A few days ago, Sharon Watkins, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), published a pastoral letter addressing the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church. You can read the letter here.
Watkins’ letter has many virtues, but it is a bit disappointing in that it does not take a decisive stand on any of the first-order issues of theology, ethics, Biblical interpretation, and sexuality that divide individuals and congregations in the CCDOC. Instead it attempts to strike a note of reconciliation among Disciples on all sides of the issues, emphasizing (in true Disciples fashion) that the communion table welcomes everyone. It is a position that manages to be so inoffensive that it is fated to satisfy no one completely. It sends people with an investment in clear theological and political ground home empty-handed, and it annoys all of those people who wish that the conversation would just turn towards anything else but this. Making statements like these is a thankless task, and the discussion I have seen of it bears out this fact.
For me, Watkins’s letter occasioned a fourfold set of thoughts that I will share here in no particular order. I don’t know how to bring my thoughts under a single guiding principle, much less to a point where I can give a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down assessment of what Watkins says. My thoughts are more complicated than that.
So, in all their messiness, here are my four reactions.
1. The False Divide
There is a tendency throughout discussions of Christianity and LGBTQ folk to paint the following picture of how they relate to one another. On the one side is the church, with its internal struggles over the attitude it should take towards LGBTQ people, and on the other are LGBTQ people themselves, who are implicitly depicted as excluded from and marginalized by the church. From within this picture, we might expect statements like Watkins’s pastoral letter to bridge that gap or otherwise communicate across it.
This picture itself, which frames so much of the discussion of LGBTQ concerns in the CCDOC and in the wider church, bothers me far more than anything the letter did or didn’t say. While it is true that a lot of churches have marginalized and excluded queer folk, we are nevertheless here in church in worship and service, and I think we always have been. The picture of the church and the queer community on opposite sides of a gulf, with a debate on whether and how to bridge it, is just inaccurate, or at least overly simplistic.
That picture is also counterproductive and dangerous, in that it implicitly and presumptively identifies the church with straight people and straightness. This sets up a dynamic in which (presumptively straight) Christians appear to be debating one another over whether to share their blessings, privileges, benefits, and fellowship with poor, shivering, lonely queer folk outside. It’s a rather patronizing attitude when you think about it. It defines queer folk as victims, deprives us of agency, and fails to recognize that God may be– that God is– at work blessing us and the lives we already lead. There are those of us who want to live in Christian community with straight folks, who see it as our Christian calling to seek a wide community, but that can’t happen in a meaningful way if we are perpetually viewed as passive recipients of moral and theological charity. Community doesn’t work like that; at least not Christian community as I understand it. No one gets to occupy a seat of untouched moral privilege and come away from encounters completely unchanged and unchallenged. That goes for queer folk as well, of course. This point is intimately bound up with the transformation and redemption God seeks to work in us and through us all in community– the “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17) in us through God in Christ.
2. Justice, Power and Abuse
Much of the advocacy in support of full LGBTQ inclusion in church is done in the name of the church’s social justice concerns, and specifically in the name of speaking with a clear voice on equal civil rights for LGBTQ people. Many compare the current struggle for marriage equality to the civil rights movement and seek for churches to take the prophetic stances now that so many churches did then. If the church’s investment in LGBTQ concerns is supposed to be first and foremost as a matter of social justice and civil rights, then Watkins’s letter probably doesn’t further that cause appreciably. It may even be part of the problem to the extent that it fails to acknowledge that the current state of affairs within the church is frequently unjust.
Part of my above point that queer folk are already in and associated with church is that the issues of welcome and inclusion at stake are as much about what happens in our churches as it is about the face we present to the outside. The tragedy of LGBTQ people and churches is not always that the church doors are shut to us, but that often we started out in church but experienced breathtaking abuse there at the hands of our Christian brothers and sisters. That has not been my personal story, I’m glad to say, but it has been the story of too many others. In that context, Watkins’ conciliatory tone in her pastoral letter rankles a bit, almost certainly without meaning to do so. Christian communities are notorious for using the language of forgiveness and reconciliation to which Watkins appeals to turn a blind eye to abusers’ misconduct, officially erasing it, and then telling the abused and violated that the abuse is their fault and that the moral and spiritual burden is exclusively on them to reconcile with their abusers. Too often, when the powerful abuse the less powerful in church, it is the abused who are saddled with the exclusive burden of reconciling with their abusers. This is a pattern of (mis)conduct in the church that goes far beyond its treatment of queer folk, but the experience of many queer folk in churches is like this.
Let me be absolutely clear that I am not accusing Sharon Watkins herself of any such attitude, nor of condoning or approving it in others. I am just highlighting how, context considered, the language to which she appeals can have precisely the opposite effect than the one she intends. Christian churches need to look their history of spiritual abuse square in the face, own up to it, and exercise far more sensitivity to the contexts and power dynamics at play when they deploy the language of forgiveness and reconciliation. Everybody, queer folk included, has to be ready to engage in difficult, painful conversations to make a wider Christian community work, but it can’t happen authentically if queer folk have to bear all of the risks and the burdens in those conversations.
