Faithful Conversation: Christian Perspectives on Homosexuality, ed.James M. Childs Jr. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. viii + 132pp. $9.00.
A Commentary by way of a Review
I had intended to write a review, not a commentary flowing from a review. Furthermore, the review taking shape in my head was negative. I now begin this review fully aware that I will have more to say after a brief assessment of Faithful Conversation, and I will commend this collaborative effort to all who want to seriously struggle with the two issues before the ELCA concerning homosexuality. The reason this took a radically different shape has everything to do with the first sentence in the book and the last two. The Forward, attributed corporately to the Conference of ELCA Seminary Presidents (who commissioned the work), begins, “A wise pastor once noted that ‘Life is a dramatic mixture of brokenness and grace.’” (p. vii) The Authors Forum at the end of the volume concludes with editor James Childs’ summing up: “ . . .a lot of the anxiety that one encounters in the church about what we are going to do, or how we are going to go through this thing, does not give the Holy Spirit enough credit. I think we should expect a lot from the Spirit—I do.” (p. 132) The more I thought about these book-end statements, the more I began to learn from essays that are flawed, but not without glimpses of grace.
Of the five essays in the volume, only one (by James Nestingen)expresses serious doubt that the Church can in good faith perform union blessings or ordain candidates who are in committed same-sex relationships. Nestingen does not say anything that would support the previous sentence as a paraphrase, but his concluding passage does allow one to make a shrewd guess: “Having examined the Lutheran heritage, in its early writings and its authoritative interpretation, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion drawn by Wolfhart Pannenberg. . .that a Church that rejects the traditional teaching on homosexual practice can be neither evangelical nor Lutheran, no matter what it calls itself.” (pp. 56-57) This would seem to close the door on further conversation, but a careful reading of Nestingen’s argument up to that point will reveal his invitation to delve into our confessions both historically and systematically and bring them into our present discourse on atopic the Reformers could not have envisioned. Nestingen proves an excellent guide, and his intellectually honest development leaves room for others to take the same trip and come out at a different place. For this reader, his argument was not compelling enough to keep me from searching for a way I can say yes to these measures and still remain in the Apostolic tradition, but it was compelling enough to remind me that, in spite of my great desire to do so, I am not able to say yes, given my understanding of Apostolic faith.
The other essays, while not specifically endorsements of the two measures under consideration, certainly point to possibilities Nestingen does not admit. These include Mark Allen Powell’s useful overview of the biblical passages concerning homosexuality and a brief exercise in using the Gospel to norm those passages. While he does hold open the possibility for union blessings, he insists that the Gospel compels the homosexual seeking the blessing of the Church to not ask, “What am I allowed to do?” The question, according to Powell, must be “How can I please God, whom I love and want to serve?”. “Thus,” argues Powell, homosexual couples who seek the Church’s blessing “should only do so with a sincere conviction that they will be able to serve and love God best within such a relationship.”(p. 39) In a similar argument, MarthaEllen Stortz reminds us that any discussion of Christian Sexuality should start with our baptismal status and reminds us that Paul admonished the Christians inCorinth not to accommodate to the culture around them, for “What you do with your bodies affects the body of Christ! Conform them to Christ’s Body!” (p. 71)
Even the essays with which I was initially unimpressed have taken on new instructive meaning once I accepted them as contributions to an ongoing conversation. For example, I take issue with Richard J. Perry, Jr., and JoseDavid Rodriguez. In their discussion of multicultural implications for these two issues, they do not adequately consider the possibility that the Gospel generates a culture of its own. Indeed they seem to accept multiple cultural perspectives as part of the order of creation rather than a consequence of our fallen and fragmented state. Nevertheless they do make the useful point that cultural nuances are part of the terrain we negotiate in the world, and that is a factor in our ongoing discussions of sexuality. Dennis Olson’s use of scientific studies of anger in comparison with the scientific evidence on homosexuality is less than convincing, both methodologically and substantively. No case is made for anger and homosexuality sharing similar characteristics that would warrant such a comparison. Nevertheless, he provides a useful discussion of why scientific evidence is important but not definitive for Christians.
