Quarrels about words?
In my years involved in dialogue and debate relating to sexuality, some of the most depressing moments have been when those who broadly share my views concerning biblical and church teaching speak and act in ways that I find really unhelpful, even damaging, and impossible to support. Reading the Pastoral Statement on Sexuality and Identity issued in January by the College of Bishops of the American Church of North America (ACNA) was one such moment. I thought of writing something at the time but decided against it. There was, after all, much good material within the letter and the problems in its negative treatment of the terminology of “gay Christian” and even “same-sex attracted Christian” were well highlighted by Mark Yarhouse in his response and the pained reactions many faithful Christians who, in ACNA’s required terminology, “experience same-sex attraction”. As David Bennett, author of The War of Loves, wrote on Facebook
The events of the last week have, however, highlighted just how serious the situation now is and made me realise that my initial silence was wrong. I was greatly encouraged to see a letter organised by Pieter Valk (like David Bennett, a celibate same-sex attracted man committed to traditional teaching on sexuality) who is exploring ordination in ACNA and signed by him and some ACNA clergy and one bishop. This letter appeared on a new website – https://deargayanglicans.com/ although as you will discover if you follow that link, the letter did not stay there very long. It was only there for a very short time due to the actions of ACNA leaders as stated there. It is, however, thankfully able to be read elsewhere on the internet including at Anglican Ink.
If this strong-arm episcopal censorship were not sufficient evidence that the problems with the original statement were signs of more fundamental problems in ACNA’s response to faithful, orthodox gay Christians there followed the doubling down on this reaction with the publication of a letter from ACNA Presiding Bishop Foley Beach. A letter he felt it necessary to write and send to his diocesan clergy the following day at 1.15 in the morning seeking to explain why action had to be taken against the letter. That explanation only revealed that the matter was much worse by highlighting the international problem. This has now become even more obvious with the statement from Nigeria that I discovered online as I finished writing this reflection on the ACNA disagreements. The early morning letter within ACNA, however, already signalled that there are underlying and deeper issues which need to be addressed urgently by the wider orthodox Anglican world, especially in GAFCON, whose Primates’ Council is chaired by Foley Beach:
I have had to deal with two provinces already (actually now three as of a few minutes ago) — and this is just the first day. In many of our partner provinces, the practice of homosexuality is against the law, and to make matters more difficult, they usually don’t understand the nuances of the word “gay” or “homosexual attraction” — they just hear the practice of same-sex immorality.
As that sentence makes clear, the heart of this disagreement could be viewed as exactly what Paul warns Timothy about –
It is, though, important to realise the root cause of this whole problem within ACNA. It has arisen because the statement from the ACNA bishops was widely understood to have taken a dogmatic stance in such a quarrel about words. This particular quarrel has developed, and at times got quite heated, within parts of the conservative Christian world in the U.S in recent years. The debates about the use of “gay Christian” have particularly been raised in response to the work of Revoice whose mission is “to support and encourage gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other same-sex attracted Christians—as well as those who love them—so that all in the Church might be empowered to live in gospel unity while observing the historic Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality”.
The ACNA Bishops’ Statement
Underlying the debates about words have been important questions about how we understand our personal identity in relation to Christian faith and sexuality and what we need to learn from followers of Jesus whose experience of their sexuality is different from the majority heterosexual experience. Here – unsurprisingly given it was the fruit of extensive discussion and reflection over a year (as explained here) – the pastoral statement sets out quite helpfully some of the important theological questions and debates. The problem is that the bishops then felt it was their duty to go further and to seek to use their episcopal authority to take sides in the “quarrelling about words” rather than limit themselves to highlighting the doctrinal truths that need to be preserved and the errors that need to be avoided. They therefore write:
Their first objection is the “lack of definition and common understanding” of such designations and so “confusion, misunderstanding, and misperception have resulted”. Their second is that in Scripture and Christian tradition “we do not find the people of God defining themselves or forming relationships and communities according to sexual desire and attractions”. Thirdly, there is the concern “with adding more adjectives to describe different sorts of Christians”. This concern with adjectives seems to be a particular concern as the Presiding Bishop’s letter highlights – “our discouraging the use of any pronoun [sic] before Christian, specifically “Gay Christian”.” Another clear concern in the statement is that such language will become widely accepted among younger Christians and the next generation:
Although not prominent in the original statement, Foley Beach’s letter and subsequent developments makes clear that another major concern is also reaction from conservative provinces elsewhere in the world, to which we will return later.
