Thursday, October 11, 2012

Coming Out to the Anglican Communion

by Susan Russell,
All Saints Church, Pasadena

When I was pondering what I might write for Coming Out Day this year, I remembered this piece from the summer of 2005 -- the presentation I wrote to "come out" to the Anglican Consultative Council as a member of the delegation of Episcopalians that traveled to Nottingham, England. Our charge was to present the "case for inclusion" to the wider Anglican Communion -- and I was honored to be part of that delegation.

On reflection, it occurs to me that it represents not just my own "coming out" to those present in that room that afternoon in June -- it also represents the Episcopal Church "Coming Out" to its Anglican Communion family as a church that was committed to the full inclusion of LGBT people in its work and witness; in its mission and ministry.

Yes, there have been steps forward and steps back in that process. Yes, there are still some significant miles to go before we're "done" -- whatever that means. But -- and it's a big "but" -- what the Bishop of New Hampshire has said over and over and OVER again is absolutely true: the toothpaste is NOT going back in the tube. Having "come out" to the Anglican Communion the Episcopal Church is not going back into the closet -- and our job, our privilege and our opportunity -- is to continue to come out and to live out the Gospel in our own contexts as we work together to make the Good News of God's inclusive love available to absolutely everybody.

So Happy Coming Out Day, Everybody! And now a little blast from the past:

A Witness to Hope: June 21, 2005 Presentation to the Anglican Consultative Council
by the Reverend Susan Russell (Diocese of Los Angeles)

It is a deeply humbling thing to be called to speak to you today as part of this delegation charged with the historic opportunity to witness to our larger Anglican family what we in the American Episcopal Church understand to be the Holy Spirit working in our midst. I recognize that because I am the only gay member of this presentation team I am to some degree charged with speaking not only for myself but also for countless gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ who have come to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ through the mission and ministry of the Episcopal Church in the United States. It is an honor and a privilege to do so.

I carry many of their stories with me today and my deepest hope is that our conversations at this meeting of the Consultative Council will be but the beginning of a genuine listening process which will make the witness to the powerful work being done on behalf of the Gospel in the lives of the gay and lesbian faithful more widely available to the church and to the world. I recognize that the very idea of “the gay and lesbian faithful” will be received as alien by many – as incomprehensible perhaps as the idea of Gentile Christians once was to Saint Peter.

Yet our conviction is that the same Holy Spirit who first brooded over the waters of creation continues to work in and through us today. We believe it is that Spirit who is the source of the vision we believe God has given us of the full inclusion of the gay and lesbian baptized into the Body of Christ – just as Peter was given the surprising vision that Cornelius and his company – those he had been taught to believe were “unclean” -- were as beloved of God and as welcome in the church as he was.

Those of us who support the actions of our General Convention – who advocate for the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people into all orders of ministry and for equity between same-gender partnerships and heterosexual marriage -- do so out of our deep conviction that these actions are our response to the Gospel as we receive it.

I have lived my whole life in this church. I am a cradle Episcopalian who was raised to think both faithfully and critically: born at our diocesan hospital, baptized at our Old Cathedral and both confirmed and ordained in the Diocese of Los Angeles. At the ripe old age of 51, I remember a church where girls couldn’t be acolytes, racial segregation was widely accepted and women were not allowed to serve as deputies to our governing conventions much less aspire to ordination. I remember well the pain and conflict – the threat of schism and the accusations that we were “abandoning the church’s tradition” -- that surrounded all of those steps forward. And yet, in retrospect, I count the turmoil engendered as the cost of discipleship.

For I believe the church I love has been immeasurably enriched by the ministries of women who in earlier generations would have had no place to live out their vocation. I recognize how multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-racial congregations have broadened our experience of God and brought us closer to experiencing the fullness of the Kingdom. Noted biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann said in a recent interview: “[American Civil Rights leader] Martin Luther King famously said that the arc of history is bent toward justice. And the parallel statement I want to make is that the arc of the Gospel is bent toward inclusiveness.” Just as I can no longer imagine a church that strives to celebrate women and people of color for all of who they are I cannot imagine a church where that same arc of history – of inclusion -- does not include gay and lesbian people.

