Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Sexual Christian

Last summer I had a series of posts in which I presented a Biblical case for accepting homosexuals as full members of the Society of Friends and by extension, to any Christian body. In those posts I also solicited reading suggestions. Bill Samuel took me up on that and recommended The Sexual Christian by Tim Stafford. The book appears to be out of print but I was able to get a copy through Amazon's used book catalog. I have now read it. I realize that most of my readers will not have read this and are unlikely to come across it without making a special effort. I am not trying to write a book report but I do hope to provide enough context that my responses make sense.

First of all, there was much in the book that I found useful. He encourages acceptance of much that is good about the sexual revolution. Specifically he commends the affirmation of creation. Sex is good, our bodies are good and it is good that this idea has taken hold. He finds that the end of the double standard is a triumph of justice. The third positive quality he finds is the sexual revolution is the idea that there is something wrong with the way we live our lives sexually (otherwise the revolution would not be necessary). He also points out that the sexual revolution has had its victims as well. In particular he singles out teenage girls and middle-aged divorced women. I can unite with all of this.

His underlying question is what does an authentic, honest and Christian sexuality look like? He recognizes that such an ethic is profoundly counter-cultural and would require sincere and difficult work and searching for a modern community to embody. He talks about how building such a community for young people would require their involvement in deciding where the limits are so that they could encourage and support each other in the face of considerable cultural and social pressure. I would actually go farther and say that the same is true for the adults as well. In that regard, I think that it is significant that NEYM has committed itself to exploring its own sexual ethics and seeing what it can say. I don't expect us to come to necessarily come out at the same place as he does, which is that the best place for sexual expression is inside a monogamous marriage and that unmarried people should be celibate. I do expect that the seeking and and the listening required will bear good fruit regardless of where it ends up.

I do have a problem with Tim Stafford's position on homosexuality. The problem I have is not one of theology, although I do disagree with his theology, it is one of standing. He recognizes that many gay men and lesbians feel that they have not chosen their sexual orientation. At another point he discusses therapies and ministries which try to change sexual orientation. He mentions studies which report success rates of changing sexual orientation of between 30 and 60%. Even if we ignore the controversies over the nature of these studies and what constitutes success, we are left with 40 to 70% of people who were unable to change their orientation. So the only option that Tim Stafford leaves for those gay men and lesbians who do not change their sexual orientation is to adopt a life of celibacy. He makes quite a case for celibacy as the example of Jesus. He points to Paul who was celibate and says that he wishes that all could be like him. He says that the celibate life frees one to serve God more fully. He advocates more efforts to encourage celibacy among heterosexuals. But this is not the life that Tim Stafford has chosen. He is married and has children. This is not the life that most Protestant Christians choose. Paul also said that it was better to marry than to burn with passion. At least Paul, when he advocated celibacy was advocating the path that he was following. It seems to me that many Christians who insist on lifelong celibacy for gay men and lesbians are advocating a path that they have been unwilling or unable to follow for themselves.

There is only one place in the Christian community where celibacy is celebrated and encouraged as a way of life and that is in the Roman Catholic priesthood and religious orders. But the Catholic Church is having difficulty recruiting priests and one of the commonly cited reasons is the vow of celibacy. At the same time there are those in the Catholic Church who are concerned with the number of gay men in the priesthood.

All of this brings to my mind Jesus talking about those who would burden others and not lift a finger to help them carry the burden, or of those who are fastidious about following the law and forget mercy and justice. (Mt 23:1-4; Mt 23:23-24; Lk 11:42-46) The conservative Christian reading of Paul to condemn homosexuality may be a consistent, logical, legalistic reading of the Bible but is it a compassionate one? In the real world, there are people who are sexually attracted to members of their own sex and there is nothing that they can do about that condition. Celibacy is often considered a spiritual gift. There is no evidence that I am aware of that would indicate that this gift is given to all homosexual men and lesbians. Rather than let them burn with passion, why not let them marry? Rather than trying to force a gift on them that may not be theirs, why not accept the gifts that the do have in the service of the church in love for the Giver?

Blessings to all,
Will T

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

October FUM General Board Meeting

This has been a while coming but I want to make at least a brief report on the last FUM General Board Meeting.

The FUM General Board met in October at Woolman Hill, which is a Quaker retreat center in Deerfield, Mass. On Thursday night, Friends from the area hosted a welcoming pot luck dinner. I was held up by rain and traffic and so the meal was well underway when I arrived. There was still an abundance of food and the dining room was packed. I think I found the last seat available. It seemed to me that there were as many people from New England as there were from the General Board. From conversations with Friends from the General Board, it was clear that they felt warmly welcomed by New England Yearly Meeting.

The Board Meeting was held in the old North Dartmouth Meetinghouse which had been disassembled, moved to Woolman Hill and carefully reconstructed. The room was full of tangible parts of our common Quaker tradition. Perhaps most importantly, the benches gave testimony to the skill of the 19'th century Quaker carpenters who were able to make a solid wooden bench that was comfortable to sit on for hours on end.

