This is an edited version of an address given to the Brighton & Hove branch of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) in April 1998. This essay was originally published as a booklet by Coleman Press in 1999. It has now being revised as a chapter in Freedom or Fear? Why a warring church must change (Shoving Leopard & Ekklesia, July 2008)..
In loving memory of my father, who carried the wounds of the present (and the hope of the future) in his own pain.
SUMMARY: In this short booklet Simon Barrow engages with what it means to re-think Christian approaches to human sexuality (and therefore the role and status of lesbian and gay people in the church) from an ecumenical commitment. He suggests that sexual identity and orientation is, from the viewpoint of faith, part of the self which is ‘hidden with Christ in God’. Much of what the church thinks it knows about human sexuality therefore needs to be recast radically in the light of a Gospel imperative towards communion. This requires us to renegotiate our relationship with ‘the other’ in ourselves, with those who are ‘other’ in society, and with that Other who we know to be the living God. Here is a concerted attempt to move beyond both the ‘trench warfare’ of ecclesiastical debates concerning sexuality and the limitations of the liberal-v-conservative paradigm. Instead Christians are urged to combine acceptance of the diversity of human sexuality with a radical ethic rooted in the new society to which God is inviting us.
Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.
‘God’s revelation in Christ is revelation in concealment, secrecy. All other so-called revelation is revelation in openness. But who then can see the revelation in concealment? .. Nobody [but those who see] God’s judgement and grace in the midst of human weakness, sin and death, where otherwise [humanity] can see only godlessess.’ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Theology of Crisis
‘To determine whether someone is truly religious we should observe not how they speak of God, but how they speak of the world.’ Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
1. A journey of un-knowing
There are few subjects more exciting than human sexual activity or more potentially boring than ecumenical debate! So before I make a further small contribution to the Christian church’s current over-excitability about sex, I need to offer an explanation for my consciously curious decision to approach it via ecumenism, of all things. As I do so, I hope you will come to agree with me that a substantial Christian contribution to our understanding of sexuality should be distinguishable primarily by its ability to make what we thought was plain less and less obvious. This, after all, according to no less an authority than St Paul (or, at least, a close associate of his) is precisely what the Easter Gospel is about — truth that demands much more than that which appears on the surface. For as we read in Colossians, ‘the life you have is hidden with Christ in God.’
I hope that we can therefore accept the shared role of being seekers rather than knowers on this subject — a theme on which many of Jesus’ parables are premised. This quest for a ‘new mind’ on abiding concerns is also the reason why I have chosen not to pursue the more predictable route of addressing the question of the treatment of lesbian and gay people in the church through an examination of the current state of ecumenical debate. That is well documented elsewhere and if I were to rehearse it I would simply be repeating well-worn arguments. Instead I wish to suggest a different pattern of Christian engagement with the whole matter of human sexuality based on some larger ecumenical impulses.
So why ecumenism as the appropriate context for re-covering (or should I say ‘un-knowing’?) human sexuality? Most people, I would guess, think of ecumenism — if they think of it at all — as a strange but worthy activity practised by a few local enthusiasts who insist on making our Christian denominations do, from time-to-time, what they patently do not wish to do most of the time: recognise each other as a gift of God, and collaborate in ministry and mission. Alternatively, perhaps they (we?) think of ecumenical work primarily as a bureaucratic task of engineering doctrinal and functional agreement among the great confessions; or as a repository for strange and obscure bodies like the World Council of Churches or Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. Either way, it’s frankly not very sexy.
2. From church to kingdom
We can be thankful, then, that these activities and structures (useful though they may be) are not the main point of ecumenism. The Greek word from which get our term ecumenical, oikumene, is normally translated in a way which, curiously enough for something describing the historical movement which seeks a world alliance among Christians, does not start with the concept of ‘church’ at all. Rather, as you probably know, oikos means house or household, and mene comes from the verb ‘to inhabit’. And so the word oikumene, which also has close associations with oikonomia (economy, the management of the household) first and foremost designates ‘the whole inhabited earth’ as the subject and locus of God’s loving and saving activity.
