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Don't repeat the mistake on page 847 of The Prayer Book . Here is what God really requires from the chosen people:
A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
“For freedom Christ has set you free”
A letter to the Nigerian Church from an Episcopal priest
The Windsor Report alleges that insufficient attempt has been made to assert a positive Biblical theology for the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people. Whether or not one accepts that allegation, it is true that much of the Biblical discourse in support of full and equal inclusion has tended to be apologetic, if not defensive, explaining why we need NOT accept the handful of passages in Leviticus, Genesis, and Romans which are purported to address the subject of homosexuality as prohibitive of same-sex unions.
Paul himself would not settle for such a defensive posture. It is time for those of us convinced that the Holy Spirit is calling the churches to speak a new word of hospitality to gay and lesbian people, following Jesus’ new commandment to love one another, to speak that word in the same positive – no, downright joyously adamant – terms in which Paul welcomed the Gentiles into a faith which had centrally defined itself over against them. In fact, the Jewish faith far more centrally defined itself over against the full inclusion of Gentiles than the Christian faith ever articulated its de facto exclusion of homosexual people. So Paul’s job of convincing the Jewish apostles to accept his mission to the Gentiles was far more difficult. Yet he did not shy away. He did not pussy-foot around his subject, fearful of treading on someone’s cultural toes. The Spirit of love – the Spirit of Jesus, who gave us the preeminent commandment that we love one another as Christ loved us, laying down our lives if necessary – burnt too fiercely in Paul for such politeness, such “comme il faut.” It drove him to plain speaking.
It drives me to do the same. I am no theologian, and certainly no Biblical scholar. Paul, student of Gamaliel that he was, was far more equipped than I to speak such a word. I am only a parish priest. But the Spirit of love has vouchsafed this word to me and so I speak it, with Paul as my ally.
Here is Paul, addressing the Galatians in Chapter 5:1-3.
“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law.”
We forget, we twenty-first century Christians, how desperately radical these words are, blunted by familiarity as they have become. Circumcision was THE identifying marker of the Jew, the follower of Yahweh, the member of God’s Chosen. God himself had given Abraham that qualifying symbol, excruciating as it was. And here was this latecomer Apostle, declaring it null and void! Outrageous! Shocking! Appalling! It flew in the face of the Law as directly as any challenge has ever been flung at religious establishment! Yet, says Paul, if you insist upon basing your membership in God’s People upon such a symbol, you gut the gospel itself. Could he have declared war in more uncompromising terms?
So say I. If you insist that only heterosexual people can be included in every aspect of the life of the Church, including the opportunity to marry one another (and in so doing, binding themselves to one another by the covenant of commitment hallowed by Jesus in the wedding at Cana, revealing God’s covenanted love for God’s people), and the opportunity to lead the Church as deacons, priests, and bishops, then Christ will be of no benefit to you. To assert the Law – to claim biblical mandate – in so marginal a thing as the particular combination of genitalia in a couple’s commitment to love and honor one another (“becoming one flesh,” as Jesus quotes Genesis in Mark 10:8), to ignore all the virtues expressed in that union should the genitalia involved be the same in both partners, even when those virtues include every one of the “fruits of the Spirit” Paul later names as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” going on to say, “There is no law against such things…And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires”[Galatians 5:22-23], is to oblige oneself to obey the entire law. This anxious line-drawing, based in the fear that somehow the virtues of a heterosexual union are mitigated simply because a homosexual union expresses them also, is faithless and unworthy of the followers of Christ. Have we not more confidence in the power of God than that? Especially when we see that power expressed eloquently in the timeless self-giving of countless gay and lesbian couples actively and faithfully participating in the daily worship and ministry of our congregations despite belittlement and persecution that might easily drive away the less spiritually toughened and convinced among us? O ye of little faith!
As Paul himself goes on to say to the Galatians,“ You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ, you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love. [Galatians 5:4-6]
Neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality counts for anything, my brothers and sister, but only faith working through love. If you insist that God’s new life is limited by so trivial a thing as a combination of genitals, how appallingly you reduce the resurrection power of the Almighty! The character of a homosexual person is as distant from his or her choice of a partner’s gender as it is from the color of a person’s skin or from their country of origin. Homosexual people – like heterosexual people – can be greedy or generous; they can be loyal or fickle; they can be arrogant and self-serving or humble and self-sacrificing. Heterosexuals can be promiscuous or faithful; so can homosexuals. Heterosexuals can be abusive or loving parents; likewise homosexuals. A homosexual person’s relationship with God is as fraught with potential for vice and as promising of virtue as any heterosexual person, if one simply regards the category of the particular combination of genitalia involved in their choice of partner as morally value-neutral. God can – God does, every day – use homosexual people to spread the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Who are we to DARE to block the light of that lamp upon its stand?