James Childs’ introduction provides a framework for discussions that may be stimulated by the sees says. Our discourse on these matters, he argues, must be faithful to the mission of the Church, to Scripture, and to Christian Tradition. He adds that we must also be faithful in engaging one another. Whatever the shortcomings of any given essay, the authors keep within these guidelines and demonstrate effective Christian engagement with each other in the Author’sForum at the end of the book. The Forum, indeed, provides some of the book’s most valuable insights. The seven authors with significantly different perspectives find common ground in a rejection of a cluster of secular trends, including egoistic individualism and hedonism. Those disposed toward positive action on the two issues before the ELCA make it clear that if those actions are to be taken it must be within and subservient to the context of a renewed commitment to our corporate identity as those who have been called, baptized, and sent. Not one of the authors suggests that the ongoing discourse is about rights. Throughout the essays and the Forum it is clear that the integrity of the Gospel and the Church are the major concern.
This book will satisfy neither the gay activist nor those who wish the gay issue would go away, for there are no firm and final answers to be found. This is why it is worth reading. Beyond that it is worth reading to experience the transcript of authors with quite different perspectives involved in the give-and-take of discussion. In a brief, but important,comment during the Author’s Forum, Richard Perry notes, “I think that this project is important because I think in today’s world there is a need to continue to provide resources that can assist congregations to experience what it means to have a conversation and a dialogue about issues and concerns that are controversial.” (p. 122)
This book, once I re-thought it in the light of its first and last two sentences, reminded me that I don’t often encounter this sort of give-and-take in sexuality discussions. More often than not I have heard advocacy of an intended outcome. The emphasis has been on the intended outcome and not the process we use for dealing with the issues themselves. I have come to believe, more firmly even than I did three years ago, that howthe Church deals with these two issues is far more important than the outcome of our deliberations. I do not mean to trivialize these issues with this statement, but I do mean to make them both subordinate and subject to our unity in Christ and with each other through our baptismal covenant. The outcome of these deliberations will not be the source and purpose of that unity. While Lutherans honor the tradition of the Church, we also have it on good authority that councils can err. Our councils, assemblies, and workshops are often exercises in “muddling along” because we do not always have clear and unmistakable direction from our Lord about what the outcome of a
given discussion should be. But we do have clear and unmistakable direction (albeit lacking in specifics) on the foundation of our unity, and the nature of the process we use to discuss these issues: “I give you a new commandment,that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Jn. 13:34-35) If we love a specific outcome more than we love Jesus and those Jesus has given us to love, then we have failed to realize the essence of theChurch. From this perspective, how we deal with these issues is definitive of who we are as the Church. The outcomes themselves are less definitive. Thus, if we advocate, electioneer or strategize—in short, if we model our behavior on campaign practices in the world—rather than engage each other in loving struggle, we neither follow our Lord’s clear command nor do we trust the Spirit. If we will not followJesus and do not trust in the Spirit, our future is bleak.
How, then do we faithfully go forward? Previously in Let’s Talk I have recommended an adaptation of the caetchumenate process and LectioDivina for these discussions. I would still suggest that for ongoing study within a congregation. In addition, I would recommend that Synodical workshops on these issues (and other such gatherings)be immediately preceded by a celebration of Eucharist, including a homily by a faith-filled exegete on Romans 8. Sharing Word and Sacrament reminds us of our common identity in Christ and sets the right tone for following the dominical mandate in our deliberations. The first act of the workshop itself would be an invocation of the Holy Spirit, asking only that our personal agendas be muted so that we may be led to seek only the will ofGod. This is a frightening and even dangerous route to go, but it does have some precedents. Other routes are more predictable and more responsive to our control. They are safer. They don’t lead to the agony and cross of struggle, but they also don’t lead to a resurrected Church that has followed its Lord in that unconditional love that forgives, reconciles and renews.
1At this point the reader might expect either a “yet” or a “never.” The sentence, as it stands, seems paradoxical at best. It is intended to convey the truth that the tension we experience as an ecclesial body can (and does) reside in a specificChristian soul. If one is to be open to the Spirit working through the fellowship of the faithful involved in struggle,“yet and “never” are not appropriate phrases, for both deny the tension.