[NOTE: Day of Conversation on Human Sexuality was sponsored by the Diocese of Alabama on May 31, 2003 at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Birmingham, Alabama . The principal teacher was The Very Rev. Dr. Philip Turner, retired Dean of the Berkeley School of Divinity at Yale University. Dean Turner based his remarks on an address he delivered to the clergy of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi in June of 2001, entitled "Staying Together: A Prescription for Hard Times". The text of that address can be found at AmericanAnglican.org, the Web site of the American Anglican Council, to which Dean Turner is a theological advisor. Opening Remarks were given by The Rev. Louie Skipper, Associate Priest of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Birmingham and The Rev. Michael H. Wyckoff, Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Tuscaloosa gave a contrasting view.]
ONE BEGINNING TO A CONVERSATION ON HUMAN SEXUALITY
The Rev. Louie Skipper
I think we are all clear about what we are here to do. But it seems important to declare who we are here to be. We are here to be the Church this morning, to speak and listen in love asking for the guidance of the Spirit and to make known Christ in our midst. As followers of Jesus it is important that none of us take ourselves too seriously. This is not about Dean Turner, this is not about Michael Wyckoff, and this certainly is not about Louie Skipper. It is also important that we do not take these papers too seriously. They are not meant to be exhaustive but rather to serve as a beginning to conversation. If they are useful at your tables to generate discussion, they have served their intent. If not, feel free to discard them entirely. Some of the best poems I know were written in the margins of papers that took themselves too seriously. It is my full intention to sit among you when I am through here and remain quiet for the rest of the day.
I would like to tell you something of my own discovery of Jesus Christ and try to speculate about human sexuality. When I was led to the Episcopal Church nearly thirty years ago, I was challenged to get beyond the literal "black and white" words of scripture so that I might form a more vital relationship with the Living Word. I learned that the Episcopal Church had, at the core of its tradition, a powerful optimism, a passion for love amid cries for justice and truth. Through the Holy Spirit calling us into communion, reason was the gift God had given us to find Christ within others, within ourselves.
I will always be indebted to the Rev. Jim Woodson and Canterbury Chapel for bringing me so much closer to the love of God than I had imagined possible. Suddenly there was room for the entirety of my being, including my mind and imagination. There before us then, and now, was and is Jesus' great commandment: love one another.
So where does a conversation regarding human sexuality begin? Beginning with scripture is problematic for me. I understand the committed and faithful Christian homosexual relationship to be a sacred expression of love. I realize this is not an assumption upon which we all agree, but those who do respect such a relationship will discover no mention of it in either the Hebrew or New Testament. Scripture is silent on this kind of sexual relationship simply because it holds no concept of it. I do. There are wonderful people in this room and in every one of our churches in such relationships.
Secondly, if it is true, and I believe it is, that the Episcopal Church does have an abiding passion for love amid cries for justice and truth, a passion often tempered by time, then tradition itself would have us ask, what justice is there in describing another person in any way other than in the fullness of his or her own humanity?
Thirdly, within our conversation today, where is Jesus Christ?
As I look back to the selective scriptural literalism that was so much of my upbringing in the 1950s in Alabama, I realize much that was taught to me about God was really about the culture of fear, and its subsequent prejudices that thrived around us. Pathology preceded theology. The God I heard about so loudly and for so long, filled with His threats and portents of doom, was an expression of fear in the face of change by an anxious heart.
Far more zealous over hell and its probabilities than in anything heavenly or loving, the God I was taught to believe in was a sociopathic overlord who bullied people for generations and who relished condemnation. Had all sense of loving-kindness been ripped from the belly of the Bible, had all grace been evaporated, it would not have been missed. Again, pathology preceded theology.
So what can I say for a faithful, loving, and committed homosexual relationship with regard to scripture? I find nothing. Regarding homosexuality in general, I hear the familiar threats from my own childhood. Whenever a penalty for homosexual behavior is suggested in scripture, that penalty is death. If, as Galatians 5.3 suggests, should we follow the Law then we are to follow each instance of the Law, who among us, the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court not-withstanding, would fail to find such a condemnation to be the product of an unstable, dangerous, contemporary mind? Few of us, thanks be to God, are willing to follow scripture so thoroughly or abuse it so rankly.
