by Douglas L. LeBlanc
United Voice, July 1997
PASADENA, Calif. — A meeting of activists has criticized the concept of “inclusion,” usually advocated by liberal Episcopalians, as inadequate and patronizing of homosexuals.
The conference met under the theme “Beyond Inclusion” on April 10-13 at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena.
Conference organizer Ed Bacon Jr., rector of All Saints, said the Episcopal Church must “stop this foolishness of one segment of God’s family presumptuously ‘including’ gays and lesbians in the family.”
The conference attracted about 250 participants, who heard addresses by the Rev. Marilyn McCord Adams of Yale Divinity School; the Rev. Michael Jesse Battle of the School of Theology, University of the South; the Rev. William Countryman of Church Divinity School of the Pacific; Patricia Beattie Jung of Loyola University; and the Rev. Juan Oliver, canon missioner for the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey.
Andrew Sullivan, a senior editor of The New Republic magazine and editor of the newly published book Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con, spoke at the conference banquet.
The conference also featured the world premiere of a play by D. Paul Thomas, The Presentment, which was inspired by the dismissed doctrinal charges against retired bishop Walter Righter. Bacon said he hopes to stage the play in Philadelphia during General Convention. Righter attended the conference and preached at the opening Eucharist.
Is it marriage yet?
Instead of offering mere inclusion, the Church should affirm and celebrate homosexual unions, Bacon said.
Whether the Church should celebrate homosexual unions as the moral or theological equivalent of marriage remained an open question. Keynote speaker Andrew Sullivan argued with quiet intensity that marriage is a fundamental right, preceding the right to vote.
Earlier, conference participants asked whether marriage is worthy of their allegiance. Some described marriage as an often sexist, patriarchal, heterosexist and violent institution that may not accommodate what they described as more egalitarian homosexual relationships.
A number of speakers and conference participants said they have no desire merely to imitate heterosexual marriage.
The Rev. Rand Frew of New York asked Countryman how the Church should respond to “bisexuals and transgendered people” and whether it should affirm non-monogamous relationships.
“I would be distressed if the drive toward blessing gay unions merely applied Reformation understandings of heterosexual unions to gay unions,” Countryman said.
“I’ve started to think that maybe we are a threat to marriage as we know it, and maybe the Church needs to redefine marriage,” another participant said.
“It does threaten, you’re absolutely right,” said the Rev. Mark Kowalewski of Huntington Beach. “It does threaten the primacy of heterosexual marriage, which is based on sexism.”
A semantic question
Oliver distributed the “Report of the Second Consultation of Episcopalians on Same-Sex Unions.” The consultation first met in 1994 at Episcopal Divinity School, then again in July 1996 in Washington, D.C.
Like the first report, the revision proposes a blessing rite that may be used by homosexuals or heterosexuals. Also like the first version, the revised rite includes no pledges of monogamy, but does offer a closing paragraph conceding that some relationships will fail.
Oliver defended those liturgical choices, saying that the two essential elements of marriage are commitment and blessing — nothing more. The proposed rite is “not a contract or a book of law,” he said.
“It is more important to praise God for Sally and Sue, even in the face of infidelity, than to praise God for their 42 years of a genitally exclusive monogamous relationship, during which they have hated each other,” Oliver said. “Faithfulness is not about plumbing.”
Whether the Church refers to homosexual unions as marriages “is a political and a semantic issue, not a theological issue,” Oliver said.
“I don’t want the relationship I enter into with a partner to be the same as heterosexual marriage, thank you,” he said. “I want it to be equal.”
Oliver said the proposed rite “is a sign of the reign of God” and “is free of gender determinism.”
“When you perform the rite, it deconstructs heterosexual marriage,” he said. “Let’s not kid ourselves about how earthshaking this really is.”
Responding to Oliver’s paper, the Rev. Jennifer Phillips of University City, Mo., described how she has blessed homosexual unions for several years.
Phillips was a participant in both rounds of the consultation and drafts various rites for the Standing Liturgical Commission. She said the proposed blessings rite is based on the two primary sacraments of baptism and communion, not on marriage.
As the Church “blurs the boundaries of marriage, it may affect the civic realm,” Phillips said. “Deconstructing these categories, it seems to me, is part of Gospel work.
“What’s next? Maybe we bless noncelibate single people. What a thought,” she said, prompting laughter.
Common themes among the four papers — and the discussions they generated — included homosexuality as a gift, homosexuality as another form of love, “heterosexism” as sin, blunt criticism of conservatives and a few worries about forces that may slow the movement.
— Homosexuality as a gift. Speakers repeatedly echoed Bacon’s opening remark that “Homosexuality is a gift to be celebrated, not a malady to be healed.”
“What God has joined together,” Marilyn Adams said about homosexual unions, “we should have the courtesy to acknowledge and celebrate.”
“Some of us have tried to root [homosexual orientation] out, and found that the effort was not only ungrateful but also impossible,” Countryman said.
Homosexual couples “image God,” Oliver said, because their relationships are “faithful, committed and generative.”
“The relationship being celebrated is a gift of God and a manifestation of God’s love,” he said.
The proposed rite reflects such a belief. The most frequent recurring refrain is “Blessed be God who appears to us in their love.”
