[For those of you who may not know me in this context, I am a member of the Reformed Church in America, a small denomination that recently held a “Special Council” on how to deal with controversy over LGBT inclusion in the church. This post is a response to the report of that council.]
Although I was not a delegate to the RCA Special Council on Sexuality that met this past April in Chicago, I have heard from a variety of people who were part of that council, and an interesting thread has emerged in those reports. Although the council was clearly not an easy time, and deep differences emerged that were not resolved, many of those who attended the council also reported significant interaction with others, particularly those who disagreed with them. They left the council feeling closer to those people with whom they disagreed, even though their disagreements were not resolved, and were still a source of pain.
I have found similar sorts of dynamics in my own experience. I was a delegate to the 2012 General Synod, which was extremely contentious on this topic. Yet I was part of a small group that was extremely diverse, and we found ourselves bonding with each other, and established closer relationships, some of which have continued, despite our disagreements on sexual ethics.
I want to pause for a moment to reflect on those experiences. In particular, I want to ask the question: what is the Spirit saying to us in this? Of course, it’s certainly possible to “over-read” experiences like these. Whenever people allow themselves to be vulnerable in the presence of conflict, a natural response is to be drawn toward such a person, and certainly some of the dynamics of this council may have been shaped by such psychological processes.
But I’m not convinced that this is adequate as an exhaustive explanation. There are some objective reasons why this response of closeness in the face of this conflict ought not to be overly psychologized. The most significant of these is the fact that there is nothing in our confessions about this division over sexual ethics, and indeed, almost everything in our confessions is mutually embraced by people on both sides of this conflict. In other words, part of the reason why people who disagreed over sexual ethics still found themselves feeling closer to each other at the conference was that they discovered that they embraced the same faith, not only in vague, general terms but also with respect to deeper nuances of their faith. They found common ground, even in the midst of painful differences.
This is not so minimize the real, substantive, and painful aspects of this disagreement. Reading the report makes it clear that these differences remain without any final resolution. But it does raise a possibility that people on both sides of this conflict may not be looking for: perhaps the Spirit is saying that this disagreement should not ultimately divide us as Christians who belong to the RCA. Perhaps the deepened intimacy, along with the absence of identifiable aspects of our confessional life that divide us, should give us more patience as we work through this particular conflict.
This may also help to explain one of the recurring themes of the report that seems strange at first glance. I am thinking of the repeated references in the Special Council report to a “grace-filled and orderly departure from the denomination.” At one level, this seems like an exceedingly strange notion. How can the sort of division of fellow believers that is based on an inability to work together be spoken of as “grace-filled?” How can such a division be expressive of good order? Where is grace present in such a separation at all? (I suppose that people might choose to treat each other without animosity in the midst of such separation, but that represents a rather severe diminishment of what Christians mean by the word “grace” in an ecclesiological context.) But the fact that the Special Council felt compelled to speak this way suggests another reality beneath the division: the perception that both sides may well have a grasp of the gospel and the heart of Reformed faith, even though they cannot come to a common mind on this topic. It’s interesting, in this regard, that the Special Council speaks in these contexts of “grace-filled and orderly separation” rather than of discipline (an emphasis for which I am grateful).
So rather than moving too quickly to the language of “grace-filled and orderly separation,” I would like to invite the RCA to explore more deeply why it uses such language in the first place, and what it says about the status of our differences, as deep and painful as they may be. If those differences allow for us to recognize the presence of “grace” in the corporate lives of others with whom we disagree on this topic, can we really be that far apart?
I suspect that, even in the arena of sexual ethics, we may not be far apart on many issues–closer than we often imagine. I suspect that together we recognize that the gap between the sexual practice of our culture and the (rightful) teaching of the church is greater than it has been in a long time. Together we would agree that the proliferation of promiscuity is a serious problem. Together we may well lament the movement of many younger people away from the public commitment of marriage, and the way in which living together too easily replaces it. Together we would agree that the church needs a deeper vision of grace to deal with sexual experiences that are more “to the margins” than in the mainstream.
So yes, the differences are real, substantive, and painful. But if we have so much in common, not only in our shared confessional commitments, but also even in the arena of sexual ethics, might that not be an invitation to more work, and less focus on separation? I certainly hope so.