Friday, July 17, 2009

A Conversation Waiting to Begin

I spent the last couple of days of my vacation reading Oliver O'Donovan's A Conversation Waiting to Begin: The churches and the gay controversy (London: SCM Press, 2009). The book has sat on my shelf for several months, but this was a good time for me to digest O'Donovan's words, applying his insights to the circumstances in which I am living.

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church of the USA was meeting as I was reading, and each day my spirits were further dampened by the actions the Convention was taking, decisions that are surely moving it beyond the fringes of the Anglican Communion, and perhaps beyond a generous catholic Christianity. These were decisions which the good professor was, I think, hoping to head off with a thoughtful and carefully argued discussion.

I was also reading it following something that had happened in our own family recently, something that was not on my mind when I purchased the book. During this time one of my nearest and dearest came out of the closet and admitted to being actively gay. While I had long suspected this, knowing something for certain tends to color perceptions and raise a whole series of questions. This latest admission probably means that within my immediate family there are statistically actually more homosexual persons than in most others.

The actions of the church and circumstances like these have forced me on several occasions during the last decade to ask substantial questions about human sexuality. I have found myself wondering if there is something that I have missed. My understanding of human sexuality has been very traditional, but I have felt for the sake of honestly that I must go back and examine not only my presuppositions, but also the evidence being presented to me both by current scholarship and the substance of the Bible. Neither in my exploring have I stuck to those writers and thinkers who echo what has been my own position, but have roamed far and wide and, among other things, have been looking to see if there are insights that I have overlooked, misunderstood, or misinterpreted.

I guess you can say that within my own limits I have sought to be as open and as honest as is possible. The exercises have been fruitful, because each time this has occurred I have gained new and constructive insights into the human condition in general, as well as this particular aspect of being human. As I have approached this topic again, among others I have had Oliver O'Donovan as a helpful companion, and for this I have been grateful.

However, this time I have brought a different set of questions to the dilemma the contemporary approach to human sexuality presents because this whole business comes impossibly close to home for me. My questions have been informed by the fact that this is something I am likely to have to deal with face-to-face most days for the rest of my life. The overriding query I have made of myself is how I might do this.

My internal landscape during this last ten or fifteen years of battling over sexuality, both in the church and in wider society, has probably experienced most of the same ups and downs as so many others. Fury, fear, confusion, and now a kind of stoic fatalism have flavored my responses. At times raw anger has led me to say and do things which I have subsequently regretted, at others I have worked hard to find some kind of modus vivendi with those whose convictions have not matched my own. It has seemed to me more and more that we have been presented with a fete accomplis rather than being able to participate in a conversation both whose substance and whose outcome have been far from clear.

Oliver O'Donovan's book was published in the USA as Church in Crisis: the Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion. With all due respects to the American publisher, I believe the British title, A Conversation Waiting to Begin, is a much better description of the book's essence. Yes, the starting point of these ten dozen pages is the crisis in the Anglican Communion that caught light in 2003 with the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, but having alighted from that point it ranges over far wider territory much as any intelligent conversation would.

Rather than pontificating, he graciously nudges us to look at issue within the context of the changed realities with which we live in an evolving culture. Each relatively short chapter asks us to come at the topic using tools of ethical and theological scholarship, Scripture, hermeneutics, and measuring these against the substantial doctrines of creation and redemption. Sometimes he speaks overtly about being logical and reasonable in our quest, but on almost every page he is whispering this as if between the lines.

Why is it, he asks, that this one little thing has proved so explosive and divisive? Well, comes back the answer, it depends what you mean by 'one little thing?' How little actually is this? In the fourth century the church as it went through the exercise of creed-making seemed to be riven over one little iota, but in reality that discussion was about a great deal more because at stake was affirming a truthful understanding of the nature of God or one that is idolatrous. Are we, he asks, in a similar situation here?

While never exactly giving a definitive answer to such a question, by leading us along a number of different pathways as we approach the topic he leaves us nodding and saying, "Yes, there is an enormous amount at stake here of which differing understandings of human sexuality are merely the trigger."

Part of what is being said is that we have probably not given as much attention as we should to the changing social climate of the world in which we now live. Certainly since the nineteenth century, and especially within Anglicanism, there has existed a 'liberalism' that has modulated disagreement and enabled diversity to exist within the context of a generous unity. This underlying liberalism has been able to step back, untangle the skein, reconcile conflicting views, tone down exaggerated positions, forge coalitions, square circles, and in the process find a commonsense way through (page 5).

