BY GERALD MCDERMOTT
It is easy to be led astray theologically when trying to be pastoral.
You could say that was the mistake that the Episcopal Church made. Starting in the 1970s its leaders said that in order to heal the hurts of the same-sex attracted (SSA) we must let them live out their sexual desires. Later, that meant marriage for gays.
It didn’t matter, for TEC, that the plain sense of Scripture and the whole Christian tradition were against these moves. Scripture makes plain that “from the beginning God made them male and female” (Matt 19.4) and the emerging catholic tradition taught that SSA is “disordered.”
But TEC leaders were convinced that certain new findings of the social sciences—contradicting a previous consensus in the social sciences—showed that the biblical authors and Church tradition were benighted. If only they knew what was now being revealed about human nature, they would see that the SSA were made that way by God and thus deserved the same sexual freedom that heterosexuals supposedly enjoyed.
This was an appropriate pastoral response, TEC said, because it is our calling as Christian ministers of the gospel to bring compassion to those in pain.
Now some ACNA Anglicans are making a similar argument. Not the same argument, for they do not endorse gay marriage, or even sexual relations for the same-sex attracted. But they say that their fundamental identity is in being “gay Christians,” not just “Christians.”
They wish the ACNA would recognize their pain and accept their identity as “gay Anglicans,” not just “Anglicans.” To accept their self-designation as “gay Anglicans” would be the “pastoral” thing to do. It would acknowledge the pain they have experienced from “destructive reparative/conversion therapies” that allegedly promised elimination of same-sex desire.
Their letter “Dear Gay Anglicans” came as a response to a Statement from the ACNA College of Bishops calling on the ACNA to reject the term “gay Christians” for Christians who are same-sex attracted. Instead, the Bishops advise, we should talk about “Christians.” Some struggle with SSA just as some struggle with temptations to adultery, idolatry, theft, greed, drunkenness, and swindling (the sins Paul mentions in 1 Cor. 6.9-10 alongside the practice of homosexuality).
While the Bishops admonished their flock not to refer to “gay Christians” as if gayness is fundamental to one’s Christian identity, the letter referred to “gay Anglicans.” Archbishop Foley Beach rightly termed this an “in your face” response that “undermines” the Bishops’ statement. For Anglicans who consider the Bishops to be in apostolic succession, and that the Bishops’ primary responsibility is to teach and guard the apostolic deposit of faith, it is disturbing that this letter calls their Statement on Christian identity into question.
The fundamental question is this: What is the identity of a sinner who is joined to Christ?
If I have struggled with alcoholism and still am tempted to drinking too much but am no longer a slave to drink, should I call myself an “alcoholic-tempted Christian”? Or simply a Christian? If I have struggled with greed in the past and still am tempted but am no longer a slave to greed, should I call myself a “greedy Christian”? Or simply a “Christian”?
If we have gained freedom from slavery to our sinful habits and attractions by our union with Christ, then “our old self was crucified with Christ” (Rom 6.6). We might still be tempted by our old habits, but we are no longer slaves to those habits (Rom 6.14).
Therefore, Paul says, we should “consider [ourselves] dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6.11).
Paul was familiar with his own era’s reparative/conversion therapy. Some of the Roman Christians had been active homosexuals but had become free from that bondage: “Such were some of you” (1 Cor 6.11). He said this immediately after referring to a list of sinful attractions and habits—“the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, men who practice homosexuality, thieves, greedy, drunkards, revilers, swindlers” (1 Cor 6.9-10).
Those who wrote the “Dear Gay Anglicans” letter condemn today’s reparative therapies for not eliminating temptation. But none of the best therapies has ever been so naïve as to suggest that utopian possibility.
The bottom line is about identity. Are we fundamentally people who are still to be known by our past habits? Or are we fundamentally persons who are joined to the Messiah of Israel and by that union are freed from slavery to those habits?
The Bishops are right. Christ has set us free from slavery to our sinful habits. To call ourselves by those habits is to denigrate what the Messiah has done. And who we are.
I can understand the inclination to care for those who suffer. That indeed is pastoral. But it is not pastoral to affirm them in a self-designation that leads to misunderstanding themselves and the work of their Redeemer.