This, of course, as the famous missionary conference in Edinburgh 1910 which gave impetus to the modern ecumenical movement rightly understood, involves a key role for the church — but as servant rather than a master. On that latter point, Edinburgh (with the assumptions behind its call to ‘evangelise the world in this generation’) was perhaps less clear. But history has been wise in teaching Christians humility, the twentieth century particularly so. For the universal church of Jesus Christ, with all its historical glories and ignominies, its triumphs and tragedies, remains a signpost and a sacrament of something much more important than itself: the kingdom (or commonwealth) of God; that mysterious new creation for which Christ lived, died and was raised.
Understood ecumenically, therefore, and stripped of its in-built tendencies to exercise mastery in the name of God, the church as the exemplary Body of Christ is called to be both a pointer to the power, presence and purpose of God for all things, and (though it may fall painfully short of this) ‘God’s experimental plot in human history.’
Maybe that seems obvious enough to you, but I would contend that for all practical purposes it has been forgotten. It is overlooked both in the way that we as Christians live in the world generally, but also quite specifically by the way in which we as church fail to cope with the terrifying intimacies, joys and confusions of human sexuality — that dimension of ourselves by which we are most known and un-known.
It is in this fractured ecclesial context that I want to point up some of the key features of ‘being ecumenical’ which, I think, offer real hope and promise for moving beyond the current impasse which effects much of the church in its dealings with sexuality, and especially in its awkward (even oppressive) relationships with those whose gender, orientation or sexual identity is not as some say it ‘should be’.
In identifying these features I am making the claim, of course, that ecumenism is not just some peculiar habit or a mere reflex of a group of hobbyists within our Christian traditions. Rather, it is the requirement continually to re-read those traditions in the light of the promise of the universal church and its message of hope.
3. The goal of communion
So, firstly, to be church ecumenically, as I have already implied, is to have faith in God’s purposes for the whole world, not to be preoccupied with our role and status in helping to fulfil them. What are those purposes? In detail, we do not know. They are hidden, as St Matthew tells us, in the foundations of the world. If we had to choose one word to characterise the emergence of this hidden purpose, however, I would suggest that it should be communion — the co-existence of all in God, and God in all. This, in its sacramental anticipation, is the very thing which most divides the churches, of course. Put that down to a combination of Christian fallibility and God’s perverse sense of humour. But it still expresses, as no other word does, a hope for our universe which concerns the difficult possibility of relationship in the midst of destruction and division, of gift in the midst of greed and possession.
Communion (shrouded in mystery, like all the gifts of God) is therefore about the ways and means by which that which is disparate, different and potentially at odds can come into harmony. It is achieved not by the imposition of uniformity or domination — those are the ways of the world — but by the spirit of co-operative difference and willed-good (goodwill). Think of the image of the Body of Christ: it paradoxically depends for its unity on collaborative difference, and also on a common mind which wills a place of honour for all, and most especially for those parts of the body which are sometimes marginalised or dishonoured. It is for this possibility arising out of the scars of sin that Christ died.
All this may seem a little abstract. If so, I apologise. I tend to think in theories. Jesus, more helpfully, preferred to picture the divine communion by telling stories about accursed Samaritans who broke religious taboos for the sake of good, prodigal offspring who discovered the quite contagious irresponsibility of unbounded love, women who found lost coins (probably under the noses of male accountants), prostitutes who were closer to God’s kingdom than the righteous, and so on. All this — and much more that he said and did — is God’s work, and it ought to be the work of the church too; though it usually isn’t.
Now take a few moments to begin to think comparatively about the implications of all this for our understanding of human sexuality. Difference is what creates unity. What is considered dishonourable can be most honourable. Outsiders can be insiders. Everything that we are and can be may be woven into the fabric of God’s gift; and, on the other hand, it can also become part of the hell which many of us create or participate in much of the time.
