“Generous Spaciousness” by Wendy VanderWal-Gritter: A Review

generousspaciousness"Can we engage better across our differences on sexuality?” seems to be a growing plea and close to the heart of the proposed Facilitated Conversations post-Pilling , yet relatively little has been written about this area so far. That gap is now filled by Wendy VanderWal-Gritter’s Generous Spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church (Brazos Press). It is “decidedly not about the right answer or solution for the church on the theological topic of homosexuality” (26). Instead it presents a passionate, practical and challenging call to the church to find a better way forward. It needs to be widely read, honed by critique and its wisdom put into practice. What is its argument, its central strengths and the important questions it raises?

The book’s main themes

The book’s value and significance derives not only from its being well-written, wide-ranging and offering a new approach, but from its author having written from a decade of leadership in pastoral ministry and cultural engagement in Canada through New Direction Ministries. Her own journey (from within a Reformed evangelical tradition increasingly shaped by “emerging church” approaches) is vividly and honestly portrayed and reflected on theologically. It mirrors the interesting and controversial developments in the wider “ex-gay movement”, most famously in relation to Exodus for which she gave a keynote lecture in 2008 (leading to this good introduction to her developing thought quoted in the book’s introduction) and whose closure a year ago she comments on here.

At this journey’s heart, first undertaken here in the UK by Jeremy Marks and Courage, is a move away from “ex-gay ministry” to a stance which VanderWal-Gritter sets out as “generous spaciousness” (a wonderful evocative phrase which, like “inclusive” or “diverse” or “accepting”, has a rhetorical attraction – who wants to advocate “miserly narrowness”? – but carries the risk of numbing critical faculties). “Generous spaciousness” has two elements. First, she pleads for us to change our hearts and so change the negative tone of much discussion. This means learning humility, risk-taking which trusts in God, and respect for those with whom we disagree. It means self-examination and a rejection of fear as, (in order to learn more from, and see Christ at work in, others), we build relationships across divides. Second, she proposes (in a manner similar to the main Pilling Report) that whether or not Christians should form and support same-sex unions, including marriage is “a disputable matter”, as in the title of chapter 11 (which draws comparisons with women’s leadership and appeals to Romans 14).

The book’s strengths

This less-than-adequate shorthand summary will immediately make the book attractive to some but raise suspicions or worse among others. I hope all sides, including those in the latter group, will read and engage sympathetically with her book, for a number of reasons. First, her position is not simply a re-heating of an off-the-shelf revisionist stance. She has clearly been taken on a journey by Christ in which she has prayerfully and self-critically reflected on her experience to discern the Spirit’s work. She recounts that in a way from which everyone, whatever their views, can learn much. Second, her many examples of the experience of gay Christians, across a range of theological views and patterns of life, ring true and need to be heard and learned from by the wider church. Third, her specific critiques of aspects of evangelical approaches to sexual minorities and wider evangelical culture are those of a sympathetic friend, generally embodying generosity and graciousness. Fourth, the book is packed full of pastoral wisdom and practical counsel about Christian discipleship and leadership. This is especially so in its biographical opening chapters and its concluding chapters offering words to pastors and leaders, gay Christians and would-be gay advocates. The wisdom contained here is not only vital for “responding to gay Christians in the church” but for much wider purposes. Fifth, her vision will attract many, including evangelicals. It should neither be ignored nor dismissed but carefully and prayerfully weighed and tested: if this is not the way forward then why not and what is a better way?

I need time for further reflection and re-reading before gaining clarity on my response to that question. There are three main areas where I have doubts or concerns about the book (a shorter version of this appears as KLICE Comment).

Differences in context

First, the book’s rooting in personal experience is also one of its limitations. It very clearly arises out of a North American evangelical context. This – in both its wider culture and its emphasis on healing and “ex-gay ministry” – has its parallels in Britain but is not, thankfully, as dominant. Although VanderWal-Gritter avoids bitterness and repudiation of her roots, there is inevitably an element of reaction against certain negative features of her journey which may be unjustifiable and unwise in other contexts. Despite protestations, it does at times appear that, having rejected the imposition of an excessively narrow absolutist approach and begun to question and explore, she has embraced agnosticism as a virtue and advocates a generosity which is in danger of becoming a wholly non-directive pastoral approach, which uncritically affirms all views, even if contradictory, as acceptable if they are conscientiously reached by Christians in whom we can see the fruit of the Spirit.

Challenging content

There are a number of areas where her discussion has opened up both old and new questions and challenges I want to keep exploring further. These include:

  • Given we need to avoid reducing sexuality to what we do with our genitals and have a more holistic view, how do we avoid sexuality being made equivalent simply to relationality without reference to our material bodies and their sexual differentiation (chapter 7)?
  • What areas in the sexuality debates are, in the light of Scripture, rightly to be approached as disputable and handled along the lines of Romans 14 and what does it mean to respect the conscience of Christians who come to different conclusions from me (chapter 11)?
  • How do we avoid the error of moving from acknowledging that something is disputed among bona fide Christians to therefore concluding that it ought to be classed as disputable (chapter 11)?
  • How can we develop an approach which is based on a theological understanding of hospitality that is distinct from tolerance and how can “non-affirming” churches show “generous spaciousness” with integrity (chapter 12)?
  • If I want to be “living with my gay friends in the pursuit of faithful discipleship” does that mean saying less or even nothing much about “the scriptural formula for what faithful discipleship for gay people is” (at least if I hold a traditional view)? (conclusion, p 262).

