Sunday, August 21, 2005

Does God have a plan for same-sex relationships?

The war between prohibitionist and liberationist approaches to the problem of homosexual relationships has reached an impasse. Is there a "Third Way" grounded in scripture and tradition that brings same-sex partners into the moral structures of the Christian community? This paper, published on the Andover Newton Seminary website, argues that there is. Please note: I recognize that this paper is out of date and flawed in many ways. It does not clearly affirm marriage equality, and does not honor transgender relationships. If I were to rewrite this paper today, it would be very different. Still, I hope some of this argument will be useful.

by Andrew G. Lang

A few years ago the Ramsey Colloquium—a group of Christian and Jewish scholars—published a sharp critique of "the gay and lesbian cause" which they titled "The Homosexual Movement." 1 As they predicted, their declaration was denounced as "a display of homophobia." "Such dismissals have become unpersuasive and have ceased to intimidate," they wrote. "Indeed, we do not think it a bad thing that people should experience a reflexive recoil from what is wrong." This "reflexive recoil" from homosexual behavior is not homophobia, they said, but the instinctive reflex of those who know that homosexuality violates God's natural law.

Among the authors were several academics at liberal strongholds like Amherst, Princeton, Oberlin, Yale and Hebrew Union College. It hardly needs to be said that entering the debate in this way exposed the Ramsey Colloquium to angry denunciation and was, for some of its members, an act of courage.

My purpose is not to criticize the declaration's reasoning but to draw your attention to one paragraph as the starting point for our conversation:
We believe that any understanding of sexuality, including heterosexuality, that makes it chiefly an arena for the satisfaction of personal desire is harmful to individuals and society. Any way of life that accepts or encourages sexual relations for pleasure or personal satisfaction alone turns away from the disciplined community that marriage is intended to engender and foster. [Italics added.]
This is a profoundly counter-cultural vision of human sexuality and one that can be helpful as we struggle with the moral question that is before us: should the church affirm faithful relationships between same-sex partners?

Calls Sexual Revolution into question

The Ramsey Colloquium, rightly in my opinion, calls into question the ethic of "sexual liberation." Thirty years after the Sexual Revolution, our culture still understands sexual freedom as freedom from constraint, namely, from the boundaries of discipline, order and structure. And who could be opposed to freedom? We always live in the tension between personal freedom and social discipline, so we want to liberate ourselves from this tension and live in the light of a pure freedom that never says "no" to human possibility. Defined in this way, freedom is the doctrine of personal sovereignty, the private property of the ego that has to be seized and defended. So words like "discipline," "order" and "structure" also provoke a "reflexive recoil"—the recoil of the individual ego when we encounter boundaries that limit our freedom of action. Naturally, in a culture that defines individuality as self-determination and self-assertion, discipline is at best suspect, at worst oppressive.

But this is not the church's traditional vision of freedom or individuality. Freedom, according to Christian tradition, is not only freedom from but also freedom for. Karl Barth saw it as "freedom for obedience" to the Word of God. Particularly in the witness of the Reformed churches, freedom cannot be understood as my self-liberation but only as the sovereign gift of God who, despite my opposition, rushes to my side and creates the right order that I have abandoned. So God places me in "disciplined community," as the Ramsey Colloquium puts it, or in a "community of disciples" who follow Christ as their Lord and whose lives are oriented towards this Lord as the source of their freedom and the measure of their behavior. It is in this community, and nowhere else, that God meets me through Word and Sacrament, and where I learn the boundaries and, paradoxically, the unlimited possibilities of the freedom that is mine only as gift, and never as self-determination.

The tradition defines God's sovereign gift of freedom in words that are familiar to all of us: covenant, election, justification, vocation, and sanctification. These are words I want to explore as we attempt to understand the morality of same-sex relationships among members of our church.

What is God's word on this subject? To begin with, I need to understand with you what we mean when we say that a "word" is addressed to the church, because there are many words to which you or I could appeal for authority. There are the words of psychology, sociology and genetics. There are the words of natural law and tradition. But all of these words are subject to the one Word whom we worship as Lord and to whom we owe obedience. So, in the familiar text of the Barmen Declaration:
Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scriptures, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death. We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and beside the one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths as God's revelation. 2
Jesus Christ is the one Word of God! Belonging to this Word, according to the Heidelberg Catechism, is our "only comfort, in life and in death." But what do we need to know, the Catechism asks, to "live and die in the blessedness of this comfort?" Three things:
First, the greatness of my sin and wretchedness. Second, how I am freed from all my sins and their wretched consequences. Third, what gratitude I owe to God for such redemption. 3
"Sin"—another counter-cultural word! But without the consciousness of sin the Gospel itself makes no sense. There can be no productive discussion of marriage and homosexuality, or really of any other moral question, unless we can agree that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."

Sin threatens our relationships with death. In the self-assertion of the ego against God not only our relationship with God but also every human relationship is brought into disorder. There is, in fact, no human covenant that is not wounded by our collective and individual rebellion against God's sovereign claim on our lives. This is certainly so in all the greater and lesser injuries that we inflict on each other—in heterosexual marriage, in celibate life, and in the partnerships formed by gays and lesbians. Sin distorts our life together as the Body of Christ, so that no contentious issue in the church can possibly be discussed without anger and mutual recrimination—particularly an issue like sexual morality, which exposes our deepest fears of alienation, loneliness and chaos. Sin distorts all of our relationships. Left on our own, we cannot live together as God intended.