I offer this to you as a way of showing the difficulty that scripture presents, left to its own devices, for those who believe in Christian homosexual relationships.
Now on to my second question: What justice is there in describing another person in any way other than in the fullness of his or her own humanity? As I attempt to love God and my brother and sister as Jesus has loved me, it is urgent to never settle for less than embracing the full acknowledgment of another person. This seems obvious when speaking of followers of other faiths, of racial identity, of employment status, of social standing, or health. The question before us is why should sexual identity be the means by which we describe anyone?
I believe that I am called through my Baptismal Covenant to my neighbor, as opposed to labels that work to reduce and dehumanize this person. I don't mean to hang out my laundry here, but because of my own childhood, I am a recovering homophobic and recovering racist. For me to cling to a perspective that denies the fullness of personhood can easily become for me a denial of Christ, first within my neighbor, and then, because of that, within myself. The denial of Christ is all that Evil Incarnate ever asks of any of us. This does not mean that I find such an ideal to be easy. It is far easier to enjoy my prejudices, and I will likely be trying to challenge my prejudices for the rest of my life, with God's help.
What possible good could come from denouncing a person for his or her sexual identity? I cannot imagine anyone having a choice when it comes to sexual identity. I say that based upon my understanding of myself. I am hopelessly heterosexual. I have always loved women. I was born that way and I do not see any chance of changing. In fact I will go so far as to say, I do not believe I could change my sexual identity no matter who had that expectation of me. I love my wife and fully expect to remain in a committed relationship with her all my life. So where is the justice in my expecting other people to either change their sexuality or not act upon it in a loving committed relationship?
Does it not seem more reasonable and more loving, more Christian, to expect from homosexual relationships the same ideals I expect from heterosexual relationships: love, fidelity, and mutual respect? Does it not seem more reasonable and more loving, more Christian, to offer the same forgiveness for the human failures of love through grace to homosexual and heterosexual alike?
In our conversation today, where is Jesus Christ? He is right here, and, as we have found him in Eucharist I pray that we go on to find him today in the care that we demonstrate for one another, regardless of opinion on this issue. I challenge all of us to protect everyone from verbal abuse, especially those with whom any one of us might disagree.
What I found those many years ago in Canterbury Chapel was nothing short of a new life. Because of Jesus, I was blessed as a child of God through grace. Suddenly I saw all things streaming from Christ's creative love, anything and everything from the stars at night burning into the shapes and figures we make them out to be, the way the ocean seemed to catch its breath as though it were about to sing through its emerald waters, the possibilities of hope, wholeness, and liberation ever present throughout eternal and undeniable love.
Beyond my fear of what I believe to be unlike myself, beyond that which I do not understand, beyond my own pathology, there is Jesus, the living Light of the World. There is Jesus, this mysterious son of Mary and Son of God who constantly takes me beyond the limits of my own acceptance and comprehension, even through death itself. There is Jesus, not words but Living Word, the One who, before time began, set love as the bedrock and cornerstone of the universe.
There is Jesus, telling me to remember that above all else He will be true. There is this holy table that is itself a proclamation that we must be in communion with one another if we are to live into this new possibility offered us by the resurrection. This is a possibility based upon a radical assumption, that I must struggle to love others, including those I believe to be unlike myself, as children of God in their own singular wholeness.
To accept my own salvation, I must see others as they are and love them as myself, just as I must see Christ as he is. There is this holy table where I pledge to bring the full force of my own humanity into a living proclamation of love. There is this holy table telling me to come home, that all is forgiven, challenging me before the God who does not simply ask that I choose him but who would have me remember that he first chose me.
What does it mean to be fully included?
There is a document available to you here, Claiming the Blessing, that speaks to this question. I will simply attempt to offer a quick summary. Claiming the Blessing is a partnership of organizations that " has committed itself to obtaining approval at the 2003 General Convention, of a liturgical rite of blessing, celebrating the holy love in faithful relationships between couples for whom marriage is not available, enabling couples in these relationships to see in each other the image of God."
If such a rite were to pass it would be included within The Book of Occasional Services. It also important to note that it is not the expectation of those seeking this rite that it would be used throughout the Church.
"Liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists, must learn to live together in this Church or there will be no Church in which for us to live. But learning to live together must mean 'mutual deference' not moratoriums or some insistence that we all convert to being 'moderates'."
