Being the Church is difficult under the best of circumstances. Being the Church in times of internal conflict is even more difficult. Perhaps the most difficult issues we face as the Church are those that have the potential of causing pain and estrangement. Certainly the question of union blessings for gay and lesbian couples is such an issue. It tests at once our commitment to scriptural authority, our fidelity to the tradition of the Church, and our love for one another. All three can pull us in different directions, and all three are essential to being the Church.
When we are faced with such issues, our grace-based theology leads us to expect the Church to act at its best. Alas, our bondage to sin often leads us in another direction. In facing such issues we too frequently fulfill Walt Kelly’s prophecy from the late 1950s, “We has met the enemy and they is us.” As I report that bit of ancient wit, I can immediately think of a somber corollary: Our Lord promised us that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. He did not promise that the Church would be protected from itself.
When congregations or synods encounter such an issue that has such things at stake, one of three things happens: 1) It is buried, brushed aside, or politely ignored (This is simply not an option unless one is willing to live with growing tension and bad faith.). 2) One or more factions emerge, driven by an agenda external to the essence of the Church, and competition fuels the discussion, which becomes more and more an adversarial debate. 3) The congregation or Synod struggles with the question, with the tradition of the Church, and with scripture, and the members struggle with each other.
We all understand the difference between struggle and competition, but that difference is even greater when we consider these two categories as methods of deliberation within the Church. In competition, people choose sides, identify advocates, and devise strategies. Resolution usually means victory (more or less) for one side or another. Struggle, on the other hand, can be something that the entire community engages in together and can be a process of clarification. Sometimes, perhaps often, the models are mixed. When that happens, competition eventually dominates the deliberation.
A few years ago I was in a position to closely observe a congregation (of which I was then a member) considering the issue of union blessings for gay and lesbian couples. The discussion began as a mixed model and soon devolved into competition. The people involved were well intentioned, and there is no reason to assume deliberate attempts to control or manipulate. Competition is a model reinforced by the culture in which we live, and has a generally positive connotation. Nevertheless, I am not certain that the dynamics of that deliberation helped the Church to be the Church in that congregation, and I doubt that the competition model will be useful for the deliberations of a Synod.
A brief survey of my specific experience with this issue may be useful here.
The congregation began a study process with a specific structure. The pastor approached the council, and the council commended the matter to the congregation for a year of study, prayer and deliberation. During that year the council scheduled a number of forums. At the end of the process the congregation would vote, and it would take an 80% majority to adopt a policy favoring such union blessings.
The structure, in and of itself, was not bad, but early on we encountered the problems of a mixed model. Some were there to struggle, and some came with an agenda in hand. That is to say, there was advocacy on only one side of the issue. There was no faction unalterably opposed to the possibility of union blessings, but of those who were open to discussion there were some who needed to struggle with scripture, with tradition, and with their sisters and brothers. What they did not need was the label “homophobe” which some used in informal conversations to describe those who did not immediately declare support for union blessings. After a few “clear the air” sessions, we participated in a variety of forums where we mostly sat and listened to a variety of people tell us why a handful of biblical passages that have been used to condemn homosexuality do not in fact do that. My guess is that most of us needed no convincing about most of those passages. The wording and context clearly suggest that the point of these passages had little to do with homosexuality.
We then sat in another forum and listened to these same people tell us that, yes, Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:27 are not easily dismissed, and then immediately remind us that, “After all, we do eat shrimp don’t we.” At the time I suggested that we might work through the Leviticus and Romans passages in a way which will not lead us to withhold approval of same-sex unions, but it can’t be done just by bringing up shrimp. My comments were met by rolling eyes and sighs of exasperation.
Then came the session billed as an “open and free” discussion of questions and concerns from members of the congregation. I heard four people raise questions. I heard their questions met with the accusation that those raising questions are just like those bigots of yesteryear who instituted anti-miscegenation laws. I heard their concerns met by dismissive admonitions to “stop being so analytical.” That is to say, I did not hear genuine attempts to deal with the questions and concerns raised. I saw those who organized the session do nothing to rescue these useless
exchanges and take us into fruitful discussion. Indeed, there was no discussion. There were some questions met by some posturing.
Toward the middle of the process I wrote a letter to the pastor and council. That missive ended: “I am looking for a way to be supportive of the measure under consideration, but I need some help. I need to be shown how I can support the blessing of gay and lesbian unions and maintain integrity with my faith tradition. I can’t do that simply by deciding what I think we ought to do quite independent of Scripture (as suggested by one Council member at the forum). Please provide me with the opportunity for real discussion.”
I received only one response: an angry phone call from the council member who suggested that we should decide what we are going to do independent of what scripture has to say. The council member admitted that I had quoted the statement accurately, but objected anyway.