Therein lies not just the promise bound up with the nature of sexuality, but the judgement which that promise also brings. For the grace of God which invites us to build communion with those we are inclined to reject is not some ‘woolly liberal’ evasion, it is deeply radical and demanding. It is, to adapt Bonhoeffer’s words, a gift which is free but costly. It requires immense courage and discipline to put our very selves (including our sexual selves) at the service of an ethic, an ethos, a movement towards wider community. Not only does it make it necessary for us to break down all that excludes and degrades human beings (be that the fearful homophobia of much of the church, or the depersonalising hedonism of much of the straight and lesbigay scenes); it also requires us to begin to live an alternative to those patterns of unjust discrimination which the church often inherits from the surrounding culture and then ‘baptises’ into its own way of being. Of such challenges is the way of the Cross composed.
Now these are but glimpses of a different future for the church, but I hope they are sufficient to show that the truly ecumenical focus on God’s action towards the communion of the whole world gives us an infinitely deeper, richer (and, frankly, more uncomfortable) palate to paint with than a few verses of Scripture torn from their context in the struggles of our forbears in faith to receive and live the message of God.
4. Custodians of the gift
This brings us, naturally enough, to the matter of the Bible. How does a church that recognises its ecumenical calling to live in communion with the past, present and future (the meaning of its universality) handle the sacred texts and traditions which represent the deposit of the faith of Christ received and transmitted in word and deed? For it is here in our founding texts that we contend most directly with revelation concealed, the eternal Word beckoning through the fallibility of flesh, the treasure hidden in clay pots.
Now I do not for one moment wish to engage in the game of the tribal interpretation of texts which characterises (and debases) so much of our current church ‘debate’ about sexuality. There is no future in that at all. What I want to do instead is to share two paradigmatic stories which offer hope for a new way in which the Word made words can once again be received as liberating gift, where usually it is turned into imprisoning ideology. This includes, especially, those elements of Scripture which appear most difficult to handle in the contemporary.
Some years ago, when I was working as an adult education adviser for the Church of England, I helped to lead a clergy retreat. One sunny day the assembled gathering was at Morning Prayer. The New Testament reading was a famous passage from Corinthians (‘it is better to marry than to burn’) which our lectionary delightfully decided to entitle ‘Concerning Virgins’. As we listened to St Paul’s words there was some embarrassed giggling in the back pews. This was a sophisticated audience and they clearly found the rather extreme measures advocated by the Apostle a bit difficult to take. But this was Scripture, so we couldn’t argue back. Could we? The person leading the intercessions was able to soothe the discomfort rather effectively in the circumstances. His concluding prayer went something along these lines: ‘Lord, we have heard St Paul’s confusion concerning virgins. We confess that we too are often confused in our sexuality and our relationships. Help us to discover your will in these things.’ And so on. It seemed, as someone remarked afterwards, that this was the quintessential Anglican way to make ‘the best of a bad job’! So we duly moved on and forgot about it.
The next day Bishop Peter Selby, who had been present throughout the retreat, was due to preach at the Eucharist. He announced that he had decided to begin by reflecting on this incident at Morning Prayer and its broader significance. He had imagined, he said, an encounter in heaven between St Paul and that person who had lead the intercessions the previous day. First of all, St Paul might begin by indicating how honoured he was to meet someone who saw through his confusions so readily! Secondly, and more seriously, the Apostle might say something like this: ‘Of course, you were quite right. I was confused concerning virgins, and marriage in this instance, and homosexuality and much else when I wrote that letter. But there was one thing that I was not confused about. And that is what it means to have an undivided heart in the service of the kingdom of God.’
This strikes right to the core of the matter. For, as so often with biblical texts, both ‘instinctive conservatives’ and ‘instinctive liberals’ are apt to argue about the contested details and miss the central point. The key theological issue in 1 Corinthians 7 is not what we make of St Paul’s culture-related assumptions about marriage and discipleship. For we may rightly conclude that life and understanding has moved on, and that we may not be wrong in handling these things differently today. But what we should never lose sight of is the controlling centre of his teaching: the need for ‘an undivided heart’ * that is, a way of living faithfully which does not divide off our relationships and our sexuality from our life in the presence of our fellow human beings and God, but which seeks instead an integration of all these things in the context of an inclusive community. Here is the kind of interpretative and responsive maturity which the multivalent biblical text demands of us as we face the challenges of the present.
