The Rev. Mark Harris email@example.com
From the Mind of the House Resolution concerning the Report of the Theological Committee of the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church: “Though it does not reflect in all points the views of all members of the House, we offer it to the Church for study and reflection…”
The offer is accepted…so here are some reflections:
The Report of the Theological Committee has been commented on from a variety of viewpoints, mostly related to its recommendation that “it is imperative that the Episcopal Church refrain from any attempt to ‘settle’ the matter legislatively. For a season at least, we must acknowledge and live with the great pain and discomfort of our disagreements…” (8.1) The ‘matter’ of course concerns the decision to begin the process of providing liturgies for the blessing of same sex relationships.
The “Mind of the House” Resolution itself pointed to a less often mentioned characteristic of the Report when it gave thanks for the Committee “modeling collegiality.” Both the Committee’s recommendation and its collegial life and processes will, I am sure be the subject of more thoughtful conversation within the Church as we approach the time of General Convention.
This Report defines theology in a way that supports the Committee’s sense that what it is doing is theological. It states, “Christian theology seeks to discern and articulate the grace and truth of God revealed in Jesus Christ and to guide the Church in mission.” (3.0) The Committee both in its recommendation concerning living “with the great pain and discomfort of our disagreements” and in its collegial life reflects a sense of mission that grows from its understanding that “God’s wisdom and strength is displayed in the humility of the Incarnation and cross.”(3.3) So “living with the great pain and discomfort of our disagreements” is a recommendation modeled on an understanding of the humility and suffering of Jesus. The “season” referred to in 8.1 of the report is then perhaps somehow related to the time it takes for all our ministry concerns around the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the Church to be nailed to the Cross and all made new in the Risen Lord. For now we see only the cross of suffering, but then we perhaps will see the Glory.
The Report has been roundly criticized as not being a theological perspective on the “gift of sexuality” at all. That is perhaps deserved. But it is about something else theological, something clear from the content if not advertised explicitly. The Report is about a theology of living in disagreement. That is, the Report is about ecclesiastical politics, viewed from a theological perspective. To this sections six and eight are addressed, and nowhere there is “the gift of sexuality” mentioned.
How well these sections do that is a matter of argument. But at least the Committee attempts to provide a theological rationale for its major conclusion based on an image of humility and the Cross. Whether it is an adequate rationale is yet to be seen. (I have serious misgivings.)
But what of the purported object of the report, to provide a theological perspective on the “gift of sexuality” which occupies much of the rest of the document? After some personal study and reflection (as per the recommendation of the Committee) I have the sense that the report is seriously flawed, not in its recounting of the basics of Christian theology, but in its focus on the notion that sexuality is a “gift”.
Now in order to proceed, I ask the reader to give me a bit of latitude in which to work – to “cut me some slack.” The sorts of concerns I want to discuss are not easily raised in a context where almost everyone seems to know precisely what is right and seemly, just and moral. So the chance of being accused of stupidity or immorality or both is fairly high. Still, the concerns seem important enough to incur a modest amount of wrath.
I have three concerns about the way in which this Report speaks to matters of sexuality and sexual practice:
To the contrary, I suggest that sexuality is not a gift, as if it might or might not be given, might or might not be a good gift, etc. Rather, sexuality is part of the permanent condition of human beings. If it is a gift, it is as a “given.” It is not particularly a gift to persons individually, one by one.
What that means is that sexuality is a “fact” – a “just is” rather than a “special offering” of some sort. Human beings “just are” sexual. The general fact of our sexuality, being sexual, is not a particular “gift” of God, any more than, say rationality, being rational, is. We come as humans with sexual and rational components as a norm. If persons were to have no presence of the components of sexuality or rationality we would consider them abnormal in the extreme.
Sexuality is then more to be viewed as a ‘fact of life’ for the biological body than it is to be understood as a gift. It just is. It is a product of the same creative force that produces all of creation. Like the form of particular lilies, the structure of rocks, the paths of planets in their courses, etc, sexuality is a general ‘given’ of human bodies, not a specific gift. In itself it has no particular moral character or value, except that it shares in the general moral judgment given to the whole creation – namely, if creation is viewed as good, it is good.
