I was attending my brother’s wedding a couple of years back, and we were just sitting down at our table, doing some recon about who was sitting near us, undertaking the obligatory introductions to people you’re going to have to sit with for five hours, and getting a first glass of red wine, before loosening the tie.
Two men – now extended family members by dint of this wedding – were sitting opposite us. Two gay married men with their young daughter in attendance. We shook hands, sat down, did some chit chat, asked the usual questions. And then the one question I was dreading was asked by one of these new extended family members.
“So Steve, what do you do?”
Just great! I’m here for my much loved brother’s and sister-in-law’s big day, and all I want is a bit of fun, a glass of red, and definitely the beef sirloin not the fish. I mean, who has fish at a wedding? That’s a definite waste. But now? With that question? Might as well have the fish. It’s all going to taste like ash in my mouth anyway.
It did cross my mind to say “used car-salesman” to that question, but I managed to say:
“I am a pastor of a local church.”
The follow up question was equally direct:
“So can gay people come to your church?”
I calmly replied, betraying the tension I was feeling:
“Of course, anyone can come to our church.”
And with that I dodged the bullet. And what was that bullet? The 45 Magnum bullet of course. The real question is not whether someone – anyone – can attend our church. Of course anyone can attend. The real question is whether we can affirm that person’s lifestyle by allowing them to do more than simply attend.
For those in the gay community who go to church the question is never about attendance and always about affirmation. And affirmation looks like something. It looks like the possibility of publicly serving, not simply participating, in a gathered church meeting.
Perhaps it looks like leading the service, running a Bible study, serving the communion, leading the intercessory prayers, reading the Scripture or lectionary, taking communion themselves, or even seek ordination or paid pastoral ministry roles. Can they, in short, be considered members of the body of Christ in good standing while continuing to live a gay lifestyle?
Fortunately for me, that affirmation question never arrived during the wedding reception. The beef sirloin did instead. As the evening tarried, and our glasses were refilled, our conversations turned to other matters, not least of how this couple were horrified by the irreligious attitudes and naked consumerism they have seen in Australia since arriving from South Africa. A gentle reminder that we should never create caricatures of actual people with whom we may disagree on fundamental matters. We still catch up at family do’s from time to time. So it’s all good.
Yet it’s that affirmation follow up question – that bullet – that never got asked of me that night, that is at the heart of the sexuality question that the church is facing. It is the heart of the issue which Sydney Archbishop, Glenn Davies, apparently threw petrol on last week, or at least was accused of throwing petrol on.
I firmly believe that the Archbishop’s context meant that Anglican theological and pastoral leaders who are trying to change the church’s teaching should ” please leave”.
He was clunky in this I admit, and not for the first time in the public square. Someone needs to give him a bit of a PR lesson. And his comments come on the back of a well-publicised million dollar donation to the No campaign in the same sex marriage debate. But that aside, it’s clear from the immediate context of his speech, and the context of the Synod event, that that is what he meant.
Of course the opposite viewpoint was taken up and run with by a hostile media, who were determined to make that fit their preconceived narrative. He was telling gay people not to attend Anglican churches.
What was interesting, and dismaying, was how an almost gleeful progressive wing of the church poured more petrol on the flames, refusing to countenance, publicly at least, that their fellow Christian may have been misquoted. Not possible, they decided, and not palatable either, because it didn’t suit their narrative.
This was simply too good an opportunity to pass up, so the progressive crowd dutifully whacked the Archbishop, all the while handwringing and lamenting his hardness as loudly as they could. And they were rewarded for it by the likes of the Herald and the ABC. We all seek praise from somewhere or someone, after all. And praise now just is addictive isn’t it. Praise later seems so, well, so far away!
Whichever it was, the real question is not “Can gay people attend church?” The real question is “Can we affirm the lifestyle of actively gay church members?”
What does that all mean? Simply this. The affirmation question is the watershed of our Christian faith in this Sexular Age. Those who affirm, and not merely accept, will eventually find themselves in a completely different theological and ethical river system, compared with those who accept, but do not affirm. The vision of life, of what it means to be human, of what marriage points to, are so integral to the Christian framework that both views cannot be held in tension. One must give way to the other. They are flowing towards completely different theological rivers.
All of which means of course that schism is inevitable in the Anglican Church, and probably in a few other denominations too. If the mainline denominations are a day late and a dollar short when it comes to affirming the Sexular Age and its ethics, then the non-conformists among us – Baptists, Churches of Christ etc -, are about a week and a half late, and around five bucks shy. As usual.
After all we non-conformists just got into the nineties by the time the naughties were coming around. But don’t worry, we’ll get there, or at least some of us will. There will be enough schisms for everyone, be assured of that.
The conversation has been short on light and long on heat. And it’s going to continue in that vein. And my concern is, naturally, for those who hold to a traditional, orthodox ethic on sexuality.
Because if you hold to this line you’re going to take a very public battering by both the secular media and, unfortunately by Christians who hold revisionist views on sexual matters. And it’s this latter group that will be most dismaying and most hard to deal with.
Sure if the Sydney Morning Herald, the ABC and the rest of them want to bag out traditional Christian ethics, so be it. Why should we expect support from the world for our sexual ethic? It’s not like pagan Rome was enamoured with the early Christians who shared the board room, but not the bedroom.
But when fellow Christians get stuck in, that’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be difficult because the revisionist/progressive Christian ethic on sex increasingly means that acceptance has to look like affirmation. The two distinctions will not be permitted to be held in tension. The middle ground is gone.
If you don’t think so, then learn from the secular experiences of the likes of Douglas Murray and Dave Rubin. Both men – gay atheists, and Rubin is married to his partner – have had the cultural blowtorch applied to them for even dialoguing with secular conservatives on this issue, never mind religious ones.
I mean why would you ever side with a bigot and a homophobe? All of the language around disagreement these days is moral. Our opponents are no longer merely wrong, they are bad. And that goes for both sides of debate.
Progressives in the church will have to be incredibly brave to stand up to the public opprobrium they will receive should they publicly back their conservative brothers and sisters. If recent silence is any indication they’ve got some catching up to do in the bravery stakes. True, I have seen some admirable, brave souls for whom I have much respect, stand up for the likes of me, but they got a shellacking in the process. And the more that happens, the less they will stand up. Who wants to get their head chopped off?
That’s a painful lesson to learn, but a salutary one as well. We aren’t being invited to find a middle ground in this debate. We’re being told to pick a side. This, in the end, is a zero-sum game. We are talking about two competing visions of human flourishing that no amount of glue, string or sticky tape can bond together. Both are on a collision course and cannot be reconciled in the church. And that’s where Archbishop Davies simply telescoped the future: Schism is coming and it’s going to be painful. The only issue is how quickly you want to tear the band-aid off. Either way it’s going to hurt.
Of course those progressives who simply hold to a revisionist ethic by conviction and reject even the possibility that their opponents hold a valid perspective, will feel no such tension. They’ll quite enjoy hearing “well done good and faithful servant” from the culture when they stand against their conservative brothers and sisters. They have indeed received their reward. It’s not that I doubt their sincerity. They may indeed hold a deep conviction about affirmation. But it won’t be a sincerity tested by the blowtorch of a hostile culture.
But for those who want to walk the line and declare that their non-affirming brothers and sisters are the real deal? They’re going to require a level of bravery hitherto unseen. Can they do it, in the face of deep hostility from both the culture and their wing of the church that is so quick to misrepresent even those within its own denomination for the sake of affirmation? I hope so, but I’m a little doubtful. They’re going to end up jumping one way or the other. The tension simply cannot hold.