The statement is thus clear in its assessment:
Recognising that “we all need language to help us describe and confess “the devices and desires of our own hearts” as our Book of Common Prayer states” and “that our youth and adults need language to share about their experience” the bishops write –
Evaluating the ACNA Statement
Although the focus here is on formal church usage, the strength of the language used cannot but have an impact on those “Christians who experience same-sex attraction”, all of whom have to wrestle with how to understand and speak about their experience of sexuality in ways that “Christians who experience opposite-sex attraction” do not. The message that comes across is that the church objects to them describing themselves as “gay Christians”. This then gives fuel to those (whether traditional Christians or non-Christians who identify as LGBT) who argue “you cannot be gay and a Christian”. It is also likely to lead to an increase in the sense of shame and being second-class (or worse) simply because of the pattern of one’s attractions. It looks horribly like an attempt to effectively silence the voices of anyone who experiences same-sex attraction who wishes to speak in their own way about their own experience and own understanding of who they are in Christ and who wishes to try to help those without that experience to understand them better. Instead of learning the importance of “no talking about us, without us”, the church appears to be saying “no talking about yourselves, and certainly no talking with us, without using our approved language for yourselves”.
The concern about “adjectives to describe different sorts of Christians” appears particularly peculiar. Such qualifiers are everywhere, not least because every Christian has many other identifying characteristics with which they may describe themselves and which may well be conjoined with describing themselves as a Christian (or even as a church). They are used to differentiate oneself from other fellow Christians – Anglican, charismatic, evangelical, traditional, orthodox. They are used to describe important features of a person’s life whether they are or are not a Christian – single, married, divorced – and can be particularly important when that feature marks someone out as part of a minority which has experience of prejudice, misunderstanding and mistreatment from the majority (black, disabled, Jewish). They are used for social identities and communities of which we are part and which as such always carry the risk of becoming, as the bishops note, “a kind of idolatry”. Here one might think of national designations – American, English. Sometimes the linguistic structure is reversed, and we use such words as a noun which is qualified by the term Christian – Christian medic or lawyer or banker or businessman. In the past this is how describing sexuality was often handled by conservatives – one of the first books addressing the subject from an evangelical publisher had the subtitle “Letters of a Christian Homosexual”. Arguably this form of language is even more problematic giving primacy to the identity captured in the noun with “Christian” simply a qualifier of that identity. Are all these self-descriptors similarly to be eschewed and replaced with cumbersome phrases so we speak of ourselves as Christians who experience being married, being black, being American, being a teacher? Or is this only required with those descriptors that relate to the experience of sexual minorities?
Those who prefer or at least accept the language of “gay Christian” or “same-sex attracted Christian” have presented various reasons why they do so while holding traditional teaching (as, to be fair, the bishops’ statement describes). It can be understood as being more truthful about the significance, weight and constancy of what is being described in relation to the person’s life experience than what is implied by the language of “who experiences”. Relatedly, it can point to how this reality suffuses a person’s life and relationships and should not be reduced simply to their experiences of sexual arousal. For many it particularly has an important missiological rationale, showing a Christian presence among, and solidarity with, those who have often been treated unjustly and providing openings for Christian witness and evangelism both among those who identify as gay or lesbian and within wider society. Even those who share the concerns of ACNA bishops, such as Sam Allberry, will talk about exceptions to the rule and acknowledge “there are times when I felt I needed to use the language of being gay in order to have the conversation”. In contrast, the ACNA-approved terminology of “experience same-sex attraction” will be either meaningless or possibly offensive among most non-Christians, especially those who identify as gay or lesbian. Finally, there is the simple complexity of the language. Archbishop Foley Beach complained of the letter that “Replacing “gay Christian” with “gay Anglican” is pretty much in your face” but were Pieter Valk and the other signatories really expected to write “Dear Anglicans who experience same-sex attraction”? Would everything (apart from readability) by resolved simply by applying search and replace to “gay Anglicans” throughout the letter?
ACNA and Global Anglicanism
As the ACNA statement makes clear, there are real challenges and dangers in simple and uncritical acceptance of “gay Christian” language. Those need to be taken seriously but are they really so serious as to be sufficient to require bishops to police the terminology so officiously? And are the bishops not concerned about the challenges and dangers in such an approach? It will undoubtedly further alienate many gay and lesbian people from ACNA churches and perhaps others which uphold traditional teaching. It gives them the impression that there is no real willingness to continue listening to them and seeking to understand their experience better. It also risks undermining the already challenging biblical ethic by adding to it further unnecessary extra-biblical strictures. This in turn is likely to make the revisionist position more attractive not just to many of those who experience same-sex attraction but to the many other Christians who currently accept the teaching of Scripture and traditional teaching of the church as authoritative but recognise how hard that is for those who are gay.
