By Richard Helmer
A couple in the congregation where I serve recently told me that they considered themselves post gay. They are parents. They are supportive spouses for each other. They are friends of many. They are seekers after a spiritual path. They are devoted members of the community. And they will not be defined simply by their sexuality any more than I will.
My immediate response was an intuitive nod of “that makes sense.” But what they said has me mulling over the implications of what it means to be post anything.
On a recent vacation in Japan, I was further struck by a conversation I had with a friend who leads an English-speaking ministry for the Nippon Sei Ko Kai in Nagoya. What would the ministry call itself on its new website appealing to English speakers? Would the featured worship service in English be called Anglican or Episcopal, or some combination of the two? When the people the community is hoping to attract come from Canada, Australia, India, the United States, and England (and that’s just for starters) what is the most appropriate description for the faith community they will become together?
In our conversation, I found myself reflecting that “Anglican” is almost a dirty word now for some of us Episcopalians. It has become saddled with a great deal of recent unpleasantness and is the staked claim for everyone from belligerent archbishops to a controversial draft covenant to the so-called “continuing churches” that are no longer part of the Communion. In his recent critique of the proposed Anglican Covenant, Frank Turner writes that Anglicanism is becoming one of the “isms” we have learned to mistrust:
A way of defining who’s in and who’s out, who’s at table and belongs and who doesn’t, and a rallying point around which we battle for an identity that is under constant siege from those we most deplore.
Likewise, I imagine “Episcopal” also is sticking in the throats of some of our most vociferous detractors. But, then, polemic has always worked this way. The Anglican landscape is overrun with a host of slippery and divisive labels. The well-worn monikers of conservative and liberal have been dressed up as “reasserter” and “reappraiser.” “Evangelicals” square off against “progressives,” and many of assume that our audience knows what we mean when we use these words. They describe our favorite straw people to knock down. They describe us over and against those we least like.
Perhaps we all suffer a universal disease that might be described as labelism. Labels are ways we control and define others, if not ourselves. The quickest way to objectify another human being is to twist a descriptive label into a slur, and then we join the long dark history littered with bodies, bloody wars, and self- and other-loathing theologies. We put labels in scare quotes and live into their narrow meanings at great peril.
We must constantly be on our guard that the myths we set up with our labels are always threatening to become idols; and if idols, then demons for both ourselves and others. This is the ancient wisdom of our spiritual ancestors, who believed that to name something – to coin a label – was to take control of the object in question.
The struggle is to live into the new life the Spirit has given us, a life defined not by labels but by embodied, relational experience that explodes definitions and objectification. The radical life after Pentecost into which we are now called is about the break down of identity around division, and a new, rough-and-tumble, almost impossible-to-define community in Christ where all the distinctions between male and female, rich and poor, sinners and righteous, black and white, gay and straight, and friends and strangers are subsumed in God’s abundance grace.
The haunting implication of this call is that we must learn to even carry the label Christian lightly. It is not the be-all and end-all of who we are to become. If anything, our labels and self-definitions must be ultimately shed if we are to live fully into God in Christ – that God who has too many names to count. . . or no names at all. . . and for good reason.
Perhaps we are not a people called merely to be post modern, post straight, post gay, or post Christian, but to live into a life-long journey towards God’s radical grace; of becoming, quite simply, post everything.
The Rev. Richard E. Helmer, is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. He has served in interfaith, ecumenical, diocesan, and national church organizations. He blogs regularly about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, and church politics at Caught by the Light.