The second example builds on this hermeneutical approach. In his inaugural address to the diocesan synod when he was translated to Worcester, the same bishop (who has been courageously open in his support of lesbian and gay people) took the opportunity to address the broader context for the debate in the Church of England on homosexuality and other matters of contention by looking at what a thoroughly radical engagement with Scripture and tradition might imply for us. He gave as one example the circumstances surrounding the Council of Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15.
This, let us not forget, was the first ecumenical council of the church. It was an exercise in seeking the emergence of a communing Word through chaos and disagreement within the Christian community about issues of fundamental identity — namely the question of how to handle the differences over circumcision between Greek and Jewish Christians.
To us today, these disputes seem remote and even petty. But they are actually central to the Gospel. They concern the extent to which the Christian good news is subject to the constraints of tribe and race, and the matter of whether some religious practices are more a question of culture than of divine sanction, or vice versa.
The result of the Council of Jerusalem was, as Peter Selby reminded his audience, what many Christians today would call ‘a fudge’, and the minutes of the meeting are still in dispute! Nevertheless, the settlement attained helped the church to move forward in unity by refusing to elevate one group over the other. In so doing it created the conditions for a more inclusive (or should we say more anti-exclusive) understanding of the Gospel.
So even when the details are messy, the trajectory of the liberating and unconstrained love of God goes on generating the conditions for renewal — provided that we as church are prepared to take the risks involved. This entails recognising that faithfulness to an ‘unchanging’ Gospel may in fact demand radical change, because the world in which it has to be continually received never stands still. (Not to move in a shifting context is not to stay the same, but to lose ground.)
All this suggests to me a fluid but rigorous way of handling our texts, our traditions and our differences that moves beyond the arena of party dispute and forces us to ask the bigger questions: who is the Gospel for, a privileged few or the many? What difference does baptism make to our received customs, rituals and taboos? How can we develop an ethic for all (rather than an ethos of the presently powerful)? Above all, what does it mean, in the area of human sexuality, to have an undivided heart?
5. Moving towards ‘the other’ in Christ
A third key sign of a church which recognises itself to be ecumenical is that it seeks to be true to its origins as a Gospel movement which means, in particular, a movement that recognises the will of God for the whole inhabited earth as something that is especially disclosed by those who are marginal, oppressed and ‘other’. This is what makes the ecumenical church a missionary church * mission being, as the late South African theologian David Bosch once memorably noted, ‘the church crossing frontiers in the guise of a servant’ (Christ who remains present but hidden in our midst).
Whatever its many woes, one of the greatest gains of the formal ecumenical movement over the course of this century has been its difficult but powerful discovery that, if we are to take the Gospel seriously, the first must be last, the rejected ones chosen, the poor exalted and the mighty thrown low for the good of all, and so that all may truly share. Communion again. But the metanoia, about-turning, which the following of Jesus Christ involves is not just a reversal of power (though it is certainly that), it is also and inescapably a transformation of the human heart.
So, for example, the economic reversal affected by the tax collector, Zaccheus, depended on a new estimation of what and who was valuable (one different to the value inscribed in the currency he so effectively manipulated). And the active goodness of that Good Samaritan depended upon him seeing a stranger as a brother, rather than as a sworn enemy. In this way alone was a new society made possible. Indeed, Jesus spoke openly of such a society in the Beatitudes as recorded in Matthew 5. Here he pictured a disparate, anti-exclusive group of people made up of those deprived of land, food and dignity, and of those who struggle with them — a community of the dispossessed who expressed the core of God’s purposes in the world.
