Recovering “three-dimensionality”

By Christopher Evans

Let us renew our vows to heav’n,

Beyond restraint of reason stir;

By David’s oath to Jonathan,

Faiths fragments become singular.

Do place thy peace upon my lips,

I will with my “also’s” follow;

With my body I thee worship,

Joy plots transgressions overthrow.

Love purifies lovers’ fire,

Makes chaste but by feverous burn;

Through thee to Thee one desire,

Awareness rises with each turn:

For fervor fashions godly ends,

Fastens by each breath as friends.1

Recently Archbishop Rowan Williams offered the beginnings of an apology:

The debate over the status and vocational possibilities of LGBT people in the Church is not helped by ignoring the existing facts, which include many regular worshippers of gay or lesbian orientation and many sacrificial and exemplary priests who share this orientation. There are ways of speaking about the question that seem to ignore these human realities or to undervalue them; I have been criticised for doing just this, and I am profoundly sorry for the carelessness that could give such an impression.2

Without going into enthusiastic hyperbole, his words represent the possibility of a fresh start.3 The start is in actually having to engage with lgbt persons as persons. However, restraint on our part will require restraint on his part and on the part of the rest of the Anglican Communion. No more dehumanizing words or deeds, no more stereotypes and cardboard characterizations. Period. We lgbt baptized too are conversation partners and full members in the Christ’s Body not by your inclusion, but by Christ’s choosing.4 The days of our accepting the terms set only by heterosexual brothers and sisters are over. As this holy season of Lent reminds, we all, not just lgbt Christians, are called to examine ourselves, to conversion of “habits, behaviors, ideas, and emotions.”5

In the past few years we lgbt Anglicans have been treated to a rather mind-boggling exercise at the highest eschalons of the Anglican Communion involving Archbishop Rowan Williams. The institutional attitude of Anglicanism toward lgbt persons has become represented in and by a single person. And that attitude is ugly, like a spider-trap of insanity-causing propositions all too akin to the alcoholic family or abusive home.

It is really a special form of splitting, a phenomenon in which reductions of all or nothing are made either to the good or to the evil. In this case, the poles have been the personal and the public. Other poles, as I will show further in have been laid upon lgbt persons. But this splitting is even more special because it also wants a both/and solution of personal openness and public denigration. It is almost Kafkaesque in its ability to hold together irrationalities disguised as ambiguities and paradoxes. It does not cohere.

And that incoherence will continue to fly farther apart as more and more lgbt persons live into a personal-public coherence.

Anglicanism has never claimed tight consistency, but comprehensiveness does not imply that 1+1=10 either. But that is exactly what lgbt persons have, however, been asked to accept. It is unacceptable.

And that unacceptability spills not only into lgbt lives, but into the lives of many younger people, losing the gospel in the process.

Here is what it looks like:

On the one hand, Archbishop Williams is a good and nice man. I have no doubt that this is the case. I also have no doubt of his theological acumen, and I am quite fond of his works, meandering as they do in a familiar Anglican style resonant of Maurice, Temple, or Ramsey. Not necessarily tightly consistent, but comprehensively beautiful.

Personally, he is a kind man. A smart man. “He has gay friends.”

On the other hand, Archbishop Williams has chosen and choses only to present and speak for the public official, such as it is, consensus, such as it is, on lgbt persons and our loves.6 Thus, he has had harsh words for the consecration of Bishop Robinson and for Bishop Robinson himself, has placed the burden of welcome and conversion on lgbt persons near-too-exclusively, has more than once spoken in ways that come across as dismissive, has acted in ways that tell us friendship is expendable.

Publicly, he is the voice of institutionalized heterosexism. “Good gays are celibate and closeted.”

And together his own personal-public split is quite representative of Anglicanism as I know it.

