The long anticipated report on Pastoral Care Guidance to Same-sex couples is now public. There isn’t a lot of time between now and Synod in June so we should make haste in figuring out how to talk about this as a community.
Form: A Work of Art in a Difficult Space
As I read the report again and again I was amazed at the wisdom and skill of this report. Again and again I thought “this puts our best foot forward in terms of exhibiting the spirit and capacity of the CRC to speak carefully, theologically and winsomely on the most divisive issue of our day.” There are some huge caveats to this that I will get into later but again and again I was struck by what an impressive achievement this report is given its mandate, its time and its context.
While I know the report is a committee effort whoever was the primary pen for this report exhibited incredible skill. It is pastorally, theologically, politically, and socially careful and yet clear. I cannot say enough at how impressed I was. I’ve read a lot of traditional and affirming material on the subject but I don’t know if I’ve read anything so beautifully and lovingly crafted. Again, this is an astounding achievement.
Finding All the Flex Possible
The mandate of this committee was strict. Stay within the confines of the 1973 and 2002 reports. The majority report found all the flex they could within the legal and practical climate of CRC practice today. If you are going to stay within the current church order and positional parameters of the CRC today I can’t imagine a more beautiful, pastoral, flexible word towards those who wish the CRC would become inclusive. Again, as we’ll see this incredible achievement finds its liability in its great strength.
The minority report seems to essentially say that some of this flex while staying within the letter of the CRC law violates some of its spirit. When I first saw there was a minority report I feared that the minority report would advocate for changing the CRC position which would lead to a very different (church) political debate at Synod. I was surprised when I found that the minority report comes from a traditionalist voice. It doesn’t reject most of the majority report but as I said worries that some of the flex found by the majority report violates the spirit of the CRC position and wants to pull back from advocating we push those boundaries.
The two reports I think pretty aptly reflect the spectrum of the CRC middle. With a polarizing issue like this we naturally reduce the conversation into “affirming” and “non-affirming” but the truth is (as the report also nicely articulates) that there are a variety of positions within the church. The CRC has at least three camps: affirming, those who never liked the “orientation vs. practice” position of the 73 report, and those who embrace it but hold a diversity of postures with respect to language and posture. The two reports express the diversity of views within that middle group.
I could imagine Synod adopting both the majority and the minority report given the fact that both are within the legal and practical parameters of the CRC’s current position, both articulating postures within that middle group. While adopting both might not seem to make much logical sense Synod by its nature doesn’t often seem to be bound by logic.
Choosing Who Will Listen
By the nature of this issue the report simply won’t be heard by those who are longing for the CRC to take the affirming position. The report also knows this and to a degree tries to addresses this. If the committee (or a minority within it) had decided break its mandate and offered a recommendation to change the 1973/2002 positions everything would have been different.
This issue has now become pre-cognitive for most in our culture meaning that in many cases any amount of rational or theological argument doesn’t move the needle. The committee did the survey work and knew that any report that came out recommending the CRC adopt an affirming posture would have gone down to flaming defeat at Synod and set up subsequent Synods for ugly, bloody battles. While a report recommending an affirming stance would have brought cheers from a minority, a majority in the CRC would not have been able to hear anything else the committee wanted to say. At this point in our culture we await for the word “shibboleth” in someone’s speech and then we slaughter them at the fords of the Jordan.
This will of course mean that for many who wish the CRC to affirm full inclusion of the LGBTQ community this report will not be read or valued. We pick our audience by our shibboleths and too often the other side has closed ears. The report addresses this too but I fear the dynamics are too strong for most. We lamentably can’t see, hear or appreciate the other side.
We need to address more than LG in our post-gender context
While the report wishes to address “LGBT issues” it sticks to issues involving same sex couples. There isn’t much of anything that addresses bisexuality, transgender or really the totally self-constructed/defining/unmapping wave that is currently in vogue. Our boundary-pushing-broader culture has moved on and its boundaries are “post-gender” and increasingly “post-marriage”. The report really is “traditional” just like the SCOTUS decision in imagining same-sex couples as functionally equivalent to heterosexual couples. While this might still be where the majority in our culture are at it is in some ways passe. Ozzie and Harriet are now Ozzie and Harold or Josie and Harriet.
We might argue that the present post-gender reality was beyond the mandate of the report but the nice conservative LG couples that want to be CRC are in many ways low hanging fruit. The pastoral challenges by our post-gender world are going to be more challenging and require more theological work than a report that offers pastoral guidance can muster. These issues are not merely theoretical for pastors today and the theological conversation for this new reality will be every bit as demanding as what we need to address LG couples. This report updates and rehashes an issue the cultural elite of our society “settled” in the 70s and 80s. We are still playing catch-up theologically.
Does it Lead?
Not much. While the majority report is certainly articulate and passionate about loving gay and lesbian Christians there seems to be a certain resignation to it. “This is all we can give you given our mandate.”
Ironically the more traditionalist minority report “leads” more. While many might not appreciate the direction in which it wishes to lead there is an attempt in the minority establish a vision for marriage and sexuality upon which a practice can be based. Practice without a vision or foundation crumbles because it lacks meaning and the minority report wishes to go there in a way that majority report, for all of its elegance and beauty seems to draw back from.