But now "the whole stock in trade of a tradition once defined by opposition to enthusiasm of every kind, seems to have been mysteriously wiped off the software. In its place are radical postures, strident denunciations and moralistic confessionalism" (page 5). Because of the tendency of 'liberalism' to ally itself to 'victim' causes that they believe require a moral and just leveling of the playing field, a situation is created which leads to a face-off with conservatism, both political and ecclesiastical.

"For the theological liberal... the substantive content is indeterminate, and what is wrong with conservatism is precisely that it clings to the past, holding back in reserve from the God-destined character of the present cultural moment... the self-validating ethical convictions of modern civilization are the final criterion for judging all else; they are the very image of God that it bears anonymously as its birthright" (pages 9-10).

While I cannot hope to encapsulate a carefully presented discussion in a handful of words, O'Donovan is essentially saying that yesterday's 'liberal' way of resolving things no longer works because the culture has moved on, but what we do not have, to quote the Archbishop of Canterbury, is a "habit of cultural sensitivity and intellectual flexibility that does not seek to close down unexpected questions too quickly" (quoted Page 7).

Having set the discussion up, the rest of the book examines the dilemma using the finely tuned tools of O'Donovan's trade as a world-class theologian, ethicist, cultural observer, and philosopher. All the time he is nudging us toward the final chapter which is entitled "Good News for the Gay Christian?"

Professor O'Donovan does not step back from saying that there is hard news in the gospel for gay Christians (as well as all other Christians) to listen and respond to, we also need to consider Rowan Williams' question, "How does the homosexually inclined person show Christ to the world?" He continues, "For if the gay Christian is to be addressed as a believer and a disciple, a recipient of the good news, he has also to be addressed as a potential evangelist. But we must take this... question further. The good news meant for the human race is meant for the church, too. What good news does the gay Christian have to bring to the church?" (page 103).

O'Donovan demands that instead of making our case with statistics, scientific reports, and so forth, but we should use the words of the evangel for, "if the church speaks not as a witness to God's saving work but as a pundit or a broker of some deal, it speaks out of character... for the gospel must be preached to the gay Christian on precisely the same terms as it is preached to any other person" (Page 110), for homosexuality is NOT the determining factor in any human being's existence -- despite the pressure within the culture to make us think it is such.

Put another way, it seems that what O'Donovan is asking us is as a broken church living in the context of a broken world to speakChrist's righteousness to a shared brokenness, and this inevitably involves our sexuality in all its shapes and forms. In such an environment soft and evasive compromises do not appeal, and neither do they have traction. The touchstone is living the righteousness of Jesus Christ in a world that has presented us with a very different reality. This, he posits, is about friendship, not about "juridical language of justice and rights" (Page 116).

"The gay Christian thus faces in a particular way the choice that constitutes the human situation universally: whether to follow the route of self-justification or to cast oneself hopefully on the creative justification that God himself will work within a community of shared belief" (Page 116). However, if this is to happen not only is friendship a prerequisite, so also is serious patience. The old-style 'liberalism' that used to preside over the church has to give way to something that is differently flavored, friendship and patience being touchstones.

I am only at the beginning of unpacking what this means given my own personal dilemma, but I have to say that it makes a lot more sense than the polarized and polarizing yelling at one another and excluding one another that seems to have been taking place. I have been hurt by what has gone on, and it is likely that I am doing some of the hurting. As I deal with this on a personal level I have been given clues to try to keep the conversation civil and constructive.

On the ecclesial level, it would appear that separation is the only solution being offered by 'liberals' and 'conservatives' alike. Given the gospel of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, neither appears acceptable when tested against the great doctrines of Christianity, catholic ecclesiology, and within a forum where the grace of friendship and the grace of patience surely ought to prevail. "Anyone who thinks that resolutions can be reached in one leap without long mutual exploration, probing, challenge, and clarification has not yet understood the nature of the riddle that the ironic fairy of history has posed for us in our time" (Page 119).


JSBenton said...

Thank you for this, Rev. Kew. I'm reminded of my sister's Philadelphia Central Meeting of Friends, the Quaker congregation. They talked for five years as a congregation before deciding whether to bless gay unions. We Anglicans have not been so patient and serious.

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Anonymous said...

Rev. Kew, is July 17th your most recent post? I know that I read something very recently regarding your views on heresy and schism, but now that I want to go backhand read it again, I cannot find this reference. Please help! Best would be to email me at if you would be so kind.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Hi Rev. Kew

Thank you for your comments. I too am trying to explore the different arguments put forward in this debate, but I am struggling to find coherent 'liberal' points of view. Do you know of some journal articles or books that may have some well thought out arguments? My email address is

Grace and peace

byron smith said...

Thanks, this is a very helpful summary and review of O'Donovan's book, which has probably not generally received the attention that I think it deserves.