All forms of human intercourse are relational (intercourse being the operant concept here), and all forms of human intercourse are intentional (human being the operant concept.) We humans are to be distinguished in part by the intentionality of our intercourse – our relationships. We do not always exercise that intentionality, but when we do there arise all sorts of moral questions. Included among them are all the questions about gift giving.
We give or receive in rather specific ways in sexual intercourse, just as we do in other forms of intercourse, and we often force or take with ways just as specific. And it is here, in the relational questions about giving and receiving, forcing and taking, that we begin to develop rules of behavior, moral constructs and begin to wonder about God’s affirmation of particular actions. And what we are talking about here is relational behavior.
Human intercourse in all its forms is a hard place. It is a hard place in which to make universal claims for moral right and wrong. One person’s murder is another’s justifiable homicide. One person’s loving care is another’s smothering control. One person’s delight in taking command of intercourse is another’s coerced shame.
The language of ‘gift giving’ used in reference to sexual or other forms of human intercourse, colors our understanding of the dynamics of intercourse. It may, for example, place issues of power further from the focus of the exchange, and issues of reward nearer, when in fact power issues may really be predominate. At the same time ‘gift’ language tempts us to connect specific acts of sexual intercourse to the general fact of sexuality in such ways as to affirm the rightness of those particular acts by connection with the “gift” of sexuality. All sorts of strange justifications of sexual action arise from this.
So long as the gift giving language is used in reference to sexual activity, all sorts of matters get confused. Sexual intercourse, like all other forms of intercourse, is not necessarily viewed by those involved as a ‘gift,’ for which we might give thanks. “You’ll thank me for this later” is wrong headed and wrong hearted both when said to someone just punished and when said to someone just coerced sexually. Abuse is not a gift, and ‘thank you’ is not an appropriate response.
Not only is sexuality not a gift, sexual intercourse is not, per-se, a gift either. So, where does the inclination to think of “gift” in either case come from?
I must admit I give thanks for good friends, for care given me in odd times, for the world which includes beauty even in the worst of times, and for sexual delight even when I think my body is an undeserving wreck. I give thanks for all sorts of pleasurable interactions, activities and forms of intercourse in a world where such things seem rare indeed.
And when I give thanks, I give thanks not only to those who give and receive from my engagement with them, and not only to the trees (and hugging trees is a form of engagement), and the rocks (and sitting on a rock is a form of engagement), I give thanks to God, who I believe is the source and creator of all that is, and from whose bounty I have found gifts aplenty and a full life.
The idea that I have been given richly from others, and that I can give richly, is indeed about gift. And, if “all things come of You, o God,” then these things too are gifts from God.
This is to say sexuality is a gift, and sexual intercourse is a gift, but not because of anything about them, or for that matter anything about the creation. They are gifts, when they are, because we believe them so to be. Our belief may be unwarranted, the product of coercion, and on and on, but when our belief is expressed in thanksgiving freely given, it flows over itself into a mutuality among the givers and receivers, and then into a thanksgiving to God.
I believe the Theology Committee Report misses the mark. The question to be addressed is not about sexuality as a gift of God and what that means about specific acts of sexual intercourse. Rather the question is perhaps about thanksgiving for specific occasions of intercourse, sexual or otherwise, with other humans, and about wanting to give thanks to God for the abundance of life from which the desire to be thankful arises.
It is itself a rather complex question, not because thanksgiving is complex, but because human intercourse is complex. There are all sorts of problems with what I suggest, I know that. When ought we give thanks? (At all times and in all places….) How do we tell thanksgiving with a full free will from coerced response? When do we move from thanking one another for gifts received and given, to thanking God FOR one another and for those gifts as well? And then, in that context, when might the Church join us in that thanksgiving?
Soon, I would hope, and with a good Spirit, at a simple table with the simple food of kindness.
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