible a divine inerrant statement of God’s will for humankind, or is it the story of the great drama of God reaching out in love to rescue humankind, and on the other side, people committing themselves in a covenant relationship with God? I believe it is the latter. I also believe that it is necessary to anchor our ethic in this biblical context.
Some literal scripture verses used as proof-texts can provide evidence that God hates homosexual activity. Leviticus 18:22 says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman, it is an abomination.” And in Leviticus 20:13, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.” So, if we take all Old Testament passages literally, we should put to death the homosexual persons among us.
Note that scripture also condones slavery and polygamy among the early tribal groups of Israel. Deuteronomy deals with more humane ways to treat captives taken in battle. (Chapter 21) In war, if a warrior comes across a beautiful woman whom he desires he may capture her. However, when he brings her to his house he should marry her, but only after he has let her mourn for a month for her father and mother. “But if you later are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money…You must not treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.” Again, in verse 15: “If a man has two wives and one is loved and the other disliked, and the disliked wife has borne him sons,...he is not permitted to pass over these sons and leave all of the inheritance to the sons of the woman he loves.”
Here is a shocking scripture that caused me untold difficulty when I once believed in a literal inerrant reading of scripture: “If you have a stubborn or rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, then bring him to the elders. All of the men in the town shall stone him to death, so you shall purge the evil from your midst.” (Deuteronomy 21:18)
How do we explain such scripture passages, both those dealing with homosexuality and with other moral issues? I do not cite them to make light of the severe condemnation of homosexuality in early Hebrew culture. But rather than accept these as literal words from God for us in our day, a more promising strategy is to place them in an historical and cultural context and to note tribal customs based on norms of societies into which the Israelites moved. The book of Deuteronomy codifies such tribal practices into codes of conduct for the Hebrew people in the era between settlement in Canaan and the time when Israel got its first king, the era known as the Judges. The book also has the beginnings of a remarkably humanistic ethic in its concern for the poor, the plight of their slaves, and the mistreatment of second wives.
I note in passing that many of these tribal customs that seem so abhorrent to us now are still being practiced among some fundamentalist Moslems who do take these passages literally. Hence, in Sudan, tribal warriors capture Christian women and children and sell them into slavery or take them as personal slaves. Women caught in adultery are stoned to death. Women are assigned to lives that make them only slightly more than chattel for men. A literal reading of scripture can lead to brutal consequences. It is hard to comprehend the evil we do in the name of religion, wrongly interpreted.
The test, I believe is to seek to understand the mind and spirit of Jesus, who was God fully revealed in human form. That said, there is no clear teaching of Jesus on how to treat homosexual persons. And there is no evidence that Jesus grappled with the question of whether homosexuality is innate or a life-style choice. Fortunately, Jesus gave us very explicit teachings on the inerrancy of Hebrew scripture. He rejected it. Indeed, much of his controversy with the Scribes, Pharisees and teachers of the Law was over this issue, just as it is today in our churches. For example, he rejected the explicit teachings of Sabbath observance and stated a principle that the “Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.” These passages that I have cited from Old Testament Law, Jesus rejected and instead substituted the principle, “Love the Lord your God…and love your neighbor as yourself.” That principle of love fulfilled all issues related to either the Law or the teachings of the prophets. Every time there was a conflict between the literal, inerrant reading of scripture and the principle of doing what love demands, he chose the latter.
Jesus repeatedly condemned the Pharisees who by their strict rules excluded people from the Jewish temple practices and kept them from embracing the kingdom of God. In every instance in which there was a question of whether people should be included or excluded from the kingdom, Jesus taught inclusion, except for those who judged others and had the power to exclude them. To them he said, “Woe unto you, scribes, Pharisees, you hypocrites…”
My ethic is to take seriously the words and approach of Jesus and try to apply them to every situation. The content will change as people gain new levels of insight and sensitivity. It was Jesus who also said that there would be things revealed other than what he had taught. (John 14:26) We believe in a triune God where the work of God in the world continues. There is room for the Holy Spirit to work among those who call Christ Lord. If we take seriously “these holy mysteries” we should make room for the Spirit of God to lead us into deeper truth. There is new truth in every generation to spring forth from God’s Word!
There have been four principal crises dealing with societal issues requiring a new understanding of scripture that have occurred in the past two hundred years: slavery, divorce, contraception, and the role of women in church and the social order. We are now confronted with a fifth such struggle for understanding the mind of Christ. I will comment on only the issue of slavery. In many places in the Bible slavery is taken for granted. The Old Testament provides laws for the appropriate treatment of slaves. (Exodus 21, Leviticus 25) In the New Testament the apostle Paul never commands owners to free their slaves, but does encourage slaves to please God by being good slaves. (Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:2)
In the Anglican tradition William Wilberforce played an early leading role in the abolition of slavery, even though the Bible did not condemn it. From that tiny seed grew the abolitionist movement, the end of slave trade, the freeing of slaves, and more recently in this country the Civil Rights movement, and in South Africa the formal end of apartheid led in the Church by Bishop Desmond Tutu.
