Scripture, Tradition, Knowledge and Experience: A Review of Some Recent Literature from the Church's Conversation on Homosexuality

Article excerpt

For more than a decade, North American society has been involved in tension-filled public debates on a number of controversial issues, including abortion, racial conflict, gay and lesbian concerns, and sexuality education. The sometimes disturbing tenor of the arguments about these issues has been encapsulated in the phrase "culture wars".

Inevitably, North American Christians have also been participants in these debates -- and they are found on both sides of virtually every disputed issue. One of the most telling aspects of this participation is that the views of an individual Christian on any of these issues cannot be neatly predicted on the basis of his or her particular religious affiliation. Whether a North American Christian will incline to a more conservative or a more progressive approach to any of these matters is not necessarily a function of being a member of one denominational family rather than another. Whatever their view on a particular ethical issue, they are likely to find as many allies in other branches of the Christian family as in their own.

This has raised enormous problems for North American churches as they have tried to make the larger Christian traditions of theological reflection and moral reasoning available to their members. On the one hand they have had the pastoral and prophetic duty of bringing the resources of Christian faith to bear; on the other hand they have had to acknowledge passionate convictions (and conclusions) already held by their members. Nowhere has this dilemma been more pronounced than in the area of gay and lesbian concerns.

One strategy adopted by several North American denominations in the 1990s has been to call on their members to engage in respectful dialogue to discover more fully the will of God concerning lesbian and gay Christians, while generally maintaining explicit prohibitions against the ordination of homosexuals who are not celibate. The ensuing conversation has been awkward and painful for all participants, but especially for those who are both its subject and object. At its worst, such dialogue can degenerate into fearful alienation; yet, at its best it can show genuine potential for drawing all the partners in the dialogue closer to the abiding presence of God.

One measure of the earnestness with which the invitation to conversation has been heeded among US churches is the recent publication record. Though the importance of the subject to the personal lives of many makes the identification of ancillary benefits a distinctly secondary concern, it is remarkable how the scholarly attention of the church has been creatively and effectively engaged. Biblical scholars, theologians, ethicists, sociologists, and a variety of practical theologians have brought their voices to bear. Rarely has the scholarly energy within North American churches been directed in such a focused way to concerns troubling the mind and heart of the church.

For this article I have selected six recent books in this area. There are several different (and equally useful) ways of analyzing this body of material. Ecclesiastically, it arises from four denominational contexts: Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ. Personally, its authors include both lesbian and gay and heterosexual persons -- though in half the material the writers have lime reason to indicate their own sexual orientation. Perspectivally, one of the books is clearly a reaffirmation of the traditional identification of homosexuality as standing outside the Christian norm, and contributions in two of the other volumes echo this point of view. The remainder of the material explores various kinds of alternatives to the traditional approach. Thematically, virtually all the books are concerned (at least implicitly) to understand homosexuality in the larger framework of a theology of human sexuality. Beyond that, most of the writers give some attention to the question of ordination, several deal with the matter of church membership and two specifically discuss the blessing of same-sex unions. …