By now most all of you will have read or heard about Dallin Oaks’ talk during the Saturday morning session of this past General Conference. I’m not going to link to the talk or quote it because it isn’t fit to be repeated here. It was hurtful, intolerant, and small-minded. However, I wish to provide some short commentary here because I think a response is in order, primarily to communicate to anyone harmed by his words that there are Christians who disagree with Elder Oaks while simultaneously taking seriously the theology of traditional Christianity.
As longtime readers of this blog are aware, I am a member of the Episcopal Church. I grew up LDS, with a long pioneer history going back to the beginning of Mormonism, but, following a long faith transition, during Holy Communion one morning in an Episcopal cathedral, was completely overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit. It was something for which I was quite unprepared and which set me on the course of baptism and confirmation within that tradition.
However, rather than bore you with the details of my faith transition, this post is about how the Episcopal Church has navigated issues regarding full inclusion of LGBT members. I’ll begin with a bit of history.
The Episcopal Church is the US church within the Anglican Communion, the third largest Christian communion, which numbers 85 million people all throughout the world, all of whom can trace their tradition back through the Church of England, which in turn is the English tradition of Christianity with ancient roots going back to the first couple of centuries of Christianity. The Episcopal Church is often derided by American Evangelicals as being some sort of liberal, pansy church, willing to bend theology to fit secularism. However, I think this is a mistaken view caused by the Anglican tradition’s willingness to hold the mystery of God as a mystery, being reluctant to define too precisely the divine. The Anglican via media, or “middle way” between Catholicism and Protestantism is a feature, not a bug. It allows varying interpretations to be held in tension, recognizing that there is tension and mystery, while holding to the basics found in the creeds. As a result, Anglicanism is a large tent, holding together fairly orthodox believers such as NT Wright, alongside less orthodox believers such as Marcus Borg. As a result, it is a tradition that has been willing to make space for varying levels of faith and belief, instead asking disciples to come together around the basics, letting liturgical prayer inform belief, and patiently letting the Spirit do its work.
Partly as a result of this open-minded approach to faith, the Episcopal Church is also fully affirming of LGBT people, who are fully welcomed, baptized (even their children), married, and ordained to all levels of clergy. LGBT people are not second class members in this church. Now, while this is true for the Episcopal Church as a whole, it is not the case in every Episcopal Church parish, for each diocese and parish can choose, ideally through a spiritual discernment process, whether to perform same-sex marriages or ordain gay clergy. While some parishes have chosen not to do so while remaining within the Episcopal Church, there have been some parishes which have chosen to leave the Episcopal Church altogether following the ordination of a non-celibate, gay bishop in 2003 (more on this later).
The Episcopal Church has also taken it on the chin a bit within the Anglican Communion due to moving forward with full inclusion of LGBT people on a quicker pace than many within the Anglican Communion are comfortable with. This is still a source of tension and debate within the Communion today.
I give this short introduction to mention that the process which started the Episcopal Church on this road 40 years ago was the slow realization, through lived experience informed of the Holy Spirit, that God was at work in the lives of our LGBT brothers and sisters. One cannot spend substantive time among our LGBT friends without seeing God working in their lives, or without experiencing the holiness within their lives and relationships. It is this lived experience – and the presence of the Holy Spirit in these experiences – which renders Elder Oaks’ proclamations unbelievable. One need not review the long line of claimed prophetic utterances of LDS Church leaders which were later relegated to the status of “speaking as man”, in order to question the credibility of Elder Oaks’ claims – one simply needs to spend time with the wonderful LGBT disciples of Jesus Christ to witness the working of the Holy Spirit in their lives. And if we take seriously the divinity of the Holy Spirit, we must take seriously the idea that God himself is at work in their lives [and this lays bare the heinous nature of the November 2015 policy, which seems calculated to ensure that such loving, spiritual examples will be absent from LDS congregations].
I mentioned earlier the ordination within the Episcopal Church of a non-celibate, gay man to bishop in 2003. That ordination caused a major upheaval within the Anglican Communion. In response, a commission was formed within the Anglican Communion to study the effects of the ordination upon the Communion. The report of this commission was called the Windsor Report. In 2005 the Episcopal Church issued a response to the Windsor Report, titled, “To Set Our Hope on Christ: A Response to the Invitation of Windsor Report Paragraph 135” (it’s a PDF). In the forward to the document, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church at the time said this:
The Episcopal Church in the United States welcomes the request made in paragraph 135 of the Windsor Report: “We particularly request a contribution from the Episcopal Church (USA) which explains, from within the sources of authority that we as Anglicans have received in scripture, the apostolic tradition and reasoned reflection, how a person living in a same gender union may be considered eligible to lead the flock of Christ.”
