Where now is our authority?

This blog has been rather quiet lately as I’ve jumped into the deep end of the pool in my doctoral studies. I love to learn and love being a student again. My cohort of nine other students is from very diverse backgrounds and I’m enjoying hearing their different perspectives. My particular research area is really about unity in diversity. As I talk with pastors, leaders and church members from many different traditions, one thing seems to be consistent. Congregations are living in tension or are simply exhausted by the conversations about LGBT inclusion. I know that there would also be congregations who would say, “What tension? What exhaustion? We dealt with this years ago and we’re moving on with our mission.” But my sense is that these groups are the exception not the norm.

Sometimes this tension is because of affiliation and loyalty to a larger denominational group that has very clear statements leaving little room for ambiguity at the grassroots level – where real people are walking together in the messy realities of life. Usually this would be where a denomination has clear statements about heterosexual marriage being the only appropriate context for sexual intimacy – and where the reflective practitioner on the ground is meeting and befriending LGBT people in the neighbourhood – folks who may be at all kinds of different places on the spectrum of belief and practice. The grassroots practitioner may feel a lot more tension than the clear denominational statement account for. It’s interesting, however, as I talk with some of my mainline friends, that there are also congregations in tension where the larger denominational body has a very open and inclusive position. Even years later, some congregations are still struggling to know how to live this out while recognizing and honouring that some members have deep and abiding convictions about marriage that are not consistent with such an affirming position. And other congregations are just plain sick and tired of the conversation. They have felt the pain and intensity of disagreement, trying to be gracious, trying to listen, trying to be patient – and feeling like all the efforts really didn’t bear a whole lot of fruit – splits still happened, people continued to ignore those they disagree with, the ideal of robust hospitality still seems a long way from the reality of their fellowship. It isn’t that such folks don’t care about LGBT people necessarily, but it may be that there aren’t actually any out LGBT people in their small congregation – and this discussion seems to have interminably sucked up a whole lot of emotional and spiritual energy.

In the midst of such paradox and weariness, very real questions remain, “How now shall we live together?” “How can we acknowledge our difference and still move forward to fulfill our mission and ministry?” “Ought we try to work towards consensus – at what point do we just move on, trying our best to love and honour one another?” “What do we do about leadership in our congregation?”

And undergirding all of these important questions is the looming, overarching question for the western church today, “Where now is our authority?”If we disagree on how we engage Scripture on this difficult question regarding the appropriateness of committed same-sex unions, in Canada at least – gay marriage, then what does that say about the authority we are submitting to?

Some weeks ago I had the privilege of speaking at an event that headlined Phyllis Tickle. Tickle is the author of the book, “The Great Emergence”. She suggests that the church has followed, throughout the course of its history, a regular pattern of upheaval and turbulence. A simple way of describing it is to say that every 500 years or so, “the church cleans out its attic and has a giant rummage sale.” Tickle says that one of the primary questions in such a time is about authority – and that not only on questions around LGBT matters – but at many levels that is the question facing the North American church today. Authority is realized by Christians in a variety of ways. For some, authority lies in the pope. Others would say the pope and the tradition behind him. Some would say, “Sola Scriptura” as the residue of the protestant reformation. Others would point to Scripture as supported by tradition, reason and experience. And if that weren’t complex and diverse enough – then there are the multiple ways in which we approach the bible. Some accuse others of using scripture like a “paper pope” rather than a living, breathing, still-revealing, full of paradox story of God. Depending on how you engage scripture, questions raised by the most current scientific research is threatening, exciting, confusing or infuriating. Questions of biblical criticism in the last few generations around context, syntax, history, linguistics hold interest and promise for some and is decried as deception, irreverent, and dangerous by others.

And in the midst of all these opinions – because really, it often comes down to opinions about what the best approach is – even though we may claim our approach is inspired by the Holy Spirit and none of the others are – is the staggering truth of the biblical and theological illiteracy of many North American Christians. We talk a lot about scripture – but do we read it? We talk about pure and right doctrine – but do we even know what kind of theological framework is being passed to us by leaders who we have been taught to never question and always submit to?

