by John Backman
I wonder if I’m on the cutting edge of a cultural shift. This is new territory for me, being white, middle-class, straight, suburban, and too close to the political center to be interesting.
In one area, however—gender identity—I am unusual. Broadly speaking, I fall into the category of Q in LGBTQIA, and few people have a clue what that means. The specific word I use to describe myself (genderfluid) would undoubtedly inspire blank stares.
What that says about the future unsettles me. After the past 50 years—during which many of us in the Church have learned to listen, care about, and welcome the stories of gay and lesbian people—there are still many groups whose voices and stories we have not fully heard. In the years to come, we will be hearing them.
Will the Church be ready?
I doubt it. Beneath all the drama and controversy of our past encounters—not only with gay and lesbian issues but also with civil rights, women as clergy, and the sexual revolution—there lurks a recurring pattern. See if it sounds familiar:
- The members of a group unknown to the masses (or largely unknown) begin to speak out loud about their life and experience.
- Large swaths of the culture react with denial or derision.
- If the voices get louder, the derision turns to active resistance—and then, all too often, violence.
- We make progress toward understanding these voices in the breach, if at all.
Given our recent experience, one might think of denial as primarily a conservative impulse. If they ponder it for 10 seconds, though, most progressives can probably come up with a group that inspires the same reaction in them. I know I can.
It’s worth noting why we react this way. Often these new stories shake elements of our faith and life that we have always considered foundational. In many cases, we have built our lives around those elements—even without thinking about it—as everyone builds their lives around certain convictions. If we question these, we may have to rethink everything. It might be a growth opportunity in the long run, but that doesn’t make it less terrifying.
Consider the emergence of transgender stories. Few ideas lie deeper in our dominant collective consciousness than the idea that everyone is either male or female. Now, spurred on by Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, and others, we are challenged to reconsider the concept of gender entirely. This sort of rethinking can be difficult, disorienting, sometimes excruciating work. Denial and derision are far easier.
And, as we all know, far more costly. The witness of the past 50 years is ample evidence.
So when the next group raises its voice, perhaps we should try another way. For us, the beauty of this other way is that it’s actually Episcopalian (or, more broadly, Anglican), grounded in our own epistemology.
To see it, we need to hark back to the Church’s own elaboration of what we’ve come to call the three-legged stool:
The threefold sources of authority in Anglicanism are scripture, tradition, and reason. These three sources uphold and critique each other in a dynamic way. Scripture is the normative source for God’s revelation and the source for all Christian teaching and reflection. Tradition passes down from generation to generation the church’s ongoing experience of God’s presence and activity. Reason is understood to include the human capacity to discern the truth in both rational and intuitive ways. It is not limited to logic as such. It takes into account and includes experience.
Look at the last phrase again: reason “takes into account and includes experience.” That, as I read it, includes the experience of people. All people.
So our faith already tells us how to react when people in an “invisible” group begin to share their stories and raise their voices: we start by listening with an open and curious heart. We accept their stories as part of experience and submit them to the process by which reason and experience, along with Scripture and tradition, “uphold and critique each other in a dynamic way.”
Does this mean we will embrace any story from any group carte blanche? No. We could conceivably listen to the stories, carefully consider the witness of Scripture and tradition—and still not be able to affirm the stories.
But the point here is where we start: with listening, respect, and open-heartedness—sometimes many years of listening, respect, and open-heartedness. Carefully, we hold the stories we hear alongside the Scripture we treasure and the tradition we love. We reflect and re-imagine and extend compassion and think some more. We pray like mad that we get it right.
This listening-first approach is far from perfect. Yet if we adopt it as our starting point, we can at least chip away at the cycle of denial, resistance, division, displays of power, and unsettled compromise that exhausts us in the face of change—and, not surprisingly, leads us to fear the next change. By sidestepping the drama, we conserve our emotional capacity to engage the change and weather the long, hard process of reflection.
In the process, perhaps it becomes a habit of the heart for us to say, with the philosophers of Athens in their first encounter with St. Paul (Acts 17:20), “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” It is a far cry from denial and derision. Thanks be to God.
As a regular contributor to Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, John Backman writes on contemplative spirituality and dialogue. He authored Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths), and his articles have appeared in numerous faith-based publications. John serves on the board of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, and he has presented internationally at academic conferences and faith gatherings.