But—thanks be to God!—God does not leave us alone. The Heidelberg Catechism affirms that we do have this "comfort, in life and in death," that we belong not to ourselves but to our "faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil."

Covenant: God's bridge to humanity

This brings us to covenant, defined by the Westminster Confession as God's "voluntary condescension" which bridges "[t]he distance between God and the creature." 4 "Covenant" is a critical concept in Reformed ethics, as you all know, and I cannot possibly say much about it a few minutes. But I agree with Max Stackhouse that "it is likely that nothing less than an understanding of and a commitment to covenantal mutuality under God can bring moral and spiritual coherence to what is otherwise experienced as a seething, chaotic mass of dominations and arbitrariness." 5

Moral and spiritual coherence! These are not empty words! We all sense that the scattered and broken pieces of our lives (and our relationships) belong together but we simply don't know how to re-build the structure we have demolished. But the Reformed tradition affirms that the coherence that eludes our best efforts has already been established definitively in Jesus Christ. How? Through the covenant of Baptism, our primal covenant, in which Christ's obedient "Yes" to God becomes our own "Yes"—and this is the starting point for our lifelong journey from chaos to coherence.

The self-disclosure of God in the covenant of Baptism reveals that God's being itself is covenant. In the reciprocal relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we learn that God's nature is not solitude, but communion. God's inherent nature is to be with others. The Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar says it better than I can:
God is not a sealed fortress, to be attacked and seized by our engines of war (ascetic practices, meditative techniques, and the like) but a house full of open doors, through which we are invited to walk. In the Castle of the Three-in-One, the plan has always been that we, those who are entirely "other," shall participate in the superabundant communion of life. Whatever we regard as the ultimate meaning of human life, be it giving, creating, finding or being given, being created and being found; all this is fulfilled in the original prototype: in the life of the eternal "With." 6
The triune being of God is therefore the primal form of all of our covenants. Here, God chooses not to be alone but with and for the humanity God created. Here, God elects humanity to be God's covenant partner. Here, God's love cannot be contained but pours itself out with incomprehensible majesty into the creation and reconciliation of humanity. Christian covenants must participate in this Trinitarian structure, so that the order broken by sin and restored by God's sovereign decision in Christ becomes an order of being "with" others.

The form of covenant

From our participation in this divine self-disclosure—as Christians who have been incorporated into God's Trinitarian being through Baptism and who meet the Triune God again and again through Word and Sacrament—we can begin to describe the form of Christian covenant:

First, God chooses each of us for covenant, calls us into covenant life and uses covenant to complete God's work of conversion and sanctification in our lives. Election, vocation, conversion and sanctification! Nothing less is at stake in Christian covenant than the overcoming of our opposition to God! So every Christian covenant is a means of grace that draws us into the covenantal life of the Trinity. God works through covenants to convert us to a life with God and with others.

Second, Christian covenants are accountable to the community, and therefore must be sealed by public vows. In contrast to the secular theory of "contract," in which two independent persons with equal rights enter into an agreement, Christian covenants are accountable to the Lord who comes to us in Word and Sacrament, that is, in the realized life of the Body of Christ in the Christian community. Jesus Christ is the Lord of every covenant, but the Covenant Lordship of Christ is mediated through his Body, the church. Therefore, covenant promises cannot be a private contract between two solitary persons but always a public demonstration of vows in the presence of the community.

Third, the community is accountable to the covenants made by its members. Because we are sinners, our covenantal relationships are always threatened by moral disorder. Covenant partners will turn again and again to the church which, as the Body of Christ, will call us back into relationship.

Fourth, Christian covenants create new life. Just as the triune life of God is not enclosed within itself but creates life in all of its forms, human covenants must also be creative. This is seen most clearly in the covenant of marriage, where (if it is God's will) a woman and a man extend life through the birth and care of children. But this creative vocation must be seen in all of our covenants. In some way, every Christian covenant must extend the boundaries of life. Every Christian covenant must be generative and generous. Every Christian covenant must say "Yes" to life.

Marriage: the oldest of human covenants

Heterosexual marriage is the oldest of human covenants, and every other relationship descends from this encounter of a man and woman in marriage. This is obviously so because we are born in families and we owe our existence to heterosexual parents. But the tradition also says that in the marriage of a man and a woman we have a type, or an image, of the covenantal love of God for Israel and Christ for the church.

There is much discussion about whether same-sex relationships also should be called "marriage," and, as you all know, this is a subject on which the church is deeply divided. There can be no question, however, that the Jewish and Christian traditions set heterosexual marriage apart from all other covenants. In my view, the confusion of marriage with other relationships can obscure the priority of heterosexual marriage in God's creative design and the Bible's orientation towards marriage as an analogy of God's passionate and faithful love for creation. And although I intend to argue that the church must grant equal dignity to same-sex relationships lived under vows—an argument I will save for the end of this paper, if you will be patient with me—I am not yet convinced that "equal dignity" is the same as "objective equality." In other words, heterosexual marriage and same-sex relationships are not objectively the same thing but each has its own inherent moral dignity.