3. A Broader Conversation About Relatedness
If one expects the church to exercise a voice in the public debate over LGBTQ rights and in issue advocacy, Watkins’ letter doesn’t do that. It doesn’t address the issues prevalent in the wider public debate, foremost among them marriage equality, and it doesn’t position the CCDOC clearly in that coveted position of an alternative Christian voice to the conservative Christian voices that are clearly against equal rights for queer folk.
I have a hard time being critical of Watkins on this score, however, because I find so much of the politics surrounding this expectation confining. This is the part where I say some things that many people, including many queer folk, may find impolitic or misguided. I crave your patience, though, because I feel like this is an important and underserved point.
Let’s take the focus on marriage equality for a moment. Marriage equality is a matter of equal rights under the law, this is true, and so there is a pure civil rights and social justice case to be made for speaking out in support of it. Churches should have something to say about marriage equality. But access to marriage is not the only equal rights and social justice issue for the LGBTQ community. The nice gay couple may not be able to get married, and some churches are saying good things about why that’s a problem. But why aren’t more churches talking about (to pick but a single example) the issues of our trans* folk who run the risk of harassment and discrimination over simply using a public restroom? Some Christians and some churches are having those conversations, but not enough. I for one would love to have that conversation in church, and I would love to have it in a context that was prepared to give pride of place to trans* folk and their experiences.
Even if we stick with marriage equality for the time being, which is the big advocacy focus right now, it’s unclear to me why the actual rights at stake in that debate, especially the civil and economic rights that are bound up with the equal rights and equal protection issues, are one and all best respected by shoehorning same-gender couples into state-sanctioned marriages that mirror those of opposite-gender couples. This is one way to do it, obviously, but is it the best way, all things considered? Why is it important or in the best interests of queer folk to level the playing field that way? Why not instead reduce or eliminate the special rights that marriage confers on anyone, straight or queer? What compelling state interest does the state have in promoting marriage for anyone, and might those interests be better served in some way other than marriages? And (to come back to the church for a second) just what stake does the church have in the institution of marriage as it currently exists anyway? Have we even had that discussion? What would we learn about the historically contingent heteronormativity of the church if we had that discussion, especially if, as I argue to anyone who will listen, marriage is a thoroughly heteronormative institution as it currently exists? Is marriage an unalloyed good for either queer folk or for the church? Why do we seem to think we know the answer to that question before it is even asked?
A lot of you probably find my line of questioning here naively speculative or too radical and unrealistic. I admit that it is the road less traveled, and that in the short term, at least, marriage equality is the LGBTQ issue that has the best chance of gaining widespread traction. But at the same time, I am thoroughly convinced that there is a broader social conversation brewing of which the current discussions of marriage and family and gender roles in the nuclear family that dominate in Christian circles are only a symptom. It is a broader conversation about all of the forms of relatedness: a conversation about family (biological and chosen), about love and sex and gender, about community, about friendship and kinship and membership and everything else in between. All of the ties that bind are fluid and under reexamination. They always are to some extent, I guess, but my gut tells me that there are big shifts on the horizon. Yet not enough voices in the church (or in the broader social discussion) are speaking to that looming conversation; we are still on that small piece of it called marriage and family and sweating the question of what to do with that.
I think our faith has deep resources for speaking to this broader fluidity in the forms of community and kinship, partly because the church has lived through so many structural transformations in social institutions over the last two millennia. Churches are one of the last institutions to lay claim to a form of historical consciousness that extends further back than one or (maybe) two generations. Church is where we can encounter the living God who seeks to carry us forward into a better future.
For much of the American public, though, church may also be their most accessible point of regular access to historical memory and meaningful reflection in the form of art, song, poetry, and ideas. Think of the untapped spiritual and historical resources we could offer to help guide reflection on life in community and relationship if we apply ourselves to the task! That is a conversation I want to be a part of.
4. The Messy Work of Relationships
My final thought occasioned by Watkins’s letter is that it is possible to pin too high a hope on official proclamations from senior authorities. Those proclamations are, when they are robust and stake out much-needed moral territory, quite valuable and welcome. But I am not sure that they change anyone’s mind by themselves. They may be the occasion for the conversations and encounters between actual people that lead to real change. Or they may be a wedge that drives people apart and into enclaves where they go to gripe about how unreasonable the “other side” is being. They may do both.
I am convinced that the way forward for all of us lies less in the quality of our public pronouncements and more in the quality of our communities and relationships. Perhaps I think this because I am good at pronouncements and terrible at relationships, and we sometimes most value what we ourselves are not. What I do know is that, in a quiet and unobtrusive way, my Christian community and relationships have borne me up and saved me in a way that no proclamation ever has. It has done so by allowing me the space to be fully honest, or as near to it as I can manage, and giving others the space to be fully honest with me. If churches are able to be anything like this place of honesty for people, we shall ultimately not go far wrong.