Yet, this split of personal and public is representative of a breakdown in ecclesial personhood and conversion to utter dependence upon Christ on the part of all of us. The result cannot be but cardboard characters. After all, for us to be ecclesial, the personal and public will cohere at least in a comprehensively beautiful way if not in an always tightly consistent one. Much is the same way in moral theology as practiced by Hooker and the Caroline Divines. To be ecclesial persons requires describing one another with the patience of the iconographer.7

What cannot be done—and has been done too consistently by many apologists, is to argue that because Rowan Williams (and Anglicanism) is a nice, good guy personally and “has gay friends,” therefore we should give him (and Anglicanism) a pass on public words and actions that dehumanize, words and actions that have too often given permission for others to show contempt toward lgbt persons. And have all too often, meant or not, communicated an abstractive, reductionist, attitude toward us that allows others to not only say, but do the same. That’s not nice! Or good! Or true! Much less beautiful!

I could offer a list. Many already know both the words and the deeds. I am sure there are more.

Behind-the-scenes meetings and personal meetings do not make up for or repair these public words and actions. They do not put on public record that the Anglican Communion abhors maltreatment of lgbt persons or that as adult Christians we too have a responsibility to make informed moral decisions and that does not give everyone the right to pick our souls apart or kill our bodies. On the contrary, Williams has allowed for a 1984-esqueness that is not only mind-boggling or head-splitting, but heart-numbing. We love you and we love you not. See how we love you!

But again, to be fair, Archbishop Williams is representative of the way most Anglican Churches and the Anglican Communion behave toward lgbt persons of the Body (and those outside the Body). We are asked to live with and accept splitting. A nice word here in private, a public beating if necessary to show our mettle. How many American lgbt ordination candidates have I known who are assured in private while their bishop threatens to throw them under the bus if anything comes into the open? That’s just one example of this severe split. I am sure that if asked lgbt Anglicans could produce reams.

Recently, Archbishop Williams called for a more three-dimensional approach. I am going to take him at his word by making a suggestion to him.

Archbishop Williams shows an affinity for Benedictine tradition, so I can imagine a very different scenario.

This scenario does not allow for a split of the personal and the public, but teaches by example, indeed, by his person. This scenario is one in which Archbishop Williams refused and refuses to indulge others’ contempt for lgbt persons in both word and deed. This scenario insists upon leadership by requiring he take up his theologian’s pen again and put on his episcopal teaching mantle. The split between personal and public is mended not by a quick change in official Communion stance, but by humanizing-in-doing. And it rehumanizes Rowan Williams. I miss the theologian-scholar. I miss the teacher. These have been lost to us to-date in his role as Cantuar. And that is a shame. (I think of the corresponding leadership shown by Archbishop Ramsey working to have homosexuality decriminalized in the United Kingdom and not without controversy.)

This will naturally involve a crash course in experiencing lgbt lives, which will require stepping outside his head and into our daily existence to experience our joys and concerns, our sufferings and our triumphs, our prayer and our delight.

That does not mean that he would automatically suggest Province-wide much less Communion-wide changes in third order teaching on human sexuality–after all, he has no authority to do that.

But he could humanize us as no one else can not only by talking to us at closed-door retreats and conferences, but by standing alongside us in public photo sessions and eating at our home tables. He could publicly show us as persons, show our relationships and partners as loves, not merely speak of us as abstractions and reductions notable only as “sacrificial” for the good of the Communion or as “sexual practices” that disgust. After all, such language continues the old dehumanization and reinforces the heterosexism that so moves the heart of current Anglicanism, I dare say, more than Jesus Christ.

As Anglicans, we place great value on homely divinity, that is, our ordinary and daily human existence of home, work, and community is as much our prayer as the regular round of Offices and Sunday Holy Communion that hold us. It is in the everyday that our lives grow in Christ, are sanctified. To not take that in to consideration for lgbt persons (to make of us villians of pushy resolve and sexual libertinism or heroes of lackless color with closeted quirks), to do less than describe the fullness of our lgbt lives with the same brilliance of detail and color as Archbishop Williams does of icons of the Mother of God and our infant Lord Christ comes close to bearing false witness. It is to fail to show where God is at work in us. It is to fail to recognize those means by which God sanctifies us. It is to docetize us, to strip us of flesh, and doing so, docetize members of Christ’s own Body.