“You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth?” [Galatians 5:7], Paul queries the Galatians. Who has reduced the gospel power of God in this faithless way, insisting that mere flesh – O, Paul, after all your words abjuring us not to focus on such things! – could determine one’s capacity for love, for the spiritual good! We have done so well overcoming such temptations. Consider the civil rights movement. God knows, we still have miles to go to outlive the terrible legacy of slavery and racism in the world, but we have made such strides that we can no longer regard our old policies of miscegenation without a shudder of revulsion at our narrow-minded prejudice. How, then, can we promote a policy of identical prejudice in the matter of a couple’s genitalia? Yet I hold such radical hope in the power of Christ’s love that I can join Paul in his confident assertion to the Galatians, that “such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. I am confident about you in the Lord that you will not think otherwise. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty” [Galatians 5:8-10]. We in the Anglican Communion are suffering mightily from the deliberate efforts of some in high positions of leadership to confuse us about what is truly important in the spreading of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The confusion is breeding dissent and the misdirection of our energies, not devoting them to the bringing in of God’s justice, nor to the furthering of God’s dream of shalom, of wholeness and peace, but to a bickering over legalisms. Surely we will not be so foolish as to ask our Archbishop of Canterbury to begin to have to arbitrate such disputes, draining his energy and attention (as we are already draining the energy and attention of our diocesan bishops) from God’s preferential option for the poor?
But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves! [Galatians 5:11-12]. If those of us preaching this gospel of inclusion of gay and lesbian people have suffered at the tongues of those who condemn us as impure and unfaithful to Christ, how much more must Paul have suffered when he preached the gospel of the Gentile people? He might be permitted his painful joke at the expense of those who opposed him. It only reflected the pain inflicted by those who were unwilling to see, even at their short distance from the actual Crucifixion, its confrontive, upending, downright offensive call to repentance and a new, or as Archbishop William Temple put it, “a God’s-eye view” of humanity as ALL being worthy of the promises of Christ. If some scholars are correct that Paul’s own words were being quoted by the preachers in support of circumcision, his impatient immoderation is all the more understandable!
In saying all this, I do not even attempt to enter the ongoing debate in the secular scientific community about whether or not homosexuality is biologically determined, though it will be helpful when we finally have a consensus about its biological basis, as I believe we will have, thereby placing homosexuality unequivocally in the same category with race and gender and freeing gay and lesbian people from the horrifying doctrine promulgated by some who attempt to “cure” them of what is inherently part of their physical being. Instead I merely follow Paul’s own criteria: by their fruits, ye shall know them. If homosexual people exhibit the fruits of the Spirit, we must assume they live by the Spirit. If they exhibit what Paul calls, “the works of the flesh,” so obvious that he names them, “fornication (i.e. sexual expression outside faithful monogamy), impurity, licentiousness (sexuality without moral responsibility), idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” [Galatians 5:19], then we must assume they are living “by the flesh.” “For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh,” says Paul [Galatians 5:17]. How, then, by these criteria, are we to interpret the many who are so stridently and vehemently opposed to the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people that they are the fomenters, most prominently across our Communion, of “enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, and factions”?
Of course, it is not merely Paul himself who carries the force of my argument, but also Luke in the Book of Acts, whose story in Chapter 10 of the dual conversions of both the Gentile Cornelius and the Apostle Peter to a new and broader perspective on the “wideness of God’s mercy” is like the sermon illustration to Paul’s words on freedom to the Galatians. Peter, having been told three times in his lunchtime vision of the gift of animals prohibited as food by the Book of Leviticus that “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” [Acts 10:15], then overcomes his reluctance, knowing as he says “that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” [Acts 10:28], and decides to baptize Cornelius, preaching the brave and revolutionary words, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” [Acts 10: 34-35]. The story goes on to chronicle how, when Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” [Acts 10: 44-48].
To which I would add, can anyone withhold the laying on of hands in ordination to the diaconate or priesthood, or consecration to the episcopate, of anyone baptized and discerned to be fruitful in the shepherding of God’s people by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit? For truly, “we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and has been revealed to us in our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, indeed in the Rev. V. Eugene Robinson himself, that all may have fellowship with us, as our fellowship is with the Father and with his son, Jesus Christ,” and I write “these things so that our joy may be complete.” [I John 1:1-4, adapted].