(Their) "second message to the church at large is that (they) are not going anywhere. Gay and lesbian Christians make up a significant portion of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America. (They) will continue to do so after General Convention 2003 no matter what happens. (They) will not attempt to get (their) way by threatening to leave. (They) ask those on all sides of this debate to make this commitment as well." (Claiming the Blessing)
Just what are we blessing when we bless a same-sex relationship?
"We are blessing the persons in relationships with one another and the world in which they live. We are blessing the ongoing promise of fidelity and mutuality. We are neither blessing 'orientation' or 'lifestyle,' nor blessing particular sexual behaviors. 'Orientation' and 'lifestyle' are theoretical constructs that cannot possibly be descriptive of any couple's commitment to one another. And every couple works out their own sexual behavior that sustains and enhances their commitment. We don't prescribe that behavior, whether the couple is heterosexual or homosexual, except to say it must be within the context of mutuality and fidelity." (Claiming the Blessing)
If you have not seen Spike Lee's documentary on the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church here in Birmingham, I recommend it. Each time I watch the aged faces of the parents and sisters of those little girls who will always be as they are in our minds, tragically young and beautiful, I come away amazed at the depth of possibility that the Holy Spirit works through us. The sorrow is there because we never get over our grief, rather we become that which our grief makes us. Then a choice is given us by our faith: Will we allow ourselves to become closed, bitter, and dry, unable to keep the covenant and claim the blessing? Like those relatives of random victims, who are the living stones and precious salt of the earth, will we become loving, wise, spiritually powerful, and therefore free, truly free? The choice is ours.
This morning we put Eucharist before all of this, this strange little meal we shared, the Word of God so oddly brought into being and into the claim that we belong to one another to such a degree, that without being in communion, we are captive to a darkness the horror of which we are hardly able to imagine. Look at our silly, hurting, angry world and tell me anywhere else we might go to find a proclamation so simple, so foolish, so glorious.
My family, including my wife Susan and our teenaged children Stephen and Jenna, were the first heterosexual, clerical family to join Integrity-Alabama. No other response made sense when the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court made an open appeal to violence against lesbian women and gay men. No other response made sense when we thought through the values we prayed our children might have in the fallen world that often seems so determined to do itself in. To those members of Integrity who are here, thank you for welcoming us as you have. I hope other families will consider joining us.
In an old book, Matthew Fox remembers a question once put to Albert Einstein, "What is the most important question you can ask in life?" Einstein answered, "Is the universe a friendly place or not?" Few human beings in our culture live long without knowing, in smaller or greater ways, what it is like to be labeled according to the color of one's skin, a diagnosis of breast cancer, the loss of a job, divorce, addiction... The easiest way to take any of us in is to find a single characteristic and cling to it for all it is worth. Sadly, we live in a culture of violence in which one's sexual identity is the single filter through which Christians are victimized. To not bless same sex unions is, I fear, to curse homosexuals in a dangerous world.
Because we are the church, there is Jesus telling us across 2,000 years of suffering that all is well, for we are his friends. We simply have to lose our lives, our fear and prejudices, to live, that is to thrive in love. To claim the blessing we have to be a blessing.
The Episcopal Church is on the verge of a powerful convergence and demonstration of God's might and love, at least I pray we are. I pray there will be the blessing of a new union between God and God's people in this Church, if not immediately in this diocese. Jesus' words concerning love are urgent if we are not to lose the Church as we know it.
It is extraordinarily important for those who seek the blessing of same sex unions to bear witness to those who are against full inclusion. To do so, those who seek to be blessed must live into the honest conviction and pain of those whose faith depends upon a different understanding of scripture, sexuality, and even salvation. The greatest witness of those who seek to be blessed is to live into your Baptismal Covenant, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.
This is necessary service if those who seek the blessing of same sex unions are to continue to journey toward the fullness of their own humanity, to claim their own salvation as well as the blessing, to practice the discipline required to not become lost in hatred, to continually remain open to God's grace. You have to be a blessing to claim the blessing.
Never forget the Eucharist issues its singular invitation to return to where all of us deeply belong together, to come home to God and to one another. And because, under the best of circumstances, it is a long way from Minneapolis to Birmingham, to lift up your hearts. I pray that you will.
The Rev. Louie Skipper/St. Stephen's, Birmingham