The Good Bishop Is Right—The Time for Church Debates on Homosexuality is Past

Last week, retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong issued a manifesto declaring that he “will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone.” Period. In “The Time Has Come!” Spong writes that for him, enough is enough, especially when it comes to Christian responses to homosexual issues based on a particular reading of biblical texts and understanding of Christian ethics. 

I’ve been mulling over his essay (or as I earlier characterized it, “broadside”) for several days. And I’ve been reading the reactions of others to it as well. Some agree. Some disagree. Some do both, kind of an “agreement, but…” sort of thing. Statements have appeared like: “…the battle is NOT won.”

“I hate to see him leave the debate…”

“No, the battle is not won!”

“…we must engage people in order to change hearts and minds.”

Or, like those words penned by my fellow Presbyterian blogger, John Shuck at Shuck and Jive:

We need more people to follow the lead of Bishop Spong and speak clearly. This clear speech is what is required to penetrate the fog of homophobic propaganda and the hand wringing of the weak-kneed who unwittingly corroborate with it.

I like that.

When I first read the essay, my first reaction was, “Hey, that reminds me of the old Chambers Brothers song of my youth, ‘Time Has Come Today.’” My second response was, “Hey, that reminds me of something my seminary apologetics professor used to say all the time, ‘Belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it.’”

I read the piece as one who was once on my way to ordination as a deacon in the Episcopal Church, only to be shooed away from the table by a hypocritical bishop reflecting those very attitudes condemned by Spong in this essay. I read it as one who has returned to the church of his birth and upbringing, the Presbyterian Church USA, and has found a large measure of peace and comfort in doing so.

Belief Cannot Argue with Unbelief

What isn’t apparent in the manifesto, but what is absolutely necessary to it, is the theological journey Spong has been on. I don’t think we, regardless of our faith commitments, can really understand the manifesto in its fullness, nor really concur with it, without first understanding and appreciating that journey.

The priest of the small Episcopal church I briefly attended a while back was quick to label Spong as a heretic from the pulpit and sometimes, in private and jokingly I trust, call for his burning—along with the Presiding Bishop, et al.

Spong is, by certain standards, a heretic. But then, so am I. And that has nothing to do with his, or my, view of homosexuality. That view, that understanding, flows from a theological journey. For Spong, traditionally understood theism is a woefully inadequate conception of what we term “God.” The Bible is a collection of theological reflections which can inform our own reflections. It is not, in any way typically understood, the Word of God.

Many of the so-called “historical” events found in that collection of writings (for example, all those great Hebrew stories in what’s sometimes called The Old Testament, many of the Jesus stories like the virgin birth, preexisting divinity of Jesus, bodily resurrection, etc.) are not history properly understood; but, rather, are theological interpretations of encounters with and experiences of the man, Jesus, who while not “God in the flesh,” was, nevertheless, divine-infused. I don’t think I’m misunderstanding his writings here. Even the latest book, Eternal Life: A New Vision, presents these thoughts in its subtitle: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell.

The logical end of that kind of theological journey is the realization that to continue to debate an issue like homosexuality in the church is, indeed, fruitless. It is fruitless if for no other reason than the fact that there is no common ground from which to start the debate. Belief cannot argue with unbelief.

Put plainly, what possible good outcome is there from a debate in which one party starts from the assumption that the collection of writings we call “Bible” is authoritative in some way, normative for our sexual behavior, when the other person starts from the assumption that the collections of writings we call “Bible” are no more authoritative for our behavior than, for example, the Qur’an, or the writings of various Eastern religious figures, or all those Gnostic gospels?

The only possible result is talking heads, each trying to be heard above the other, often yelling at each other in the end. Belief arguing, if you will, with unbelief.

And so I say to my GLBTQ friends whose faith tradition is Christian of an evangelical bent: understand where Spong is coming from when he makes the statements he does in the manifesto. I would invite you to consider whether or not it is time to move beyond the pre-modern and modern understandings of the Bible that you want to argue (“do battle with”) about with this or that person.

A Self-Serving Lie: Loving the Sinner, Hating the Sin

That being said, there are several statements in Bishop Spong’s manifesto which, in their clarity and simplicity, spoke especially forcefully to me.

Consider what Spong calls a “self-serving lie,” the often-presented phrase, “we love the sinner but hate the sin.” The fact of the matter is, if you adopt the thinking and its underlying theology of those who say such, you can’t really separate the two, sin and sinner. They are coterminous with each other. It is, as Spong says, a “lie” put forth to soothe the conscience.

“I will no longer seek to slow down the witness to inclusiveness by pretending that there is some middle ground between prejudice and oppression.” This seeking of middle ground is, in my view, exactly what has kept the mainline denominations in a stalemate for years now. The “peace” and “unity” of the church have for far too long been held up as higher values than doing justice and expressing in visible, tangible ways God’s all-inclusive love—and it is all based on an outmoded, outdated, impossible to defend in the face of contemporary scholarship and discovery, irrelevant theology and view of the Bible. Whew! Did I really say that?

The thing is, most mainline ministers, I’d venture to guess, especially those recently out of the “big” seminaries, know the truth of this. They know the inevitable conclusions to which good, honest biblical scholarship pushes one. They know you can’t appeal to the Bible for a sexual ethic. But if they were honest, if they preached what they knew, they’d lose their jobs; and you know those “tall steeple” guys (and the vast, vast majority of them are “guys”) ain’t gonna give up those $100,000+ packages. 

“Church unity,” Spong writes, “can never be a virtue that is preserved by allowing injustice, oppression, and psychological tyranny to go unchallenged.” He goes on, “I will also no longer act as if I need a majority vote of some ecclesiastical body in order to bless, ordain, recognize, and celebrate the lives and gifts of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church.” Again, whew! Did he really say that?

What would happen if tomorrow, mainline church leaders, like those in the UMC or the PCUSA, woke up and said, along with Spong, “Justice can’t wait for a majority. Doing the right thing is not contingent on the will of a frightened majority (afraid of losing power, losing members, losing money)”? What would happen?

What would happen if local and regional church deliberative bodies (like Presbyteries or Dioceses or Synods), led by courageous, honest, faithful, and truly biblically-informed people, just up and decided, “Okay, we’re going to do the right thing. We are just going ahead and not withhold ordination from this or that person just because they are gay or lesbian and we’re going to bless their relationships, too.”? What would happen?

What would happen if regional church deliberative bodies, knowing the right thing to do, said, “We must obey God rather than men, even the General Assembly or General Convention. We can no longer deny full participation in church life to our gay and lesbian members, even if refusing to do so is “decently and in order.”? What would happen, I wonder?

I think I have an idea as to what would happen. The ranks of conservative groups would momentarily swell; and that’s okay. It is, as Ms. Stewart says, a good thing; what some folks call a “backdoor revival,” the result of which is a church, while not as big perhaps, that is a lot more faithful to the calling of God and declared purpose of Jesus’ ministry (see Luke 4:17-20, Isa. 61 and a whole bunch of those “minor” prophets).

I think Spong is absolutely, without question or qualification, right. In that sense, the time for debate and study is long, long past. Issues related to the participation of homosexual persons in the church has been debated and studied to death. The battle is over; the victory, as he writes, is won and now must be realized in our lives. Whether I see, in my lifetime, mainline churches really living out what they truly believe, doesn’t matter so much to me—not because it’s not important, but because I know it will eventually happen.