My experience was in a congregation in which those who favored union blessings moved the discussion into the competition model. I have no doubt that there are congregations in which those who are opposed to union blessings did the same thing. I doubt those were any more successful. I imagine there was as much pain and estrangement in those cases. And I imagine that deliberation in those cases also was not well served.
Deliberation, indeed, is what I most wanted, but there were so many questions that should have been addressed and were not. None of the questions are rhetorical because I do hold open the possibility that they can be answered in such a way as to go forward with union blessings. A few of these questions are:
- Is there a way to interpret the Leviticus and Romans passages in a way in which the seeming contradiction can be shown to be no contradiction at all? Can we do that in a way that is faithful and intellectually honest?
- If we are unable to accomplish the above, how can we dismiss the Leviticus and Romans passages without placing current social agendas above scripture?
- If we are able to find a way to dismiss those passages and keep faith with scripture and the tradition of the Church, what other behaviors might we, in conscience and fairness, be compelled to celebrate and liturgically sanction?
- If we say “no” to union blessings, how do we continue to invite, act hospitably toward, and evangelize gay and lesbian seekers, and how do we incorporate gay and lesbian Christians into our specific ecclesial communities?
- Is validation of a lifestyle a prerequisite for Christian love and evangelical outreach? Put another way, in what way does either adoption or rejection of union blessings speak to the central mission of the Church?
- If, as I am often reminded by a number of sisters and brothers, Gospel always trumps Law, in what way does that happen with this specific issue?
There are so many other questions, but I am not certain that my questions will be useful for others, and I am not certain that these are the questions that would have occurred to me had the dynamics of the deliberations been different. More important than a slate of questions is the choice of a model which will allow the Church to act as the Church, and not as just another agenda driven social entity.
Obviously, I have a preference for struggle, and will belabor the point a bit more.
The competition model is antithetical to the Gospel and the witness of the New Testament Church, and not a good process for Christian deliberation. Drawing on my negative experience with a competitive dynamic, I will suggest (with a little social theory and a little theological reflection thrown in for good measure) how struggle might work. In order to discuss union blessings in any useful way, we must first of all be willing to come to the table. Second, we must come to the table as equals. Third, we must come to the table as equals under the Lordship of Christ and the inspiration of the Spirit. I will elaborate.
Coming to the Table
I have been teaching adults for three decades. I am, frankly, very good at it. My knowledge and experience tells me that this is not an issue which can be dealt with adequately in a handful of one-hour sessions, separated by several weeks, in a dominantly passive mode. We need to come to the table often, and for long periods of time. We need ongoing active study, and the results of that study should be made available to the congregation as a committee of the whole.
I would recommend that any congregation or Synod considering this issue establish a study group. It can, to a certain extent, consist of those who are willing to put in the time and effort. Devote as much time as needed and especially time for concentrated effort. To those who say we have talked enough about this issue, I would suggest that we have not talked effectively enough as the Church.
Coming to the Table as Equals
This simply means that we must all be willing to run the risk of learning something and having our minds changed as a result of the process. That, of course, means giving up the notion that one has found the truth. My Pauline theology suggests that truth is something the Church embodies, but it is not one of those gifts imparted to specific members in particular.
Under the Lordship of Christ and the Inspiration of the Spirit
The competition model of deliberation is a debate engaged in by two or more parties, each of which claims to have a corner on the truth. One party with a truth claim can also impose a competitive model on others. The point of competition is resolution through victory.
Struggle, as used here, is something one does with and not against. Whereas competition divides, struggle can be a process through which a community discovers its commonality. In a specifically Christian application, struggle can be a process that allows serious consideration of an important and potentially divisive issue while maintaining our unity by keeping focused on what is essential. The problem is that far too few congregations (and even fewer Synods) have any experience in struggle. As the recent and continuing dissension over CCM attests, competition is almost a default mode.
Fortunately, we do have a model for effective struggle within the church. It is presently active in a few congregations now, and has deep roots in theEarly Church. That model is known as the catechumenate. One may be tempted to dismiss that most useful process as something limited to baptismal preparation. Such a dismissal would ignore mystagogy, that final, and ongoing, stage of the catechumenate, that constant quest for ways to live the Gospel, nourished by the sacraments, and nurtured by the Spirit in loving struggle with each other.
