I have been troubled over the last few months as I have watched from afar as a church I attended for over 10 years has been through a particularly difficult time. The cause of this difficulty was the tiresomely totemic topic of homosexual sexuality- the same one that seems to be rattling the windows of religious institutions up and down the land.
Those of us that might have already been forced into a polarised position on this debate (and perhaps I am one of these) would do well to pause at this point and consider something about the story of the church I am describing. Put aside all thoughts of right wing, American style evangelicalism, because that would not describe this collective at all. It is led by someone I would count as a friend, a kind, sensitive lovely man. Many years ago he said something that has stayed with me ever since. He said “If I am going to make a mistake, let me make a mistake on the side of grace.” The church he has led has sought to be a positive impact on the community they are embedded within; holiday clubs for local kids, helping people who are in debt, running all sorts of other activities aimed at giving people a deeper connection with God. Of course it is not perfect, but I look on this place and the people it contains as good. Not in the sense of ‘better than you’, but rather meaning what happens when ordinary people strive together towards a deeper purpose.
It is of course also true that this Church grew out of a particular stream of theological tradition and understanding. It is ‘evangelical’ in a northern British sense of the world- building on traditions that stretch back into Victorian muscular Bible thumping Christianity.
So, what is the crisis I am describing? I have deliberately not involved myself in detail, but I understand that what happened is that a member of the church, via a post on social media, identified themselves as gay. This led to different (polarised) reactions within the wider congregation and suddenly what had been an issue that could be opined from a distance was knocking at the front door.
The leadership of the church then had to tread that familiar line – the one that Richard Rohr calls the creative tension between religion as requirements and religion as transformation. They were pitched into a series of meetings and discussions, in which they strove in different ways to resolve this tension and to come to a final version of what was correct, Biblical and also sensitive to the individuals involved.
Those of us who have rehearsed these discussions over the years will know exactly what will have been discussed. We will know the relevant Bible passages. We will have heard the arguments about the authority of Scripture and the degree to which we as followers can ‘bind and release’ verses. We will have contrasted the treatment of those verses about homosexuality with a range of other apparently red line issues such as marriage after divorce, the role of women, clothing codes, etc.. We will have heard the biology/lifestyle choice discussions and heard from those who claim to have been ‘delivered’ from the ‘sin’ of homosexuality. We will have heard the line over and over about ‘hating the sin but loving the sinner’.
We will almost certainly have heard less from those others in the pews who are being torn apart by the need to reconcile their own sexuality with the apparent requirements of their religion. Most, of course, will leave church and never return. The alternative is too damaging. Who can survive being forever a second class Christian, loved by obligation but never able escape their own innate ‘sinfulness’?
In the instance described above, I have friends on both sides of the argument. I also have friends who still strive above all things to straddle the two sides – to remain true to both the religion of requirement and the religion as transformation. But in the end, it seemed that the former (religion as requirement) had to dominate. In many ways I am not surprised- the theological underpinnings of Evangelicalism (particularly the fixed position in relation to the interpretation and authority of scripture) might be seen as creating brick walls that are insurmountable for gay/bi/trans folk. In the end, it is my opinion that these theological underpinnings can not fully co-exist with love.
Unless they are challenged theologically the walls remain and grace can never win.
But challenging them theologically requires engagement with some core concepts of faith that people have based their whole world view upon. Never underestimate how difficult this is for good lovely people who feel caught in a trap, in which their instinct towards grace is thwarted by the absolutes they feel have been decreed by scripture.
But back to Richard Rohr. Today I read the piece below. It seemed painfully resonant with the words of my friend about erring on the side of grace. I have not spoken to him yet about all of this- this is almost certainly not the time, but I hope to do at some point in the future, when the rawness has receded…
The relationship between law and grace is a central issue for almost anyone involved in religion. Basically, it is the creative tension between religion as requirements and religion as transformation. Is God’s favour based on a performance principle (Law)? Or does religion work within an entirely different economy and equation? This is a necessary boxing match, but a match in which grace must win. When it doesn’t, religion becomes moralistic, which is merely the ego’s need for order and control. I am sorry to say, but this is most garden-variety religion. We must recover grace-oriented spirituality if we are to rebuild Christianity from the bottom up.
In Romans and Galatians, Paul gives us sophisticated studies of the meaning, purpose, and limitations of law. He says its function is just to get us started, but legalism too often takes over. Yet Paul’s brilliant analysis has had little effect on the continued Christian idealization of law, even though he makes it very clear: Laws can only give us information; they cannot give us transformation (Romans 3:20; 7:7-13). Laws can give us very good boundaries, but boundary-keeping of itself is a long way from love.
Paul describes Israel as looking for a righteousness derived from the law and yet failing to achieve the purposes of the law. Why did they fail? Because they relied on being privately good instead of trusting in God for their goodness! In other words, they stumbled over the stumbling stone (see Romans 9:31-32). Law is a necessary stage, but if we stay there, Paul believes, it actually becomes a major obstacle to transformation into love and mercy. Law often frustrates the process of transformation by becoming an end in itself. It inoculates us from the real thing, which is always relationship. Paul says that God gave us the law to show us that we can’t obey the law! (See Romans 7:7-13 if you don’t believe me.) Paul even says that the written law brings death, and only the Spirit can bring life (Romans 7:5-6; 2 Corinthians 3:6). This man is truly radical, but it did not take churches long to domesticate him. We’ve treated Paul as if he were a moralist instead of the first-rate mystic and teacher that he is.
Ironically, until people have had some level of inner God experience, there is no point in asking them to follow Jesus’ ethical ideals. It is largely a waste of time. Indeed, they will not be able to even understand the law’s meaning and purpose. Religious requirements only become the source of deeper anxiety. Humans quite simply don’t have the power to obey any spiritual law, especially issues like forgiveness of enemies, nonviolence, self-emptying, humble use of power, true justice toward the outsider, and so on, except in and through union with God. Or as Jesus put it, “the branch cut off from the vine is useless” (John 15:5).
In quoting this piece, I know that the problem (or the creative tension) is in no way solved – not in the collective sense at least. I know what sits well with my own soul, but each of us who still try to live in the creative tension must find our own way through, which is always so much easier as an individual than trying to find a position that is acceptable to a congregation.
If we red line matters of private sexuality, whatever our position on the matter, as being pre-eminent in deciding the individual’s acceptability in church (and in church leadership) then we hold to a rather bizarrely skewed theology- one that continues to promote sexual morality over all of those other moral decisions we make every day. It is a theology that throws the first stone at gay people…
…not gluttons (or fat people like me would be excluded from leadership)
….not those who store up possessions (or people with houses full of stuff like would no longer be welcome in churches)
…not those despise the outsider (or people who support the building of walls and the exclusion of immigrants would not be welcome in churches)
…not those who support war (or people who support invasions of middle eastern countries would not be welcome in churches- even in the face of terrorism)
I could go on but you get my point.
Most of us would still maintain that in the end, grace must win. We will all need it, not just those who happen to have been born with a different sexual make up.