The Conservatives Were Right
While conservatives have stumbled on application their ability to prophesy has been pretty good. Conservatives declared that same-sex marriage would change marriage and I was one who doubted this. I doubt less now. Sure the lesbian led couple down the street doesn’t directly impact my hetero-marriage today but some of what comes up in the report marks not only how changes in hetero-marriage has enabled same-sex marriage in our culture but also how re-understanding marriage through the experience of same-sex marriages continues this process.
There are some passages of the majority report that are bracing and strange.
CS Lewis in Mere Christianity differentiates Christian from common marriage. The embrace of same sex marriage forces the divorce between “CRC-Religious” marriage and civil marriage. Marriage’s chief purposes becomes to “demarcate appropriate and inappropriate sexual relations”. This movement predates same-sex marriage but this debate codifies it.
This is a reduction of marriage and an enormous change from how marriage was understood throughout most of human history. Christianity had a major hand in forcing this definition upon men. This definition was applied to women in common marriage but in many cultures marriage didn’t limit men’s sexual range to a wife or one wife. There were slaves, concubines, consorts and others to service male sexual appetites. Some women had this freedom but not most and not in many cultures. The need to keep bloodlines and heredity publicly obvious was too great to afford women this kind of sexual license. Common marriage had much to do with property, heredity, status and clan. Yes there was love and companionship but marriage law was a subset of property law. It is for this reason that in the ancient world same-sex marriage would simply make little sense. Sure there was same sex commitment, love, romance, companionship and sexuality but these these things simply weren’t the primary public interest of marriage. Now that marriage has become a function of private self-expression the business side of things recedes.
Another irony in this is that “CRC-religious marriage” gets more counter cultural because the Christendom assertion that sex is only appropriate in marriage has also receded making this position a double anomaly. As the report noted the CRC isn’t doing much disciplinary enforcement on sex anymore. “Don’t ask don’t tell” isn’t just or even primarily for same-sex activity.
While all the focus is on sexual minorities the issues stalking this debate are ones that ask questions about the relationship between sex and property. Should the church marry divorced or widowed members who don’t wish to have a civil marriage because it would impact estate or retirement benefits? This is a question that is increasingly common in our churches. A church wedding then becomes a mechanism for wedding someone’s genitals but not their stock portfolio. The two may be come one in bed but they remain two for the tax man.
Gay and lesbian couples rightly complain about the focus on sex but this debate strengthens that focus in other places. Note this strange segment of the report.
I remember (can’t find the link) a case in England where two elderly sisters filed for a marriage license. They were quite clear they had no interest in having a sexual relationship together but they had always lived together in the home of their mother and wished to take advantage of the tax benefits being married would offer. If two women can marry why not these two women? Their request was denied. Sisters aren’t allowed to marry.
The vision of marriage as a “one-flesh”, whole life permanent union where sex and at least the potential of procreation is part of the picture comes undone. When that is undone we wonder where we are at. Now of course the arguments about about infertile couples and elderly couples yet the vision and symbolic elements make up the foundation of the practice.
How Little It Can Do For Us
Even though in many ways the report is a triumph and as I said work of pastoral art, in the end I’m not sure how much it changes anything.
The RCA this coming spring will convene a “wise council” in the hope of finding a way through their impasse. While it’s a noble goal and effort expectations are low. This is one of those conflicts that has so far resisted easy, happy compromise.
While this report doesn’t pretend to do anything so ambitious as the RCA’s council in the end I’m not sure what the report does for us. It maps out with incredible language the parameters of the CRC position and their practical pastoral and polity implications but doesn’t really offer us a road forward. I think the minority report attempts to offer some leadership (in the traditional direction) the report as a whole doesn’t resolve or even distance us from the kind of RCA-like showdown so many in our denomination expect and fear.
Benedict or Wilberforce
Rod Dreher has been making waves with his “Benedict Option“. He imagines the church needs to make a sort of strategic cultural retreat to protect itself from ever increasing government enforced cultural imperialism. Michael Gerson and Peter Werner in CT proposed a “Wilberforce Option“. Dreher responded here.
While I prefer the spirit and zeal of the Wilberforce Option I am sobered by the realities that prompt Dreher’s Benedict option. Not embracing full inclusion labels Christians and churches on the culture landscape as and with bigots. While Christians and churches may have been regarded as unrealistic prudes and hypocrites our doctrines have generally not been regarded as evil. I agree with Dreher that this represents a sea change for churches that wish to maintain a traditional position on marriage and that there will be social, legal, political and economic consequences for churches and their other institutions. How this will all shake out none of us knows.
I wrote a piece for a “denominational derby” on a blog introducing the Christian Reformed Church. I likened us to tallish hobbits. I would love to imagine, together with Sam, Merry and Pippin that the troubles of the great war won’t devastate our shire.
We have known ecclesiastical war and many of us hate it. We, a splinter group have splintered still further and it seems difficult to imagine we’ll avoid splintering over this. I’m not sure how well this report helps us hold together.
I think of John Brown’s note.
“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood.”—John Brown’s last words, written on a note
handed to a guard just before his hanging
Both sides of this fight will of course interpret “guilt” through their own filter. Christianity asserts of course that the blood of Christ is sufficient to cleanse us from guilt. We will have to see how much other blood we wish to shed in our unbelief.