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Married February 2, 1974
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
The Gay Challenge and Charismatic Episcopalians
These days most people know the story of how the science of Newtonian Physics got revolutionized in 1901. Back then, physicists thought they were that close to a Theory of Everything” -- “T.O.E.” they call it. One little behavior of electrons remained to be explained, then Physics would be a complete science. Mere details would remain to be tucked and filed away.
Well, it didn’t happen. They tugged at that one little phenomenon -- the fact that electrons did not move from one energy state (or from one orbit around a nucleus) to another by gradual intuitively satisfying degrees but rather “leapt” instantaneously without appearing to pass through the intermediate “space” -- and it all came apart like a sweater when you pull on a loose piece of yarn.. The result was what we today call Quantum Mechanics, a different and deeper presentation of physical reality.
In our day, the presence of gay Christians is having something like the same impact on practical Christian morality. It had been easy until recently to know what’s moral and what’s not, what kind of behavior is “Christian” and what isn’t. But, like the frustrating electron, gay Christians may cause the whole thing to unravel, showing us that our presentations of godly morality have some unintended cruel side-effects we’d previously been able to ignore. Our moral system may feel complete and self-consistent to us, but it is not humane. That raises some question about whether it’s godly at all.
Gay Christians look and dress and talk like us. They know Jesus real well and pray more than many of us. They don’t go to bars or fool around on their partners. In fact they report agreeing with everything St. Paul said about marital relations -- they just adjust the pronouns a little bit.
The churches’ reflex has been to assume and declare that they are sinful in some way that the rest of us are not, even though we may (disingenously) insist that we don’t think their homosexuality is worse than, say, our gossip. But that’s a hard position to maintain for long when you’re with a person who seems as good as you are in most of the important ways. It eventually gets to feeling like it must have felt to keep defending slavery as God’s will.
Just as the result within Physics was not intellectual chaos -- though Einstein feared it would be -- the result among us will not be moral chaos. Nobody is trying to take sex off the table of ethical discussion. Nobody is seeking to sanction promiscuity. The quest for gay sacramental equality is rather to bring us all, gay and straight, under a common moral covenant. It will result in a deeper, vaster, more gracious appreciation of how deeply God cherishes each of us.
The Christians in the best position to lead the van are those who have committed our hearts and lives deliberately to Jesus Christ, who know him personally, who regularly sense his risen Presence, who have been filled and renewed by the same Holy Spirit who animated Jesus’ ministry, and who apply the Gifts of the Spirit to real life. Charismatics, in effect.
Yet, in the face of the questions gay believers pose, Charismatic Episcopalians unreflectively step back from walking in the Spirit, groping for the inflexible Evangelical dogmatism so many of us gratefully abandoned when we embraced Jesus’ Spirit. We substitute human rationality (what else can you call prayerless Bible interpretation?) for prophecy and spiritual discernment. We elevate the letter and ignore the spirit -- and the Spirit.
Heeding the Spirit about the sacramental status of gay Christians does not come easily to us. Neither did God’s overcoming our racism. Yet it was Pentecostals who first declared to America that racial integration (as sickeningly inconceivable as that once seemed) was in fact the personal will of God. Standard Evangelical groups only came along after the Federal Government ordered compliance, and then quite reluctantly. Pentecostals led the van because they could pray as well as rationalize. They knew the Spirit who had inspired the Bible, so they were not confined to its letter or to traditional interpretations. They had schooled themselves to hearing and feeling the Holy Spirit override all their shibboleths and sacred cattle -- of flesh and gold. They could prophesy and discern.
My dear Charismatic sisters and brothers, it is time we listen to God again -- listen to God, not instruct God, not assume we presently know God’s mind about our gay sisters and brothers. If God proves not to share our repugnance against gay believers, then our insisting otherwise amounts to taking God’s Name in vain.
This struggle started for me one evening when I took a dare -- I agreed to celebrate the Eucharist and offer a discussion of the Charismatic Renewal with the Atlanta chapter of Integrity, an organization comprising gay Episcopalians. I vividly recall standing at the Holy Table facing the worshipers. God whispered to me, asking, “Gray, how do your cheeks feel?” I realized they were cramped from the frozen rictus grin I had pasted on to disguise my nervousness. “Quit that,” said our Lord, “you do not need that mask; look around you; this room is part of the Kingdom.” I looked at the congregation again with fresh eyes -- and it was so.
During the subsequent discussion, as I described the Charismatic Renewal in the Episcopal Church, one man asked, “I already belong to one despised minority -- why should I join another?” Evidently the ensuing discussion answered his question. The (gay Charismatic) chaplain told me the following week that three members had approached her wanting to receive the Holy Spirit (they did -- complete with tongues -- yet remained homoerotically oriented) and that the Steering Committee had formed itself as an intercessory prayer group!
