Bishop Whitaker: Same-sex-attraction and the Church

Starting probably tommorow, the 2008 General Conference will begin debating and voting on several issues. Among them, though perhaps less prominent this year since there is little chance of a change, will be the debate over sexual ethics within the body of Christian disciples.

Bishop Timothy Whitaker of Florida published an essay a few months ago to contribute to this debate that I think deserves our attention because of it's thoughtfulness in presenting the faith of the Church. As an aside, one of the historic duties of bishops is to safeguard and transmit this historic catholic faith of the whole church. While bishops sometimes feel they should use their office to attack any teachings of the church with which they feel a personal disagreement, this is - in the classical understanding - a fundamental misuse of the office. So I also want to highlight Bishop Whitaker's essay because he is one of the few (that I am aware of, I'm sure there are more than I know) bishops who has actually addressed this particular issue in fulfillment of his teaching office as a bishop to offer an apologia or exposition of the Church's position.

1) The first point that Bishop Whitaker makes is indeed along these same lines, regardless of how individuals within her may feel, The United Methodist Church, as a body, has an official teaching on "homosexual practice" (again I must point out we are talking about practice, not desires per se, and certainly not people) - namely we "do not condone" such practice and "consider it incompatible with Christian teaching" (Book of Discipline para. 161):

"While there is division in the church over homosexuality, it should be
stated that the church has a position. I am in agreement with the basic position of the church, which is consistent with the historic Christian view and larger ecumenical consensus in the world today."

That last phrase is significant. The UM Church's position is consistent with the Biblical teaching of the larger catholic/ecumenical Church - both today and throughout history. Any departure from this stand would be a departure from that catholic moral teaching on a very significant (in some views, even a 'sacramental') issue. This is exactly why the vast majority of the Anglican Communion has found the actions of the US and Canadian Churches as unacceptable as calling a sin a sacrament, or vice versa.

2) The second thing that Bishop Whitaker says (and which is being said by others as well) is extremely important in my view, so I want to quote him at length:

"One of the problems in the discussion is that the language being used is laden with assumptions on which there is no agreement. I prefer the term “same-sex attraction” to describe the phenomenon usually called “homosexuality.” This term describes the fact there are persons who are attracted to other persons of the same sex. It does not imply what the possible causes of the phenomenon might be. It does not imply that this attraction is constitutional, as “orientation” does, nor does it deny it. It does not denigrate a person’s dignity, nor advocate for an understanding of that person’s identity in terms of his or her sexuality as the terms “gay” and “lesbian” do. I think the term “homosexuality” lacks the neutrality of “same-sex attraction,” but I use it because of its common acceptance.

The main reason I prefer to refer to someone as a person who experiences same-sex attraction rather than as a “homosexual” or “gay” or “lesbian” is because this way of speaking is more fitting for the church, which views all people as persons created in the image of God. That is, the church views our identity in terms of our relationship to God, not in terms of our sexual identity. Once the church succumbs to the idea that our basic identity is sexual rather than theological in nature, then the church has already lost its way in the discussion."

Here Bishop Whitaker highlights some important points, often missed in the various debates around sexual ethics, including debates about "orientation" and "choice" and "nature/genes" etc. The orthodox position as it is represented in mainline and the more moderate evangelical & Charismatic churches (I'm not talking about the "angry ultra-fundamentalist" brand of churches - there are clearly different strands within evangelicalism) is that while same-sex attraction may not be a choice, the decision to act upon that attraction IS a choice. The whole category of "orientation" assumes a certain ontology about sex that I do not believe any Christian should conceed, since it is a philosophical distinction, not one that can in any sense be "proved."

What we do have - and can observe that we do have - is that some individuals do actually feel attraction to members of the same sex. Thus, "same-sex attraction" is merely a statement of the fact and (unlike both "sexual preference" on the one hand or "sexual orientation" on the other) it does not decide the philosophical or ontological questions before the discussion even begins (which is clearly a mistake if one is committed to reasonable dialogue).
The question of how one's sexuality connects to one's being or personhood or ontology and the corollary question of the relation between sexual activity and human fulfillment are also philosophical (not scientific) questions - they address "anthropology" in the classical sense of the word - "what does it mean to be (fully) human?" Here the question clearly moves into the realm of the theological.

