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“That Nothing May be Lost”: The Hope of Anglican Queerness in a Fragmented World

Anglican Christianity qualifies as an inherently queer religious tradition. I find this hopeful for a deeply fragmented world in a great deal of pain.

By “queer,” I mean more than welcoming spaces for LGBT people. I’m thinking especially of queer theory’s critique of binary oppositions and a persistent (often contested) rejection of purity in Anglican DNA. And I’m pondering these things under a ludicrously big ecclesial “tent” made from rainbow canvas.

Can Anglican queerness offer any hope for a world that seems to be unraveling? I think so, especially as polarized oppositions and purity codes confront us throughout all the world’s broken pieces.grace_cathedral_2

“Queer theory” has accrued nearly as many definitions as “Anglican” over the last thirty years. In that jumbled mix, I find two interrelated features of queer theorizing particularly helpful: 1) a posture of resistance to regulated regimes of the normal; and 2) a critique of binary oppositions. The interrelation of these features matters as much as each of the features. Regulated regimes of the normal, in other words, are perpetuated and policed by means of binary oppositions.

Consider, for example, the constant refrain (spoken as if self-evident) that men and women naturally occupy categorically distinct spheres. Men are public, dominant, and insertive; women are private, submissive, and penetrated.

If that sounds terribly old fashioned, we might review any number of today’s policy initiatives, legislative agendas, or just town hall meetings and PTA gatherings—or the flood of #MeToo moments and the still (annoyingly) ubiquitous question about which of the two men in a gay relationship plays the “woman’s part” (i.e., the passive and dominated one). These regulated regimes of the normal, queer theorists say, are policed by means of the binary gender system.

Queer theory’s exposure and critique of these dynamics frames the messy history of Anglican Christianity. Very little seems “normal” about a church that refuses to land in a clearly defined ecclesial space. The sixteenth century English Reformation apparently wanted to have its scones and eat them too, embracing a Catholic heritage with Protestant verve.

Anglican polity swerves toward centralized decrees (where exactly is our English Vatican?) only to find congregational objections yanking us back toward compromises and local “exceptions.” Anglican prayer books are rooted in Catholic rites but always modulated with Protestant rebuttals. Episcopalians recently celebrated the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on August 15th without ever mentioning, directly, the Assumption.

These peculiar Anglican spaces emerge from a persistent (and usually vexing) rejection of binary options: we are neither Catholic nor Protestant and still live somehow as both.

An invigorating and challenging posture sits at the heart of these religiously messy traditions: resisting puritanism. The emergent Church of England, we might recall, was rocked at its founding by Puritans (the ones who boarded the Mayflower and landed in “Massachusetts”), who insisted on “purifying” the church of all its papal remnants. These pious colonists longed to “drain the swamp.”

Right there, queer theory’s unrelenting interrogation of regulated normality meets deep Anglican commitments. The result is a catalyzing and healing vision for today’s seemingly intractable contestations and severely wounded communities. I mean this: the queerly Anglican refusal to be pure. We ourselves live in the “swamp.”

This queerness matters in more ways than even most Anglicans usually surmise. I’m thinking of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who fueled a world-changing socio-political movement with an image of the Beloved Community. The community he envisioned as beloved does not consist of people who agree with each other about everything, nor of people who look or act the same, nor of people who want to socialize with each other at cocktails parties—no, a truly beloved community brings a shockingly diverse collection of people together because of their shared destiny.

mlk_beloved_community
The destiny we share as humans on a planet with many other creatures of God cannot be a “regulated normalcy,” nor a neatly classified society divided into distinct camps and parties, nor a singular community defined by the purity of its ideology or its membership. King’s insistence on a shared destiny runs far deeper—and therefore more challenging and upsetting and lifegiving—than conformity to rubrics or legislative agendas or parsed with skin color or economic class or the gender of a spouse.