In any case, the marriage rites of all Christian churches testify to the tradition that marriage is a covenant between heterosexual partners. So does the only gay and lesbian denomination, the Metropolitan Community Churches, whose rite for blessing same-sex couples is called "union," not "marriage." In its "Order for Marriage," the Book
of Worship
of the United Church of Christ reflects this ecumenical consensus:
The scriptures teach us that the bond and covenant of marriage is a gift of God, a holy mystery in which man and woman become one flesh, an image of the union of Christ and the church. 7
As the first human covenant revealed in scripture and the only human covenant present at the origin of the human race, I believe marriage has a privileged claim on the ministry of the church. Through the tradition's use of marriage as an analogy of God's covenant with humanity, marriage is prior to all other covenants but one—our primal covenant of baptism.

But although heterosexual marriage is unique, it also participates in the Trinitarian structure that is common to all Christian covenants. Marriage, if I may borrow from St. Benedict's well-known image of the monastery as a "school for sinners," is the school where those called into this covenant learn how to be with another and not alone. It is a means of grace, through which God calls a man and a woman away from the terrible solitude of the alienated self into a life of self-giving love. Like other covenants, marriage is not closed in on itself but open to others, first, to the gift of children and family, second, to the church whose liberating boundaries encompass every Christian marriage. Like other covenants, marriage is accountable to Christ, who is the Covenant Lord of the married partners and of their family.

The covenant of celibate community

Marriage is also a vocation, which means that to be a Christian marriage, God must summon a man and a woman into this relationship. But throughout its history, the church has also held an honored place for women and men who were called into a different covenant, but one by which they nevertheless were liberated by God to live a life with and for others. That covenant is celibacy, and to this we will now turn.

We are immediately in trouble here because most of us in this room are Protestant and we have had virtually no tradition of organized celibate community for more than 400 years—with a few exceptions, including one Augustinian monastery in Germany that transferred its allegiance to the Lutheran Reform in 1558 and somehow survived until 1675. 8

The disappearance of vocational celibacy, along with the organized structures without which any covenantal life is impossible, ought to be a serious concern among us. Luther's reaction to the abuse of monastic vows was so extreme that at one point he wrote that chastity is impossible outside of marriage. Calvin was equally contemptuous of the monastic way of life, writing that "the cloisters, the cells, the holes of the monkeries smell of nothing but excrement." 9 So there was no reform of celibate community in Protestant Europe, only a relentless attack on the monasteries that led to their dissolution.

Our break with 1,400 years of vocational celibacy has led us to believe that marriage is normative for all men and women, that is, the only vocation of relationship to which Christians can aspire. But it was not so in the apostolic church, as Karl Barth reminds us:
It is obvious that in the New Testament community marriage can no longer be an obligation. . . . This is the fact, too lightly ignored by Protestant ethics in its glad affirmation of marriage . . . , that Jesus Christ himself, of whose true humanity there can be no doubt, had no other beloved, bride or wife, no other family or domestic sphere but this community. Certainly, He expressed Himself very definitely about the divine basis, the indissolubility and the sanctity of marriage (Mk. 10:1-12, Mt. 5:27-31.) He did not command anyone to abstain from it in practice as He Himself did. . . . [But] there are those for whom entrance into the married state is not only not commanded but temporarily or even permanently forbidden. We certainly cannot say, in the light of these sayings [of Jesus], that entrance into marriage is universally the higher way, the better possibility. . . . Our true point of departure is that for Paul marriage is always a way (beside which he knows another and better) by which the Christian, becoming one body with his wife, does not deny the truth that he is one spirit with the Lord, but in his own way maintains and expresses it just as much as he who chooses a different path. 10
This "different path" is celibacy. So it is a mistake for us to see celibacy as either a compromise or a curse for those who, because of their sexual orientation or their situation in life, are unable to enter into the covenant of heterosexual marriage. Celibacy is a gift in which the person called into this life becomes fully human. Those who hear God's call to this life are not half-human. We cannot say they are incomplete because they have not fulfilled themselves in a union between a woman and a man. Nor should we understand celibacy as "asexuality" or merely as "abstinence" from a sexual relationship. Instead, celibacy is a particular disciplining of sexuality that liberates sexual energy for communion with others. We only have to look at the ecstatic visions of Roman Catholic mystics like St. John of the Cross or St. Therese of Avila, or the extraordinary creative energy of the Shaker communities, to see how sexual identity was not negated by celibacy but channeled into an intensely unitive relationship with Jesus Christ.

Celibacy therefore conforms to the Trinitarian structure of covenant. It is a life with and for, not a life apart from others. Like the covenant of marriage, it should be sealed by vows. We have no time to examine the arguments of Luther and Calvin against monastic vows, but by definition there should be no Christian covenant—including baptism, marriage and ordination—in which public promises are not witnessed by the community. By abolishing the vow of celibacy, the Reformers also abolished the possibility of celibate life as a normative vocation alongside heterosexual marriage. The result impoverished the church and denied any structured expression for those Protestants who were not called into marriage. A church without a covenantal vocation to celibacy is a church that is not fully oriented towards Jesus Christ—who, as Karl Barth reminds us, lived his life for others but not in the covenant of heterosexual marriage! Barth cannot be ignored when he writes that in Jesus "[t]he great example of a powerfully exercised freedom for celibacy is before us all." 11

On the other hand, the Protestant revolt against priestly and monastic celibacy was not groundless. Men and women like the monk Martin Luther and his future wife, the nun Katherine of Bora, were living under the burden of an enforced celibacy to which they were not truly called by God. We will take up this point again in a few minutes, because it will be a critical one in our discussion about same-sex relationships.