Again, this fundamental truth of the churches’ calling to be a ‘new society’ has staggering implications for the way we see, experience and handle human sexuality. When the Gospel takes root strangers become companions, enemies become friends, and those who we castigate as ‘others’ (as ‘unclean’, perhaps) come to be seen as other selves, and remind us both of our own internal ‘other’ (that hidden part of ourselves which we ignore at our peril) and of the Other who we know, mysteriously and terrifyingly, as the Living God. A true conversion has occurred. And on this basis we can begin to deal with the public secret, the concealed revelation of ourselves which we call our sexuality. For just as we are hidden with Christ in God, so is our deepest identity, not least our sexual identity. But, as with the Gospel, it is hidden not just in isolated individuals, but in persons who are (fundamentally and inescapably) in relation. People in communion, or striving for it, or defacing it, or running away from it.
6. Transforming our church ethos
To realise this need to encounter otherness as a relational gift of God is to begin to make sense of those identity, security and ethical questions which lie at the heart of the sexual agenda. Otherwise we end up in one of two untenable positions (if I may use such a term!) The first is a self-righteous moral conservatism which wields texts as weapons, seeking to replace spirit with law and God’s open future with our unchanging past. The second is a gratuitous libertinism which mistakes license for freedom and gratification for fulfilment. What we need instead is an ethos, a way of relating in the light of the hope and promise of communion, which is infinitely more radical and demanding than either of those options. This ethos will be one that treats the confusions of human sexuality with reverence rather than disdain and honesty rather than avoidance. It will be an ethic which is most concerned with the quality and faithfulness of our human relationships, and is therefore perhaps a little less preoccupied with policing the form they take.
The conditions for at least partially (but never fully) recovering such a kingdom-oriented ethos for the fulfilment of our diverse human sexualities are also both thoroughly ecumenical in shape. The first is the abandonment of the naturalistic fallacy which lies at the heart of much Christian moralising about sex: namely the inflexible belief in an unchanging natural order. (‘Homosexuality is against creation,’ I have heard it said.) This belief fails to recognise what any ecumenical church should know, which is that our destiny, being God-given, lies ahead of us. We are an eschatological people, and therefore a right understanding of our genesis is that (unlike the Christ of God) we are made, not begotten. We are who we are, but much more we are who we shall be: the perfected image of God. And by ‘perfected’ I mean, speaking from where we are right now, ‘open to new possibility’ as well as ‘open to completion’.
The second condition is that we recognise that salvation (wholeness) is to be experienced now or not at all. This is what it means for God’s purposes to be concerned with the oikumene. Not that the fulfilment of the divine purpose is
found here alone, but that its mysterious substance is felt fully in the midst of life — through those archetypal human activities of loving and working which Dorothee Soelle reminds us are the core of our adult experience. Only when that is so does the Gospel for our boundary experiences (birth and death) make proper sense. It is all or nothing * and the all must be received here, not in some Platonic world of pure ideal abstracted from the fabric of actual living.
Again, this makes the matter of rethinking human sexuality theologically for a changing world a core Gospel issue — not a kind of awkward side-show, which is how some church leaders are apt to see it when unduly discomforted by the voices of those (lesbian and gay people) who they would somehow like to go away.
So there you have it, an ecumenical vision within which we might hope to recover human sexuality beyond the current ecclesiastical ‘trench warfare’. One which takes universality, humility, service, movement, marginality, temporality, the surprising workings of the Holy Spirit and hope in God’s open future as its defining characteristics. It leaves all the precise moral definitions undefined, all the hard pragmatic tasks still to be done, and its means of revelation is characteristically through concealment * the continuous, collective search for our place in the hiddeness of God’s unsurpassable love. But I believe that it is only this kind of breadth of perspective, this scale of community and this persistence of hope that will provide the resources for us to find a better way forward. And if this makes us less clear and confident about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ with other peoples’ sexuality, well maybe that is something which God is quite deliberately asking us to live with.
7. An epilogue on the oikumene of siblings
I should like to conclude with a very wise Jewish story that neatly encapsulates what is involved in the way we handle human sexuality, sexual difference (and much else besides) as people of faith:
A rabbi once asked his disciples how one decided at what hour the night was over and the day had begun.