As a human being of real flesh and blood, my relationship is more than a sacrifice and certainly not reducible to sex. We play together. We snuggle. We laugh. We eat. We fight. We serve. And at the same time these do not exclude sacrifice or sex, the other polar swings often on offer by the “left” and the “right” respectively. The same goes for my relationship to the rest of the Body. This is all to say that any communication that will bring together this split of the personal and the public, that will cover the ecclesial gap that currently destroys personhood and devours our Churches, will require moving beyond how it is lgbt persons are good (or bad) for everyone else—as sacrifices or sex practices, and begin showing us, speaking about us (and with us), as rather ordinary people with all of the same personal peccadilloes and life aspirations of our heterosexual kin.

And doing so, we will all find ourselves more human, more ourselves. As the saying goes, “there is nothing as queer as folk.”

Neurologists tell us

of the brain in the heart and depths,

or is it the other way around?

The heart and depths do touch the brain,

the body’s mind compound.

Tracing the scar running

one-inch down my left pectoral,

near-over my heart crosses thin flesh.

Where surgeon’s art removed grief’s growth

and sutures closed me fresh.

This my body given,

my blood shed for you to come out,

a mere shadow of Him who holds us.

Outward sign of inward ache—

I dare to name it Love.8

(To see the footnotes, click Read more.)

Dr. Christopher Evans recently completed a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies and Church History at the Graduate Theological Union. He offers occasional musings on the Rule of St. Benedict, liturgical questions, and life as a Benedictine oblate at Contemplative Vernacular

1. W. Christopher Evans, “Kiss of Peace” (2009).

2. I must say that rhetorically speaking, setting lgbt persons alongside those who support euthanasia continues a failure to comprehend and displays a lack of sensitivity. Gay men were some of the first “not fit to live” or “life not worthy of living” of the National Socialist regime. Many governments, including the United Kingdom, the United States, and South Africa had in place various conversion programs that are akin to torture. In greater and lesser forms, lgbt persons have been on the receiving end of forced euthanasia-style (eugenics) activities sometimes with the urging of the Churches.

3. I say possibility, because “sacrificial” is more of the same old abstractive, reductionistic language of our lives and loves. It is as if a singular lens shuts out the other facets of a prism. Indeed, given how “sacrifice” has been used in relation to lgbt Christians, a moratorium might be needed. Sacrifice has come to mean something quite other than ekstasis, that is, going out of one’s self for others, to something more akin to doormat and usefulness or purposefulness, the latter both of which Archbishop Williams has rebuked in market economics and education but embraced when speaking of us in our lives and loves. Sadly, too much of this reads exactly as a majority sacrificing a minority. We are not meant to have a life in this language. All the facets of personhood and living go missing. In such language, we are meant to exist for others’ purposes and uses only. The Body of 1 Corinthians 12 is re-inverted to its Roman Imperial foil—the other members are meant to serve (be of purpose and use to) the mouth and the stomach. And all while going on about Pauline liberty. Unfortunately, as Paul learned liberty, including ekstasis, does not prevent much less settle conflicts. Sometimes conflict is necessary. Sometimes the mouth and stomach have so shaped the way of speaking that conflict is unavoidable. Self-interest in Williams’ speeches tends to too easily slides into allowing some to be treated as expendable and a problem if they say “no” while characterizing their refusal of abuse as selfish. As Sr. Laura Swan, OSB reminds when speaking of women, having and being a self and being selfish are not the same thing. The same goes for lgbt persons. Currently, too often we are not allowed to have and be a self. To characterize resistance to this as selfish is actually selfishness on the part of those who so characterize, a refusal to make room for another. It is Sin at work. We receive a self from Jesus Christ in Holy Baptism and standing in Him reject that which dehumanizes our persons, both in the way we treat others including using others for mere sexual satisfaction and being used by others’ reduction of our lives and loves to a language of sacrifice or sex practices. In the face of such, we insist, “Christ speaks us.” A primary example of this dehumanizing language, language that does not respect our “Christ-touched dignity” (Williams, “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church,” 25 October 2005) is “practicing homosexual” precisely because of its genital reductionism on both counts, practicing and homosexual. At least homo-affectional recognizes that sex happens within a framework of committed love with all our foibles even if the term fails to consider Chalcedon’s reminder (as well as that of Genesis, Paul, and Bonhoeffer) that we are all cut of the cloth of one humanity, and as such, whether our commitment is to a person of the same or of a different sex, we are all actually homo-affectional. Let me say that again, we are all homo-affectional. Made to love others of our own, same flesh and bone. God uses our homo-affectionality for working salvation in us, for turning us to God’s salvation once offered. God became one of and with us in Jesus Christ, so that we might receive salvation once-for-all worked out in His flesh and be reoriented in the whole of our earthly desires and affections that in our own flesh by our doings toward one another in daily life we would be (re)ordered godwardly, as the lovely Collect for Holy Cross Day reminds, “our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself….grant that we…may have grace to take up our cross and follow him.” Just as “the flesh is the hinge” (Tertullian) for our salvation worked out once-for-all in Him, “homo-affectionality” is the hinge of our appropriation of Him in our own lives. God works not outside our flesh and affections, but through them once-for-all unto our salvation, and individually now for our sanctification. That is the power of the Incarnation.

