The opportunity of C056
Something is happening at General Convention. In the House of Deputies, resolution D025 passed two days ago with an overwhelming majority in both orders, lay and clerical. And yesterday it was passed by two-thirds by the House of Bishops with minor amendments. That resolution reaffirms that God has called and may continue to call gay and lesbian people “to any ordained ministry in The Episcopal Church; and that God's call to the ordained ministry in The Episcopal Church is a mystery which the Church attempts to discern for all people through our discernment processes acting in accordance with the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church.” If passed by the House of Deputies, this resolution will go a long way to restoring the sense of pride young adults and many converts had in the Episcopal Church upon the election of Gene Robinson and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. That pride in the Church is the fuel of mission. You can see the effect of that pride in some of the public narrative stories that I have heard. Those stories as well as my own experience as a young adult minister in my home parish indicate that those two elections deeply impacted many young adults and have functioned as icons of the kind of Church they had always wanted to be a part of and now have discovered that they wanted to be witnesses of this Church to others.
Yet, if D025 is in a sense a recovery of pride already done, there is another resolution which promises to really be profoundly transformative of young adult mission long term: C056, which passed one vote short of unanimous out of committee this morning. This resolution does two things that are vitally important.
In the short term, it offers pastoral generosity for the blessing of same-gender unions in secular jurisdictions where marriage equality is upheld by the law. If this practically means that gay and lesbian couples will be able to get their civil marriages blessed by the church while the church works out its official theology of marriage, then young people in the church who desire to witness to what we are becoming will have something to point to as we engage with those outside the Church. In other words, the pastoral generosity contemplated in C056 does not extend simply to gays and lesbians and their families but to those on the ground who have an evangelistic heart for our Church, because (again) pride in the Church is the fuel of mission. People will talk about what they are excited about. For young adults, it is about being part of a religious institution that is offering its members the opportunity to participate in a prophetic declaration that one can be spiritual AND religious.
But there is something else this resolution does, the value of which extends well beyond the issue of gays and lesbians and marriage equality. It models the kind of framework the Episcopal Church needs to adopt for its ministry as a whole in a fast-paced world where we need to give the Spirit room to act even as we create long term structures for evolving ministries. How does C056 model this? It does so by emulating the biblical model of Spirit led inductive theology found in the story of the conversion of the Gentiles as Gentiles (rather than as proselytes of Judaism).
C056 gives us the ability to act on what we know the Holy Spirit is doing in the Church in the lives of gay and lesbian people. Next, it creates a structure to gather our observations of what happens when the Spirit has moved gay and lesbian couples to intentionally avail themselves of church blessings and the effects of these liturgical experiences on people’s lives in our Christian communities. Then, these observations are reflected upon theologically and hopefully integrated into our larger understanding of what God is doing in and through the Church.
This way of doing theology, inductively, is exactly what the Early Church did in the book of Acts. In Acts 10, Peter and his friends perceived the presence of the Spirit on the Gentiles as Gentiles and they honor that Presence by baptizing them right then and there. Of course, to be present to the Spirit’s presence with the Gentiles as Gentiles, Peter had to be with them in their environment as they were, which required that he “break the law” so that he could be in a position to see the Spirit at work.
In the next chapter, Peter explains the process by which he decided to break the law, a process initiated by prayerful spiritual experience. He then shares the fruit of his choice to follow what he believed to be the Spirit’s leading: witnessing the conversion of Gentiles as Gentiles to the fellowship of Christ. If you read Acts 11 closely, you can see that Peter does attempt to ground his actions in existing Scripture when he says, “I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:16-17) It is fundamentally an argument from spiritual experience. At this point Peter really had not “developed a theology” of Gentile baptism.
Now, we know that although people like Peter and Paul were seeking to convert Gentiles without seeking their prior conversion to Judaism, there were others who strongly believed that one’s baptism was not a sufficient initiation into Christianity; rather one must conform to the Law of Moses to be truly in communion with God. And we know that this bifurcated situation lasted for years. That is, we had people operating on two fundamentally different assumptions of how Gentiles could enter the Church with some believing that they could enter as they were and others believing that they had to “change their lifestyle.” While this bifurcated state of affairs existed, Paul and Barnabas did indeed gather up their experiences with the Gentiles and as it is written, “they called the church together and related all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). In other words, there was a period of experimentation, observation and ingathering of experiences before theology could be constructed to name the meaning of what these experiences were and integrate that meaning into the rest of nascent Christian theology.
When the challenge of maintaining this bifurcated state became too great, which the text indicates as a period of several years from Peter’s initial experience in Acts 10, there had been enough theological reflection for the Apostles to recognize that Gentile conversion to Christianity as Gentiles was a fulfillment of a prophecy that “the nations” through the Messiah would come to worship the Jewish God. The theological digestion of conversion of the Gentiles as Gentiles, a digestion which took decades, inspired the majority of Paul’s writings. It is in recognizing that the Gentiles were being saved through grace by faith that Jewish Christians were able for perhaps the first time to clearly grasp how they themselves were being saved by grace through faith even as they continued to keep the law. Of course, none of this inductive theology could have happened if the Spirit had not prodded Peter to break the law, and Peter obeyed, so that he could be a witness to the Spirit being present with the kind of people a deductive theology would have identified as exactly the kind of people the Spirit would not be present with.
