Thursday, August 7, 2008

Theological Reflections on Gay Marriage: Prologue

Yesterday the Huffington Post blog site posted a link to a Ruth Gledhill article in the Times (London), which publishes some of Rowan Williams’ 2000-2001 letters to a member of his former diocese in Wales ( The current Archbishop of Canterbury wrote the letters while Archbishop of Wales.

In the letters, Rowan Williams states that after two decades of study and prayer, he had reached a “definitive conclusion” about gay marriage: “I concluded that an active sexual relationship between two people of the same sex might therefore reflect the love of God in a way comparable to marriage, if and only if it had about it the same character of absolute covenanted faithfulness.”

It is hardly accidental that this correspondence is being released now, as the Lambeth Conference has just closed. There are incredible, terrible pressures from all quarters for the Anglican communion, and, in particular, its American Episcopalian branch, to “repent” of its welcome of gay* persons. Media coverage during the conference noted that some members of the Anglican communion are taunting other members for allowing the Anglican church to be known as the gay church—as if any church standing in solidarity with Jesus should find it embarrassing to be ridiculed for standing with any despised and marginalized group.

As I have noted before, in my view, future generations of believers, as well as historians, will look back on this period of history in bafflement that this issue above all—the need to define gay human beings as the despised and excluded others—should have energized the Christian churches at the turn of the 21st century. Believers of the future and historians will surely ask how it was possible for large numbers of those who claim to follow Jesus to have imagined that excluding anyone—in ugly, obtrusive, taunting, demeaning ways—could be not merely the prerogative but the holy duty of a follower of Jesus.

If civilization perdures beyond the current period, then civilized people will have to ask, as Rowan Williams himself does in his 2000-2001 correspondence, why Christians ever thought it possible to make persecution of gay human beings “the sole or primary marker of Christian orthodoxy”—when Jesus himself never once mentions homosexuality. And when Jesus himself preaches constantly that practical compassion, the kind he practiced by sitting at table with despised sinners, is the hallmark of true religion.

Reading about Rowan Williams’ honest, carefully and painfully discerned, assessment of gay unions (as opposed to the official stance he is pressured to take as an archbishop trying desperately to hold the Anglican communion together) encourages me to try to capture some theological reflections about gay marriage that I have been developing since the recent California Supreme Court decision. These musings reflect ongoing discussions at the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) blog café, in which some contributors defend the traditional hard line of Catholic teaching that all homosexual acts are intrinsically evil because they are not ordered to procreation, and others propose that marriage exists primarily to resolve social issues that arise when couples have children (see,,,

My musings also reflect the predictable, but nonetheless disappointing, decision of the California Catholic bishops to release a statement on 1 August calling on Catholics in that state to throw their weight behind Proposition 8—the amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage ( (Can conferences of bishops be wrong, even immoral in their conclusions? The Austrian bishops’ endorsement of Hitler in 1938 certainly proves that they can be spectacularly wrong—even defending morally indefensible positions.

When conferences of bishops are spectacularly wrong, and defend immoral positions, can faithful Catholics reject those positions? Franz Jäggerstätter certainly thought so—and paid the ultimate price for following his conscience against the moral advice of the priests and bishops who advised him to serve the Nazis.)

Before I launch into the theme of gay marriage, a proviso: I may very well be offering thoughts here that have been worked through a lot more systematically by other theologians, including other openly gay ones. I need to confess that I simply don’t read a lot of theology these days—haven’t done so for some time.

This has everything to do with the experience of marginalization, with feeling pushed beyond the boundaries of what is considered right and proper within the church and the theological academies that continue to dance to the church’s tune. But it also has to do with what feeds my theological imagination and my heart: truth be told, that never has been theology, except in the case of a few classical authors whose prose I find irresistible, including Augustine and John Henry Newman.

No, I’m not much of a theologian. I am, though, a reader. Always have been; always will be. I read indiscriminately—history, novels, poetry, drama, blogs, diaries, cookbooks, the backs of cereal boxes. And many of those sources fire my theological imagination far more than does any theological work I’ve ever read. I’ve learned more theology from Jane Austen than I’ll ever learn from Lonergan.

There was a time in which I read a few gay theologians—notably John McNeill. I did so during the period in which I was struggling to decide how to deal with the brute and immovable fact that my first, and decisive, experience of falling in love was not “right”—it was oriented to the direction of intrinsic disorder, and nothing I sought to do could change that direction.

Yet the direction resulted in such gifts in my life that it seemed downright ungrateful to the Creator to reject those gifts—and myself—when the gifts were precisely what Paul calls the fruits of the Spirit: the love I experienced brought me joy, peace, a generosity of soul that I did not have when I cramped myself into the self-hating box the church calls sanctity for gay people. And the more I came to terms with myself and the recognition that God was the giver of these gifts, the more the gifts seemed to abound—though, at the same time, the more the outright rejection and scorn of many in the Christian community also seemed to grow, in direct proportion to my struggle to claim my identity and my love as God-given.

I did read John McNeill in this period, and benefited greatly from his work. My ignorance of other gay theologians has nothing at all to do with disdain for their work. It has more to do with my inability to find much that feeds my spirit in a great deal of the theology published today. It also has something to do with a kind of test I set myself during that coming-out struggle: a test to find my own path without allowing the arguments of openly gay theologians to sway my conclusions, should those conclusions be flat wrong, and should the church be right in its condemnation of me and my ilk.

(I have always deplored ghettoization. I resisted the label of ‘gay theologian’ for a long time, not because I wanted to remain closeted, but because, at some level, it simply shouldn’t make a difference, one’s sexual orientation. I’m a theologian who happens to be gay. Just as I happen to be Southern, Anglo, a pretty good cook, an exceedingly impatient human being, and so on. Nonetheless, if part of the price the mainstream makes me pay for claiming and celebrating who God makes me and the love God has given me, then I am happy to be known as a gay theologian.)

Finally, I haven’t really read other openly gay theologians carefully in recent years, because Steve and I donated our entire theological library—which did include quite a few books by gay theologians that I had bought without ever reading—to Philander Smith College a few years ago. Philander Smith is a small, struggling Methodist HBCU. It needed to build its library in the years in which we worked there, because its accrediting body had cited the library’s weakness on a previous accreditation visit.

Since Steve and I collaborated with several other faculty members on an NEH grant that resulted in a hefty gift to the college to buy books in the field of humanities, it began to seem right and just to us that we put our own money where our mouth was, and give our cherished theology books to the library. For Steve, this was a more painful sacrifice than for me, because he had collected very good books systematically over a period of years.

For me, the sacrifice came more from losing a few books that were old friends—in particular, the social gospel collection I had gathered for my dissertation work, in the margins of which I had made copious annotations I’d like one day to see again.

And here I think I’ll break this lengthy posting into two, so that my reflections on gay marriage form the second part of the posting . . . .

* Generic use of the term to include LGBT persons in general.

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