Your comments requested on the Bishops' report

It's time to "read, mark, and comment upon" the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops' report titled, "Same-Sex Relationships in the Life of the Church".

Take some time to read it and comment on it here. Here is the entire report.

We at the Cafe thought Dr. Jeffrey Shy's comment at the Cafe yesterday is a great place to begin so we've posted it below. Read other comments from yesterday HERE:

That we "heard nothing new" in this report is, I think, a pretty fair assessment, and perhaps that is something we should consider when we question as to whether we have "done the theology." (meaning that the lack of anything "new" suggests that there may not be much "theology to do")

In essence, the "conservative" case is made on the basis of the "plain" meaning of key scriptural passages along with a few other pieces. They counter the pneumatological claims of the "liberals" by making the case that it is not proven that homosexual orientation is part of a divine creator's intent and, in their view, is a product of original sin and the fallenness of humanity. They argue that the issue of same-sexuality is unique and cannot be cast as another round in battles like slavery and women's rights– battles which prior conservatives have already lost.

The liberal argument advances, in essence, the pneumatological approach that the church experiences the gifts of the Spirit in the lives of gay and lesbian persons who are not celibate. They admit that the scientific proof of sexual orientation is not conclusive (missing the opportunity to remind us that neither is the proof of "cause" of heterosexual orientation conclusively proven either in my neuroscientist opinion), but that such orientation seems innate and comes from a stage of human development that precedes reason and choice (in the womb). They also make a more "eastern" argument that nods to the contemporary western rediscovery of mostly-eastern patristic theologies of incarnation in creating a positive argument about the embodied nature of our spirituality.

None of this, as one of the bishops said, was particularly new or surprising.

The only "new" thing that I found was the liberal argument advanced that same-sex couples should not merely have the option to marry but that they must marry. Their view of marriage as a " an arduous discipline, a training in sanctification" strikes me as patently a brilliant and somewhat inspiring view of marriage, far from St. Paul's pre-apocalyptic view of marriage as a remedy for sexual desire for those too weak to remain celibate. (Better to marry than burn). It also moves us away from a Roman Catholic traditionalist view that a sexually expressed life is a kind of "second best" for those who do not have the charism of celibacy. As such, it might have the possibility of revitalizing the fading importance of heterosexual marriage in western society.

In the end, the conservatives offer the advice that we must wait and delay and continue to debate. My cynical view is that the conservatives know that they have lost this debate in the Christian West and especially so in the democratically constituted Episcopal Church. That fully 70% of Episcopalians in the Pew survey felt that homosexuality should be "accepted" confirms that this is not an "elitist and liberal establishment" in the church that has forced this conclusion on the poor and helpless people in the pews. They must bring in the "whole Anglican communion" and the churches of Africa and the global south to press their case by finding a new realm in which they can seat themselves again in a comfortable majority rather than a fading minority. Having lost the local argument, they hope to delay by taking the argument to a global stage and looking for superiority of numbers elsewhere. They make the other "new" argument of the day that, not to do so is both racist and imperialist– odd phrases coming from conservative mouths, but a somewhat brilliant new spin that has been increasingly heard today from such inspiring theologians as Pastor Martin Ssempa.

On the other side, I do believe that the liberals offer a fascinating "recommendation" at least in the way that they present it. I think that it is worth quoting, as it has the ring of charity and truth about it:

"Our interpretation of Scripture has suffered from these divisions. We have all favored self-authentication and despised common patterns of discernment. We have all abandoned the discipline of concern for one another. We have failed to practice friendship and hospitality and have not labored for the most charitable interpretations of one another. It is no accident that we now debate marriage. For marriage is an example of the concrete discipline that most of us (liberal and conservative) lack: in marriage we practice common discernment over self-interest. Marriage cultivates concern for an another; it offers life-long hospitality; it enacts love; and it exposes our faults in order to heal them. It is the marital virtues that the church needs, not only with respect to the Bridegroom, but, just now, with respect to one another.

In Acts, the parties agree to maintain hospitality. Jewish Christians may not refuse table-fellowship with Gentile sojourners. Gentiles must refrain from blood, strangled meat, and unchastity (Acts 15:28-29) Here is what we propose: Conservatives maintain table fellowship. Same-sex couples must marry."

That's my entirely biased liberal first reading of the report. I am looking forward to reading others.

