Wendy: A few weeks ago, I moderated a panel discussion that featured four panelists talking about faith communities, the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people, and what that looks like as people hold diverse convictions about same-sex marriage. The panelists shared some things in common and some things that were distinctly different. While this was not a Generous Space event, we were instrumental in bringing the panelists together and the two LGBTQ+ panelists are both part of our GS community. Packed into a couple of hours, we embarked on an ambitious task: to articulate shared values, to explain key differences, and to try to model a respectful conversation together.
As we reflected on the night and heard from people within our Generous Space community who attended the event, we found there was a lot to process. These are the kinds of things that happen after the curtain falls on a public event like this – and probably where the most important learning happens. So, we wanted to share with our broader community some of our takeaways from the experience.
The key common ground for the panelists (which in addition to the two LGBTQ+ people featured two straight cisgender theologians) was three-fold: First, this is not a heaven or hell issue. It is a secondary matter and one on which faithful Christians may come to different conclusions and disagree. Second, LGBTQ+ people are an integral part of the Body of Christ and if they are absent the entire Body is impoverished. Third, violence toward and oppression of LGBTQ+ people has devastating consequences that the church must address. From my vantage point, this was the essential foundation for the conversation in the first place.
The key difference between panelists’ ideas lay in relation to marriage. One panelist is committed to celibacy and experiencing deep intimacy through friendship and a sense of family in community. One panelist is married to a same-sex partner. One panelist sees the trajectory of God’s redemptive story as being an inclusive one that today embraces LGBTQ+ couples and families. One panelist sees gay sex as sin. I use that stark language because that is the language the panelist uses, but it does seem a bit jarring, doesn’t it? The reason I say that is that the other panelists spoke about these realities in relational terms. One of the things I’ve been reflecting on lately is that when you rip sex out of the context of covenantal relationship, I think you are then automatically talking about something outside of God’s best intention for human beings. From my vantage point, sex outside of covenant is a completely different conversation than talking about being sexual beings within relational contexts.
But let me turn it over to the two LGBTQ+ panelists to share their reflections…
Chris: With a couple weeks behind us, I have had an opportunity to reflect on the panel discussion. I participated as a cisgender gay male who has chosen to follow a traditional sexual ethic and remain celibate. We started things off by sharing a little bit about why we hold our theological positions around homosexuality. When I was given the microphone, I tended to lean very heavily on my own personal journey. This does not mean that I don’t have any theological or scriptural reasons to hold the position I do. However, my decision to remain celibate was largely influenced by my personal conviction and prayer life. For me, this discussion influences my future and my everyday life personally.
I also tried to emphasize the point that this is where I currently stand. However, if I felt prompting from God to change my perspective or if I found enough convincing scriptural evidence I would mostly likely change my opinion. I entered this discussion knowing what I believe and why I believe it but tried to remain humble enough to admit that I might be wrong.
During the question period, I remember focusing a lot of my attention on how the church must respond to support their LGBTQ+ members. Regardless of position (affirming of same-sex marriage/sex or non-affirming), the way that the church has loved/unloved the LGBTQ+ community is broken and there needs to be action along with the apologies to work towards reconciliation. In my personal experience, I haven’t been to a church yet that fully supports me as a celibate individual. Since I believe that celibacy is the appropriate response for me in light of my sexual attractions, this lack of support makes me feel left out of God’s kingdom. In order for the church to take a traditional position on homosexuality, they must also be willing to support their celibate/single population.
This entire event was organized to show an example of what a healthy discussion around these topics is supposed to look like, at least that was how it was billed. To some extent, I feel that this goal was accomplished. However, if I were to look at ways to improve similar events in the future then I would suggest that this discussion should be continued over multiple nights. For this discussion to reflect real world conversations, there needs to be more time for the participants to disagree. Throughout the night, I found myself picking and choosing which points to raise opposition to when I encountered myself disagreeing with someone on the panel. Since we had a time constraint, I didn’t want to get bogged down in discussing points that I wanted more clarification on but I didn’t feel were essential to the conversation. I am not sure if other panelists felt this way, but I know that I tended to reserve my speaking time for discussing what I personally felt was important to raise, whether that be discussions points, questions, or opposing views.