That’s why, in part, I persist in casting my lot with Anglican Christianity. Not because it defines me in opposition to other Christians, much less to other humans or other animals, but because its queer sensibilities break me open to find love and purpose among all those many “others,” no purity required.

Indeed, no purity actually possible—we are all untidy, messy, conflicted, and multiple. Queer theorists insist on this and I encountered it first by plunging into Anglican traditions, which seem perpetually on the brink of falling apart for their whacky and wonderful multiplicity.

The “big tent” of Anglican Christianity is not a perfect space; it is deeply flawed in many respects. That’s another reason why I pitch my own little tent under its rainbow canvas. I can’t manage to be pure; no one can. Even when some of my fellow Anglicans insist we should be, the attempts always fizzle, thankfully. (If purity is your standard, you might want to avoid the Gospels and stay away from church conventions.)

Many years ago, when I worried and fretted over my own religious and sexual purity (one because of the other) a seminary professor said, “we’re not saved by being right; we’re saved by grace.” That’s not an excuse for either doctrinal sloppiness or moral laxity; but it is a reason for generosity and hospitality. That just might be a path toward healing, toward a shared destiny, toward—dare I say—salvation.

American society today faces a severe threat to one of its founding suppositions: e pluribus unum (out of many, one). Christians face this quandary constantly, not least by wondering what in the world to do with John’s Jesus when he prays that we all “might be one” (was even his prayer ineffectual?) or how to mark the week of “Prayer for Christian Unity” every January without blushing and mumbling platitudes.

Queer theorists urge us to suppose that “oneness” has nothing to do with uniformity; even more, that uniformity is the great enemy of a flourishing community. As I struggle with all of this, I’m grateful for the Anglican witness to multiple answers to key questions, even when we’re troubled by our own responses.

Oddly, queerly, I return to the Apostle Paul in those moments of consternation. I have grown to love that vexing pioneer of Christian faith and his convoluted self, the one who insisted that the “body of Christ” consists of many diverse members. That conflicted champion of incorporating Gentiles into a Jewish movement, that “least among the apostles” who, like all of us, made claims he himself had trouble putting into practice.

A world fragmented by zero-sum games of planetary proportions is eager and desperate for some reassurance that there is indeed a destiny of thriving life that all of us—quite improbably, quite queerly—share.

Many Christians heard a version of this hope for a month of Sundays this summer as the lectionary led us through the sixth chapter of John’s account of the Gospel. After feeding a multitude of people, Jesus says this: “gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost” (6:12).

John’s Jesus queerly spoke what Dr. King queerly tried to live, and this is still our queer hope today: a shared destiny.

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“Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something…”

I sat transfixed by my Twitter feed for the last two days. Trust me: that’s unusual. I was watching two historic votes unfold at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, where I really longed to be, but couldn’t.

Both votes concerned the same resolution: whether to approve the provisional use of a liturgical rite to bless the lifelong covenants of same-sex couples. It passed in both houses of the convention by wide margins and I was glad to see it happening “live” on my computer. (Here’s the report on that vote.)

I was grateful for that Twitter feed for another reason: I could see how those opposed to this resolution were responding. Their responses were not surprising, but they did remind me of the old English Victorian ditty about weddings, “something old, something new…”

The objections seemed to orbit around a deep concern that this resolution represented a “new” theology of marriage (even though the approved materials were not about marriage per se, nor is the approved liturgical rite a “wedding”; the materials were instead concerned with the “blessing of a lifelong covenant”).

One longtime objector to the full inclusion of LGBT people in the Episcopal Church, a priest and a theologian, described this historic moment as “unbiblical, unchristian, unanglican, and unseemly.” Needless to say, I believe this moment is instead Biblical, Christian, Anglican, and not only seemly but holy. (Read his brief statement here.)

Testimony offered during General Convention 2012

I feel privileged to belong to a church where these divergent opinions are aired, debated, prayed over, and voted on. No one is compelled to agree with the final decision. All are welcome to stay. Indeed, LGBT people have stayed for many decades, even when their institutional church home appeared committed to excluding them.