Are same-sex relationships a means of grace?

Do same-sex relationships conform to the Christian tradition of covenant? Can they become a means of grace through which God calls homosexual men and women to a life of conversion and holiness?

It is important to begin by acknowledging that homosexuality is most often experienced as inherent, as a "given," not a "choice." I know that some of us do not believe that the "givenness" of homosexuality is at all self-evident. But even the Ramsey Colloquium concedes—although rather reluctantly—that "some scientific evidence suggests a genetic predisposition for homosexual orientation," although it argues that there is no moral distinction between homosexuality and a predisposition towards "alcoholism or violence." The official Roman Catholic teaching on homosexuality is somewhat more generous. According to the U.S. bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family:
[I]t seems appropriate to understand sexual orientation (heterosexual or homosexual) as a fundamental dimension of one's personality and to recognize its relative stability in a person. . . . Generally, homosexual orientation is experienced as a given, not as something freely chosen. By itself, therefore, a homosexual orientation cannot be considered sinful, for morality presumes the freedom to choose. 12
But basing its argument on natural law, the Roman Catholic church prohibits the expression of love in a homosexual relationship because "only within (heterosexual) marriage does sexual intercourse fully symbolize the Creator's dual design as an act of covenant love with the potential of co-creating new human life." In the Roman Catholic view, a homosexual relationship is therefore "disordered" because it does not express the sexual encounter of a man and a woman and because it cannot be open to the procreation of children. For these two reasons, the church requires that gays and lesbians remain celibate.

The Roman Catholic teaching, in my opinion, is a reasonable attempt to struggle with a difficult problem in a way that does not dishonor or condemn the gay and lesbian members of the church. We can be grateful that the Church of Rome has broken decisively with the now widely-discredited model of homosexuality as a "disease." Instead, the church accepts that homosexual orientation is, at least generally, an inherent dimension of the human personality of gays and lesbians. The Roman magisterium therefore implicitly calls into question the ethics of so-called "transformation ministries" or "restorative therapies" that promise to convert or "cure" homosexuals into heterosexuals.

But the implications of the Roman Catholic teaching go deeper. Before 1975, Roman Catholic ethics assumed that homosexuality was a vicious choice. It did not acknowledge the concept of "sexual orientation." Since the only right expression of sexuality was either in heterosexual marriage or in celibate vocation, then every sexual relationship between two women or two men must have been a conscious act of rebellion against the will of the Creator—a rebellion, in other words, of persons who were naturally heterosexual but chose same-sex partners in violation of nature. This is clearly what Paul has in mind when he writes in Romans that "their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another." (Rom. 1:27 NRSV). Note the verbs "exchanged" and "giving up!" Paul clearly is condemning men and women who have a choice. The Romans described by Paul had freely chosen to "give up" what was natural to them for what was unnatural. 13

But Paul is not describing the homosexuals who are the subject of Roman Catholic ethics. Here, sexuality is not "chosen," but "given." One therefore has to ask who "gave" this orientation, and what is the nature of the gift?

One gift of homosexuality, from the Roman Catholic viewpoint, could be a consecrated life of celibacy. Since that church continues to maintain an entire infrastructure of organized celibate communities, it can at least offer this alternative with some credibility. But Protestants have less credibility when we impose celibacy on our gay and lesbian members. Our churches support virtually no institutional forms of celibate life and seem to have returned to the idea of permanent celibacy merely as a backdoor solution to the disturbing presence of openly homosexual Christians in the ordained ministry. Confronted with the ecumenical consensus that homosexuality is not chosen, some Protestant churches have rediscovered the vocation of celibacy several centuries after it was abandoned by Luther and Calvin. But the rediscovery lacks moral conviction, and the spectacle of married bishops and ministers—who have no personal experience of vocational celibacy and have never considered this vocation valid for themselves—imposing permanent celibacy on others is problematical, at least.

But enforced celibacy for homosexuals is equally problematical in the Roman Catholic tradition. Fundamentally, it violates the dignity of celibate life as vocation. There is no evidence in either scripture or tradition that God created an entire class of human beings who sui generis must enter into covenants of celibate community. Celibacy in the Catholic tradition is always seen as a gift, a way of life to which God elects and calls some, but not most, men and women. As any Roman Catholic vocation director will tell you, to live a life of enforced celibacy when that man or woman does not clearly hear the divine calling to this covenant is almost always destructive. Celibacy in the absence of God's call to celibate community is not necessarily a moral choice.