From Professor Deirdre Good:

With his permission, I have posted Willis Jenkins' introduction to the document presented at the House of Bishops discussion on March 20, 2010 on my blog:

It helps to counter two blogosphere misperceptions to our work so far: nothing new and no points of agreement.

Comments (16)

I think a better argument for marriage of same sex couples (and really for all couples) is the support of the community pledged in the opening vows. Most of the couples whose weddings I have performed find that one of the most meaningful and helpful parts of the service. Couples can live together without marriage but when the community is brought into witness and vow support - it becomes a community act. Same sex couples especially need this support in the face of actual danger to them. It is reassuring to know you have a group of people who "have your back". The long term nature of relationships need others to remind couples of the love they once experienced when the relationship becomes watery. I remind them that the wine of the wedding at Cana brought joy back to the party -- such is the role of the community and the Spirit in a marriage. To help us remember our story of why we want to be together.

With his permission, I have posted Willis Jenkins' introduction to the document presented at the House of Bishops discussion on March 20, 2010 on my blog:

It helps to counter two blogosphere misperceptions to our work so far: nothing new and no points of agreement.

The permalink on Deidre's blog is


I skimmed chunks of the report. What an insult that they produced a so-called liberal text and a traditionalist text, thus creating the impression in some people's minds that the truth must lie somewhere in between.

The liberal justification of marriage may be seen as ingenious. But I find it too churchy. In marriage both partners sacrifice to a higher good through their bodies. Rather than renouncing the body they renounce through the body. Therefore, couples must marry. They depart from Paul's view that one should marry if one cannot renounce sexuality.

There is no mention of happiness or joy. I find a relationship cannot be forced into a sacramental/sacrificial model.

The rhetoric is more talking about LGBTs in the third person and no addressing LGBTs, which recalls Roland Barthes on the discourse of love: an address to a familiar but also totally other thou becomes the third person of fiction and finally gets churned out as a discourse on a thing called love. Each step of the way becomes more static.

That they failed to start from the experiences of LGBTs is a real disappointment. There is no need to justify LGBT experience.

A justice argument would have been more persuasive. LGBTs are denied recognition and the support of the community in much of the Episcopal Church. And the church, by treating LGBTs as different within the game of religion, imply it is okay for the state to deny us civil rights.

The infinite worth of the individual would have been a better way to argue. Ann's staement about the support of the community is beautiful!

Finally, instead of the dreary liberal/traditionalist Sunday school reports, I prefer a more poetic, life-affirming approach to relationships as in the Song of Songs.

I much prefer a poetic reading, as in the Song of Songs:

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!

And later,

As an apple tree among the trees of the wood,
so is my beloved among young men.
With great delight I sat in his shadow,
and his fruit was sweet to my taste.

Gary Paul Gilbert

A pointless exercise. With these high-powered theologians, all they could come up with is "some of us think this, some of us think that"? How does this move us beyond the last thirty years of discussion?

I was hoping for better from the Traditionalists. They continue to rely far too much on the "complementarity" argument which, while a remotely possible reading of Scripture, ultimately results in a defective anthropology that undercuts the dignity of the individual human being, and the claim that individuals do not reflect the imago dei. They cite Barth, neglecting to realize -- as did Barth -- that this notion is not conformable with the doctrine of the Incarnation. Since it is inconsistent with core doctrine, it must therefore be jettisoned as secondary speculation, and ought not be used in an effort to prove that same-sex marriage is impermissible.

The Expansionist paper is really fine, and presses issues in a positive direction, with some seldom-heard insights. In particular, pressing the fact that this is a case for marriage, not for "gay sex" strikes a proper note which the Traditionalists aren't really capable of answering beyond the retreat to procreation, complementarity, etc.: the first not required of heterosexuals, the second a tendentious (and from a dogmatic standpoint irreconcilable with orthodoxy) assertion.

Now, will this move us forward? Perhaps. At least it shows people can sit down and talk about these matters without mutual excommunications. If all we get to is that these are matters upon which faithful disagreement is possible, perhaps something will have been accomplished. However, if we fall into the "nothing can be allowed until all approve" modality, I don't think we will find these papers bringing us much in the way of canonical change.

Tobias, thank you for your comments. I agree.

I would add that this exercise is also helpful in that it brings together much of the relevant scholarship that has been done on the subject.

We, in the Episcopal church, are not likely to halt progress on the full affirmation of Gay and Lesbian people.

