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Sometimes You Have to Speak Out

The most powerful man in the U.S. Senate, Richard Russell, Democrat of Georgia, on the introduction of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: "We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our (Southern) states."

Five years ago I wrote an essay called “On the Gay Issue: Pray” and published it on my prayer website, dailyoffice.org. (You can see it here if you want.) It’s a bit dated now, as I wrote it in the midst of the anti-Gay and Lesbian schism which wounded the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Those skirmishes are pretty much over. Both sides can claim some victories, but the Episcopal Church got almost all its property back in the courts, and is still the American member of the Anglican Communion; the anti-Gay forces had predicted they were going to replace us and would ride carriages in triumph through downtown Canterbury.

Didn’t happen, won’t happen, and the Episcopal Church is stronger as a result. The Archbishop of Canterbury can’t even get an anti-American “Anglican Covenant” through his own Church of England now. The whole exercise has turned out to be a tempest in a teapot.

Now I’m thinking of publishing a new essay, previewed below, on LGBTQ people in the Church – but I hesitate a bit. I’m not sure that a Daily Office website is the place for it. One of the virtues of the daily prayers is that they’re objective; there’s no preaching, no doctrine and very little opinion. The site’s had 1.7 million visitors, from all denominations and most of the countries of the world. It’s non-controversial; a uniter, not a divider.

Still, sometimes you have to speak out. Often that’s because of a new outrage or emergency, an injustice of some kind. And now isn’t one of those times. There are plenty of outrages and injustices in the world, but then again there always are, and nothing at present is making my blood boil. So why publish a new essay? Why rile people up again?

Mind you, most of the feedback I’ve received “On the Gay Issue” has been positive; where it hasn’t been, it’s almost always respectful. It’s very unusual that someone leaves a comment that’s truly hateful. Our congregation is a polite bunch of folks. Why not just let things hum along?

On the other hand, when the oppression of GLBTs is ongoing, a new essay every five years doesn’t seem like too much, even on a placid website like mine. People are interested in the topic, I might just have a little impact, so why not go ahead?

Here’s what tipped the balance in my mind: an essay on same-sex marriage by someone who’s been there, my friend Russ, who blogs at Blue Truck Red State. It’s about what happened when his beloved husband Cody died. He wrote it in 2008, just days before Californians voted to end same-sex marriage with Proposition 8.

Here’s my little offering, dedicated to Russ and Cody.

God Has Welcomed Them
in Which the Vicar Writes Again about LGBT People in the Church


It’s been five years now since I addressed the question of Gay people in church; I don’t like harping on any subject, because one of the strengths of this online parish is that we provide our members and visitors the Bible lessons and prayers without pontificating. The Daily Office is universal, free of controversy, the straight scoop. We welcome everyone regardless of denomination or theology. It’s the Liturgy of the Hours, not of the Opinions.

Still, one of the things I’ve learned since I began Your Online Chapel of Ease™ in 2004 is that even the objectivity of the words, according to the lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer (1979), doesn’t change the fact that the Worship Leader makes selections. The Gospel is always taught to us by human beings.

God may have called us, but the voice we heard came from someone we knew. I’m a Christian today because of the words and actions of particular people in my life.

The Prayer Book includes options; I make choices. Every service includes some artwork; I’m the one who picks it. I write the captions; I choose the music. I can’t erase myself from these sites; instead I have to take responsibility for my choices.

Every week we run They Have Names, a list of American servicemembers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve never told you before that I’ve opposed these wars from the very beginning—but even more I oppose the idea that we send young people to fight and die and then forget about them, because TV finds long wars boring, and the only thing anyone knows anymore is what they see in the media.

But this is a medium too, for the glory of God, and those lives matter to the Holy One, regardless of any Vicar’s opinion. So thank you for putting up with my intervention—and please give equal prayer time to our soldiers’ enemies and the civilian casualties. We can’t obtain their names or we’d list them too.

“On the Gay Issue: Pray,” my old essay, has received more comments than anything else on our sites. Most of them are positive, but not all; that’s fine. A particularly fruitful exchange has developed recently between “Searcher Mom” and me; we’ve ended up deciding that we can take communion together even as we disagree. Hallelujah! I’m more the beneficiary of our dialogue than she is, because I’m very clear that God Has Welcomed GLBT people, and less sure that I have welcomed Seeker Mom.

Let’s read a little of what St. Paul had to say on a controversy of his day. Early Christians were worried about dietary laws; it seems trivial now but it was important then.

Romans 14:1-4 (NRSV)

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

I don’t mean to be ironic in quoting Paul. He encountered God direct, which turned his world upside down; he stopped finding salvation in the Law of Moses and started finding it in Jesus Christ. Paul’s entire way of thinking was transformed. My essay tried to indicate that the best way to approach a raging controversy like human sexuality is by seeking that direct encounter with God—not by searching scriptures or even trying to apply human reasoning to it, because our reasoning is invariably shaped by our previous beliefs and experiences.

Paul’s life-changing encounter on the Damascus Road upended all his prior beliefs and set him on a new path. He had to notice where he was going and his thinking had to evolve. He left behind magnificent records of what he noticed and thought about and learned. He did not proclaim in his epistles that he now knew everything there was to know about God; instead he acknowledged that he and we “see through a glass darkly.”

Now let’s fast-forward 2000 years and notice what’s around us.

Women are openly teaching in church; indeed, Episcopalians elected a woman named Katharine Jefferts Schori to be our lead teacher, our Presiding Bishop. A few men in the United States and elsewhere have shunned and insulted her, but God has made her stand.

