Optional Orthodoxy: God, Grace, and Gay Sex

Jim Tonkowich | Institute on Religion & Democracy | Friday, February 20, 2009

Optional Orthodoxy: God, Grace, and Gay Sex


February 20, 2009

The March issues of The Atlantic and First Things arrived together. In The Atlantic, Paul Elie writes about Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The article, “The Velvet Reformation,” is billed on the cover as “God, Grace & Gay Sex.” You have to love marketing.

First Things has a January 1997 article by the late Richard John Neuhaus entitled “The Unhappy Fate of Optional Orthodoxy.” The two articles need to be read together.

Elie writes: 

At a time when Christianity is twisted into a pretzel over the issue of homosexuality, Rowan Williams—alone among the top Christian leaders—is trying to carry on a conversation about it. His approach has been quixotic, at times baffling. But the long-term goal seems clear: to enable the church he leads to become fully open to gays and lesbians without breaking apart.

He points to “The Body’s Grace,” a lecture given by Williams in 1989 to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement as one of his finest hours. In it Elie notes that Williams argues, “Gay people, too, deserve to be wanted sexually—deserve the body’s grace.”

Of course, grace is by definition undeserved, but we will bypass that and go on his idea that we all “deserve to be wanted sexually.” For Williams, this is central. In his lecture, he stated, “So my desire, if it is going to be sustained and developed, must itself be perceived; and, if it is to develop as it naturally tends to, it must be perceived as desirable by the other—that is my arousal and desire must become the cause of someone else’s desire….” According to Williams, sexual desire demands satisfaction by another.

While he asserted that desire is best satisfied in committed relationships (including same-sex relationships), he went on to say:

Yet the realities of our experience in looking for such possibilities suggest pretty clearly that an absolute declaration that every sexual partnership must conform to the pattern of commitment or else have the nature of sin and nothing else is unreal and silly.

Note the justification for his opinion: “the realities of our experience.” If we feel it to be true, it is true. No other authority is necessary. Williams goes on to argue that even transitory, impersonal sex or hooking up can be an encounter with grace. Insisting on a higher standard is, according to Williams, “unreal and silly.”

In “The Unhappy Fate of Optional Orthodoxy,” Fr. Neuhaus notes that Williams and others are not thoroughgoing relativist. They propound normative truths.

These truths, however, are not embodied in propositions, precedent, ecclesial authority, or, goodness knows, revelation. They are experiential truths expressing the truth of who we truly are—“we” being defined by sex, race, class, tribe, or identifying desire (“orientation”).

As a result:

… [D]isagreement is an intolerable personal affront. It is construed as a denial of others, of their experience of who they are. It is a blasphemous assault on that most high god, “My Identity.” Truth-as-identity is not appealable beyond the assertion of identity. In this game, identity is trumps. An appeal to what St. Paul or Aquinas or Catherine of Sienna or a Church council said cannot withstand the undeniable retort, “Yes, but they are not me!”

Since Christian orthodoxy challenges all such self-justification, it becomes “an intolerable personal affront” in such settings. This is why Neuhaus began the article by stating: “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.” 

Hence the war in the Anglican Communion and many other parts of Christendom. For progressives, “my experience” is the measure of truth. Orthodoxy is tolerated, but only as one option among many. The toleration ends, however, when it asserts normative theological truth and moral truth—two things considered oxymorons. These impede progressive goals such as the normalization of homosexuality. As a result orthodoxy must be suppressed.

The orthodox Anglican bishops who met in Jerusalem last summer rather than attend the Archbishop of Canterbury’s conference at Lambeth listed “the nature of divine revelation, and the nature of the text of the Bible” as the primary dispute in the Anglican Communion. They went on to state: 

The Bible lies at the centre of the church’s life precisely because it is the Spirit-inspired written form of the word of God, by which Christ’s authority is exercised until he returns. These Scriptures are not limited in truth and relevance because they were spoken in the first century, nor are they bound by time, culture or space. Rather, they express the mind of God who knows all things as they truly are. This is why they are never dated or outmoded. They never need to be corrected in the light of new advances in knowledge. Rather, they remain eternally relevant and authoritative.

Fr. Neuhaus wrote elsewhere, “Orthodoxy is not stasis, but the high adventure of fidelity to truth.” Adventurous as it may be, orthodoxy is also the source of a church’s stability. It has held up the roof of Canterbury Cathedral for centuries, and its abandonment is the real reason that roof is falling in around Rowan Williams. 


 

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