I felt like Jonah cussing God’s love for the Ninevites.
I know a great number of Christians -- many of us Charismatics -- who have changed from initially opposing homosexuality in general and among Christians in particular. None of us did it head-first. The change did not occur as the result of re-reading Scripture; that came later. Nor did it come from Tradition; re-understanding Tradition came later. Nor was it even the fruit of Reason; again, the reasoning came later. For the great majority of us the change resulted from some combination of two activities: prayer and personal relationships with gay relatives or friends of unimpeachable integrity.
Our prayer may have started with our giving God instructions about gay people but it did not conclude that way. At some point God claimed seat, voice, vote, and veto. We realized we were in trouble, that God was personally overturning our previous certainties.
And our relationships had to get beyond simply joining the family consensus complaining about “Cousin Frances” who “broke Aunt Jane’s and Uncle Ralph’s hearts” by cruelly and insouciantly “choosing” the gay “life-style.” We quit the pretense that “Some of our best friends are gay,” when we got honest about the fact that “None of their best friends is us.”
Rather our transforming relationships were the result of realizing that various gay friends or colleagues had never lied to us about anything else; that these persons spoke of Jesus as we ourselves know him; that these folks lead lives as orderly as our own; that their deepest relationships manifest the same grace as our own marriages. Our friends’ integrity precipitated a crisis in our former confidence.
Once God and our friendships opened fresh possibilities to us, then came the difficult struggle with the Bible, with Tradition, with Reason. In my experience I’ve never seen it proceed in the other direction. This is a heart-first, not a head-first change. To be sure, it has great biblical, traditional, and reasoned integrity -- but the heart comes first.
Charismatics more than any other discernible grouping of Episcopalians have reason to thank God for melting our hearts. Why are we refreezing them?
If you heed my urgings, reader, you’d undertake three projects -- and keep them in the right order. The first two can and should be done simultaneously. They are, obviously, listening, exploratory prayer and courageous candid personal dealings with fellow believers who are gay. Prayer without relationship is pretty abstract. And relationship without prayer is unlikely to escape the orbit of familiar self-protective social habit. That is the heart-work -- and the hard work.
The third urging, once you’ve addressed the first two, is to do your head-work. That part is surprisingly easy, resounding as it does with the ring of truth. Re-read the Bible as a prayerful Charismatic in love with Jesus and in honest relationship with gay people who love him too. Re-examine the Tradition of the Church, filtering out mere customs masquerading as traditions. Prayerfully rethink the whole matter. Finally, budget the courage it will cost to withstand the reactions of those who have not yet accepted God’s challenge.
I’ll offer some suggestions for the head-work which may save you some time. But my own heart and head want you to address God and your neighbor before you go to the books.
Charismatics should be leading the Church’s conversion in this and all matters. That we don’t lead is the result of our failing to escape the orbits of the religious theological enclaves God found us in.
I was a liberal existentialist when I got Spirit-baptized, an intellectual who read the Bible critically in Greek and Hebrew (occasionally in Vulgate Latin for purposes of historical comparison). I abandoned my previous “certainty about uncertainty” with considerable reluctance and have had any number of narrow escapes when tempted to return to those positions with my former dogmatic confidence. (We liberals are just as scared of having our certainties disrupted as the most rock-ribbed conservatives are.)
When I hear Anglo-Catholics describe how the Spirit found them locked in their resentful ritualism and brought them new life, the reports feel real familiar. Just as I remain a “liberal Charismatic” they remain “Catholic Charismatics.” But the operant word for all of us is “Charismatic.” God before Party.
The same is true of Evangelicals who get Spirit-baptized. Drawn from a dispensationalist biblicism eminently difficult to distinguish from Fundamentalism, they burst into Life and liturgical freedom -- without ever forfeiting their deep love of and submission to the voice of God in the Scriptures.
The happy point is that the work of the Spirit we call the Charismatic Renewal in all the Churches is without manifest theological, doctrinal, or liturgical content. It can hold any of them but is superior to all of them. You don’t have to be a liberal to be a Charismatic -- yet you can be a Charismatic and vote Democrat. You can love Bultmann and be a tongues-praying Charismatic. You can offer daily solemn high masses and be a merry Charismatic. You can believe in a literal six-day creation and be a Charismatic. Furthermore, all those parties get along fine -- as long as we’re all facing the Throne of God in adoration. What’s determinative is the personal connection with the heart of God -- not the list of your religious opinions.
