If you have not yet read Bishop Brian’s recent lecture on the Anglican Communion, it is well worth doing so. Plan time for it. It’s not one for multi-tasking.
It is one of the most sensible and interesting perspectives I’ve come across recently, and I want to recommend it rather than take issue with it. So think of what follows as a digressive thought, rather than a challenge per se. Oh, and although this may look like an essay, please think of it as ‘early draft’.
Early on in the lecture +Brian offers a summary of the clusters of values which can be seen to be operative in the current debates of the church. The first approach he describes as a ‘debate for the extension of the claims of natural justice’: an approach which he says characterizes many liberals in the West. The second approach he describes as being ‘concerned with the development of holiness, in relation to which a bibilically grounded sexual ethic is of vital importance.’ He says this approach prevails among many evangelicals in the West.
I’d like to extend that category.
For me — who might in many ways be classed with the first group, the ‘question’ of a Christian understanding of homosexuality is very much a question of how the church can help people move towards holiness. And to that end, a bibilically grounded sexual ethic is indeed vitally important, though perhaps not as clear cut as some of the ‘evangelical West’ +Brian referred to may claim.
Holiness is a word that drives to the heart of the sacred. It can only be defined or described in relation to the being of God. We encounter holiness as we encounter God: Moses stands on ground made holy by the presence of God; God’s people come to know him as the Holy One of Israel; and as they learn what it means to live in relation to this God, they learn to hear God say ‘You shall be holy for I the LORD your God am holy’ (Lev 19, etc). In that understanding of the law, the holiness tradition begins: be holy for I am holy. It is an early intuition that in time leads Israel to understand that they are made in the image of God, and an early experience of the meeting point of human and divine life that finds its fulfillment of Christ.
So, we cannot let Holiness be claimed as the preserve of any one part of the church. It is part of our foundation.
If holiness begins and ends with God, then it is only ever ours provisionally. It is ours in reflection, maybe. Ours insofar as we are allowed to share in the Divine Life. But holiness itself is defined by God’s being. It is what God is in Godself. It is therefore inherently elusive; both beyond our grasp, and eternally ‘other’.
Beyond our grasp, but not necessarily beyond our reach. Holiness is something God allows us to share and partake in. But we need to be wary of thinking we can hold it tight.
If Holiness begins with who and what God is, then our human, responsive holiness must surely also be grounded in who and what we are. To whatever extent we share in holiness, we must relate to holiness from the truth of our being. Which is easier said than done.
Our self-knowledge is never perfect. It is often elusive. And it should never be static. But we believe that in Christ, we can come to know ourselves better, more truly, as the beloved of God. So holiness begins with the ‘most true’ things we can say about ourselves, and the ‘most true’ things that can be said about us. Holiness is a learning to live out of that place, as we respond to God. It is therefore more a process and an approach to being than it is a ‘state of being’ which we have achieved. It is a way of directing our longing always towards God, always towards the good, always towards our best understanding of what we are called to be.
Living in holiness is about finding a meeting point between the truth of who we are and the truth of God. It is about letting ourselves be made in the likeness of Christ.
OK, so what has that to do with current debates on sexuality?
Well, if holiness begins from the truth of who we are, and is inherently bound up with the ‘otherness’ of God, then we need to make space for all kinds of ‘otherness’. We need to let people speak the ‘best truth’ they can tell about themselves, and respond openly and trustingly to what people say. We are at a point in our culture, in the development of human understanding, where a significant number of people tell us that the ‘best truth’ they can tell is that they are emotionally and physically drawn to people of their own gender. It is a ‘given’ truth of who they are.
So the church needs to be able to offer a way of holiness from that starting point.
For much of the history of the church, we could do no such thing. We took a few texts from a different cultural context and decided either that (1) there was no such thing as ‘being gay’ (anachronistic, I know), or (2) gay people must be celibate.
Well, one thing that a biblically grounded sexual ethic makes quite clear is that celibacy is a calling for the very few. There is no integrity in trying to live a calling that is not yours because the church or the society can offer no way of life that integrates both a call to grow in a relationship that includes sexual intimacy and the ‘deep truth’ that one’s desire is towards the same sex.
If gay people are to find holiness at all, then we must be able to offer a way of life that enables a meeting point between their life and God’s. The church needs to offer gay people a space to meet God in truth, and without pretense. Just as is needs to offer the same for straight people, and for those whose lives and sexual identities are yet more bewildering and complex.
If we believe that for many people, sharing their life with another person, emotionally and physically, in a faithful relationship, is a fundamental means of growth and grace then we need to be able to support people in that endeavor.
We need to offer role models and possibilities. We need to be willing to bless what is blessed.
Right now, the church can do very little to help gay people move towards holiness (though many live holy lives despite that). The few role models there are are too often vilified and their actions and relationships are assumed to be provocative, rather than expressive of their best attempts to respond to God. We cannot teach on the importance of chastity, faithfulness, compassion in gay people’s sexual relationships because we cannot admit that such relationship could be brought into relation with God. We are quite close to helpless when gay people push away from God and the church saying ‘there is nothing there for me’. And we are therefore in danger of losing the ability to speak the gospel, to embody healing and salvation.
And what if I am completely wrong? What if our culture is wrong, and in 150 years, people will think that it was madness to believe that ‘some people are gay’. (please understand: I don’t believe that will happen. This is just for the sake of argument.) Well, then I would still say the church needs to offer gay people a way to engage in holiness now: a way to find a meeting point between the best truth they can tell of themselves, and the truth of God. And that, again, is because our understanding — of God and of ourselves–is always provisional. We need to be open to conversion, growth, the ongoing revelation of God. And we stand a better chance of that happening if we have chosen to be in relation to God; if we are striving for truth and holiness. We are more likely to grow in holiness, even to learn from our mistakes, if we have heard the Word spoken in a way that lets us say: ‘yes, this is for me. I turn to Christ.’