While the Anglican Church in North America’s recent statement on sexuality (SEXUALITY AND IDENTITY: A PASTORAL STATEMENT FROM THE COLLEGE OF BISHOPS) makes an attempt to acknowledge the concerns of sexual and gender minorities, the question under consideration (whether the College of Bishops can approve the use of sexual identity language) makes it clear that it is in fact the concerns of those who are not sexual minorities that are being centered.
Before I begin I want to acknowledge that I can see the effort to be pastoral; an effort that statements from other denominations and organizations have lacked in totality. The ACNA statement acknowledges sexual minorities in its midst already (but not gender minorities or those who struggle with gender dysphoria), and even frames the discussion as addressing them directly along with the wider Province, which no statement has done to date.
However, while it is clear from the statement that sexual minorities in the Church were consulted on the topic of identifying language, it is still those who are not sexual and gender minorities who are setting the tone and agenda for conversation. The fact that the statement acknowledges that the Church has more to do when it comes to care for sexual minorities, but doesn’t pivot to actually discuss those issues is where the problem lies.
The more pastorally urgent and theologically relevant discussions on what to do about teaching children about sexuality and gender in ways that both upholds the orthodox Christian sexual ethic and yet acknowledges that they themselves might not be straight or cis, teaching parents about parenting sexual minorities and gender minorities, about providing support for adult sexual and gender minorities who are pursuing celibacy in our congregations, and about how to care families led by sexual and gender minorities who have made vows to one another and are seeking to live according to the orthodox sexual ethic? Addressing LGBT homelessness and suicidality and the role of church has played in these issues? All of these are left to the side to discuss whether or not it’s okay for Christians committed to an orthodox sexual ethic can call themselves gay, bi, or trans…
And none of this is addressing what, for me, was the most troubling paragraph:
“We know that, according to some careful research, an individual’s attractions may move over time along a spectrum from same-sex attraction to other-sex attraction, or vice versa, in a minority of cases. Therefore, a common cultural perception that some types of sexual attractions are always innate and permanent can, we believe, lead to unnecessary confusion and pain for some, especially children and teenagers.”
That sexuality is fluid for some is an already recognized narrative within the LGBT+ community. While there may be some who argue that sexuality is unchanging for all, that is not actually a “common cultural perception” and has not been for decades. So, the use of the recognition of the fluidity of sexuality in this statement as a response to the culture, makes little sense, especially when it has already been stated that the discussions of bisexuality and gender dysphoria are beyond its scope (the populations that experience the most sexual fluidity are bisexual and trans persons).
Instead, sexual fluidity is used as the reason to preserve the very aspects of ex-gay theology that have been the most damaging: the expectation of possible future straightness for which sexual minorities must always strive and to which they must constrain their hopes and lives (and language).
As such, the stated concern for children feels false or at least hollow, because it is that expectation of possible future straightness above all others that has most hurt sexual and gender minority children in the church. Counter to what is emphasized in the statement, research shows that very few people ever experience complete orientation change, and none of it is attributed to actions on the part of the sexual minority. The constant questioning and limitations placed on sexual minority participation in the Church if that cannot be accomplished… it is this that is the most damaging, heaping the most shame on the heads of sexual and gender minority children in the Church. It is this mechanism of expectation of future straightness and silencing of language that would make sense of their experiences that isolates sexual and gender minority Believers from community, from discipleship, from sacred purpose, and from self-understanding.
This entire enterprise of identity in Christ alone is treated as if Believers live in a vacuum with no relationships, no ancestry, no society, no culture, no vocation, no past, and no future, and yet of course, this stringent negation of identity only applies to the Christians whose marginalized existence threatens the comfort of the comfortable (no one is being told to remove the common “Husband, Father, Pastor/Priest” line up from their twitter bios). THIS is what has caused “unnecessary confusion and pain for some, especially children and teenagers.” This continual placing heavy burdens on their shoulders, and no one lifting a finger to help them.
It should be understandable then why the effort to be pastoral while still addressing the wrong question is difficult to appreciate. Seeing our governing bodies caught up in questions about insider and outsider status, questions which at their core are about who the Church has to care for (and listen to) and who she can continue to push to the margins, rather than questions about how to care for ones in her midst who need it most, well… I’m sure we all know how Jesus would and did answer the question of “who is my neighbor?”
We are not absolved just because we acknowledge that the burden we’ve placed on a person is heavy, pray a blessing over the carrier, and pat them on the back as they go on their way. Either we must burden ourselves as well or make it our business to remove the burden from their necks.
Better yet, we should never hang them in the first place, since our Lord’s yoke is easy and His burden is light.
For more information on what it may look like to practically address the needs and concerns of sexual minorities in the Church, I would refer readers to Pieter Valk’s article in Christianity Today where he details four ways that pastors can encourage those they are leading to consider vocational singleness. I would also suggest the parishes seek training for families and ministers, both lay and ordained through Lead Them Home and Equip ministries.
For more information on what these burdens have looked like in the lives of sexual and gender minority Christians, I recommend Bridget Eileen Rivera’s forthcoming book Heavy Burdens, in which she discusses seven ways that LGBT+ Christians experience harm in the Church.