Now, however, we may point to the work done by the theology committee as a sustained argument of where the conversation is at, and what theology has actually been done. Perhaps there is nothing new, but at least there is some sort of Episcopal theology on the matter.

To encourage further reading of the actual document, let me clarify that it addresses Ann's remark about community support in the section "To Uphold This Couple in Their Marriage" (pp. 58-60) and that Gary's request for a mention of "happiness or joy" is answered in the section "For Their Mutual Joy" (pp. 66-7).

There is a lot of writing here. I think I shall take my time, re-read it several times and then offer both of my readers [ ;-) ] some impressions. The authors are serious people who made a serious effort and deserve some serious reviews.

I limit my initial reaction to sadness that they worked and wrote apart. They seem on first reading to have produced two polemics and not one reflection. Even if they could not completely agree, {the content makes it clear that is so} a single work would have potentially carried the discussion forward in a more reconciliatory direction had it highlighted those elements on which they could agree.

In early childhood development, there is the concept of 'parallel play.' Immature children do not play together, they play next to each other. My first impression is that these very earnest and knowledgeable writers took that road, preferring to write next to each other. That is I fear at best a failure and at worst a statement of how far from real conversation the church finds itself.

Jim Beyer

As I had a cancellation in my office this afternoon, I decided to do some "fact checking" on the conservative report's contention that we cannot make any reasonable conclusions about the "innate" character of homosexual orientation, as its causality is "unproven."

I would repeat first my prior criticism that, as the "cause" of heterosexual orientation is also not conclusively understood, perhaps all arguments about sexual morality as involving the intent of a divine creator should be put off until we have conclusive proof. We might consider, perhaps, a universal celibacy to be the appropriate response until all the data are in. In that case, perhaps all of the Prayerbook Rites for opposite sex marriage should be placed in suspension until this issue can be settled.

I note further that their tabular summary of the "Science" as expressed in the table on page 27, labeled as "Assessments of the Theories of Homosexual Origins in 1994 and 2008" is so simplistic as to be laughable. Even if one accepts these crude conclusions, I note that there is an entire realm of research, namely that of brain sexual dimorphism, that is entirely left unmentioned in their "Assessment of the Theories." (And one that, as a neurologist, I am particularly interested in.)

There is, in these studies, more than adequate evidence to show that some brain regions both those directly related to reproduction (primarily in the anterior hypothalamus) as well as some others unrelated to reproductive functions, show significant sexual differences. More interestingly, these dimorphisms are typically reversed in homosexual individuals (such that the brains and responses of homosexual males resemble more those of heterosexual females and those of homosexual females more those of heterosexual males.) Many of these structures are "hard wired" and fully developed antenatally and not the result of subsequent "nurture." These findings would tend to suggest that homosexuality is not a "choice" matter or simply one of "rearing" but strongly and innately present in the brain long prior to the ability of the individual to choose or reason or be influenced by the post-natal environment. Any "natural" conclusions that may be advanced must take this into account. (I suppose that one could conclude that "faulty biology" is also a result of the "fall." I suspect, perhaps, that would be their response. It's a convenient way to "have your cake and eat it too" on "natural law" arguments.)

For persons who would like to read a summary of some of this research, they may download the paper "Sexual orientation and its basis in brain structure and function" by Swaab, Dick F. available as a PDF from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2008.

The link is:

Poking one more hole in the view of the "natural" arguments against sexual orientation, there is an interesting and more recent article from 2009 that published research on homosexual orientation in male rams. This article is not available for download, but the abstract can be found at Pubmed (the portal for the U.S. National Library of Medicine). (There are actually two articles. One is "Prenatal programming of sexual partner preference: the ram model" and the other is "The neurobiology of sexual partner preferences in rams.") The researchers describe a sexual dimorphism found in the brains of homosexual rams who comprise, fascinatingly, about 8% of the population of domestic rams. (How about an evolutionary argument on an 8% male homosexual percentage as implausible?). This study identified a sexually dimorphic nucleus in the same region of the hypothalamus as that noted in the human homosexual individual research. This nucleus differs in size in heterosexual female and male ewes/rams and, once again, the size of the nucleus in the homosexual rams is more like that of the heterosexual females. This nucleus in the rams is seen as early as day 60 of gestation and becomes dimorphic by day 135 of gestation. They conclude that "These data demonstrate that the oSDN [ovine sexually dimorphic nucleus] develops prenatally and may influence adult sexual preferences."