4. Like our heterosexual kin, we are claimed by Christ in the waters of Holy Baptism, not of our own merits, but by Him who created us and creates us new—a newness that will not necessary reflect the program others have for us and have conflated with Christ’s conversion in us. And we receive this self from Christ with gratitude, refusing to allow denigration through others’ programs for us. This means that none of us is the holder of the finalized program, as Archbishop Williams at his theological best recognizes, “The Church exists to be in itself a symbol of God’s purpose for a reconciled humanity; as such it works on the assumption that we do not yet know where the boundaries of the Body of Christ might finally lie. It cannot assume that this or that group is ultimately unreconcilable to God or the rest of humanity. This is not because of any sentimental preconceptions about the natural goodness of human beings, but because of a conviction that the call of God can be addressed to any human person or community, and that it is the same call to compassion, justice, conscious and responsible love. Thus policies which involve wholesale slaughter or which rest on indiscriminate demonisation of a real or potential enemy cannot be squared with the kind of thing the Church is. Just by being itself, the Church will put a question to any such distorted ideas. The Church proclaims that there is one human destiny and that it is found in relation to one focal figure, Jesus; but also that what this human destiny means cannot be worked out without ‘communion’, a relation of profound and costly involvement with each other and receiving from each other. This and this alone is what saves the proclamation of Christ’s uniqueness from being a piece of ideological tyranny. Only as each different ‘other’ becomes a friend and a member of the Body can we discern how the unity of the Body will look; we do not begin with a blueprint which is to be forced on the stranger, or even a timetable and a programme for how they must accept the gospel. It is a matter of looking at the stranger with candour, patience, and hope, in the trust that our common destiny can be uncovered by the grace of Christ.” Williams, Truce of God, 26-27.

5. These words by Williams’ were addressed to lgbt persons in a Dutch interview. The words were picked up and then used by homosexual conversion organizations, such as Exodus, International. The full text reads, “We welcome people into the Church, we say: ‘You can come in, and that decision will change you.’ We don’t say: ‘Come in and we ask no questions.’ I do believe conversion means conversion of habits, behaviors, ideas, emotions.” Williams, “Interview,” Nederlands Dagblad, 27 August 2006.

6. “Such as it is” communicates both the contingency of such teaching as well as its less than authoritative absoluteness in anything approaching a magisterium. I use “loves” because that is in fact who our beloveds are, not mere sex practices or sacrifices.

7. Just as it is axiomatic that scholars do their best to describe another’s argument accurately, to fail to do so in public ecclesial discourse when describing persons and their lives, so that they would recognize themselves in the description, writes a false icon.

8. W. Christopher Evans, “Scar Tissue” (2009).

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