The Episcopal Church has been seeking to answer this question for nearly 40 years and at the same time has been addressing a more fundamental question, namely: how can the holiness and faithfulness to which God calls us all be made manifest in human intimacy?
Though we have not reached a common mind we have come to a place in our discussion such that the clergy and people of a diocese have been able, after prayer and much discernment, to call a man living in a same-sex relationship to be their bishop. As well, a majority of the representatives of the wider church—bishops, clergy and lay persons—have felt guided by the Holy Spirit, again in light of prayer and discernment, to consent to the election and consecration.
I have asked a group of theologians to reflect upon the question posed to the Episcopal Church in the Windsor Report.
The fruit of their efforts is set forth on these pages. As this paper is an explanation of how this action could have been taken by faithful people it makes the positive case. It does not attempt to give all sides of an argument or to model a debate. It is important to note that the paper does not attempt to replicate or summarize the conversations that have taken place in the church over nearly 40 years. The Appendix does describe these efforts.
I want to quote a bit from this document because it demonstrates a thoughtful response to how serious Christians can come to the conclusion that a church can be fully affirming to our LGBT brothers and sisters. I won’t quote too heavily from the document, which is thorough, but will quote here and there, as well as try to summarize some of the views within the document. Nevertheless, I cannot do the document justice. It is a humble and thoughtful attempt to explain the case for fully accepting and affirming LGBT members of Christ’s body. I find it compelling and persuasive, and urge you to read the document’s main body (of course, the history nerds can comb the Appendix, which outlines in more detail the history of the Episcopal Church’s wrestling with this issue).
Our response to this invitation can, of course, only be a small part in the larger process of listening throughout the Anglican Communion; and even what we can report in this essay barely begins to convey the conversation on same-sex relationships within the Episcopal Church over nearly forty years. We pray that, at the least, this explanation may foster a continuing desire for the whole people of God to walk together in the Anglican Communion, listening to all, especially to those who have often been unheard. Above all, we desire with you to place our whole trust in God the Holy Spirit to take what is truly of Christ and declare it to us (John 16:14).
Setting our hope on Christ and praying for his humility, we desire to converse with you about the difficult but wonderful blessing that the Lord has opened our eyes to see in our very midst: the gifts and fruit of the Spirit (Romans 12:6-6, 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, Galatians 5:22-23) in the lives and ministries of our members of same-sex affection. We know that what we say may seem surprising or unsettling to some of you who read this essay. Dear brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the Anglican Communion, we can scarcely begin to express our gratitude to God for permitting us to share fellowship with you over the many years of our life together, and we earnestly desire to walk in communion with you into God’s future. We would never willingly grieve or hurt you in any way. We wish only to describe something of what—through much perplexity and faithful struggle to serve the Good News of God in Christ—we have come to believe that God has been doing among us.
In the pages that follow, you will find a brief account of how, in good faith and in loving obedience to the saving Word of God, many Christians in the Episcopal Church have come to a new mind about same-sex affection, and of how this has led us to affirm the eligibility for ordination of those in covenanted same-sex unions.
In the document, Part One is the introduction, part of which I have quoted above; Part Two describes the process of how many members within the Episcopal Church came to discern holiness within the lives of gay and lesbian members, as well as how they have read the scriptures, particularly those scriptures that seem to challenge such a view; Part Three describes the process by which the Episcopal Church attempted to discern God’s will on the matter; and Part Four makes the case for the ordination of married, same-sex clergy.
Here are some interesting quotes from Part Two:
For almost forty years, members of the Episcopal Church have discerned holiness in same-sex relationships and, have come to support the blessing of such unions and the ordination or consecration of persons in those unions. Christian congregations have sought to celebrate and bless same-sex unions because these exclusive, life-long, unions of fidelity and care for each other have been experienced as holy. These unions have evidenced the fruit of the Holy Spirit: “joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). More specifically, members of our congregations have seen the fruit of such unions as sanctifying human lives by deepening mutual love and by drawing persons together in fidelity and in service to the world.
Some of our members have come to recognize such holiness in the lives of Christians of same-sex affection, and in their covenanted unions. Their holiness stands in stark contrast with many sinful patterns of sexuality in the world. As a report to the Lambeth Conference of 1998 stated very well: Clearly some expressions of sexuality are inherently contrary to the Christian way and are sinful. Such unacceptable expressions of sexuality include promiscuity, prostitution, incest, pornography, pedophilia, predatory sexual behavior, and sadomasochism (all of which may be heterosexual or homosexual), adultery, violence against women and in families, rape and female circumcision. From a Christian perspective these forms of sexual expression remain sinful in any context (Called to Full Humanity, Section 1 Report, p. 16).