Just as the Jewish Early Church reencountered their own relationship with the Triune God, through theological meditation on Gentile Christian’s experiences of God that supposedly were not supposed to be happening, straight people may reencounter the sacramentality of their own marriages in new and refreshing ways as they theologically contemplate the sacramental experiences of gay and lesbian couples in their marriages. In a sense we are as a church between Acts 11 and Act 15. Although we are in that middle space where some believe that gay people can be found in Christ as gay people and others believe that one cannot be in Christ until one has cut away the flesh, one has “changed” from being gay, we can still begin that serious reflection on what we already have seen. Just for starters, I offer three theological reflections a cursory inductive study of the marriages of gay and lesbian Christians may produce.
1. Recovering a Sacramental Understanding of Marriage: The marriages of Christian gay couples affirm the Church’s recovery of a sacramental understanding of marriage as an aid in our sanctification, that is, in making us more like Jesus. A cursory survey of the arguments used by opponents of gay marriages reveals that there is currently deep confusion as to the sacramental purpose of marriage. These arguments invariably rely on the belief that the purpose of marriage is to produce biological children and/or be a relational space where binary gender roles can be reinforced and practiced. The marriages of Christian gay couples, along with childless straight marriages and straight marriages in which the parties have highly elastic or non-patriarchal gender roles, remind us that the Christian purpose of marriage is to create an intimate long term community, constituted by covenant, in which a person can practice vulnerable authentic self-giving love over a life time. In doing so, the couple learns to live into the example of Christ by giving themselves away for each other, as Christ has for the Church.
2. Recovering the Sacramentality of the Body: Archbishop Rowan Williams says, “God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the Life of the Trinity. We are created so that we could be caught up in this, so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God, by learning that God loves us as God loves God.” For this reason he argues, “The Life of Christian Community has as its rationale –if not invariably its practical reality – the task of teaching us to so order our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.” In Christianity, the smallest unit of community is the Christian marriage. Christian marriages express the Church’s affirmation that the body in marriage is a sacred receptor of spiritual knowledge. Rather than primarily viewing the body and its sexuality as something to be managed and controlled as a means of production of children or for a particular kind of gender performance, the body in a Christian marriage is offered to the other person primarily as something capable of experiencing being desired, and specifically as being sexually desirable, as being an occasion of joy. In doing so the body assists us in developing a “newness of perception” that we are in fact desired. This spiritual dynamic occurs in marriage regardless of the spouses’ genders. That new perspective then helps us to understand our intended relationship to God as one of mutual desiring where both God and we find each other to be occasions of joy.
3. Recovering Spiritual Fruit as the Good of Marriage: Because the marriages of Christian gay couples do not produce biological children as a result of a sexual union of the couple, they affirm that the spiritual fruit of the Christian marriage is not biological children but the Fruit of the Spirit. (Gal. 5:22-23). The marriages of Christian gay couples specifically because of their non-biologically reproductive sexuality declare that the process of living out a self-giving love and offering one’s self and specifically one’s body as an occasion of joy does indeed transform lives in a holy way. This transformation, our Christian recovery of our spiritual embodiment in the bonds of marriage, makes us better ambassadors of Christ to the world. Having practiced Christ-modeled love in the intensity and close quarters of marriage, we are more equipped to offer it to the world. Continuing to experience our embodied selves as occasions of joy despite how much we reveal ourselves, we are more able to receive other people as occasions of joy, being Christian community for them. Thus marriage as a Christian spiritual practice, for both gay and straight Christians, produces the “fruit that lasts.” (John 15:16).
If this is what we can perceive now, what will we learn as we more intentionally observe, gather and theologically reflect on our experiences as a Christian community where gay and lesbian people are seeking to offer their covenanted relationships to God?
Now coming full circle to C056’s relevance to young adult ministry, we see that C056 is an example of a biblical inductive theology. And it is for that reason that it serves as a useful model for the kind of institutional behavior we need throughout the Church if we are going to be able to do effective ministry, especially with young adults. When one talks with young adults, especially people who are interested in innovative ministry and church planting, what one often hears is that the institution of the Church is many times a a serious barrier to new ministry rather than a supportive incubator of innovation.
It is only when the church recovers the institutional spiritual discipline of biblical inductive theology that enables it to faithfully provide the space for experimentation for innovative liturgy, types of ordination procedures for entrepreneurial young adults, Christian formation practices, and paths of inviting and incorporating people into the Church will we be successful in identifying where the Spirit is moving now and being more efficient in getting caught up in that movement, in time to participate in it.
The spiritual block that is represented in the insistence that we attempt to determine if the Holy Spirit is present in the marriages of gay and lesbian Christians through a deductive theology that we already constructed so as to exclude that possibility is the same spiritual block that prevents good young adult ministry experiments from getting off the ground. It is the same thought process that says, “Oh you can’t do Church like that!” The quicker we learn how to look for the Spirit, gather the fruit of those experiences, and reflect on them theologically to see if those experiences crack open the Scripture and our Tradition in a new way that reveals the presence of the Spirit in what we thought we already understood, the quicker we will be able to reconcile all things in Christ.
Of course, not all experiments in the name of the Spirit will prove to bear the fruit of the Spirit and we must learn from those as well. But we will learn! And in that learning we will build an institutional capacity for spiritual discernment, the kind of spiritual discipline that allowed Peter to realize that the vision of the unclean food and the instruction to break the law by entering the Gentile’s home was of God even though it required breaking the law. For us, it means steeping our selves in the core of Christianity, in Trinity and Incarnation, not just as individuals but as an institution. We will know we are on the right track when our theological mediation on our experiments of the Spirit point us right back to that core, when those experiences reveal themselves to us as icons, windows into Trinity, into the Incarnation. That is what C056 can teach us.
Otis Gaddis III is a lawyer and young adult minister at Saint Mark’s Capital Hill in Washington D.C. A postulant from the Diocese of Washington, he will be attending Yale Divinity School this Fall.