Each of these crises paralleled several such crises in the early Christian community, such as the requirement for male circumcision or prohibition of eating meat offered to idols. Few modern Christians would argue the case for slavery or forbid slaves from seeking their freedom, but many eighteenth and nineteenth Christians did. In this instance, as in the other crises, social conditions changed and injustice became evident in the old system. Through reading of scripture in the light of God’s love for all persons and our privilege of loving others as we love ourselves, we eventually gained a consensus that a new paradigm was required. We felt the need to act with compassion and act in the spirit of the new law of love. Each crisis was a struggle between the old law, which was outmoded and the new law, which was more humane. Each challenged the Anglican community to apply reason and science to issues in order to gain a deeper insight into the truth of God.
I now see my neighbor as the one in ten persons in my community and my nation who is gay or lesbian. I know many such persons and I see the pain and suffering they endure daily and the struggle they face to express who they are. I want to see God in every person and I want to respect the dignity of every human being. And I want to welcome all persons into the church. As Bishop Robinson expressed it, “I want to take literally the roadside sign that said all are welcome at our church.”
That same line of reasoning led me at an earlier point in my life to work for full citizenship and full dignity for African-Americans although there was enormous opposition, both in society at large and within the church. That same line of reasoning led me to work for full status of women in church and in society. I was privileged to know some of the first candidates for women’s ordination and gave them my support through St. Augustine’s parish in Washington, D.C. It is that same line of reasoning that leads me to support the full acceptance of gay and lesbian persons in church and society. For me, God is doing another new thing in our midst. Here is a new sign of the coming of the kingdom. Let us give God the glory.
IV. THE CENTRALITY OF MARRIAGE
Friends, family and conscientious church people who take issue with my view believe that the Bible teaches the centrality of lifelong marriage between one man and one woman and hence same-sex marriage is automatically excluded. I fully agree with those who want to protect the sanctity of marriage. I believe that marriage is ordained of God for the mutual enjoyment and fulfillment of two lives together, for the procreation and rearing of children where they are desired and can be loved and nurtured effectively, and for the stability and general welfare of society. I have come to believe that we are far too lax about entering into marriage and far to casual in the way we often end it. Nonetheless, I also believe that for many couples, divorce is more life giving than continuing in a destructive relationship. “For the hardness of our hearts” as Jesus put it, we who are sinners need forgiveness and in many instances a new beginning. The gospel message contains the message of forgiveness and new beginnings for those who repent.
In regard to same-sex marriage the issue for me is whether the church and society should bless couples when each expresses love for the other and wants to live in responsible committed relationship. Without that opportunity some persons speculate that gay and lesbian persons are more likely to live dangerous and unfulfilled lives of casual sex and instability. The issue is far deeper—it is to deny gay and lesbian persons the affirmation that they are accepted and respected by God, by the Church and in the social order when it was God who made them that way.
My plea is to make marriage more central by welcoming the marriage of same-sex couples. I do not believe that the sanctity of my marriage is in jeopardy if I reach out to include the rights of a tenth of the population who otherwise are denied the privilege and benefits of marriage. Recently there was a debate in the U.S. Senate over a constitutional amendment to define marriage as only between a man and a woman. In rejecting the amendment Senator Patrick Leahy, a Roman Catholic from Vermont said, “I have been married for 42 years to the most beautiful person I have ever known. We don’t feel that our marriage is in jeopardy from gays and lesbians and we don’t need a constitutional amendment to protect it.”
Here are basic questions I have to answer in deciding whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry: Is it fair to ask persons born as homosexuals to live out their lives in celibacy? Are not persons in the church who are honored for celibacy ones who have freely chosen that state? Should not homosexual persons be encouraged to live in committed, intimate, and secure relationships? Which better serves society as well as the individuals concerned? Is it fair to exclude and ostracize persons who have an innate orientation toward homosexuality?
V. DESTRUCTIVE CONSEQUENCES OF EXCLUDING GAYS AND LESBIANS
I share now some personal stories that illustrate for me the destructive side of our attitudes of exclusion, even when the harm is unintended.