I was not able to attend the July meeting so this was the first General Board Meeting I had attended since the February meeting in Kenya. This was also the first GB meeting that I had attended where we were not looking at our identity issues and what was dividing us. Instead we were focused on doing the work of FUM. It was not that we were unaware of our differences or swept them under the rug. Our differences were on plain view during our reports on our various Yearly Meeting sessions but we also heard how God had worked among us this year.

In the Friday evening session we examined how we should move forward with Kaimosi Hospital. Several years ago, East Africa Yearly Meeting had asked FUM to take back control of the hospital, which we had done. The initial period of our agreement ends in January and we needed to decide what we would do. Until now, we had not done as much as we might have done and there were organizational problems on the ground in Kaimosi as well. There had been a Board of Directors with many influential and high powered Kenyan Quakers. They were mostly in Nairobi and so most of their meetings had been held there. As a result they had been unable to exercise the kind of direct and immediate oversight that would have been possible if they were based in Kaimosi. A more locally based board is being established. There were still problems with getting complete financial reports and the hospital director that we had met in February has resigned. As we were trying to sort all of this out, Chris McCandless, clerk of NEYM who was there, as he put it, as a dishwashing elf, asked if we could take some time to see what God wanted us to do. We settled into a very sweet period of worship. It became clear to us that were were being called to continue to work with the hospital and to provide the resources we have available to do this. I saw this as a sign that we can work together in spite of our theological differences.

On Saturday afternoon we heard a concern from Canada Yearly Meeting about the reports of the sermon preached at the February General Board meeting that had been heard by some as a threat against gay men, lesbians and their allies. The speaker had already circulated a clarification that this was not what he had meant. The Executive Committee was bringing a letter that they had drafted as a further response. The General Board discussed the letter and wanted it sent out as a letter from the General Board. This is the text of the letter:

Allegations that Friends United Meeting (FUM) is hostile to homosexuals and their allies, and that FUM condones physical or emotional violence against homosexuals and their allies, have been circulated among Friends and on the internet.

The General Board of FUM/Richmond, in session this 13th day 10th month of 2007, is clear that God loves all persons, and that hostility toward any person is not consistent with the Christian Gospel. In particular, this General Board condemns the threat of physical or emotional violence against any person.

I found comfort in this. I had certainly experienced the words used in Kenya as threatening. What had made this more painful was that no one had repudiated the statements at the time. I found healing in the fact that the issue was raised and discussed, in being able to talk about my experience and in the concern and tenderness of the all of the General Board members present. It was another moment of grace.

I still do not know what God has in store for Friends United Meeting but I do have a sense that we are being guided and held on our way.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Gospel Ministry

It has been a while since I have last posted. I have lately given myself over to one of those “frivolous recreations, sportings and gamings which are invented to pass away the precious time, and divert the mind from the witness of God in the heart...” Specifically, I have been spending a lot of time these last few weeks watching the Red Sox play baseball, and deriving great pleasure from it. This pleasure has come at the expense of sleep since the games have run so late here in Boston. The World Series is behind us and now I can return to more serious considerations.

For the Gospel is not a mere declaration of good things, being the "power of God unto salvation, to all those that believe" (Rom. 1:16). Though the outward declaration of the Gospel be taken sometimes for the Gospel; yet it is but figuratively and by a metonymy. For to speak properly, the Gospel is this inward power and life which preacheth glad tidings in the hearts of all men, offering salvation unto them and seeking to redeem them from their iniquities, and therefore it is said to be preached "in every creature under heaven": whereas there are many thousands of men and women to whom the outward gospel was never preached. (Prop 5&6, XXIII)

Friends often will use the phrase “Gospel ministry.” This often carries connotations of a Christian message but the Quaker meaning goes deeper than that. It is a ministry that has its beginning and its end in the inward power that teaches us. It has its beginning in the promptings of that life in the minister. It has its end in the receipt of the message in the heart of the hearer. In unprogrammed Quaker worship, where there is greater emphasis on the inspiration of the words than their form, the greatest power is in the faithfulness of the speaker. There is a message in the words but there is a greater message in the example we give of God lifting us up, for however brief a time, and empowering and enabling us to do this specific thing at this specific time.

Friends are often encouraged or exhorted “to let our lives speak.” This is often as part of getting us to take some sort of action. But if we are serious about following our Inner Guide, what we are really speaking is the degree of our faithfulness. If we are letting God guide us in everything, then everything we do will be a witness to how God works in our lives. The our lives will speak of the power of God and we will be witnesses to the inward Gospel.

Of course, our lives always speak. Sometimes the speak to our ability to live in God's Kingdom and be transformed. Sometimes they speak of the degree in which we are still captives in Babylon (or Red Sox Nation). Which gets us back to the nature of our recreations. Does even our fun give testimony to the power of God in our lives?