That these two things – the acceptance of the blessing of the bonds of fidelity between two men or two women just as we bless the “union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind [as] intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord,” and the ordination of gay and lesbian people as bishops, priests and deacons – must go hand-in-hand is obvious. Any homosexual person in orders must be able to exhibit the same reverent, deliberate investment in a monogamous relationship “for the purpose for which it was instituted by God” [Book of Common Prayer, page 423], i. e., to manifest outwardly the inward and spiritual grace of God’s covenanted faithfulness to us as a heterosexual person does. To refer again to the Book of Acts, this time to the Jerusalem Council in Chapter 15, wrestling again with the controversy surrounding the ministry to the Gentiles, we must ask ourselves as Paul asked that august apostolic assembly, “Why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?”[Acts 15:10]. How dare we ask our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to bear a yoke of celibacy or the mind-and-soul-bending assault of “conversion therapy” any more than Paul could ask his Gentile converts to have their foreskins cut off? For we can say as whole-heartedly as Paul said of the Gentiles, “You know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us, and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.” Truly, God has poured out his Holy Spirit upon many, many gay and lesbian people over centuries in the church. For “we believe,” says Paul in his exhortation to the Jerusalem Council, “that we will be saved [not through our own heterosexual works-righteousness, but] through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, just as they will” [Acts 15:7-11].
The time has come, therefore, for the councils of the Anglican Communion to arrive at the same charitable place as the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem, that “we should not trouble those gay and lesbian people who are turning to God, but we should write to them that their marriages must partake of the same standards of mutual respect, care, monogamy, and fidelity as heterosexual marriages, and meet the same standards used in discerning the call of heterosexual people to ordained ministry, for in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every Sabbath in the synagogues”[Acts 15:19-21].
The Biblical basis for this profound opening up of hospitality is just the same for our gay and lesbian,bisexual and transgendered brothers and sisters as it was for Paul’s reaching out to the Gentiles, no more and no less. As he proclaims to the Galatians, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It is the boundless love of Christ, who gave himself for us, that gives us the taproot of this acceptance of gay and lesbian people, for “ God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”[Galatians 4:6] and that Spirit will not let us fall back into fear [Romans 8:15] but will guide us forward into all truth, including the truth that homosexuality is a physical attribute, and not a spiritual deficit.
We can no longer allow ourselves to be bound by an outdated law, no longer expressive of the breadth and power of the Holy Spirit. “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” [Galatians 3:23-27]. Were he writing today, Paul’s peon to the transformative power of Christ in Chapter 3 of his Galatian letter would not have ended where it did, but would have continued, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, there is no longer gay or straight; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise”[Galatians 3:28-29].
But Paul and I have not finished yet, despite this ringing call to embrace a gospel so hopeful it can include even those we have dismissed out of hand, without careful consideration, for generations, as somehow less than human in their proclivities, which we assumed were mere eros at best and bestial at worst, when, upon closer and more gracious examination, we learn to our delight that they, in fact, are often noble exemplars of the highest calling of agape, and sacraments of the love of Christ for his Church. We have yet another word to share. “If, however,” says Paul, “you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” [Galatians 5:15]. Is this not a frighteningly accurate depiction of the current dynamics in the Anglican Communion? I have in mind a photograph of an Anglican archbishop on the front page of the New York Times, the day after the issuing of the Windsor Report in October of last year, in which the most prominent thing visible besides his mitre was his notable set of teeth, exposed in a grimace of disapproval. Do we not, at this point, risk devouring the very vulnerable children of the gospel we most seek to nurture, with our noisy argumentation amongst ourselves? My own daughters, young adults that they are, found the consecration of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson the single most hopeful act of integrity by the institution of the Church that they had witnessed in their short lives. They view our subsequent “rending and tearing” as a massive disincentive to follow Christ, if this is what Christ’s followers do in response to the commandment to love God and neighbor.
Do my words seem intemperate? Yet why should I speak on this matter any less boldly than Paul spoke on the matter of circumcision of the Gentiles? For the consequences of my speaking should be the same: the opening of the doors of God’s love and God’s infinite intention to ALL God’s people, not merely to some subset of God’s creatures. In fact, what spurs me to speak is an overflowing of love and gratitude for the brave faithful witness of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ, who have stood firm in the teeth of amazing, direct and personal attack, who continue to hope in, and to hunger and thirst for righteousness [Matthew 5:6], who empty themselves even when to do so is a way of the Cross nigh unto death [Phil. 2: 7-8], who find cause to “rejoice and be glad” when they find themselves reviled, persecuted and the object of all kinds of evil uttered falsely against them, on Christ’s account” [Matt. 5:11-12]. If these words earn me a share in the opprobrium leveled repeatedly at them, I will count myself blessed as they are blessed, “for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before us”[Matt. 5:12].
And so, brothers and sisters, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another” [Galatians 5:25-26]. Let us instead, “speaking the truth in love, grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body – gay and straight together – joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” [Ephesians 4:15-16]. And let us “put away from us all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us…being imitators of God, as beloved children, and living in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” [Ephesians 4:31-5:2]. We are called to this new thing by the grace of Christ’s self-giving love, and it is that grace – and not some misconstrued legalism from our past – that will uphold us and lead us to walk in newness of life.
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