When I was employed in the U.S. Office of Education a woman who worked under me came to work one day in great distress. She shared her story: She had been dating a man whom she respected and loved, but she came to realize that he was homosexual. He never was able to have a satisfactory sexual relationship with her, although he professed to love her. After much soul searching she decided to break off the relationship. A week later the man committed suicide. Homosexuality was unacceptable to his family and to her and heterosexual relationships were not possible. His misery and rejection led to his death.
Again, I was teaching at Wesley Theological Seminary when a middle-age woman in my class who was preparing for Presbyterian ministry came to class in great anguish. All in the class were shocked when she reported that her teen-age son had committed suicide. He was not able to deal with his sexual orientation.
This experience comes closer to home. My daughter married a homosexual man. I was very fond of him and proud of his work as a historic restoration architect. In time he confessed that he knew he was a homosexual person, but he wanted so much to have a “normal” life that he thought if he tried hard enough it would work out. And, of course, my daughter was left devastated, and eventually divorced him.
The Straight Spouse Network was born in 1986 on the West Coast, but at the time my daughter did not know about it. There are no official figures as to how many U.S. marriages include a gay, lesbian or transgender spouse, but this organization recently estimated from their phone calls and e-mails, that they have been in contact with more than 9,000 straight spouses who are married to gay persons. The e-mails speak of desperation, even to have someone to talk with. A typical situation is for a gay husband to “come out” and explain that he wants a divorce. The wife feels betrayed, deceived and embarrassed. In a recent article about this organization published in the Washington Post, a letter from a husband to his wife expressed his love but ended, “My fate is stronger than my love.” We may argue about his moral choice in leaving his wife, but his situation speaks to something very intrinsic and profound. Is not the rejection of homosexuality in society leading to mismatched and unfulfilled marriages?
My first experience with a large group of gay and lesbian persons was between 1976 and 1980 when I was a member of First Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. and for four years taught a large young adult Sunday School class. At least half of the members were gay and lesbian. The class included the son and daughter-in-law of President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter. I came to know and love a group of dedicated young adults, homosexual and straight, who were struggling to support each other while living out their Christian commitment.
Later, after my marriage to Peggy, we moved to Saint Augustine’s Episcopal Church in southwest Washington. A significant number in the congregation were openly gay and lesbian and were totally accepted. I remember a woman Episcopal priest who was a Navy chaplain. She and her lesbian companion adopted a baby, which act was celebrated by the congregation. I lost touch with her and have wondered how she fared in the Navy, which later adopted explicit restrictive policies, excluding gays and lesbians who “come out” in the military.
During that time period the Reverend Ronald Haines was elected as bishop of the Washington diocese. It so happened that homosexuality was no respecter of families, and Bishop Haines’ son was homosexual. This led our bishop through a difficult struggle to define his own theology. In the end he gave his support to his son, to the gay and lesbian clergy in his diocese and to all others who are homosexual. During those years in the late 1980’s we had discussions and debates in that diocese that are just now beginning in our own.
V. SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
This presentation shares my own journey, values and position as I seek to articulate a Christian ethic for gay and lesbian marriage. I recognize that most persons in our parish, and a majority of members of my denomination, take a different view in their effort to protect the church, marriage, and our sacred obligations to God. I cannot speak for those at General Convention who voted to support the Diocese of New Hampshire in the ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson, but from reports shared by those who were present, and from what I have read, I believe that much of the thinking presented here was in the minds of those who cast the fateful vote. I present my views, not to argue against others, but to forward the discussion.
Is this action of the Episcopal Church at General Convention the work of the Holy Spirit? Time will tell. Perhaps the answer was given by Rabbi Gamaliel, as recorded in the book of Acts. (5:38-39) The issue in the Jewish community was whether Peter and John should be killed for preaching Jesus as Lord, but the principle was the same. The Apostles were defying long-held traditions, while basing their actions on their understanding of God’s will. The wise Rabbi concluded, “If this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found opposing God!”
Robert L. McCan Ph.D.
Robert L. McCan was awarded a Master of Divinity, Yale University Divinity School and a Doctor of Philosophy, University of Edinburgh, Scotland ( Department of Christian Ethics). His last professional employment prior to retirement was as Associate Professor of Political Ethics, at Wesley Theological Seminary.
He was for two years one of several advisors to Presiding Episcopal Bishop Allen on the relationship of the national church to public policy. He came to Washington once a month for meetings with this group, which included Canon Charles Martin, Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O'Conner and others. He served for six years on the Peace Commission of the Diocese of Washington, on the Commission that wrote a report on the nuclear arms race, and as Chair of a Commission that wrote a report on the war in Central America. He also served as paid consultant for two years to the national Episcopal Urban Caucus. He is currently an active communicant of Christ Church, Alexandria, Virginia.
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