Christians of same-sex affection in the Episcopal Church have shown themselves entirely at one with their fellow Christians in rejecting such sinful expressions of sexuality and in seeking to live, in common with all Christians, lives blessed by the transforming power of Christ. Some members of our Church have, over many years, experienced these manifest gifts of holiness and authentic desire to live the Gospel life among our fellow members of same-sex affection. We believe that God has been opening our eyes to acts of God that we had not known how to see before.
The authors of the document then go on to compare the church’s situation to that of Peter and his companions in Acts 10, who were surprised that the Gentiles in Cornelius’ family had already been welcomed by God and manifested the fruits of the Holy Spirit, which they had already received. Through this process, the eyes of Peter and his companions were opened to the truly universal grace of God’s work among all people.
The authors then move to a discussion of the early church’s difficulty in discerning how Gentiles would be included within the church, which had up until that time been primarily Jewish in nature (even viewed by the Romans as a sect within Judaism).
There are many accounts of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the New Testament, but it seems useful here to focus on one account (Acts 10-15) that has been important to Christians in the Episcopal Church and elsewhere who have sought guidance
from the Holy Spirit about God’s will for us in these matters relating to same-sex affection.
Together with the disciplines of prayer and the sacramental life, we have sought the voice of the living God by paying attention to God’s Word to us in the Scriptures. We have been led to notice possible analogies between the experience of the early Church and our own situation. We have assumed that God’s word is living and active (Hebrews 4:10-12); that it is effective and prospers in that for which God sent it (Isaiah 55:10-12); and that it is like fire and like the hammer that breaks the rock in pieces (Jeremiah 23:29). We asked God to show us whether we were to welcome Christians of same-sex affection into our midst and to invite them to share leadership of the Church with us or not. We asked God’s help in discerning through the power of the Holy Spirit whether we ought to understand our situation in analogy with the experience of the early Church regarding the inclusion of the Gentiles. We began to study Acts 10-15 with great care.
In summary, these reflections on the Scriptural witness to early Christian life highlight two crucial features of our tradition. First, we have always believed that God opens hearts and minds to discover yet deeper dimensions of Christ’s saving power at work, far beyond our limited power to conceive it. Second, tradition tells us that by God’s grace we ought not to let discouragement at disagreements jeopardize our common work for God’s mission in the world. If God the Holy Spirit can hold the early followers of Jesus Christ together, even when they disagreed over so central a question as who might come within the reach of the Savior’s embrace, then surely we must not let Satan turn our differences into divisions. May we hold them all the more humbly before Christ, that he may bless our proclamation of the Gospel in all the many and differing places and conditions of the whole human family.
The authors then move on and address specific scriptures that seem to oppose their position.
In addition to giving a constructive account of the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15), built on biblical foundations, we know that honoring the biblical text, and honoring all our brothers and sisters in Christ who read Holy Scripture with us, requires us to honor all of the biblical texts. We take seriously the biblical passages that seem to oppose our position.
I won’t dive into a discussion of the authors’ arguments around the biblical texts which seem to prohibit homosexual relations, not only in the interest of brevity for a blog post (I urge you to please read the document – again, it is here – it’s a PDF and the scripture arguments begin on page 20 of the document), but largely because to do so would distract from my primary argument, which is that our lived experience and recognition of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of LGBT people discredits the arguments of Elder Oaks. LGBT members are every bit as capable of leading lives of holiness, graced with the presence of the Holy Spirit, as can you or I. And if we take seriously the divinity of the Holy Spirit, then we have to conclude that God is directly at work in their lives. To deny that work is to deny lived experience and the direct work of God.
In short, when our LGBT brothers and sisters are given the opportunity to fully participate within a religious community, the Holy Spirit testifies to the love and grace our Father has for them exactly as they are. And, as the scribe in Mark 12 says, to love God completely and love one’s neighbor as oneself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.
Update – Oct. 11, 2018
I’ve closed comments for now. Lynnette’s comment (at the end of the comment thread) was perfect and I feel like it was a great exclamation point on the post. Her comment demonstrates that the Holy Spirit is at work among LGBT disciples and the communities supporting them. It is incumbent upon other communities to recognize that and accept the work God is doing among us.