Scripture tells us that what is of the Spirit will flourish -- and what is not will wither away. The witness and wisdom of the women of the church have flourished since our General Convention acted courageously and faithfully--- with fear and trembling -- by opening to them all orders of ministry. We believe the same will prove true with the inclusion of gay and lesbian people more fully into the Body of Christ – in fact, for many of us, that is already our lived experience. I have the privilege to serve a parish – All Saints Church in Pasadena California – that has grown by leaps and bounds in not only numbers but in mission and ministry in the fourteen years since it began the blessing of same sex unions. We are not withering – we are flourishing.

The Gospel tells us that in our Father’s house there are many mansions. St. Paul tells us that essential to the Body of Christ are its many members. And our historic tradition as Anglicans tells us that when we live into the true via media we CAN hold in tension perspectives that others find “mutually exclusive” (catholic and protestant come to mind!) To set our hope on Christ is to hope for a better way … our deepest hope is that the differences that presently challenge us will not result in divisions that will hamper our ability to address together the clarion call of our Lord to minister to “the least of these” among us on His behalf.

You have heard and will hear stories of those who understand themselves to be “healed of their homosexuality” – those who tell moving and compelling stories of God healing them of an unhealthy lifestyle – freeing them to become fully and wholly the person God created them to be. I do not doubt the sincerity of their witness and I praise God if they have found place of healing and health. I do not question their healing – I question what it is that has been healed. It is not possible to be healed of something that is not an illness -- and we are convinced that sexual orientation itself is morally neutral – that what matters to God is not our sexual orientation but our theological orientation – that when we turn to God and ask to be healed of patterns of behavior that are destructive to ourselves or others God in God’s grace will heal us … whether we are homosexual or heterosexual.

Those who have left behind lives of sexual abuse, addiction and exploitation through God’s healing grace have every reason to rejoice and witness to that healing. They do not have, however, have any right to project their experience on to the lives of committed, same-gender couples who are striving to live lives faithful to each other and to the Gospel. As a point in fact, God’s love changes all of us – but what changes is not our sexual orientation: it is our ability to give and receive love as Christ loved us – to our partners, our families and the world.

One question I often hear is “What kind of values are we teaching our children?” We are teaching our children that no matter what their sexual orientation we expect a high standard of relationship that includes fidelity, monogamy, mutual respect and life-long commitment. We are challenging all couples – gay and straight – to live their lives in relationship within the context of Christian community: both supported by and accountable to their brothers and sisters in Christ. And we are modeling to gay and lesbian young people – those so tragically at risk for self-loathing and suicide in our communities – that there is a place where they can be loved by God, embraced by a community of faith and where Jesus loves them just as they are as they grow up to be all that they can be.

Our deepest hope is that the differences that challenge us might be overcome by the power of the Gospel that unites us – that the bonds of affection that have historically linked us as members of this worldwide Anglican family will prove stronger than the temptation to say “I have no need of you” when faced with the very real challenges in front of us.

Classic Anglicanism has historically focused not on having a detailed and certain knowledge of the mind of God, but on maintaining life and conversation in the faithful community. We believe that no one will ever know it all, but that the Spirit will work with us to achieve a unity that transcends uniformity and to bring us toward truth.

Verna Dozier, one of the great Biblical scholars of American Anglicanism wrote this: “The Christian church succumbs to the temptation to know absolutely when it calls doubt the opposite of faith. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Fear is. Fear will not risk that even if I am wrong, I will trust that if I move by the light that is given me, knowing it is only finite and partial, I will know more and different things tomorrow than I know today, and I can be open to the new possibility I cannot even imagine today.”

We set our hope on the One who is the light of world – and we move forward by the light He has given us we do so in the hope that those new possibilities include many more opportunities to share with you – our Anglican family – our witness to the hope that is in us through Christ Jesus our Lord.