Yet how easy it is to slip back into old habits when we are frightened. A careful reading of the Acts of the Apostles shows that something like that happened in the Jerusalem Church: once so prophetic, it became less and less prayerful, and it was pulled more and more back into the orbit of the Temple under the leadership of James. So the center of gravity for the Spirit’s work moved north to Antioch -- where they could still “minister to the Lord” in worship and discern God’s personal voice.
So many of us detect something like that torpor in today’s “Renewal” -- it almost makes the word seem an irony. We Spirit-filled Episcopalians feel Spiritless, resentful, adversarial, scared -- even when we’re momentarily not circling our wagons against liberal and gay marauders.
The inability of Charismatics to accredit the co-Christianity of gay sisters and brothers thus serves as a sort of X-ray shot of what is wrong with us in other areas. Though “for freedom God set us free,” we have “returned again to the yoke of slavery.” The Devil has used our fleshly repugnance at homosexuals’ manner of intimate self-expression, our rage at the behavior of some at Gay Pride parades, successfully to tempt us to abandon listening prayer and prophetic discerning fellowship. Gays scare us back out of the Spirit’s fellowship into our old doctrinal certainties and partisan strifes.
Precisely because Charismatics can commune with the very heart of Jesus by the Spirit’s power we do not have to remain wed to older interpretations of the Bible -- especially when those interpretations are so inconsistent with the deepest streams of biblical revelation. Precisely because we have been set free to worship and minister in the Spirit, we more than others should be free of the “traditions of men.” Precisely because Jesus has called us “no longer servants but friends” we ought to know he will disclose the Father’s purposes to us. That frees us from being enslaved to our own previous intellectual commitments. Jesus did not give us this liberty as a whim -- he seems to require that we take risks with it, that we get brave.
My favorite conservative essayist, P.J. O’Rourke, is fond of remarking, “Earnestness is stupidity sent to college.” In the Church, loving and loved by so merry a Lord as are we, earnestness and inflexibility may well be “atheism sent to seminary.” So far Charismatics have joined the Evangelicals in addressing the matter of homosexuality as though we were atheists.
What can that possibly mean? You’ll find out of you ask an Evangelical to pray about homosexuality. Characteristically, they will refuse, insisting that they do not need to pray on a matter where they already know God’s infallible mind -- by which they mean their own biblical interpretation. The excuse looks honorable -- but it still amounts to a refusal to pray.
Ask an Evangelical to get into fellowship with a gay Christian. They may comply -- but the time will be crammed full of insistences about “loving the sinner/hating the sin,” shopworn comparisons with alcoholism or gossip, so hedged about with conditions around the unconditional love they imagine they embody. That’s distrustful, self-protective. Distrust and self-protectiveness constitute practical atheism.
Now Evangelicals can’t help it. It is not that they dislike gays more than the rest of us -- they do not. They are not more homophobic (if there is such a thing) than others. It is that manning the Evangelical ramparts is a full-time preoccupation. They have their hands full maintaining their sense of the plausibility of that complicated apprehension of the Gospel. Remember when you had to defend the intellectual superstructure of your beliefs before you moved from being technically “saved” into the Spirit’s experiential life and liberty? Remember when your primary religious data were intellectual rather than personal experiential data? Recall how hard it was to talk about a loving god whose mercy required the sacrificial death of the innocent? Recall how exhausting it was praise the justice of a god who damned anybody who’d never heard of him a priori? How about the trouble you had making yourself, let alone others, believe the Bible was perfectly self-consistent as an intellectual content before you discovered it as the springboard into God’s presence? All that takes a lot of energy.
For Evangelicals to change their minds about gay Christians entails a re-examination of the way they use the Bible in general. Let others describe what that re-examination would cost. Suffice it here simply to say that it would not start out pretty.
In the next few paragraphs, I’ll tell you why I don’t think liberals or Anglo-Catholics are much help. But those discussions won’t appear as critical as the previous discussion of Evangelicalism. The simple reason for the difference is that Charismatics do not default back to liberal teachings or Anglo-Catholic doctrines when trying to evade our kinship in Christ with gay brothers and sisters. We relapse back to theological and biblical notions that are clearly rooted in Evangelicalism, notions that we no longer accredit in other departments of our Spirit-filled lives. That is the reason -- and the sole reason -- they are the target of this criticism. They tempt us the most.
Liberals are a lot more thoughtful about this question. The problem is that it’s not always clear that their thoughtfulness arises from a life submitted to a personal God in searching, listening prayer. At least liberals are notoriously reluctant to claim that sort of process.