Protestants should know this well enough from our own history! One of the motors that drove thousands of Catholic priests, monks and nuns into the arms of the Reformation was the legal requirement of celibacy in the absence of a real vocation to this way of life. Eberlin von Günzburg, a Franciscan friar who converted to Lutheranism in 1522, was speaking for the generation of Luther and Calvin when he described the moral agony of a celibate life divorced from vocation. Celibacy, he wrote, was
. . . a daily nagging of conscience and unrest of mind, by which all joy becomes suffering, all consolation saddening, all sweetness bitter. . . . [It] dulls and deadens the human senses, hardens the heart, and restrains natural honesty, leaving one in the end in so uncivil and inhumane a state, and so guilt-ridden and remorseful, that one hates salvation and the good in one's life and longs for misfortune. 14
Protestants should remember the spiritual and mental anguish of our own celibate ancestors before legislating permanent celibacy for lesbians and gays who may not be called to this exceptional (and demanding) way of life. Nevertheless, some homosexuals are called to the covenant of celibate community, and so are some heterosexuals. The Roman Catholic church acknowledges the presence of both sexual orientations in its ordained ministry. But we should recognize with Karl Barth that celibacy is a "special vocation" and it would be a serious error to prescribe it when the vocation is absent. When celibacy is imposed not by God's call but by ecclesiastical discipline on gays and lesbians, the result is precisely what Gônzburg described: the senses are dulled, the heart is hardened, honesty is restrained so that, in the end, one is left is "so incivil and inhumane a state, and so guilt-ridden and remorseful, that one hates salvation . . . and longs for misfortune." Today, we would describe this condition as a state of deep melancholy, depression or despair—and why should we be surprised? What else could be the result when a man or a woman who is capable of giving himself or herself to another in love is sentenced by the church to a life of solitude? This was obvious enough to the Reformers 475 years ago and it should be equally obvious to the church today.

The vocation of gays and lesbians in the church

So, if not celibacy, then what? Is there a vocation for those gays and lesbians God has not called to either heterosexual marriage or celibate community?

Like all other women and men, lesbians and gays are called by God to live a life not for ourselves, but for others. We are called to covenantal relationships in which our lives correspond to the inner life of God who is self-in-community, who in God's own being is self-for-others.

Gay and lesbian unions are covenantal relationships if they conform to this Trinitarian structure. Like heterosexual marriage and celibate community, these relationships are "schools for sinners," in which two partners learn how to live in the paradox of freedom that is unlimited precisely because it is limited by the other. The partner in a same-sex relationship is truly "other"—not through the complementarity of a man and woman, of course, but in the mutuality of two persons who in freedom choose each other and delight in being chosen. God creates these relationships because within the limits of our given sexuality we are always called out of isolation into community. Always. Always! Through these relationships we learn what it means to be truly human, to care for another as much as we care for ourselves, to learn that a life enclosed on itself is death, but a life opened to other lives is God's gift and command to those who believe.

Neither same-sex relationships nor celibate community are objectively "equal" to heterosexual marriage. The marriage between a man and a woman has its own distinctive and privileged character. But neither are they "second-class" marriages. They are moral relationships and they have a specific claim on the ministry of the church.

Same-sex relationships are broken by the same powers of evil that threaten heterosexual marriage. All relationships are wounded by sin. That is why God gave us covenants and why Christ is the Lord of each covenant. When the church offers its ministry to same-sex partners it is affirming the reality of sin and therefore saying "no" to the false doctrine that there was no fall from grace and no need for the Cross. We often speak about "affirming" or "celebrating" same-sex unions but I am convinced the real pastoral need in the gay and lesbian community is the ministry of the church when our relationships are broken by sin. Like heterosexual couples, we are adrift in the ethical chaos of a society that exalts freedom over commitment, selfishness over self-sacrifice, and the fulfillment of personal "needs" over mutual responsibility. The church needs to be a safe harbor for these relationships—encompassed by ethical boundaries, discipline, accountability and tradition. In other words, gay and lesbian couples need structure, and we need just as much structure as heterosexual couples.

Same-sex couples therefore have a claim on the pastoral care of the church. The church must not abandon us to the moral disorder of a fallen world that is in rebellion against God. But the church's pastoral concern for these couples necessarily requires the public, liturgical expression of the vows that bind them together. Pastoral care without the public recognition of their vows would undermine the moral accountability of same-sex couples to each other and to the church. The congregation cannot legitimately expect conformity to ethical norms for same-sex partners if it is unwilling to witness the vows in which those partners commit themselves—in the presence of the community—to fidelity and mutual obedience. If a congregation permits pastoral care but denies the public rite of union it is saying, in effect, "we expect you to honor your covenant but we don't want to hear about it outside the pastor's office." "Don't ask, don't tell" is a cruel way of life for same-sex couples and if that constraint were imposed on heterosexual partners, I doubt many marriages could survive. "Private" promises of fidelity apart from the community are like New Year's resolutions, easy to break. Moreover, the alienation of same-sex unions from the liturgical life of the community plays into the hands of the secular ideology that covenants are only private contracts between individuals who are accountable to no one but each other.