— Homosexuality as another form of love. Adams, an Episcopal priest, turned to traditional authors to weaken the traditionalist case against homosexuality.
“I bring these witnesses to you as a way of undermining the traditional case for a ban on homosexual relationships,” she said.
Adams quoted William of Ockham’s teachings on the Holy Trinity and texts on friendship by Cicero and Aelred of Rievaulx (claimed by the homosexual caucus Integrity as its patron saint). Adams argued that homosexuality may be seen as a form of deep spiritual friendship and that blessing same-sex unions “would signal the fundamental union and likeness of the divine life.”
Countryman sounded a similar note in his paper: “To love another person, and to be loved in return, makes life and joy. Whether the love is heterosexual or homosexual seems to make no discernible difference.”
Adams titled her paper “Yes to Bless, or the Trinity as the Gay Men’s Chorus.”
If the Trinity is the model of spiritual friendship, a participant asked Adams, why does the Church celebrate the unity of two people, rather than three? “I used to think that the Trinity might be a model of kinky relations,” Adams said, prompting laughter.
The question raises issues of psychology, taboo and sociology, and the question ought to be “looked at afresh,” Adams said. Throughout her presentation, Adams recommended that participants “remove the blinders of taboo.”
— Heterosexism as sin. Jung cited “heterosexism” or “heterocentrism” — terms she coined that have found widespread popularity in homosexual apologetics — as sins the Church must oppose. Jung charged that the Church has compromised with the surrounding culture when it opposes homosexuality.
“The sexual ethic at the base of heterosexism needs to be directly challenged,” Jung said. “Much is at stake in this argument. Not only the burden of proof, but the ethical landscape, shifts when we recognize that heterosexism, not homosexuality, is the problem.”
Jung said the Church has “failed to make a compelling case” for its traditional teachings on sexual morality.
Teachings that connect sexual activity with procreation “rest on the equation of male sexual experience with human sexual experience,” she said.
For women, “the connection between sexual pleasure and reproduction is seen as periodic and seasonal, if not capricious,” Jung said.
— Criticizing conservatives. Speakers often referred to conservative Christians as “fundamentalists,” “legalists” or “the radical right.” “For some years it surprised me that the legalist side claimed the Bible for its cause, while ignoring it so cavalierly,” Countryman said. “It is time for us Christians now to reclaim the Bible for what it was meant to be — not a law book to reinforce whatever the status quo happens to hold dear, but a vehicle of the Good News.”
Only a “myth of social progress” leads people to believe that the original Christians were “fundamentalists,” Countryman said.
Fundamentalism “is a creature of the age of Hitler, Stalin and Mao,” he said, prompting gasps. “It is a violent reaction to an era perceived as flooded with change.”
“I come from a family that’s pretty full of fundamentalists,” said the Rev. Altagracia Perez of Los Angeles, in a humor-laced response to Countryman. “Even though I’m the only ordained person, I’m the one that just about everybody is sure is not saved.”
One man asked how liberal Episcopalians can cite the Bible as their own, when some Episcopal bishops teach “fundamentalist” understandings of Scripture.
“They’re the ones on the weak legs,” Perez said of conservative bishops. “Anglican tradition has never interpreted Scripture that way. I want to say to them, If you don’t like the way we interpret Scripture, leave. I do like the way we interpret Scripture, and that’s why I joined.”
The Rev. William Doubleday worried that St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, traditionally a liberal parish, has embraced Alpha, but St. Bartholomew’s parishioner Daniel Tietz sough to reassure him.
“There’s no Bible-thumping traditional evangelism going on in the Alpha program at St. Bartholomew’s,” Tietz said.
— Possible speed bumps. A few speakers voiced concern that the Lambeth Conference in 1998, or the Concordat of Agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, could make the Episcopal Church more cautious on initiatives regarding homosexuality.
Doubleday said South African bishops seem more conservative since the retirement of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. That does not bode well for Lambeth, Doubleday said.
Wilma Jacobson, who recently served as Tutu’s chaplain for 18 months, agreed with Doubleday’s concern.
“Certainly, for some, it would have been a strong sigh of relief when Desmond retired,” she said. “It’s worrying. It means that those of us with different voices need to be hard at work.”
Fred H. Ellis III, national president of Integrity, said that the Episcopal Women’s Caucus approached conservative bishops at the Lambeth Conference of 1988, and asked them either to speak in favor of women’s ordination or to hold their peace.
Ellis asked Jacobson whether she could recommend African bishops who may change their minds or who would agree not to speak out. Jacobson didn’t name any bishop during the plenary session.
During a midday news conference, Bacon said that both Lambeth and the Concordat discussion will shape General Convention’s willingness to authorize preparation of a rite for blessing homosexual unions.
“It would not be an act of leadership to back off from that,” Bacon said. “I’m not motivated by whether it will pass now or in three years. I’m motivated by the realization that I need to bear witness now.”
Righter agreed. “Are we gonna subside? No way. If we do, we’re in real trouble.”
Oliver turned to a New Testament image to express his own determination: “This prodigal son did not leave the Father’s house because he was perverse. This prodigal son was driven out by the elder brother.”
Oliver took the image a step further: “We are coming back, redecorating the room and firing some of the hired help.”