There are, thankfully, many sources available today which can counter and debunk the infamous clobber texts which have for so long been used abused in the course of bigotry and exclusion. There are also an increasing number of progressive theologians who have thoughtfully addressed considered matters from an LGBT or queer perspective, and developed a growing body of gay and lesbian, or queer, theology. What we do not often see is sympathetic theology from a conservative evangelical source.
I was delighted therefore. to come across a recent paper by Dr Mark, Achtemeier, who describes himself as can “out, self-affirming, practicing conservative evangelical”, in which he tells of the process of theological enquiry which led him to reverse his longstanding opposition to LGBT inclusion, and instead to argue in favour of same –sex marriage and ordination. Addressing the Covenant Network of Presbyterians on November 5 2009, Dr Achtermeier begins cautiously:
I have every confidence in the ability of my colleagues to address this discussion with genuine wisdom and deep insight. For myself I confess the topic makes me nervous. The reason is this: if you had told me just eight or nine years ago that on this date I would be standing before this group, speaking out in favor of marriage and ordination for lesbian and gay Christians, I would have declared you out of your mind.
But here I am, and here you are. And all I can say is that because of this experience I have learned never to make confident predictions about any situation in which God is involved.
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This point about God’s own involvement is crucial. A further key point, one which we as gay men, lesbian and trans people of faith would do well to a ponder carefully, was that the transition began when he started to speak with gay and lesbian Christians themselves, and came to see how false were the stereotypes and assumptions that he had previously taken for granted. God, he says, “had other plans” than his earlier equanimity, and led him to serious conversation and friendship with some gay Christians. Getting to know them, talking to them, showed how deeply his earlier assumptions had come out of reading only the authors he already agreed with, and was based on the popular stereotypes of gay people. Talking to these people, he says, was a surprising and unsettling experience, because he discovered that entirely against his preconceptions, he found that these people shared a deep Christian faith similar to his own, who were willing to engage with him in frank and conversation in spite of their knowledge of his own deep opposition. He then found how his earlier “comfortable settled convictions started to crack”.
These false assumptions were:
- Homosexuality is a destructive addiction – which means that talk of “justice” , “rights”, or “compassion” are meaningless.
- Homosexuals are self-indulgent, putting their own self-gratification above all else
Instead, he found what is well known to us, and to any one who has looked at the research evidence. A same sex orientation is deep-seated in our make-up, not amenable to “change”, and that the people he was talking with were “devoted Christian believers, filled with grace and a loving concern for the downtrodden…and deeply engaged in spiritual discipline”: typical Christians, in fact, just like him. He was also surprised to find that they resembled him in another important respect – their lifelong commitments to partners.
One of the religious arguments against “homosexuals” is that such “acts” are said to lead us away from God. Talking to real people showed Achtemeier how by focussing instead on the relationships, he discovered that these were leading people not away from God, but to Him – in exactly the same way that he believed his own marriage drew him closer to God.
However, he also faces the fact, uncomfortable for evangelicals with a strict respect for Scripture, that he is, or may be, putting experience ahead of scripture. Struggling with this, he remembered a story from Augustine, who quotes from I John 2:6, that we should “walk in the way of the Lord” – and then refers to the celebrated passage in which the Lord walked on water. Quite clearly, it is not possible to accept every text precisely literally. He then concludes that what he is doing, in reflecting on his experience, is not putting above Scripture, but using it to interpret Scripture.
Looking again at Scripture, he found a powerful Scriptural basis to argue in favour of marriage equality. In Genesis 2, God says “It is not God for man to be alone. I will give him a companion to help him.”
This leads him to an extended discussion of the standard Calvinist theology against celibacy. (This is based on the idea from Paul that although celibacy is an ideal for those who are able to practice it, most people are unable to. To protect weaker men (which means most of us) from the sins that this inability will lead to, Paul encourages marriage). He recognises from his own life that living singly, before marriage, He realises that many of the stereotypes he has acquired of gay people are based on single people, deprived of the opportunity of marriage.
This is an excellent, thought-provoking article, which deserves to be read in full (do so here), especially by other conservative evangelicals. However, they are unlikely to be reading “Queering the Church”, so I will restrict my comment to its significance for queer Christians – and especially my cp-religionists in the Catholic Church.
First, note the importance of conversation. Dr Achtermerier’s conversion would not have begun without the dialogue with gay Christians who were willing to engage with him in full frank and friendly conversation, even though they knew (to start with) that he was strongly opposed, on firm religious grounds, to everything they stood for. Yet they persevered, and in this case, won a valuable ally. (I am quite sure that not every conversation results in a conversion. There will be many disappointments. The perseverance in the face of other setbacks is what makes the achievement of Dr Achtermeier’s friends especially notable.)
To get these conversations going, the “welcoming and affirming” programme now found in several denominations (such as the Presbyterian Moe Light churches) are invaluable.
In the Catholic church, opportunities for such interaction with Catholic decision makers are limited – Catholic bishops are not renowned for their skills a the “listening church” they proclaim themselves to be. However, there are opportunities to talk one to one with ordinary Catholics in conventional congregations, and with local parish priests. Mark Jordan “The Silence of Sodom” warns against the futility of trying to argue rationally with the institutional Church, and he is right. But it is certainly possible to talk rationally with ordinary Catholics, and often with the local priest as well,
This is why dedicated, explicitly queer congregations such as London’s Soho Masses are not enough. There have enormous value, as moral and emotional support for those who are just beginning to face the facts of their situation in the institutional Church, as support and spiritual sustenance for those of us who have moved on to advance the struggle by other means, and for their symbolic value. But they do nothing to change the perceptions of ordinary Catholics, in ordinary congregations. For that, we also need people to participate in local parishes, to become visible, and to engage in frank conversations with their new co-parishioners.
Secondly, note that we are not alone in this. Early in his address, Fr Achetemeier refers to God’s role in moving his ideas along “God had other ideas”). As Catholics, we tend to be less aware of this than the Protestants, but it is an important point. Fr John McNeill has repeatedly reminded us that the Holy Spirit has a way of turning te most unpromising circumstance to her advantage, and my be doing now, with the abundant evidence of clerical failings all around us. He is right.
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- Queer Inclusion in Church: Evangelicals Ask, “What Would Jesus Do?” (queeringthechurch.wordpress.com)
- “Speaking the Truth” on Catholic LGBT Inclusion (queering-the-church.com)
- GLAAD’s Religious News Round-up: Highly Recommended (queeringthechurch.wordpress.com)
- Bishop James Jones: Another Evangelical Ally? (my-queer-spirituality.blogspot.com)