A diverse Christian body (as St. Paul noted in at least two of his letters) is a healthy Christian body. And I believe we learn the best from those with whom we disagree. I’m grateful for the objections to Resolution A049 (which approved the same-sex blessing materials) because they have further honed my own theological thinking.

Here I’ll share just a few of many insights those objections have prompted, some of them old, some of them new…. (Full disclosure: I had the great privilege of contributing to those materials approved by the convention, so I write here as someone with a good bit of knowledge about the theological rationale.)

Something Old
One objector was very clear: this resolution will change the Christian theology of marriage. Really? Which theology is that? Choose one from among, oh, a dozen in Christian history so we can know what’s changing. Perhaps it’s St. Paul’s version (who believed that marriage was mostly a distraction from the more important work of ministry); or maybe it was Tertullian’s (who believed that Christian marriage was a counter-cultural critique of Rome’s patriarchal household); or maybe it was St. Augustine’s (who thought sex was a rather distasteful aspect of marriage and much preferred friendship). One might also want to mention the 13th century ecclesial statutes about how priests ought to treat their concubines…

There’s some good stuff and bad stuff in the Christian history of marriage theologies. Which will we choose and why? The materials approved at General Convention tried to present some good stuff for all of us to consider.

Something New
Biblical and historical material about committed, intimate relationships is remarkably varied. Those of us who labored over the materials for General Convention were committed to bringing those varied historical traditions to bear on an ostensibly “new” cultural situation: the loving, fruitful, and committed relationships of lesbian and gay couples.

This commitment is actually both new and old. Just ask African Americans about the history of marriage during slavery, or anti-miscegenation laws (forbidding “mixed-race marriages” which weren’t overturned until a 1967 Supreme Court decision). Or just ask women about the history of being treated legally as property by their husbands (that’s more modern than most people would care to realize).

The genius of Anglican Christianity resides in part in its ability to adjust and adapt to shifting cultural patterns while doing so with deep theological commitments. Asking the English reformers of the 16th century about all this would be wildly illuminating.

“New” is not synonymous with “bad” nor is it a cypher for “better.” We need deep and sustained theological reflection about change, and I believe the materials approved at General Convention provide the tools to do precisely that (and I can’t wait for their published form later this year so that we can start using all of this great stuff!).

Something Borrowed
Those of us who worked over the last 2.5 years to craft the materials for this General Convention were deeply committed to Scripture and Tradition. Like any other matter of concern for Christians, this is a challenge. How do we reflect theologically about new things in relation to old things?

We do so by borrowing from the spiritual inspiration of our ancestors. In this case, we did that by turning to the rich symbols and spiritually textured images of “covenant” in the biblical witness and historical traditions. The covenant God made with Noah, the covenant God made with Abraham, the covenant God made with the people of Israel, the covenant God made in Christ.

God calls of us to reflect that grace of these covenantal moments in the relationships we form and nurture. Marriage can do that, so can a monastic vow, so can ordination, so can deep friendships, and so can the lifelong committed relationships of same-sex couples.

Yes, I realize that I have used a wedding ditty to organize my reflections here. While General Convention did not approve a “wedding” liturgy for provisional use, its approval of a blessing liturgy signals a vitally important conversation Christians in all denominations need to engage: Why do we Christians want to bless relationships in church? Why does this matter?

So here I’ll return to that ditty and note this: the task groups who created these materials rooted their work above all in the gracious covenant God made with humanity in Jesus Christ. That covenant is made visible in the sacrament of baptism, which evokes the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, the very source of our common life as Christians.

Hey! There it is! We can find the last bit of that Victorian wedding ditty in the waters of baptism…

“….something blue.”

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Blessed by a Blessing: Poised on the Brink of Liberation

LGBT people are a blessing to the Church. Many of us already knew this. Now we can start talking even more about why it matters for everyone.

