"I'm what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful man. And I've failed much more than I've succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together, and I say, "Where are we going?" And it starts to get better." - Calvin Trager
From a post I wrote for the Episcopal House of Bishops and Deputies list...
Much of the conversation about sexuality that threatens to consume the Episcopal Church is concerned with standards of behavior – what they are, what they should be and whether they are being applied fairly and equally.
What makes this conversation most difficult for me is that the discernment and application of standards -- whether single, double or otherwise -- seems almost exclusively limited to matters of sex. I find that not merely curious, but in truth, quite dangerous.
There is nothing in our ordination vows or in our baptismal covenant that explicity establishes any one absolute standard specifically related to sexual behavior. What we believe is inferred from several broad questions and statements.
This conversation also usually involves Title IV. Among the things that Title IV says clergy can be brought up on charges for are violation of ordination vows and immorality (it also says that we can be charged with "violating the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer." ... as Dick Tombaugh used to say "...and the trial for that one will be held in the Louisiana SuperDome, 'cause it's the only place big enough to hold all the defendants!" -- talk about a double standard in applying the canons!).
In NONE of these places is sex specifically mentioned and in NONE of these places is our sexual behavior given a place of importance over any other type of behavior. (For example, Title IV doesn't say sexual immorality, it just says "immorality".)
Our baptismal and ordination vows and the canons of this church compel us to live lives that are characterized by the kenotic love of God expressed in creation by the incarnate Word of God, Jesus the Christ, born, crucified, died and resurrected. It is a call and challenge we as members of a body must engage with our whole lives -- certainly our sexual activity is a piece of that, but it is by no means the only piece and it is by no means the most important piece. And yet you would never know that by listening to us.
And that is what makes this seemingly endless conversation difficult for me -- and what I think is, in the end, most harmful about it. Each side in this debate claims that they are operating against the dominant (read: Hostile to the Gospel of Christ) culture and that the other side is caving into it. But it is the debate itself that is reinforcing a huge piece of our dominant culture that I really do believe is contrary to the teachings of Christ and contrary to our call to live a life in that Christ.
In elevating sexual behavior above every other type of behavior in our need to adopt and apply standards. In elevating sexual sin (if we could even agree on what that is!) above every other type of sin in litmus tests for things like ordination or lay leadership. In doing these things, we are reinforcing the current culture of obsession with sexuality that exists at least in America. In doing these things we are telling the world that they are absolutely on the right track to elevate sexual behavior to the position of most importance in their life and relationships ... because that's what we're doing, and doing it in a way that the whole world can see.
I'm not saying our sexual behavior is unimportant. Our sexuality is a gift from God and it is very powerful. But we act like it is our only gift from God, that it completely defines who we are and that our exercise of it is the most important determining factor for our individual and corporate salvation.
And it begs a question in which I believe our salvation is inextricably bound:
In a country where the emerging generations have the smallest percentage of commitment to a community of faith of any generations in our nation's history...
In a country where the past 50 years have seen us become increasingly isolated from each other in our nation, communities, neighborhoods and even in our own families...
How can we continue to act as if the elusive search for an absolute sexual ethic is the only task and the only ethic that matters? How can we claim to embody the transforming Gospel of Christ when our actions and inactions, when the topics on which we choose to spend our time, energy and money reinforce a culture that spends billions of dollars more getting Viagra in the hands of middle-aged white American men than antiretrovirals in the hands of terminally ill black African mothers and children?
This conversation is full of rhetoric on all sides about judgment. Judgment for behavior that is deemed immoral. Judgment for behavior that is deemed unloving. But if there indeed is judgment, and if indeed we look to scripture to tell us what that judgment is, while we're parsing through more debatable passages about sexuality, shouldn't we look more closely at Matthew 25 as to what the topic of conversation will be at the day of judgment when the nations are gathered around the throne (hint: it's not a three-letter word beginning with s!)
Because by acting as we are, we are not just subjecting ourselves to judgment, we are not just contributing to leading many others astray as well by reinforcing the cultural belief that sexuality is the be-all and end-all of life, we are robbing ourselves of the fullness of joy that comes from a Gospel FULLY preached, FULLY apprehended and FULLY lived. A gospel that, yes, cares about who we are as sexual beings but also cares about who we are as people of compassion and generosity and mercy and thought and a thousand other things.
And maybe that's the biggest sign I see. One thing that is consistently missing from this debate is joy. Even the celebrations each side has have a hint of the vindictiveness about them that comes from a victory OVER someone else. Where I see the joy is the many cases of people stepping outside of and beyond the narrowness of this issue to reach out in love and compassion across the street and around the world.
Where I see joy and where I feel joy is when people talk about the real ministries that are going on in their congregations, the lives that are being changed, the Gospel that is being preached and lived, the ways that so many types of hunger are being fed.
Should we strive for standards of just behavior? Certainly. Are there double standards out there? Absolutely. And in terms of a sexual ethic, if we ever come to terms with a coherent one we should make sure that it is one that is applied equally.
But when we act as if this is the only double standard that matters, we blaspheme against our Lord as he stands holding the hand of the six-year old girl in Ghana who is dying of malaria for lack of a treated bednet while my children sleep safe in their Ikea bunk bed in an air-conditioned house with more toys than whole villages I have visited in that country.
We will know we have emerged as a church of the living Word when our discernment over people's fitness for ordination or lay leadership involves prayerful conversation about their compassion, their dedication to the poor, their commitment to breaking down the power of loneliness and their ability to have their lives be carriers in a worldwide pandemic of God's joy.
And I take heart, because as I look around, I know that day is coming ... and sooner than we might think.
| Mike at 6/09/2005 09:25:00 PM
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"Christ's example is being
demeaned by the church if they ignore the new leprosy,
which is AIDS. The church is the sleeping giant here.
If it wakes up to what's really going on in the rest
of the world, it has a real role to play. If it doesn't,
it will be irrelevant."