Archbishop Foley’s letter highlights that even more serious now than the internal ACNA debate is the need to address these matters within the wider GAFCON leadership which it is clear was a driving force in the clampdown on the letter. Rather than following that course of action on the grounds that in other contexts “the practice of homosexuality is against the law” and “they usually don’t understand the nuances of the word “gay” or “homosexual attraction” — they just hear the practice of same-sex immorality” there should have been a recognition that these reactions within GAFCON are serious problems. The calling of ACNA is not to appeal to these as reasons for silencing the voices of those whom the ACNA bishops’ statement says, “we seek to respect those within our ACNA family who may disagree with our conclusions and yet remain true to the biblical witness regarding Christian marriage”. The calling of ACNA is to help conservatives in the wider Communion and especially within GAFCON to understand the complexities of human sexuality and that those of us who uphold traditional teaching have much to learn if we “want to communicate our love for the many within the Church who live with same-sex attraction”. It is noteworthy and commendable that the one ACNA bishop who originally signed the “Dear Gay Anglicans” letter – New Testament scholar Grant Le Marquand – served as a bishop in the Horn of Africa for seven years and so clearly knowledge of the African context and concern for good relations with its churches does not entail being silent. [Another ACNA bishop, Todd Hunter, had earlier written an important letter of pastoral guidance to his diocese which showed awareness of the problems with the College’s statement and speaks of “celibate, gay Christians”].
The recent response from the new Primate of Nigeria shows the pressure Archbishop Foley has been subjected to and it also reveals beyond a shadow of doubt just how seriously unbiblical a response to same-sex attracted people is found within the senior GAFCON leadership. It attacks even the ACNA Bishops’ Pastoral Statement as “toleration of same-sex persons within their fold….tantamount to a subtle capitulation to recognise and promote same-sex relations among its members”. It describes the “Dear Gay Anglicans” letter in response as “a clarion call to recruit Gays into ACNA member parishes. The deadly ‘virus’ of homosexuality has infiltrated ACNA. This is likened to a Yeast that should be urgently and radically expunged and excised”. Foley Beach’s rapid removal of that letter from the web is “palliative, weak and unwilling to discipline” and “has not cured the diseases that has set in already”.
The word ‘homophobic’ is often misused to label traditional understandings and I normally therefore avoid it but it is, sadly, the only possible word that can be used in the face of such unacceptable language. The statement from Nigeria is clearly totally incompatible with two of the clauses of Lambeth I.10 which GAFCON claims to uphold and publishes on its website. This resolution
Those who hold traditional understandings need to challenge and not kowtow to such views and patterns of speech wherever they are found. In the words of Bishop Greg Brewer, a Communion Partner bishop within TEC, “This is an unmitigated tragedy that will bear no good fruit. It has already caused harm to the Side B Anglicans it targets. But the implications of this letter are far bigger than that. The letter expresses a hatred that is incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ”.
Conclusion – The Real Challenge
I vividly recall talking in 2002 to a senior Nigerian bishop at the Wycliffe Conference on The Future of Anglicanism as we travelled together on a bus to the session at St Aldate’s on homosexuality. Planning that session had opened my eyes to how different the American conservative world was from that in the UK. While there were Christians in the US who would offer an “ex-gay Christian” narrative (that identity and language was not as problematic as “gay Christian”), the idea of a single, celibate gay Christian narrative was it seemed practically unheard of for many of them. Martin Hallett’s testimony was therefore a revelation to many of those attending not just from the Global South. The Nigerian bishop explained to me how he had come to realise that there were good, born again, Spirit-filled, Bible-believing Christians who experienced same-sex attraction and who believed and lived within the church’s teaching. He described how simply saying this back home made him unacceptable and viewed as a liberal revisionist by many of his fellow bishops.
It is a sad reality that nearly 20 years later, despite all the work of Global South and GAFCON around sexuality, and all their connections with Western conservatives, the Nigerian understanding appears unchanged and such a view is now being expressed in response to even the ACNA Pastoral Statement. At GAFCON in 2018 there were sessions on sexuality but it was noteworthy and disappointing that they were overwhelmingly run by and attended by white Westerners with little or no engagement from other provinces present. Thankfully things have changed within North America with Revoice, the testimony of people like Wes Hill, the work of Mark Yarhouse and Preston Sprinkle (and his Center for Faith, Sexuality and Gender), and the Life on Side B podcast and Spiritual Friendship blog all giving prominence to voices that before were silenced.
The pressing question now is whether the ACNA leadership will recognise where the most serious departure from Christian faithfulness among those who hold traditional views on sexuality is to be found. It is not among those who wrote the “Dear Gay Anglicans letter” and who use or are open to using the language of “gay Christian” or “same-sex attracted Christian” of themselves or of brothers and sisters in Christ. Such quarrels about words fall into the sphere where, in the words of the Jerusalem Declaration, we can and should “acknowledge freedom in secondary matters”. The most serious departure from Christian faithfulness among those who hold traditional views on sexuality – and the most serious threat to the witness of all in the West who hold such views – is that of those who wrote and who support the response of the Nigerian church to what has transpired in ACNA and who pressured Foley Beach to act as he did in response to the “Dear Gay Anglicans” letter.
Supporters of The Jerusalem Declaration pledge “to work together to seek the mind of Christ on issues that divide us”. The Pastoral Statement from ACNA’s College of Bishops and the reactions to it show that such work urgently seeking together the mind of Christ is now needed both within Western contexts and even more so globally among all those who “acknowledge God’s creation of humankind as male and female and the unchangeable standard of Christian marriage between one man and one woman as the proper place for sexual intimacy and the basis of the family”.