That’s just reality; she’s still standing. (I remember Fr. Bill Coulter thundering to our Church Army training class, “And one of God’s names is Reality!”)

It’s the same with Gay, Lesbian, Bi and Transgender Christians; they’re still here in the Church. God has made them stand.

Men have persecuted them relentlessly, and slain a good number of them; but every time one goes down, ten more stand.

They remind us of the martyrs of old, of St. Lucy and St. Polycarp and so many others; the Church was built on the blood of martyrs. And so it is today.

Gene Robinson, the openly-Gay Bishop of New Hampshire: still standing. Mary Glasspool, Suffragan Bishop of Los Angeles, a Lesbian and still standing, despite “an unusually swift and sharp rebuke” from the Archbishop of Canterbury within hours of her election.

Integrity, Louie Crew, Susan Russell, Evangelicals Concerned, Affirmation and thousands like them, working and praying and giving for inclusive churches: still standing, with God’s help. So who are we to pass judgment?

And it works both ways; I’m glad to be friends with Searcher Mom.

It’s important in every controversy to distinguish between implacable enemies and people with a different opinion. There was never any doubt that the Emperor Diocletian was going to feed St. Lucy to the lions. That’s different from disagreeing in the comments section of a blog.

In Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King lambasted the Episcopal Bishop of Alabama, he didn’t excommunicate him.

Then James Earl Ray assassinated Dr. King, making another martyr for Christ.

In my lifetime, Church and society have been forced to deal with a succession of human rights questions that require moral choices. Men, women and children have had to ask ourselves, “Where do I stand? Who is right here? What does God want?”

Writers often summarize these controversies as “civil rights, women’s rights and Gay rights,” but in fact the questions are much broader. Americans have had to make decisions about the right to vote, open housing, equal employment opportunity, segregation in schools; divorce, birth control, abortion, equal pay, women’s sports, female politicians, women astronauts; anti-Semitism, immigration, Japanese-American internment camps, Native Indian genocide. And yes, what do we do with people who are Gay or Lesbian or intersexed or transgender? The list is long. In the past year a new question’s been added; is life just a Monopoly board, where the rich get to bankrupt everyone else?

I believe that in each question, the people have made up their minds—that is, made a moral choice—before the Church and the politicians even recognize what’s being asked. Never forget: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 barely overcame a two and a half month filibuster in the U.S. Senate. Today we have an African-American president.

Some moral decisions are easy; heterosexual marriage is a good thing. Jesus “adorned and beautified it” at a wedding in Cana. So marriage is good, except when it’s not; I grew up with domestic violence, which wasn’t a good thing at all. Divorce was much better in my family’s case.

Some moral decisions are hard; abortion is terrible, but it sometimes saves lives. (My grandmother died giving birth to my mother.) So depending on the circumstances, some abortions might be permissible, and it’s a fact that some women have always sought it, in all times and places; if they’re going to do it anyway, better they should be safe and not butchered in a back alley. That’s a moral and courageous choice, the lesser of two evils.

It’s clearly better for the woman and her doctor to decide than the government; that’s a moral choice too.

Birth control to most people is a no-brainer; they’ve made a moral decision.

If homosexual behavior were destructive to personality, family and community, a society might wisely choose to suppress it. But it isn’t destructive to any of those things—indeed, in many cases it adds to them—so Americans have decided that it ought to be legal, and if Lesbians and Gay men are going to be forming relationships anyway, it’s a positive social good if they marry, even if some politicians and preachers compare Gayness to terrorism.

Aborigines have a right to thrive; Christians can live with Jews and Muslims if all sides overcome their prejudices. Immigrants grow economies. Asian-Americans aren’t just good at math; Jeremy Lin’s winning ballgames for the Knicks and Margaret Cho is funny!

God made everyone. Who are you to pass judgment?

God gets to decide who makes it to heaven and who doesn’t. Everything else is just someone’s opinion.

In the meantime, let us recognize the central stories of our faith: God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Jesus delivered the world from slavery to sin.

It is God’s nature to love us and free us from all limitations. Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”

Public opinion isn’t God, but it always involves moral choices. With Searching Mom, I’m trying to make the best ones possible, listening to many voices, contemporary as well as ancient.

The Wolfenden Report declared back in 1957, “Homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence.” Yet here we are, 55 years later, still listening to Rick Santorum predict the end of the world.

I heard it all the first time from Dick Russell, who said quite clearly he opposed social equality. People made a moral choice about that, and he soon passed from the scene.++

Josh Thomas
February 10, 2012

Now go and read Russ’s account of the loss of his beloved Cody.

John Wolfenden, an education specialist and Oxford don, led a study committee that decided - in 1957, 12 years before Stonewall - that homosexual behavior shouldn't be a crime. It took Parliament ten more years to decide he was right.

One Response

  1. Are we partly on the same page — Do Not Block Door? I think so.
    Mar 4, 2012
    COPREHENSIVE UNITY — NO ANGLICAN COVENANT: ¨ ….conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms are inherently a good thing. But best practice surely entails parties entering into the process voluntarily and with no threat of sanction.¨


    I especially appreciate and fully understand your statement:

    ¨God made everyone. Who are you to pass judgment?

    God gets to decide who makes it to heaven and who doesn’t. Everything else is just someone’s opinion¨ Josh Thomas

    Thanks for this, perhaps I can link to it at some point?


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