Celebrating the space we gain: unity dialogues and human sexuality

April 13th, 2016

Just recently my local church hosted another installment in the Unity Dialogues. These dialogues have been an ongoing project in my conference for the past 20 years, in an attempt to both affirm our unity in the midst of intense conversation around human sexuality and homosexuality specifically. Our local Social Concerns team took it upon themselves, ahead of General Conference, to put together one of these dialogues in an effort to educate local congregants regarding the legislative proposals, and for two primary clergy voices to help lead dialogue around these issues.

These dialogues are a wonderful gift. They are wrapped within prayer, reflection, and Eucharist, bringing a deep sacramentality to what could be a divisive conversation. These dialogues have produced a better interaction on the floor of our Annual Conference, as the rancor and vitriol that once colored the debates has given way to greater levels of truthfulness and charity.

And while these dialogues have been a healthy and beautiful space, I continue to feel like some key pieces are missing in the conversation, pieces that I am looking for both in these local dialogues and in the larger dialogue across the connection. Most poignantly, there is a considerable lack of theological nuance, compared to what is clearly yearned for by the people around the table.

What I mean is that so often the presenting voices, generally clergy, give the expected arguments. One posture is articulated from within the lived experience. “I have become friends with a number of LGBTQ people, and I have found that they have taught me so much about what it means to be children of God. I have heard such pain in their experiences, the painful experience of longing for God, longing to be longed for, longing to be a part of the kingdom of God.” The other posture (and the dipole should be inherently problematic for Wesleyan people, who have generally avoided bifurcations for the sake of a richer tradition) is the supposedly “orthodox” perspective, relying on scriptural and theological justifications in order to make its claims. “Well, the pastoral argument is certainly important, but like the evangelical and the progressive positions, it ends up being focused on the individual as the fundamental unit. But there is another argument, one that is ecclesial, one that looks to the truth in the teachings of the church."

I should also say, I have significant respect for the clergy people who have represented these postures, particularly in my own conference and our Unity Dialogues. They have carried forward a conversation and a space where there wasn’t one before, and that is no small task.

But then the conversation shifts to the one around the tables. It is in that space where lay and clergy voices join together, speaking about family members who have been left behind because of sexual orientations, or the need for better education on the traditions of the church and our historical imagination for human sexuality. There is such an obvious yearning for richer theological reflection, a desire for a better account of desire in those table conversations.[1] One can hear the frustrating lack. “We have this Sunday School class that has been reading and discussing these issues, and we have all of these stories, and we don’t know what to do with it all. We want others to join into this conversation, but so many people have said they would leave the church if it is preached about, or we just don’t know how to get the conversation going."

And I hear in those questions, those concerns, an honest-to-God yearning for a wider space and a richer language to name what they sense is happening in the church. These dialogues have so often asked the question, “What does the Spirit seem to be doing in the church?” and these people in the seats want to have a way to answer that question. That’s the scandal: they have answers, they’ve seen the Spirit at work, and now they are looking to the church, to the clergy and those with advanced theological formation for the language necessary to name that reality.

We don’t need more arguments that draw on pieces of Scripture, dancing here and there, even taking up Jesus’ own words, and calling it “the scriptural argument.” To do so neglects the very witness of the Gospels, how even the Accuser can cite Scripture to further its own ends. It is simply not nimble enough to lob scriptural citations back and forth, without taking into account the ways that Scripture is used among the gathered people, in worship, in devotion, in prayer, in life.

What we need instead are more arguments that draw on not only the witness of Scripture, but its performance. If Robert Jenson is right, and this diverse collection of ancient Near Eastern documents only finds its purpose among the community who gathers them and calls them “Scripture,” then we have to look at how the church has read them.[2] We have to be able to say something about the history of interpretation—rarely a uniform reading—and how that informs our interpretations now. So often “the scriptural argument,” tossing around truth-claims and words like “orthodoxy” assumes that interpretation is a monolithic, hardcast thing.

We have to be able to see how the text is performed, how it has been used in the liturgical life of the church, how it has been deployed devotionally, when and where. We need to be able to say something for why Christian worship has long included a Prayer of Illumination before hearing Scripture read and proclaimed. That fact alone draws on the assumption that we can’t just, of our own accord, flip open the book and read without divine intervention. It also shouldn’t then surprise us that a brilliant interpreter such as Origen kept his students from reading Song of Songs until they were quite far in their formation, likely the same reason for why he urged them not to pray in the same spaces where they engaged in sexual activity. People much smarter and better readers than we are have seen the equal richness and danger in reading Scripture without intense formation.

We also don’t need more arguments that draw on the lived experiences of “gay people” as a general category, particularly those witnessed to by well-meaning albeit heteronormative allies. In the so-called postmodern age, our ability to debate through experience is so fractured that we won’t likely be able to reach any conclusions together at all. The space quickly collapses under the weight of “Well, this is what I’ve experienced and how I feel about it, and you don’t get to tell me that it’s not possible or right for me to feel this way."

What we need is to recover a Wesleyan account of experience. That third rail of our beloved Quadrilateral was never imagined as a general category, but as the particular experience of salvation. This particularity is so key to Methodist thought and practice. To do so is also a return to that fundamental question—“What does Spirit seem to be doing in and through the church?”—from all sides. At the very least, it might mean hearing more from LGBTQ lay and clergy people in these dialogues as primary voices. What does it mean for LGBTQ people to experience sanctification? What are the means of grace that have particular weight in the lives of LGBTQ people? In what ways will the absence of LGBTQ people from the Christian body mean a severing from which we cannot recover? How will the denial of baptismal personhood for some mean the damnation of all? I would be surprised if there are not already those with stories to offer in response.

This recovery of experience means we should also be continually haunted by Eugene F. Rogers Jr.’s question: "Given that same-sex couples are not going to go away, two questions press the theologian: How is the Church under the Holy Spirit going to turn the phenomenon to salvific purposes, that is, under what concrete liturgical form?”[3] Those within the church who are going to affirm the “traditional” teaching as currently articulated in the Book of Discipline cannot merely stop there. No matter the direction taken by General Conference, we will have to begin to articulate a liturgical response. We will have to offer spaces of confession, repentance, thanksgiving, blessing, and affirmation. We will have to recover baptismal renewal in new ways that affirm the powerful diversity that Spirit continues to bring into the body. After all, we affirm this Spirit-led work in the words of one of our own hymns:

In the Spirit let us travel, open to each other’s pain,
let our loves and fears unravel, celebrate the space we gain:
There’s a place for deepest dreaming, there’s a time for heart to care,
in the Spirit’s lively scheming there is always room to spare.[4]

[1] Desire has become a category à la mode in theological work, but that reflects the reality that it is an important and misrepresented category. There are many scholars working today who are giving it the attention and rigor it deserves, including Sarah Coakley (God, Sexuality, and the Self), James K.A. Smith (Desiring the Kingdom), and Eugene F. Rogers, Jr. (Sexuality and the Christian Body). Don Saliers’s recent article, “Liturgical Desires,” published in Worship, is an excellent and more able voice in the direction I am trying to offer here.

[2] Robert Jenson, “Scripture’s Authority in the Church,” in The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), 27.

[3] Eugene Rogers, “Marriage as a Discipline of Sanctification,” n.p. [cited November 3, 2005]. Online: http://covnetpres.org/2005/11/marriage-as-a-discipline-of-sanctification/

[4] Shirley Erena Murray, Come and Find the Quiet Center, © 1992 Hope Publishing Co.

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