‘It is perhaps when, from a distance, one can recognise the difference between a cow and a pig?’ asked one of the disciples.
‘No,’ came the answer.
‘It is perhaps when, from a distance, one can recognise the difference between a black and a white dog?’
‘No,’ the rabbi replied.
‘But how can one decide?’ asked one impatient disciple.
The rabbi responded: ‘It is when one looks into another person’s face and one can see one’s brother or sister. Until then, the night is still with us and it is still dark.’
1. See Colossians 3.3. The reference is to baptism as a death to old ways and old thoughts.
2. Many of the key perspectives and arguments are summarised in ‘Homosexuality: Some elements for an ecumenical discussion’, The Ecumenical Review, Volume 50, No 1, January 1998.
3. I am taking it as read here that genuine learning involves a degree of un-learning (or ‘un-knowing’), which in turn implies that the ‘learner’ or ‘knower’ is willing to be disturbed. This is a largely absent feature of ecclesiastical discussions concerning human sexuality. It is one which needs urgently to be reinstated.
4. Since 1990 the British and Irish ecumenical instruments set up through the Not Strangers but Pilgrims process have attempted a different model to the traditional ways of what we might term ‘activist’ and ‘institutional’ ecumenism. This is the ‘churches together’ approach. It has been beneficial in encouraging collaboration in some areas of church life, but not so far in those (such as human sexuality) where the disagreements within and between denominations run deepest.
5. The word ‘kingdom’ is the one most used for the coming new reality which God is bringing about. I prefer ‘commonwealth’ because it captures the flavour of ‘God’s domination-free order’ (Walter Wink) much better than the traditional, hierarchical and patriarchal language. It is therefore, I believe, much closer to the preaching of Jesus.
6. The phrase is that of the Mennonite theologian John Driver, from his book Images of the Church in Mission (Herald Press, 1997).
7. St Matthew 13.35.
8. 1 Corinthians 12 and elsewhere.
9. I am not using the term ‘homophobia’ to demonise those who oppose equal rights for homosexual persons in church and society. It is a term which refers to a deep seated fear of homosexuality (not necessarily lesbian and gay people per se), and it is very much connected with heterophobia in my view — about which, see endnote 18.
10. Richard Holloway, the Primus of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, had many useful things to say about how such anti-exclusive Gospel impulses are swallowed up in the institutional ‘routinisation of charisma’ (Weber) after the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops in June 1998. He also raised the way in which God challenges the church through those it all-too-readily condemns. See Modern Believing, Summer 1999.
11. See I Corinthians 7.
12. This phrase was coined, I believe, in one of the late David Bosch’s less known works, A Spirituality of the Road (Herald Press, 1983).
13. This argument is also developed in my article ‘Encountering otherness in Christ’, Christian magazine, Passiontide 1998.
14. On this question, see Sue Walrond-Skinner, The Fulcrum and the Fire (DLT, 1995).
15. This is the framework within which we can begin to understand St Paul’s difficulties in Romans 1.
16. Dorothee Soelle & Shirley A Cloyes, To Work and to Love: Towards a theology of creation (Fortress, 1987).
17. Those who wish to explore the debates in the churches more fully should consult Elizabeth Stuart and Adrian Thatcher (Eds), What the churches teach about sex (Mowbray, 1997).
18. I am well aware that the theological perspective I am offering here will not immediately be seen as a way forward by those within the church who are making a narrow approach to human sexuality a ‘defining issue’ for quite different reasons. But what we have to do with them, I believe, is to refocus the debate onto the question of what is centrally at stake in the Gospel. This is one of the things that helped change people’s minds on the question of slavery, which was widely held to be ‘biblical’ in earlier times. For it is a tribal misconstrual of the Christian message based on heterophobia (fear of the other) which I believe lies at the heart of much anti-gay sentiment. That and a (rightful) concern that we should not change the understanding of the church on grounds other than solidly theological ones.
19. Quoted in The Ecumenical Review, Volume 50, No 1, January 1998.