Sexuality is such a threatening topic for so many – one that elicits such strong, often knee-jerk, emotional reactions, that time and time again I see a failure to apply any degree of critical thinking to the mental gymnastics we go through to maintain our certainties. And, it isn’t only straight people. I had a phone call a few weeks ago from a young man who told me he was struggling with same-sex attraction to the point that he was essentially getting an erection every time he saw a good looking guy. The kind of Christian environment he grew up in, based on his description, presented beliefs about sexuality as 100% non-negotiable. No nuance. No differentiation between attraction, orientation or behavior. All dumped in one bucket – one big fat horrible abomination bucket. As I listened to this young man, the picture in my mind was of someone simply gasping for oxygen – just trying to catch a breath – but suffocating. He affirmed utter commitment to the beliefs of his church – but was filled with self-loathing at the anonymous sexual encounters that were becoming a more regular part of his life. My heart broke. As I gently tried to begin to introduce some thoughts that might just give him a bit of breathing room, I could feel his anxiety increase. In that kind of system, to suggest simply differentiating between attraction, temptation, lust and behavior seems like “trying to make excuses”, “not being faithful”, “trying to short cut being obedient” ….. and the dread of daring to question the system, even if such a system is killing you, is overwhelming. A system such as this seems to have so much power it is hard to know how to even begin to introduce baby steps toward a more generous spaciousness.

What is our authority? Is such a system our authority? Is that really what God wants from us – to be so fearful and shameful that we cannot ask hard questions? Isn’t God big enough to sustain our questions, our doubts, our fears, our grabbing his lapel and pleading for a way forward where there is space to breathe? Abraham trusted God was big enough. Jacob trusted God was big enough. David trusted God was big enough. Job trusted God was big enough. Paul trusted God was big enough.

The hope that we will all come to a uniform understanding of scripture is an exercise in futility. So the idea of “sola scriptura” as some magic bullet to unity and understanding God’s guidance for our lives needs to be understood beyond the reductionistic literalism so many seem to be clinging to. The question isn’t just “should gay Christians feel free to marry someone of their own gender” – the question is, “how can we create space, the foundation of which is love not fear, where we can engage body, mind and spirit with the living Word of God through the leading of the Holy Spirit through written text, the legacy of devoted disciples who have gone before us, the good minds God has given us, and our journeys of faith, both as individuals and as communities in specific contexts?”.

I’ve been watching some of my denomination’s synod proceedings via live stream this past week. Delegates get to make speeches about the various issues that have come before this governing body. It was so paradoxical to me to hear some speeches that reverberated with this kind of courageous commitment to space, to explore, to expect God to keep showing up in new and specific ways for us in this time and in this place. But also to hear other speeches that quivered with fear, some speakers even explicitly saying they were fearful. Speeches extolling a rigid, non-negotiable approach to engaging the ways God is revealing his authority to us. Having come from such a fearful place into a more spacious place, all I can say is that I am grateful that my view of God is bigger, my own heart is bigger, and ultimately my hope for the church and for our world is bigger. This isn’t about a particular belief related to sexual ethics, creation / evolution, piety or any other much debated topic – for me it is about learning to breathe, to breathe deeply, and to rest and trust more fully in God’s grace to lead me in the paths I need to go.

Phyllis Tickle suggested to the audience that we will be entering a 2,000 year period of the Holy Spirit. I like this idea – though I do hope Jesus returns before that. I like it because it is alive, it is real, it has the capacity to move, respond – a certain fluidity if you will. Let’s face it, without the Holy Spirit we wouldn’t even have a bible. The Holy Spirit inspired the authors, the Spirit preserved the story through generations of oral tradition, written scrolls, fragments etc., the Spirit led those who translated, he was with those who chose what would be included in the canon, he continues to lead scholars, expositors, and all those who seek to interpret this story. This history is not without error – because we’re part of the story too – and we are most definitely not infallible. But the Spirit continues to lead us into truth, continues to direct, correct, convict and teach.

So what is the Spirit saying to the churches? What is the Spirit saying through our LGBT brothers and sisters? What is the Spirit saying to our LGBT loved ones? What is the Spirit saying about unity and diversity? What is the Spirit saying about how we shall now live, serve, minister and reach out together?

This is the focus of my call, my vocation and will be, I expect, my life’s work – as incomplete as it may be.

Well, that and hopefully a 200 page thesis in the next couple of years.