Looking from the outside In: Social Science and Sexual Identity in Today's Churches

Article excerpt

Looking from the Outside In: Social Science and Sexual Identity in Today's Churches

Books Discussed

God, Sex, and Politics: Homosexuality and Everyday Theologies. By Dawne Moon. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Their Own Receive Them Not: African American Lesbians and Gays in Black Churches. By Horace L. Griffin. Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Coming Out in Christianity: Religion, Identity, and Community. By Melissa Wilcox. Bloomington, Ind., and Indianapolis, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2003.

Gay Religion. Edited by Scott Thumma and Edward R. Gray. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Alta Mira Press, 2005.

The tenor of many mainstream media reports notwithstanding, the potentially church-dividing debate over homosexuality did not suddenly appear in the early years of the twenty-first century. In the United States more than several Christian denominations have been struggling with this issue in some fashion since the 1960s. Many Episcopalians likewise know that openly lesbian and gay people were ordained as priests and deacons and have also served in positions of lay leadership long before Gene Robinson was elected Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. Despite that history, and perhaps also in some ways because of it, in §135 of the Windsor Report the Lambeth Commission on Communion asked the Episcopal Church in the U.S. to explain, both biblically and theologically, how a non-celibate homosexual person can be eligible for the episcopate.1 Tb casual observers, this request may suggest that no such "explanation" had to date been articulated. Those well familiar with the decades of struggle over this issue within the Episcopal Church know this is not the case, as many publications, curricular materials, and task force reports illustrate.2 For some of the "insiders" to that history, the Windsor Report's request provokes a pointed question: What precisely constitutes suitable "explanation" for ordaining openly gay and lesbian people? Others will want to ask the flip-side of that same question: What will it take to persuade the church that such ordinations are simply wrong-biblically, theologically, and ethically?

Elizabeth Stuart has described well the kind of theological stalemate so many churches have reached over human sexuality in response to such questions. Comparing these ecclesial deliberations to a wrestling match, neither side, she writes, "is prepared to admit defeat, too much is at stake, so they continue to maintain a token grasp upon one another. Unable to let go and unable to resolve the situation, they are trapped by the rules of the game." Today, she notes, both sides in this struggle have simply collapsed from exhaustion.3

As with any protracted institutional debate, this one that has been preoccupying American and European churches and increasingly nonNorth Atlantic communities as well stands in need of fresh insights from outside the debate itself; or to borrow from Stuart's image, our churches would benefit from expanding the field on which this "game" is played. Each of the four books considered in this article offers in some fashion a view of sexual identities in today's churches from the "outside," that is, from the perspective of sociologists and ethnographers. (Horace Griffin is partly an exception to this "outsider" characterization, but in ways, as I suggest below, that scramble what inside and outside actually mean when dealing with these topics.) Historically, Anglicans have not shied away from strictly non-theological sources such as these for doing theological work and in many cases have drawn eagerly from them. Nearly without exception the "giants" in nineteenth-century Anglican traditions-whether Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic, or Christian socialist-all consulted assiduously both the physical and social sciences for insights into the theological, spiritual, and liturgical quandaries of the day.4 Likewise today's theological quandaries over human sexuality would benefit from renewed attention to the research modalities and data employed by those "outside" the narrower parameters of the theological disciplines. …