Conversion and sanctification

Ultimately, the purpose of same-sex covenants, like the covenants of heterosexual marriage and celibate community, is conversion and sanctification. Through these relationships we cooperate with God's design for human life. They are a means of grace, and we could not be fully human without them. St. Irenaeus, who heard God's call to the covenant of celibacy, says this about God's work of sanctification:
If you are the handiwork of God, await the Artisan's hand patiently. He does everything at a favorable time, favorable, that is, to you, whom He made. Offer Him your heart, pliant and unresisting. Preserve the form in which the Artisan fashioned you. Keep within you the Water which comes from Him; without it, you harden and lose the imprint of His fingers. By preserving the structure, you will ascend to perfection; God's artistry will conceal the clay within you. His hand formed your substance; He will coat you, within and without, in pure gold and silver; He will adorn you so well that "the Sovereign will delight in your beauty" (Ps. 44:12). But if you harden and reject His artistry, if you show Him your displeasure at being made a human being, your ingratitude to God will lose you both His artistry and His life. Making is the property of God's generosity; being made is a property of human nature. 15
What a glorious vision, for all of us! God is an artisan who will adorn our lives "in pure gold and silver." But you and I cannot ascend to this perfection alone. Not alone. Not alone. God takes us by the hand and leads us through the terrors of life, giving us companionship so we can learn how to live not for ourselves, but for others. Through these relationships of community and family, of heterosexual marriage, celibate love and homosexual partnership, God converts us towards the "life for others" that is the primal nature of the Trinity, towards the majestic generosity and creative power of the Three-in-One into whom we were incorporated through Baptism, and we know this is true because Jesus Christ has been revealed to us as the first of many chosen, justified, called and sanctified by God.


1. "The Homosexual Movement: A Response by the Ramsey Colloquium," First Things, March 1994.

2. "The Theological Declaration of Barmen," United Church of Christ Web site at

3. "The Heidelberg Catechism," in The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ, v. 2 (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1997), 329.

4. "The Westminster Confession," in The Living Theological Heritage, 561.

5. Max Stackhouse, Covenant and Commitments: Faith, Family, and Economic Life (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 155.

6. Hans Urs von Balthasar, You Crown the Year with Goodness: Sermons throughout the Liturgical Year (San Francisco: Ignatius Press. 1989), 144.

7. Book of Worship of the United Church of Christ (Cleveland: Office for Church Life and Leadership of the United Church of Christ, 1986), 327.

8. François Biot, The Rise of Protestant Monasticism (Baltimore and Dublin: Helicon Press, 1963), 65-67. At this point the vocation of celibacy-in-community disappears from Protestant history until the first deaconess community was founded in 1836. Crossing the Atlantic with German Reformed and Lutheran immigrants, the deaconess movement spread to the United States, and its memory is preserved in the many "Deaconess Hospitals" affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Lutheran churches. But today the deaconess movement in North America is only a memory. In Europe, there has been a modest revival of Protestant monasticism—most notably the ecumenical Taizé community in France. Unlike the deaconess movement, Protestant monks have met a cool reception in the United States, at best. The only alternative for North American Protestants called to this vocation are the small Anglican communities that are closer in spirit to Rome than to Wittenberg or Geneva.

9. John Calvin, Traité des scandales, quoted in Biot, The Rise of Protestant Monasticism, 37.

10. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, v. III.4 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961), 144, 146.

11. Barth, Final Testimonies (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1977), 49.

12. Committee on Marriage and Family, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, "Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers" (Washington, D.C.: National Catholic News Service, Oct. 1, 1997).

13. Karl Barth at one time shared with Paul the belief that homosexuality is a choice, not a "given" condition. The two or three pages he wrote in Church Dogmatics on homosexuality assumed that gays and lesbians despise the opposite sex and choose partners of the same sex as a substitute for the woman or man they have rejected. Barth nowhere addressed the issue of sexual orientation or proposed an ethical response to it. Barth's assumptions were not unusual in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when he wrote his brief comments on homosexuality, and could have been a response to a pre-war homosexual movement in Germany that exalted the male as superior to women—not a popular motif in the male homosexual movement today. But it is not widely known that Church Dogmatics was not Barth's last word on the subject. "In light of conversations with medical doctors and psychologists," writes Barth scholar George Hunsinger, "Barth came to regret that he had characterized homosexuals as lacking in the freedom for fellowship. In the end he, too, found it necessary to interpret the plain sense of Scripture in light of advances in modern knowledge." George Hunsinger, "Thinking Outside the Box, Part 4: The Voice of 'Progressive Traditionalists'," The Presbyterian Outlook, March 13, 2002, online journal at

14. Eberlin von Günzburg, quoted in Steven Ozment, Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 79-80.

15. Irenaeus, "Against Heresies," quoted in The Scandal of the Incarnation (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1981), 72-73.

About the author

Andrew G. Lang is an author and journalist living in Cleveland, Ohio. This paper was presented at a conference May 6, 1998, at the Acton, Mass., Congregational Church sponsored by the Massachusetts chapter of Confessing Christ.

Last revision: Oct. 24, 2002.


At 9:10 AM, Anonymous Willis Elliott said...

I loudly applauded this speech at Acton, & it's even more impressive & persuasive in your 10.24.02 revision. (1) Not in this text is your disclaimer (at Acton) of the use of "marriage" for homosexual unions: was that an oral aside from your manuscript? (2) Twice you speak of the man-woman relationship as "privileged": how? (3) Twice you have "heterosexual marriage": why not just "marriage"--so your last paragraph would read "marriage, celibate love [in community] and homosexual partnership" (instead of "heterosexual marriage....")? (4) Very wisely, you distinguish between "objectively 'equal'" & "equal dignity"; but the nuance escaped the Mass. Supreme Court, whose chief justice gave her basic reason as that "separate is not equal." (5) Please craft a statement on which you think the Confessing Christ Steering Committee members can agree.

