Today, the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool used his presidential address to seek unity within the fractured Anglican Communion…he did so by way of making an interesting comparison. The Bishop talked about the theory of Just War, a Christian ethic that sought a way of making sense of military service and human casualties of war.
The fact that conscripts and pacifists divided along one moral line does not detract from our admiration now nor deflect us from acknowledging now the moral courage of both. We may sympathise with the soldier yet we can salute the pacifist; we may identify fully with the pacifist yet admire the sacrifice of the soldier. In other words, we can now stand on either side of the moral argument and still be in fellowship despite disagreeing on this the most fundamental ethical issue, the sixth of the Ten Commandments.
It’s an eye-opening example that I haven’t articulated before: in our churches we have people who are pacifist and war hawk, soldiers and hippies, who believe Jesus would condone and condemn violence. We are talking about human lives here! And yet we (predominantly) keep in fellowship and disagree, with the issue so far from home and yet so close to our military families. On an issue of life and death, we choose fellowship over schism, don’t we? When it comes to disagreement over the Sixth Commandment (for crying out loud!), we keep together!!
And yet denominations are dividing, churches are fracturing, and caucus groups are raising tons of money over something that doesn’t kill people: sexual identity. Incredible.
Over time, Christian denominations and churches have come to accept the full spectrum of Just War theories and pacifistic theories with incredible disagreement but also incredible commitment to covenant faithfulness. And yet in just a few short decades, disagreement over sexual identity, which doesn’t kill people, has reduced it to rubble and decreased the Church’s social witness (much to the delight of interdenominational caucus groups that seek to blunt Christian social involvement). In short, covenant faithfulness has been left at the door when sexual identity enters the conversation.
Why? Multiple reasons but I think it is because for biblical literalists there is a plethora of Christian and Hebrew scripture to support either side of the just war debate. Neither side can tell the other they are ignoring plain scriptural account, neither side can use their Bible as a weapon. But for sexual identity, there is no clear counterbalance to the eight clobber passages referencing same-gender relations (at least for biblical literalists).
However, such one-sided clarity didn’t stop entire denominations from affirming women’s pastoral leadership in the face of the Pauline epistles, and didn’t stop John Wesley and the entire abolitionist movement from opposing slavery in the face of its passive acceptance in the Bible. Those social movements found scriptural support slowly, creepingly, and ultimately renewed the church when reconciliation came to fruition.
Perhaps we are at the same junction that war, women in ministry, and abolitionism was at. The Bishop seems to think so as he crescendos into a call for unity:
Just as the church over the last 2000 years has come to allow a variety of ethical conviction about the taking of life and the application of the sixth Commandment so I believe that in this period it is also moving towards allowing a variety of ethical conviction about people of the same gender loving each other fully. Just as Christian pacifists and Christian soldiers profoundly disagree with one another yet in their disagreement continue to drink from the same cup because they share in the one body so too I believe the day is coming when Christians who equally profoundly disagree about the consonancy of same gender love with the discipleship of Christ will in spite of their disagreement drink openly from the same cup of salvation.
The Bishop concludes with a renewed drive to fellowship with one another:
If on this subject of sexuality the traditionalists are ultimately right and those who advocate the acceptance of stable and faithful gay relationships are wrong what will their sin be? That in a world of such little love two people sought to express a love that no other relationship could offer them? And if those advocating the acceptance of gay relationship are right and the traditionalists are wrong what will their sin be? That in a church that has forever wrestled with interpreting and applying Scripture they missed the principle in the application of the literal text? Do these two thoughts not of themselves enlarge the arena in which to do our ethical exploration?
I believe that to have “diversity without enmity”, as the Dean put it at the Bishop’s Council, provides a safe and a spiritually and emotionally healthy place for Christians of differing convictions to discern the will of God for our lives. To know and to do God’s will is our calling. The place for that discernment is the Body of Christ where the different members, differentiated by the diversity of our graces, gifts and experiences, are called to be in harmony and love with one another.
I think this is fascinating because the Bishop is a believer in traditional Christian sexual relations and would be gladly welcomed into the most homophobic of church circles. But this Bishop can see people holding differing views on killing people share the common cup, so why not sexual identity disagreements as well? It’s a powerful witness.
Perhaps it is time to move towards an embrace of Just Sexuality, or the acknowledgement of a sexual ethic that seeks wholeness in relationships, justice in ways & means, with biblical foundations. With such an ethic the church can more clearly and forcefully witness to a culture that embraces life-sucking forms of sexuality at every second of media depiction. Do we have such an ethic already? Sure. But just as the Just War theory took twists and turns over time (Aquinas in the 1200s changed it significantly), perhaps we also can develop a more nuanced ethic for the modern age.
Just War has been around for 1600 years. For 1600 years, Christians have disagreed over the taking of human lives…and yet they stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the pews singing together. And they will for the next 1600 years, I guarantee! So for the next 1600 years, why can’t we continue to stand together with each other in disagreement over Just Sexuality and instead seek an ethic together that satisfies no one fully but places our trust in God, turning our energies outward to heal the world in its brokenness, and replaces self-serving calls for schism with renewed dedication to life together?
I think we can...at the molecular level of the church, starting with my pew, and your pew, and the pew behind and in front, until entire churches respect a diversity of belief and commit to keeping in fellowship with one another. There will be casualties, there will be crises of faith, but there will also be a grace that calls us to diversity without enmity for the sake of the shared mission of the body of Christ.