Again, I suppose that one might conclude that sheep also "fell from grace" and this is one more reflection of the "brokenness" of creation. Presumably, however, God does not care much about sheep and the "sheep redeemer" has not yet been revealed to us.

It's probably clear from my commentary on the science that "The Fall" is a concept in Western Theology with which I have a great deal of trouble, so you may, perhaps, wish to dismiss the above as merely heretical personal bias on my part. Perhaps it is.

I appreciate Dr. Shy's efforts in showing the weakness of the traditionalists' understanding and use of the relevant scientific research into the causes of homosexuality. If the traditionalists wish to make science a part of answering this question, then they need to understand and present what the research says comprehensively.

However, I think focusing too much on the science is missing the point. Whether science agrees that same-sex attraction is innate or not is, to me, missing the point. The more important factor is that gay men and lesbians overwhelmingly report that they experience their sexual attraction as involuntary and innate. This is true for me. Is there some good reason why the traditionalists should not take my word for it? Believing you are gay, like believing in God, is not really a question science is equipped to answer. After all, would we be willing to take science's word for it if a peer-reviewed journal published a paper that definitively proved that God didn't exist?

Further, relying so heavily on the "facts" here is complicated by the reality of gay (or lesbian, or straight) people. I do believe there is a baseline, biologically driven sexual attraction, but just being a male who is sexually attracted to other males doesn't make you gay. Sexual identities, like straight, gay, or lesbian, vary across culture and time. Even within the culture of the contemporary America, "gay" is pretty specific: that identity almost always implies male, and often implies race, class, and other cultural markers as well.

Now hold on! I hear traditionalists saying: If its just a cultural construction, then why don't you just construct your way right on out of it? Well, the thing is, straight is really no better. The way straight people live, and marry, and play out gender roles and family life: all of that, too, is a cultural construction that varies across culture and time. The way people are straight today: One man and one woman, who fall in love, and get married in a church (she in a white dress, he in a tuxedo, attended by flower girls and maids of honor, etc) and then he works, and she works, and they share household responsibilities in an equitable way . . . Its different than it was 50 years ago (she's working?!); or 100 years ago (they share the chores?!); or 250 years ago (they fell in love and chose each other?!); or 2500 years ago (he only has one wife?!).

My main disappointment, in fact, with both the traditional and liberal arguments in this paper is their failure to address the way marriage itself is a cultural construction that has varied greatly over time, both within and outside of the church. Okay, I've only had time for a cursory reading, so please point out if I missed this, but it seems that both sides assume that something more or less similar to modern, western marriage has existed forever, and that this is what the scriptures are talking about and intend when they (glancingly) address what happens when men and women get together and commit to one another. But nothing could be further from the truth! The way we think of marriage today (as a partnership of equals, intended for mutual joy and sanctification) has almost nothing to do with the patriarchal institution of male dominance and female submission that was just the way things were for Biblical writers.

To push even a little further: what would Jesus, or Paul, make of us spending so much time and energy on a human institution (that whole "ordained by God in creation" line has always been a stretch, if you ask me) that, frankly, they didn't have much time for? Lets be honest: both of them are pretty negative regarding the whole thing (cf. Luke 14:26, if you need to ask). Maybe they were so negative on it because they saw the inequitable and unfair way marriage, in their time, privileged men and demeaned women (which seems to be Jesus' main point the only time he talks about marriage, by way of talking about divorce, cf Mt 5). As Mark Jordan (prof at HDS and prolific writer on the intersection of sex and faith) is fond of pointing out: What would Jesus do? Not marry.

Okay, so I know this is just the sort of crazy radical talk the liberals were probably trying to avoid, because saying these things out loud I guess would prove to the traditionalists that we aren't really serious about marriage or being Christian after all. Sorry. I guess my own feeling is, lets not make more or marriage than it is--certainly, lets not idolize it to the point of seeing in it a means to our salvation. At best, it's preparing us for something else ("till death do us part"). The other sacraments don't have expiration dates.

Which is not to say I don't love my husband, even though the state calls him my "domestic partner," and even though we didn't go to church, dressed in rented suits, to make it official. What am I supposed to say? Its not a lifestyle. Just a life. Now I have to go, because its my turn to go clean up the kitchen and make dinner.

Jason Cox

I think it would be helpful to nail down how many of the four writers who produced the conservtive report are Episcopalians. I haven't taken an exhaustive look, but my initial Web explorations suggest that the answer is one. This has nothing to do with the quality of their paper, but much to do with whether it is in any way representative of conservative Episcopal thought.