Nor will liberals go to much trouble seeing how the Scriptures themselves impel the Church in a repentant, hospitable direction towards homosexuals. Liberals are accustomed to seeing the Bible abused as a power tool in the hands of groups seeking to enhance their own privilege -- e.g. white people, male hierarchs, wealthy conservatives. That makes them chary about submitting to it in any manner. The result may be policy which corresponds to God’s heart -- like care for the poor -- but it is policy which seems rootless, in no discernible relation to what has gone before in the Bible, Church history, or Christian thought.
For liberals, homosexuality tends to be a question of justice rather than morality. Now justice is a deep biblical value. But we are not fully home until morality gets addressed as well. Biblical morality is not simply a way to get God to approve of us; rather it is the courtesy of a grateful soul living vis à vis God. A just people cannot neglect its morality if it claims God as the source of its justice. Liberals simply don’t discuss morality much. That’s a defect.
Anglo-Catholics have long addressed homosexuality with a “Don’t ask/Don’t tell” attitude. That was likely a courtesy to the disproportionate number of gay Episcopalians who gravitated to Anglo-Catholicism. That discretion is certainly a lot more civilized than much of what passes for Christian response to homosexuals. Maybe we could think of it as a kind of “righteousness by default.” But closet life is not good for anybody. By its very discretion, Anglo-Catholicism has not assumed leadership in prophecy, in prayer, in hospitality, in Bible study, history application, or theological discussion. Individual Anglo-Catholics have always been happy exceptions -- but I suspect their courage derives more from their liberal politics than from their Catholic theology.
That leaves Charismatics.
Right now I can hear it: “Wait a minute! Hold on! Who wants to take sides with gays anyway? Why should anyone want to lead this movement?” Though that response makes sense as an initial reaction, it does not pass muster as a final position. Why? Because it arises before we have exercised the Spirit’s gift of discernment.
Charismatics ought to know that we cannot confidently assert that God opposes these sisters and brothers or their orientation until we have exercised the spiritual Geiger-counter God gave us to use. By the Spirit’s charism of spiritual discernment, the Church ought to be able to detect the relative presence or absence of grace. Yet those who know how to employ that gift have yet to come alongside gay fellow believers and bring it to bear on their committed relationships. Until we have exercised listening, prophetic prayer in response to actual men and women we have known and worshipped with, we simply must not fall in with Evangelical obduracy on this matter as though God were its source. When we do so, we betray not only our fellow believers but our Spirit-baptism as well. When we summon our courage and obedience to that task, we will discover some surprises.
* * * *
Once Charismatics have prayerfully discovered a more accepting attitude towards gay believers, some head-work remains to be done. Here are some suggestions of approaches I find helpful.
Does the Bible permit us to change our attitudes towards gay Christians? I think so. Here’s how:
First, Paul recommends in several places that we go easy on applying the Torah to ourselves as Gentile Christians:
Rom. 3:28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.
Rom. 4:13-14 ¶ For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.
Rom. 7:4 ¶ In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God.
Rom. 7:6 But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.
Rom. 10:4 For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
Gal. 2:16 yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.
Gal. 3:10-11 ¶ For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”
For “law,” of course, read “torah.” We could go on to any number of similar passages. But the point is clear. Spirit-filled Christians no longer live by Torah. There is much more to be said about the two most frequently-quoted passages from Leviticus, but the heart of the matter is Paul’s exempting Christians from Torah. Therefore, anyone who invokes Leviticus 18:22 or 20:13 against gay people owes Paul an apology.
In Romans 1, Paul is discussing behavior no Episcopalian, gay or straight, seeks permission for. Your gay fellow believer is no more likely to commit a sex act at a pagan orgy than are you, dear reader -- and that is what Paul is discussing.
In 1 Corinthians 6:9 Paul uses two Greek words to describe behavior Christians have been purified from. Malakos is the word generally used of a male prostitute. Those few gay believers who have suffered any brush with male prostitution are involved no longer, by God’s powerful grace and mercy. The other word, arsenokoitai, described young men who seduced elderly men in order to inherit their property. The gay man in the pew in front of you approves of that as little as you do.
In effect, gay Christians agree with Paul about those sinful misuses of sexuality.
To be sure, some Christians (mostly heterosexual) have tried to use Paul’s discussions of Torah to warrant a life of lawlessness. Gay Christians agree with the rest of us that such interpretations are spurious. They are not seeking license -- they are seeking to enjoy the same support, disciplines, dignity, and accountability in their marriages that the rest of us take blandly for granted in ours.
On the other hand, many gay believers know that Paul was speaking to and for them in other passages:
1Cor. 7:9b: For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.
They are requesting that option.