After hearing some feedback from those who attended the event, I also feel that in the future this event should spend more time at the very beginning to carefully introduce exactly what this event was going to entail. At the very beginning of the night, one of the organizers said a few words to introduce the panel and discuss a little about why this event was taking place. I felt they did a very good job of introducing the night, but to some people in the audience, it wasn’t exactly clear if the conversations were going to be triggering or uncomfortable to listen to. A few of my LGBTQ+ friends who were in the audience mentioned that there were times they didn’t exactly feel safe. One of my friends even mentioned that if there was more description about the event, they might have avoided coming altogether since for them the discussion was fairly triggering.
My opinions of how to improve this event aside, I think the event accomplished much of what it set out to do. The way that I can see how we in the Generous Space community can learn from this event is to note that there needs to be work done outside of organized events and bible studies to disagree well with each other. What I mean by this statement is that given the nature of large group meetings, it is absolutely crucial for us to dialogue with others outside of these events (especially those we disagree with). We have to make the time to understand one another since we don’t have the time to unpack everything an individual brings to the discussion in one night. Active communication (both listening and sharing) is something that we as a community do well, but it is definitely something we can improve upon.
Beth: I sat on the panel as a gay woman who is married to another woman. Unsurprisingly, the theological position I represented is an affirming one, the belief that God can and does bless same-sex marriages like my own marriage.
When I participate in panels like these, I find that in the moment, I tend to be mainly concerned about how well I’ve represented myself, and it’s only later that I’m able to gain perspective on the whole event. The night of the panel, I felt satisfied with my contribution to the discussion, but in the days that followed, as I listened to some of the concerns of my peers who had attended, I wondered whether I had pressed hard enough into the conversation. I had focused on modeling grace, humility and love toward my co-panelists, and giving them the benefit of the doubt, but at certain points in the evening, I believe I failed to adequately hold the straight, traditionally-believing panelist accountable for the way he stated his theological positions, and the potential and actual negative effects on my friends.
I asked myself why I didn’t feel angered by his words (which some of my friends found triggering), and I think it was because he was not from my theological or denominational tradition and didn’t have any direct relationship to me. I knew I only had to spend two hours with him and would likely never see him again. Had he been from my own denomination, and had he been even partially responsible for the ongoing exclusion of LGBTQ+ pastors like me from service within my denomination, I believe I would have responded much more passionately and personally.
That’s why I think that to really model disagreeing well, we need to choose people who already have significant, long-lasting relationships with one another, yet disagree with one another. We need opportunities to see the real-life impacts of those disagreements over time, whether it’s between friends, family members, or church members. Rather than using the format of a lecture or debate, I would imagine an event that allowed for plenty of back-and-forth conversation, and enough comfort and safety to permit the honest and free expression of emotion. This kind of event would likely last longer, and would happen best in smaller groups, framed and interspersed with plenty of space and silence, encouraging interactions at a deeper level than words and arguments.
In our Generous Space communities, we talk a lot about practicing the postures of generous space, but often we focus more on the things we agree on, and less on the things we differ on. I think this is healthy in early stages of community building, creating a sense of unity, but I think many of us are ready to move beyond milk to solid food, and this involves talking about why our differences matter, and how we hold them with love. Along the way, I think it will be helpful for us to see concrete examples of strong relationships that exist in the tension of deep disagreement.
Wendy: As a mainly straight, mostly cisgender ministry leader I found myself prayerfully reflecting on this calling I’ve had to articulate and cultivate this posture of generous space. I am acutely aware that I stand as a person of much privilege often asking people on the margins to open themselves to pain by building community with those with whom they disagree. And when I see people like Chris and Beth engaging with each other, I feel full of hope and I wish the whole church could see and experience what I do in watching them love and care for each other, respecting each other, encouraging each other to keep growing in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. It’s so beautiful. That’s generous space at its best. But in the aftermath of the event, and even during the brief break that night when I saw tears in the eyes of a gay friend who quietly said that some words spoken had been like knives in her heart, I found myself heartbroken and afraid. What if the pain of generous space is too much? Who am I to encourage these places of tension when I have all the privilege of a church and culture approved marriage and family?
And so these places of learning are fragile and vulnerable. Risking, pressing in, and learning to do this in life-giving, growth-inducing ways calls for courage and wisdom. This is no space to be cavalier, to spout platitudes, offer simplistic answers, or, I submit, be too quick with declarations and absolutes. This is a tender space where love must absolutely come first. And, the key thing I take away from the panel event is that love takes time.
By sharing these reflections and learnings, we want to say that this is not a one-off event for us. This is one step in the ongoing journey of building trust, enlarging our understanding, nurturing humility, and learning to love well.