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How will our next encounter with difference go?

How will our next encounter with difference go?



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.


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Paul Woodrum

Are we so far from the cutting edge that we don’t recognize this as our own Christian history? Seems John spelled it out in the sixth chapter of his Gospel that we’ve just read for five weeks.
Jesus says repeatedly he is the bread of life, or, in other words, build your life around me. He and his followers are met by rejection, persecution and finally acceptance to the point where they can inflict the process on others. Marriage license, anyone?

JC Fisher

“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.”

That’s what I find welling up in me, when I hear stories from those in polyamorous relationships. Of course, I don’t judge such people as individuals. But what, if anything, does the church say? In monogamous commitment (i.e., marriage), there’s the basic vow, “forsaking all others.” Could that ever be rescinded/extended? What about the legacy of abuse in (specifically) polygamous arrangements?

I realize I’m getting off-topic here (basically, I have no problems w/ genderqueerness WHATSOEVER, because “I R one”! 😉 ). But the question of discernment re polyamory touches me deeply, in that I want to have a Christ-like word to those in such relationships (especially when they’re revealed to me from a place of great vulnerablity, so similar to those of us who are LGBTQ). Thanks in advance to any who respond—or if this subject should be moved elsewhere. JCF

John Backman

JC, polyamory is exactly one of the “sets of stories” I had in mind while writing this article. My initial, reflexive reaction is extreme discomfort. I have exactly the same questions you’ve expressed here. I also have friends in polyamorous relationships that seem to make it work well.

One thing that occurred to me the other day: if we adopt a listening-first approach, yes, we may come to a point on a specific issue (whatever it is) where we cannot condone something. But if we’ve listened openheartedly, we have connected with the humans behind the issue–most likely they’ve inspired at least sympathy, if not empathy, in us. So saying no to what they cherish will cost us, dearly. And that is as it should be. It’s too easy to be quick to condemn if we have no skin in the game. Listening-first puts us in the game, which (hopefully) makes us proceed with caution, sensitivity, and love.

Philip B. Spivey

This is a beautifully articulated tract and I especially like the fact that John Backman calls attention to the fact that it’s often easier to cherry-pick our “three legged stool” than ‘use as directed’.

It would be fascinating to gain a more in-depth look at the theological power dynamics among these ‘three legs’. It appears to me that among our more conservative membership, the power of Scripture holds most sway, followed by tradition and then reason. Logic, discernment, intuition and lived experience does sometimes rattle the faith we possess in the Scriptures and the normative peace and order that tradition provides us. That’s understood.

But these are not mutually exclusive entities (the Trinity, anyone?). Left to their own devices, the tension and energy generated by these three vectors can create enough theological ‘fission’ to produce all the radical changes that we will require to survive in this rapidly evolving world. . And so, we must ask how is it, in the area of sexual and gender diversity, that the secular world’s acceptance has been radically ahead of the curve, and the Church (where they have) has come so late to the party?

In the Anglican Communion, the “R” leg is subsumed under the “S” and “T” legs; the voices of today are silenced and the voices of yesterday have become encased in cement and idolized. A modern analogy is the phenomenon of the climate and science deniers. Thankfully, TEC has sees the light.

Revolutions do begin with marginalized voices and marginalized voices pushed to action produce new personal and political identities. In my time, I’ve witnessed the blossoming of— colored–Negro–Afro-American—Afri-American—African American–Black. I’ve also witnessed the evolution of —homosexual—lesbian/gay—Queer—LGBTQIA…. Every iteration of these identities has left behind legions of foot soldiers who have sacrificed home, family and sometimes, their lives. Cherry-picked Scriptures and patriarchal traditions would silence them no more.

In the Episcopal Church (and greater Communion) the three-legged-stool provides us with the opportunity to enlarge our theology (and world view) with three powerful elements: God-given Wisdom; traditions that connect us to our ancestors; and the reason required to keep the other two relevant in our time.

When, whatever the rationale, Reason is given short-shrift as we engage our fast-changing world…well…the stool will not stand and the center will not hold.

Anne Bay

I enjoyed this article very much. I am glad Cameron is at Boston University to help students and I’m guessing also faculty. We are living in very polarizing times on this issue. Los Angeles has a radio station that purports roman catholic beliefs and a lot of it is focused on anti-pro choice-anti planned parenthood, and a heavy focus on anti-LGBT-it is negatively heavy handed stuff. The Los Angeles so-called “christian” evangelical radio stations do the same thing. I am hoping that Cameron may be able to make some headway in the counseling to help students with their lives as students as well as just be a whole-accepted person. Suicides have gone up in both high school and college students due to our society’s shame and guilt persecution of the young LGBT persons. It’s really scary. I have a daughter who just graduated from university in Anthropology and she is the most articulate and well-informed person I know on how complex the human being is and I’ve learned so much from her about the human condition in regards to history, physiology, anatomy, gender studies, etc. etc. I think a lot of the problems we are having is due to ignorance, bigotry, religious addiction, prejudice, and just plain laziness to learn the anatomy, physiology, gender information, etc. etc. How the mis-information and persecution of the LGBT Community gets stopped is an uphill battle from what I see. And then the pope is coming!!! Talk about bigotry, mis-information, heavy handed anti-women’s health rights, anti-LGBT, anti pro-choice, anti- women’s health insurance coverage for all medical needs to women, etc, and the list goes on. Young women I know have confided that they are actually afraid of what’s going to happen to their health needs because of all the anti-women (including LGBT) push in the U.S. Dangerous times.

Jim Cates

John’s commentary so beautifully articulates not only the process for the Christian church, but for the Christian individual who journeys to find the truth of God in her/his/genderfluid life. There is a halting, stumbling, at times frustrating if not maddening process here. And ultimately, if we are prayerful in the process, it leads us where we need to go. Thanks so much John, for your courage, your integrity, and sharing your faith.

John Backman

Thank you, Jim. The only adjective I’d add to your list is “terrifying.” It is certainly all of that at times.

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