At 3:56 PM, Anonymous Ray Helmick said...

The Rev. Ray Helmick, S.J., a professor of theology at Boston College, offers this response to my paper:

January 26, 2006

When we in the BTI and the ICPL read Andrew Lang’s October presentation to the UCC, asking “Does God Have a Plan for Same-Sex Relations?”, I was very positively impressed, and gave my reactions back to Rodney Petersen, Sandy Seltzer and Allen Katzoff. That’s how I happen to be the respondent for Andy this afternoon.

My positive impression rested initially on Andy’s very responsible reaction against the idea that sexual freedom should mean a license for what, among the group of us, we have called “grazing,” a reduction of sexuality simply to the pursuit of pleasant sensation, reducing the partner to an instrument for that purpose. When he got to his treatment of covenanted relations, I was very glad to see that he recognized the covenanted character not only of marriage within the Christian Church – I’m sure that is also true in Judaism – but also in the life of celibate community, something which the Protestant churches rather lost sight of at the Reformation, which like marriage results from God’s calling us into covenant life and uses covenant to complete God’s work of conversion and sanctification in our lives. I understand quite well his analysis of the assessment, by the Reformers, that the celibacy of Catholic clergy in the pre-Reformation period had so often been an imposed, not a freely covenanted, state, and their sympathy for those who left that state and married, seeking a truly covenanted state in the new Protestant churches, for that reason.

Andy proceeded from there to the desirability of a covenanted status, in the Church, other than a celibacy that is not chosen but actually imposed as their only option, for homosexuals. This, as we all know, is a position not accepted, not even, I think, envisioned in the teaching of the Catholic Church.

I should make clear, at this point, that I have not the authority to contradict the official teaching of the Catholic Church, and certainly have no intention of repudiating that teaching authority. But I think the Andy’s proposition has such theological weight that it has to engage Catholic theologians and theology.

We have, in the Catholic Church, an official magisterium, which teaches with authority for all Catholics. This is a juridical question, and I have not the juridical authority to decide such matters on behalf of the Church. But we have also theologians, whose task is always to ask questions about the meaning of faith. That faith itself is foundational, but as we strive to discern its meaning and its calling we provide the material on which the magisterium can base its judgments. If the theologian does not raise the questions, which the magisterial authorities may find it rather a nuisance to have to answer, then he defaults on his responsibility to the Church as theologian.

You can see easily that the Catholic sense of what is at stake in this area is in motion. Just at the time that we all expected a ban on the ordination of homosexuals to the Catholic priesthood last November--it didn’t turn out to quite so restrictive as that--and the Church’s campaign against same-sex marriage was being promoted at the doors of the churches, Archbishop O’Malley issued a letter decrying any bigotry or discrimination against any person on the basis of sexual orientation, stressing the holy lives and outstanding contribution to the life of the church of many homosexuals by their service, generosity and the sharing of their spiritual gifts. He told his Catholic people that “we must strive to eradicate prejudices against people with a homosexual orientation.” All too recently that would not have been said, but homosexuals would have been regarded very badly, as having made a “vicious choice.”

So where are we? I think we need to look back to the time of the Second Vatican Council. Up to that time, it had been common opinion in the Catholic Church (and among many others, Christian and of other faiths or non-faiths) that what justified sexual contact between persons, and was therefore the “end” (purpose) of marriage, was the generation of new life. The expression of love, or the needs of the person (expressed as the “remedy of concupiscence”) could only be a secondary end of marriage, tolerated rather than encouraged. The Council Fathers took a different view, recognizing the two “ends” of marriage as of equal value: procreation of children and expression of love. I think you can see the enormous consequences that followed from that change of outlook. It raised at once questions of contraception, of married clergy, of women’s ordination, but those were all promptly taken off the table as subjects not to be dealt with by the Council but reserved to the judgment of the Pope and his counselors.

What impresses me is that the recognition of the expression of love between man and wife as of value equal in importance and dignity to the procreation of children is the real basis for the teaching that no one may justly be deprived of the right to marry.  Andy will argue that the imposition of a mandatory celibacy on those of a homosexual orientation is just as much an injustice.  His formulation of this in terms of covenanted relations that need to be brought to church resonates with me at once. 

I don’t recall that anyone raised a question about the expression of love between homosexuals at that time. But what was at issue was a perverse view of sexuality that I have criticized myself, especially in the context of the sex-abuse scandal that we have dealt with in the Catholic Church in recent years, that sexuality is the bad thing about people that we should be ashamed of and make believe we don’t have. This is not a view attributable to Christian faith, but should be associated rather with the dualistic religions typical of late Roman times, with their hatred of the body and the physical, including the Manichaeism familiar to Augustine and others. I’ve argued, in articles I’ve published about the sex-abuse scandal and, in fact, in a letter I sent directly to the new Pope Benedict XVI that this is an issue that needs to be addressed in the Catholic Church even at the level of a new Ecumenical Council.

And what should we see, just yesterday, but an Encyclical Letter, the first from the new Pope, which makes these very points quite forcefully. Beginning with a first premise that the church has at times viewed sexuality as something “negative,” he placed erotic love between married men and women at the center of God's plan.

