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Has the time come?

October 26, 2009

Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has released a new letter, declaring that “The time has come!” and that he will no longer engage in dialogue about homosexuality. This is especially significant coming from Spong, who is a vocal leader in the fight for a church that is inclusive of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and whose decision will surely impact the future of the progressive church’s fight for LGBTQ rights:

I will also no longer act as if I need a majority vote of some ecclesiastical body in order to bless, ordain, recognize and celebrate the lives and gifts of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church. No one should ever again be forced to submit the privilege of citizenship in this nation or membership in the Christian Church to the will of a majority vote.

…Inequality for gay and lesbian people is no longer a debatable issue in either church or state. Therefore, I will from this moment on refuse to dignify the continued public expression of ignorant prejudice by engaging it. I do not tolerate racism or sexism any longer. From this moment on, I will no longer tolerate our culture’s various forms of homophobia. I do not care who it is who articulates these attitudes or who tries to make them sound holy with religious jargon.

I have been part of this debate for years, but things do get settled and this issue is now settled for me. I do not debate any longer with members of the “Flat Earth Society” either. I do not debate with people who think we should treat epilepsy by casting demons out of the epileptic person; I do not waste time engaging those medical opinions that suggest that bleeding the patient might release the infection. I do not converse with people who think that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans as punishment for the sin of being the birthplace of Ellen DeGeneres or that the terrorists hit the United Sates on 9/11 because we tolerated homosexual people, abortions, feminism or the American Civil Liberties Union. I am tired of being embarrassed by so much of my church’s participation in causes that are quite unworthy of the Christ I serve or the God whose mystery and wonder I appreciate more each day. Indeed I feel the Christian Church should not only apologize, but do public penance for the way we have treated people of color, women, adherents of other religions and those we designated heretics, as well as gay and lesbian people.

Life moves on. As the poet James Russell Lowell once put it more than a century ago: “New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth.” I am ready now to claim the victory. I will from now on assume it and live into it. I am unwilling to argue about it or to discuss it as if there are two equally valid, competing positions any longer. The day for that mentality has simply gone forever.

This is my manifesto and my creed. I proclaim it today.

Beyond being beautifully written, this letter casts an incredible vision for the church, which is not just for the future, but for living and creating in the present. But what does this mean for the future of the church? If all of us progressive Catholics refused to engage the debate about the morality of homosexuality or the very humanness of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, would the church break off into two or more irreconcilable parts? Yes, and that’s not such a bad thing. Just as the groups like the KKK and men’s rights activists continue to exist as oft-violent fringe extremists, there is no reason to assume that the most fanatical homophobic people will ever come around. As Spong writes, it’s time to stop paying attention to them, because they’re never going to change.

On a personal level, it’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly how joining Spong in this manifesto would tangibly impact my life, since I rarely find myself engaged in a debate about the role of LGBTQ persons in the church, mostly because I rarely choose to spend time with people who would disagree with me on such a basic issue like this. For me, I think the spirit of the manifesto applies more to the role of women in the church, especially the issue of women’s ordination. So, Bishop Spong, I join with you to say that I will no longer waste time, energy, emotion, nor thought explaining that women are created in the image of God, are wholly human in their potential for both sin and divinity, and are wholly able to contribute to the life and fruitfulness of the church in every possible role.

I must add one caveat: I will engage these conversations with people who have not had exposure or education to alternative viewpoints. Bishop Spong has removed himself from the dialogue because the people he was speaking to had heard his point of view, but refused to accept it. In my work in Khmer villages, I often meet women and men who are learning for the first time about sex, gender, and sexual orientation. If they’re curious about any of these things, they can’t just do an internet search for answers and make an informed decision on their own. When my Khmer peers come to me with questions about women’s purity and sexual relationships, or morality and homosexuality, I believe it would be an injustice to them, to their communities, and especially to those on the margins, if I refused to engage.

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