Good question, Jim.

One wonders how many Episcopalians were asked and declined to be involved, and whether that skewed the representation.

I’ve been hearing all week that the abusive and dangerous language and tactics in regard to the health care bill are on “both sides.” Yet when challenged, one is hard pressed to give the requisite examples. On touchy issues, we seem to be moving quickly into a “balanced” 50/50 society. This has also been my first impression of the report of the Bishop’s Theological Committee, “Same Sex Relationships in the Life of the Church.” It seems the writing group split early on, if not from the beginning, into predictably “balanced” groups. One wonders whether after the preliminary courtesies, there was any on-going critical engagement at all, beyond reading each other’s papers. Was there no direct disputation or argument continuing, perhaps, to some conclusions and recommendations for the attention of the Church?

Similar to so many reports from House of Bishops meetings about how well the bishops “got along,” the production of this report missed again an opportunity to model respectful engagement and constructive debate that the Church always needs. But I must say that I am not surprised by this, since it fits into the fears that mark our 50/50 society. With this format, both within and without the theological committee, all knew there would be no real-life treatment of the theological and moral state of the question, but mainly parallel lines hardly engaged and never really to meet head-on. Begun in secrecy, this may well be what the committee’s chair, Bishop Henry Parsley intended from the beginning. And this is what was achieved. But being positioned as unengaged parallel lines feels a lot like fence sitting to me.

To its credit other parts of the Episcopal Church have not acted similarly. This report could be more aptly named, “Same Sex Relationships in the Life of The Theology Committee of the House of Bishops.” But of course, quoting the report, “We are not offering our work as a way forward.” (iv), and it certainly “does not constitute a position paper of the Theology Committee” (86).

Joseph Monti
Atlanta, GA
Professor of Christian Ethics and Moral Theology, Emeritus
The School of Theology
The University of the South

Having read (and tweeted about) the first two sections of the report, and saving either group's response for later, I must agree wholeheartedly with the previous comments of Mr. Beyer and Mr. Monti. For all the committee's fine exegetical work and theological sweat, there is a sadness for me that pervades the work of the members of this committee because they fundamentally wrote apart from one another, in groups.

They are competent, forthright, rigorous, and charitable with one another. But I do not sense (at least so far) that "mutual self-donation" with which they describe charity of life together in Christ. Perhaps this is addressed later, in a section I haven't seen. If not, let's invite them into the Café to do so.

Torey Lightcap

Although there were some "new bits" here and there that made me think, I felt that this was not the best theological paper(s) written - for either side.

The conservative side was condescending at times. Most notable was the comment that what separates them from us is their trust in the plain reading of Scripture. Like more progressive Christians cannot and do not take the Word as seriously or plainly as them.

I was also shocked that they tried to pull out sympathy for the Alabama bishops who tried to slow down the progress towards racial desegregation. That just blew me away.

I was also unimpressed with the "liberal sides" treatment of the Scriptures used as anti-gay texts. They did a lot of "well the Bible is negative here but......", "the Bible clearly has heterosexuality in mind but.....". That type of theology will not make us more accepted by the wider communion (if one cares to be or not).

Romans 1, and 1 Corinthians 6 only get glossed over if even that, and I know there is WAY BETTER theology and scholarship on those texts that are used, and the liberal paper skips over them.

So all in all, we "did the theology" as some said here, but you can count me in the camp that does not agree with either side, as described at the end of the report.

I suppose it's necessary to respond to this flawed sexuality report -- the agins beg the question and the fers spin a made-up narrative. But the whole thing is a kabuki exercise. TEC faces a right-wing assault that wants to use theological tradition to discredit the organization and its social positions. In defense, the institutional church proclaims its formal orthodoxy. "Inclusiveness" is useful, not only as a concept to justify its many GLBT members but also to keep inside the gate those who wish to usurp the entire enterprise. (If the Anglicans in NA were excluded, some would be tempted to recognize them as the real Anglicans in NA; now the situation is muddled, the typical Anglican condition.) The Presiding Bishop and her house seem to be playing a political hand -- which, as ever, has little to do with the actual, living, loving people in the body. I feel like saying, Chuck it all, Canterbury especially, but the Dominionists are relentless and conceding their advance would be dangerous.

(This seems to be where my comment belongs -- I may have posted it in another place in error.)

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