In fact, most of Paul’s discussion of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 is as accessible to committed same-sex relationships as heterosexual relationships:
1Cor. 7:2-5 But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
1Cor. 7:10-14 To the married I give this command — not I but the Lord — that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.
To the rest I say — I and not the Lord — that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
It does not take much editorial skill to adjust that to fit same-sex unions, nor to discern that the intent and underlying disciplines remain unchanged.
Gay people wonder why we cannot apply the following to them:
1Cor. 7:17 However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches.
After countless hours of prayer, deliverance, repentance, and counsel, gay Christians eventually realize that their homosexuality is rooted in their creation, it is central to “the life the Lord has assigned.”
Jesus himself offered enormous power and discretion to the Church:
Matt. 16:19 “....I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Yet we are so undiscerning, so pusillanimous about that authority. If we were to discern grace among our homosexual fellow Christians and if we resolved to release them from the opprobrium the Church heaps upon them, do we really doubt that God would back us? If we were to bind two committed homosexual people in life-long union on the same terms we ask the Church to bind us, do we really believe God would go back on Jesus’ word and refuse to honor that bond?
This is not the place for anything more than a sketch of the new approaches we might discover were we to pray our way through the Bible again with homosexual friends on our hearts. But it can look different from what we’d expected. Charismatics alone are awake to the thought that God might speak to us directly about this if we asked. And because we value the Bible as God’s conversation-starter, we know the importance of such asking. The God who overruled Deuteronomy, Ezra, and Nehemiah as well as synagogue tradition when inducing Peter both to eat non-kosher foods and to consort with and baptize unclean Cornelius and his household -- that God ought to find us more receptive to those we pronounce unclean.
The most important element in a fresh approach to Tradition is to distinguish Tradition carefully from mere custom. Furthermore, we must proceed with some caution: declaring that something or other is the “tradition” is a common trick of one group over against another. Going after the principle underlying the tradition is real important in resisting that temptation.
For example, the Episcopal Church finally realized that whereas there are many worthy traditions undergirding ordained ministry -- traditions of personal fitness and integrity and of caring for the flock -- the (exclusively male) sex of the ordinand was a matter of custom rather than tradition.
In the same way, it is not so great a stretch to seek out what is traditional in Christian sexual morality and filter out custom. So, for example, we would certainly retain our insistence that sex never involve forced compliance, casual lack of permanent commitment, or a meretricious transaction. We would find that traditional approach to sexual morality invalidates much behavior on the part of homosexual persons in the World -- the “gay life-style.” Yet it leaves room for decorous gay courtship and marriage within the traditional Christian moral covenant.
If we see the real tradition of marriage comprising fidelity, mutuality, reciprocal care, truthfulness, care of the young, and permanence, then it gets clear that with encouragement, support, and accountability same-sex couples can and do fulfill that tradition as well as anybody.
Reason is the simplest, once we put our minds to it. In fact the reasoned case against recognizing gay marriages simply has not carried the day. Those who insist that gay marriage will harmfully affect heterosexual marriage simply have never shown how that might happen or ever has happened. The primary damage homosexuality does to families is what everyone experiences when parents throw their gay kids out of the house.
I’ve been in debates where opponents have insisted that sanctioning gay marriages would “change marriage as we know it by definition and practice.” They prove reluctant to say how it would do either. To insist that the gender is essential to the definition of marriage is to insist that the shell is more important than the peanut. Up until that insistence we’d always thought marriage was defined somewhere between the quality of the relationship the two seek to establish and the community’s assent to it. Excluding people on the basis of their sex seems unreasonable and untraditional as well.
One urgently important use of Reason is correcting the widespread slander that homosexuality is tantamount to pederasty. The jury is back in on that matter: homosexuals are less likely to molest the young than are heterosexuals. Those who molest kids are drawn to their youth more than to their sex; the sex of the victim much more often depends upon the accident of accessibility than preference. To continue discussing homosexuality and pederasty together is a dishonest propagandizing strategy these days.
In fact, once God changes our hearts towards those God loves, once we reread the Bible and review Tradition wisely, Reason on this matter operates almost automatically.
* * * * *
The previous suggestions are guaranteed not to persuade anyone to change their minds about homosexuality. God alone changes hearts in response to courageous assays into friendship and to prayer. Once God changes our hearts, then we change our own minds.
A scandal that God waits to forgive is the fact that Charismatics who enjoy the courage the Spirit bestows refuse to apply it. It is a glaring scandal that those of us who have access to God’s heart and mind have not sought it on this matter that so painfully affects men, women, and children that God loves deeply.
Let’s repent and get on with it.
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