For those unfamiliar with the catechumenate and mystagogy, a brief elaboration here may be helpful. There are a variety of different approaches, and there is no one set way to engage in this ongoing struggle. I can speak most effectively about the experience in my own congregation, Immanuel LutheranChurch in Chicago. In addition to the rites for the catechumenate provided in the Welcome to Christ series, we depend heavily on Lectio Divinia, which is also the bedrock of our perpetual mystagogical experience. This ancient practice is centered on scripture, but it is not bible study. Every Wednesday a group gathers in silence around the baptismal font. After praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit the group reads the Gospel appointed for the upcoming Sunday three times. A fairly long period of silent meditation follows the first. Open discussion of the Gospel speaking to us through the text follows the second reading. After the third reading the group offers prayer through open petitions, ending with the Lord’s Prayer. The movement of each session is toward a more active and profound engagement with the Word: from passive hearing, through discussion, and finally to active prayer. The participants anticipate the following Sunday’s sermon with more than usual enthusiasm, and usually find echoes of Wednesday night in the pulpit. Best of all, the thoughts and prayers shared as a group stayed with each of the participants during the following days. In short, participants begin to experience centering in the faith.
Besides a core group of “regulars,” a large portion of the congregation has been initiated into this ongoing process, and many come back for one week, or several weeks, or more. The congregation is learning a new way of talking about faith and its place in our lives within community and beyond the sanctuary.
So what am I suggesting? Should we somehow adapt this method to discussions of whether to conduct union blessings? Perhaps, but of greater importance we should become congregations and Synods so accustomed to struggling with issues, the Word, and each other as a vital part of our life together that any issue will naturally be deliberated within the context of our ongoing struggle to be the Church. The Church, through our congregations and Synods, needs a refresher course in catechesis so that we may deliberate with a strong grounding in mystagogy. Let me be even more blunt: if we are to deliberate as the Church, we must first experience formation as the Church lest our deliberations offer a pale imitation of a debating society.
Make no mistake about it. Our choices on union blessings or any other issue, are three. We can ignore, we can enter into factional competition, or we can struggle. The latter seems like a good Lutheran category. Ignoring it simply is not part of the best of our tradition.
Keeping with the struggle—keeping in mystagogy and out of competition—is difficult, and it takes faith, hope and love to pull it off. Through God’s grace these three gifts, the greatest of which is love, are at our disposal if we will use them.
Suggested Readings on Struggle and Competition
Georg Simmel’s work on forms of social interaction, particularly his use of dyads and triads to explain those forms, is crucial and foundational to my own thinking. Those unfamiliar with his work will find a good sampling in Georg Simmel on Individuality and Social Forms, ed. Donald N. Levine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971). Max Weber’s distinction between two different kinds of rationality (zweckrational, a rationality based on goals, andwertrational, a rationality based on values) in relations to cooperation and competition is no less crucial. The best statement of Weber’s construct is found in Part I, “Conceptual Exposition,” in his Wertschaft und Gesellschaft, the best translation of which is Max Weber, Economy and Society, eds. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978). Josiah Royce deals with the way struggle can lead to cooperation rather than competition. This theme is found throughout his work, and is nowhere better developed than in The Problem of Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1918; 1968). Finally, Christopher Lasch, a former colleague and late friend of mine, made several useful suggestions about the relationship between struggle, cooperation and liberation on the one hand, and competition, manipulation and oppression on the other, in his last major work, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991).
Suggested Readings in the Catechumenate and Mystagogy
Any congregation considering the catechumenate (and thereby making a commitment to mystagogy) will need to consult works on the crucial liturgical foundation, which I have not discussed here. The following books (by Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Methodist and Anglican authors) will serve as a conceptual introduction and lead readers to the important liturgical texts: Daniel T. Benedict, Jr., Come to the Waters: Baptism & Our Ministry of Welcoming Seekers & Making Disciple (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1996); James B. Dunning, Echoing God’s Word: Formation for Catechists and Homilists in a Catechumenal Church (Arlington, VA: North American Forum on the Catechumenate, 1993); John W. B. Hill, Making Disciples: Serving Those Who are Entering the Christian Life (Toronto: Hoskin Books on Worship and Mission, 1991); Barbara Hixon, RCIA Spirituality: Formation for the Catechumenate Team (San Jose, Calif.: Resource Publications, Inc., 1997); Raymond Lucker, Patrick Brennan, Michael Leach, eds., The People’s Catechism: Catholic Faith for Adults (New York: Crossroad, 1995); Thomas H. Morris, The RCIA: Transforming the Church, a Resource for Pastoral Implementation (New York: Paulist Press, 1997); Frank C. Senn, The Witness of the Worshiping Community: Liturgy and the Practice of Evangelism (New York: Paulist Press, 1993);Welcome to Christ: A Lutheran Introduction to the Catechumenate (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997); Welcome to Christ: A Lutheran Catechetical Guide (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997); James Wilde ed., A Catechumenate Needs Everybody : Study Guides for Parish Ministers (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1994).