Sex, he wrote, should mature into unselfish concern for the other, creating a love that leads to working for charity and justice for others. “Love is indeed ‘ecstasy,’” he wrote, “not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus toward authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God.”

I’m quoting from today’s New York Times to say: “The encyclical presents love as a fundamental force, and Benedict sought to unite the ideas of sexual love and a broader, more altruistic love. He paraphrased Nietzsche as saying Christianity’s moral rules had “blown the whistle” on sexuality, a vital part of human nature. Benedict admitted the charge to some degree, but said the church was not alone in distorting sex.

“Nowadays Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed,” he said. “Yet the contemporary way of exalting the body is also deceptive. Eros, reduced to pure ‘sex,’ has become a commodity, a mere ‘thing’ to be bought or sold.”

Love, he said, should grow and become “less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other.” This love, he wrote, mirrors God’s love for humankind, reflects Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, and leads to a larger love for neighbors, then for mankind. And quoting the shema, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) in combination with “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18; cf. Mk 12:29-31) he asserts, even in the opening paragraph of his encyclical, that since God has first loved us (cf. 1 Jn 4:10), love is now no longer a mere “command” but “the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us.”

How are we to put these things together? Andy’s argument would say that it is already an invidious way to treat homosexuals that we should relegate them to a life of enforced celibacy, with no other options available to them. This, he believes, violates the dignity of celibate life as a vocation. And that, he reminds us, is highly problematic in terms of a Catholic as well as a Protestant sense of the Church. It is a tyranny, he argues, to impose a situation of isolation without any recognized covenant.  

Andy and I seem to be at one in not describing the union of persons of the same sex as marriage. That horrifies a lot of people in our society, among them our Catholic hierarchical leaders, who see it as a major threat to the integrity of the marriage institution itself. I don’t actually see it as having measurably increased the threat to marriage as a core institution of society. Marriage is already under far more serious threats, basically through our seeming incapacity to educate people to a readiness to make and keep a genuine life commitment to another person. But I see the same-sex union as something other than marriage.

Saying this much, I should confess to my own ambivalence with regard to some parts of the motion and development I see, among serious persons of faith, on this question. I am still hesitant to conclude that the homosexuality we see today is uniformly an inherent--God-given! (gift)--quality of the persons.  I realize that it is experienced as such, as inherent, and is seldom something that people simply choose as an “alternative.”  But when I look at the history, and see various instances in which particular cultures (the military culture of Sparta, Mamalukes, Janissaries among others) have made homosexual relations mandatory, or such cultures as the English Public School, where an atmosphere of homosexuality appears to have been commonplace, but in fact was not necessarily a good predictor of the person’s subsequent orientation, I’m left with the impression that people--men and women--can be acculturated into this orientation, likely with very little if any free choice of their own.  And then, while quite determined to oppose any discrimination against them, I’m reluctant to see this celebrated as the “alternative life-style” and so promoted to children or those who have not yet settled or recognized their sexual orientation.  I don’t subscribe to any “disease” categorization of homosexuality, but I do tend to see it as a misfortune that has come upon a person, which I don’t want to see imposed on another. I can’t have certainty of that.

People of homosexual orientation that I know--somehow I’m not gifted with the capacity to recognize the homosexual that some people claim--are generally in some degree of distress. Many friends would argue that this distress arises only from the way ‘straight” society discriminates against them. Maybe so, but I am left uncertain.

That leaves me in some doubt about adoption of children.  I see, every now and then, claims that the children brought up by same-sex couples are as likely as others to find in themselves a heterosexual orientation, but I don’t really know what is true here.  I do agree wholeheartedly that the important thing is for the children to grow into persons capable of loving relations.

My friends in the psychotherapeutic disciplines are pretty well agreed that everyone has some degree of bi-sexual propensities, which get formed, usually in one direction or another, as one matures.  Once it is so formed--and experienced as inherent--I reckon that it is a pointless cruelty to try to re-orient the person.

So what remains to be said? It is beyond my pay-grade to try to make any further statement on behalf of the Catholic Church, since I haven’t that juridical authority that some others have in the Catholic communion. Andy has surely raised questions that deserve attentive consideration within any of our churches or faith communities.

At 12:14 AM, Anonymous Chris Anderson said...

Andy's essay does something that I have not seen done in discussions on this issue. He takes scripture, theology and pastoral care seriously. His essay should have a wider audience than it has had so far.

He is right to honor the marriage covenant as having a special place. I believe that marriage should be seen as the union between a man an a woman. Yet this does not end the discussion. Andy's developement of the idea of covenant is extremely important.

Andy does not set up straw people and then shoot them down. He is respectful towards those with whom he differs. If any essay needs to be thought through on this issue it is this essay.

How are we to deal with with gay Christians? I often think of the statement Paul made to heterosexual Christians that "it is better to marry than to burn with vain desire." How are we to honor love that exists between gay people? Are we to say to them "it is better to burn with vain desire than to be in a union?" Are we to consign them to be outside the church while we allow gossips to fill our pews?

All of this is not to say that the issue is simple. Andy's essay is still making me think. Please allow this essay to stretch you.

Chris Anderson
of Heidelberg UCC, York, PA


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