Today the Episcopal Church took two remarkable steps forward. Sadly, the Church of England took a remarkable step backward. These two Christian bodies are related in a “communion” that really does need some relationship therapy – and right there we might find a blessing.

Two steps forward and one step back is actually rather common in the history of institutional Christianity. Christians tend to leap forward, lurch around, and lag behind, sometimes all at the same time. To me, this is not surprising at all. We’re all trying to figure out the Mystery we call God in relation to the mystery of our own lives and the ever-changing cultural patterns around us. If you can trace a straight line through that maze, it’s probably a mistake. The “lurching around” is itself a blessing.

None of us can ever capture the Mystery in our midst. But we do have clues in the revelatory life of Jesus and from the Holy Spirit working continually among us. Among the many bright spots of a church paying attention to those clues, there are three on my mind just now: 1) the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church; 2) the inclusion of gender identity and gender expression in the non-discrimination canons of the Episcopal Church; and 3) the adoption of theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same-gender unions in the Episcopal Church.

The latter two happened just today; the first one in 1976. (Read a great piece on transgender inclusion by my friend and colleague Susan Russell; read a cool Twitter thread on the same-gender blessings resolution here.)

There will be much blogging, bloviating, and opinionating on these General Convention moments. Here I will offer just one bit of reflection on why it matters, and it’s just this: I am blessed by the blessing of transgender people and by the blessing of same-gender couples. Today the Episcopal Church took two important steps in acknowledging that mutual blessing.

“Mutual blessing” may sound a bit arcane, but I think it cuts to the very heart of the matter, not only for LGBT people but for women more generally and also for the whole Church (and actually, for the wider society – this stuff matters for LGBT teenagers who think that suicide is their only way out).

The document presented to General Convention concerning the blessing of same-gender unions is titled, “I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing.” That evokes a biblical verse from Genesis when God made a promise to Abram (Genesis 12:2), and it describes not only a biblical rationale for celebrating same-gender unions in Christian communities but also for honoring all of the manifestations of God’s presence among us. (Full disclosure: I chaired the theological resources task group that produced the theological essay in that document.)

Divine blessing overflows in abundance all around us, in countless ways. The Church acknowledges that abundance in its liturgical life by giving voice to that blessing. In turn, that liturgical act blesses all those gathered to witness it and enables all of us to carry that blessing into the world.

I have found this to be true in my own life in many ways, and here again I have three such ways particularly in mind. First, I have been blessed by having ordained women as friends and colleagues. Evidence of the Spirit in their lives is simply unmistakable and my own life would be impoverished without them. Second, I have been equally blessed by friends and colleagues who identify as transgender. Their lives have pushed me, taught me, and inspired me in countless ways. And third, as a single gay man, I have been deeply touched by the hospitality, generosity, and wisdom of the same-gender couples in my life. They are blessed and they are a blessing.

So why do I keep referring to women’s ordination in these reflections? I do so because male privilege and traditions of patriarchal domination infect all three of the blessings I just cited.

The Most Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church

Sadly, we need look no further for that infection than what just happened in the Church of England. The General Synod seemed poised, finally, to accept women as bishops. But a last-minute amendment to the policy, then rejected, then tabled, then…what, exactly? All that has stalled yet again the full recognition of the blessing of women in church leadership in the Church of England. (Read about that here.)

As we will soon hear from some quarters, there are those in the worldwide Anglican Communion who would argue that the Episcopal Church is held captive by liberal cultural trends; thus today’s decisions. I humbly disagree. Indeed, I believe something quite different: The Gospel has been held captive by patriarchal ideology for far too long. Today we witnessed the next steps of God’s people crossing the Red Sea on dry ground.

Today the Episcopal Church took two remarkable steps toward freeing itself from patriarchal captivity. For the small role I played in this moment of liberation, I am truly grateful. Even more, I am blessed by this divine blessing of a Church that can listen to the Spirit in its midst. Please, God, may the Church of England listen just as well to the women you have called to lead it’