This should be obvious to anyone who thinks about it. We have observed certain things and labeled it in various ways that not only describe, but also attempt to explain "choice" or "orientation/sexual identity." I think this is a bad thing do to, because it short-circuits the process of actually thinking through these things thoroughly. The language we use has assumptions built into it that need to be aired, as Bishop Whitaker does here.

3) Finally he raises the important issue of the relationship of the Church to the values of the wider culture. We live in a culture that has been largely shaped by a Judeo-Christian value system, so that in the past the assumptions of the culture and of the Christian Church significantly overlaped. However, cultural changes over the last 50 years or more have led to a gradual divide between Christian and cultural values so that there is much less overlap than there once was. And the 'mainline' Churches (the name itself may suggest the reason) seem to have had particular trouble adapting to this.

At the same time (and not causally unconnected, I suspect) that the culture was shifting, the rise of mass media has ensured that the various moralities or values of our culture have a much larger voice in our lives than they once did. Christian people must recognize that our culture "preaches" to us every hour that we spend watching TV/movies or reading magazines or popular (non-religious) websites. How many hours a week do you suppose it is on average? 15 hours maybe? Probably more. Compare this to the 55 minutes of liturgy and sermon that a (very regular) Churchgoer may encounter in a given week. It is very clear that in any place where Christian values conflict with those of the culture (as is particularly the case with issues of sexuality, and money/possessions) the culture is going to have a much greater opportunity to influence us than the Church will.

Unless we learn to engage critically - on a very sophisticated level - the cultural messages all around us, it is almost certain that our faith will be diluted or confused as we absorb messages that are subtly or blatantly opposed to Christian teaching (thus "anti-Christian"). Here also, I think, we have reason to appreciate the liturgy of the Church - the dance or words and actions that week in and week out remains the same (unless the church changes it every few years for the sake of "innovation" or to satisfy the latest theological fads - perhaps in the name of cultural relevance!). This liturgical rythm, with prayers and statements and creeds that can be memorized and internalized thanks to their repitition, may be of great value in helping us to understand our own identity as a 'set apart people' in the midst of our culture.

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Blogger Stephen said...


It was great to share liturgy with you last week. I pray that all things are well and will definitely see you at the Anglican/Methodist gathering in Baton Rouge, LA.

One thought that might be helpful to this is the a book from Hauerwas and Willimon called Resident Aliens. It talks about how the church is not called to be the (Yoder's terms) "activist church" - giving up of its identity to be more of a social outreach entity or "conversionist church" - reducing the outside culture and world to a secular place that needs to be overcome.

Instead Willimon and Hauerwas offer a different alternative: "Confessing Church" - a church that sees itself as determined to worship Christ in all things.

Or more appropriately in this context: Not a church determined to alter everything to make everything suitable for them or a church determined to figure out who is in and who is out, but a church that is worshiping in the spirit of the liturgy and inviting others to join into this liturgy.

3:44 PM, April 29, 2008  
Blogger Craig L. Adams said...

Thanks for posting on this article. and, just to let you know: I linked to you and linked to the article.

5:11 PM, May 02, 2008  
Blogger JD said...

Thanks, Daniel. I need to read the full article as well. I believe it will put into better words what I tried to cover over at John's blog.


9:53 AM, May 06, 2008  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Hey guys,
Just a heads up - I've been listening to a pod-cast from the always provacative Bishop Willimon, and he seemed to make a similar point in his response to some Q&A during his "More than Monotheists" talk on the Trinity. He mentions that we have no evidence for any particular sexual practices of Jesus, so he sort of resists our culture's urge to define people in terms of their sexual practices. Very interesting stuff...

1:48 PM, May 06, 2008  

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