In terms of the central idea of “generous spaciousness” I think my doubts and concerns at this stage focus on the fact that the two elements of this identified earlier are not clearly distinguished within her account. I am personally all for the first of these - we need a significantly changed tone of discussion. This is what she tends to emphasise: the need for this as a posture which can and should be embraced whatever one’s position. The second sense, however, is in effect not a posture but a position in its own right: Scripture is sufficiently unclear that, for some gay and lesbian Christians, faithful discipleship may be rightly discerned to take the form of a quasi-marital sexual relationship with someone of the same sex and that this vocation needs to be honoured and respected by the church as part of its legitimate and faithful diversity.

The difference can perhaps be illustrated by reference to the recent Evangelical Alliance affirmations on homosexuality. The final affirmation seeks to express a generous spaciousness in terms of posture: “We encourage evangelical congregations to welcome and accept sexually active lesbians and gay men... We urge gentleness, patience and ongoing pastoral care”. It does not do so however in terms of position for it qualifies the posture by saying “they should do so in the expectation that they, like all of us who are living outside God's purposes, will come in due course to see the need to be transformed and live in accordance with biblical revelation and orthodox church teaching”. This is a position which VanderWal-Gritter herself no longer appears to hold (or does she perhaps just now hold it but in a very different way because of her posture of generous spaciousness?).

The difficulty is that I did not feel the book presented a persuasive or even a particularly substantive argument for the position rather than the posture. The chapters (particularly 9-11) which more directly addressed this were those I found the weakest. This leaves a number of important questions hanging:

  • What is the relationship between posture and position, both in theory and practice? Does consistent taking of the posture inevitably lead to taking of the position?
  • Is “generous spaciousness” a position taken by someone when they cannot admit in a traditionalist context that they have, in reality, become revisionist? There might be an analogy here with the way some people view identifying as bi-sexual before coming out as gay or lesbian.
  • Or is “generous spaciousness” – again with parallels to bisexuality – a position which is clearly distinct from a revisionist position, with its own particular characteristics, raising questions we have missed in our simplistic polarisation and perhaps also more common than we recognise or we allow in discussions driven by our standard dichotomised categories?
  • How does “generous spaciousness” take seriously the warning of Paul in 1 Cor 5.6 that giving space to sexual immorality is dangerous because “a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough”?       How, for example, would “generous spaciousness” respond to those gay Christians – such as Malcolm Johnson in “Diary of a Gay Priest” – who advocate same-sex unions which are not sexually exclusive?
  • The focus in the book is on personal relationships and local congregations and it generally steers clear of what the implications of its “generous spaciousness” are for denominational policy on controversial questions? There is a clear need for the posture but what might that mean for those of different established positions in terms of policy on liturgies and requirements for ordination? Do we need simply to commit to the posture and then trust the Spirit to work through the process of conversation to enable consensus on a policy position? Does the position of disputability entail particular policies? Here on p198 she says that “when it comes to the question of leadership in a congregation where there are brothers and sisters who (on the basis of conscience and conviction) cannot accept covenanted gay relationships...those who affirm such relationships extend sacrificial love as they willingly choose to defer to the needs of those who do not” but the implications of this in a divided, hierarchical denomination remains unclear.

Considering consequences

One interesting comment is that “we reframe this question of whether gay relationships are a disputable matter just a bit. I believe the answer ought to be determined by those who must make a decision about entering one” (p 183). While not accepting the implication that the rest of the church should be silenced, this rightly puts those for whom this is an existential question at the centre of discussions. While clearly there are differences among gay Christians, my experience is that those who hold to traditional teaching, connected with groups such as Living Out and TfT, are overwhelmingly usually very clear that they do not see this as disputable. Of course there are and should be “friendships between gay Christians with differing beliefs in which space is given to allow the other to live according to one’s conscience” (p 185) and some congregations will include a diversity of views and patterns of life among their gay members. The reality, however, is that most groups of gay Christians are not mixed. VanderWal-Gritter acknowledges in an endnote that the Gay Christian Network, which shaped her journey and welcomes a range of views, has only “a small minority” committed to a traditional (what they call side B) view, with most believing God affirms committed same-sex relationships or being unsure. I believe that Courage, once it changed its stance (and now its successor, Two:23), developed a similar strong weighting while I am unclear as to the stance and composition of the important recently launched Diverse Church which may well represent an attempt to embody the vision of this book.

The difficulty is that the traditional Christian teaching is that in relation to sexual relationships this is a matter of ethical obedience to the good will of God as revealed in Scripture. In contrast, “generous spaciousness” as a position means accepting the view that God’s will in this area has not been revealed (or at least clearly revealed) in Scripture such that we are called to obey it. Faithful discipleship in this area is therefore a matter of Spirit-led discernment to embrace a personal vocation which will vary from one person to another.   Particularly in a wider culture which does not understand or even dismisses the traditional Christian view, there is a real danger that one consequence of churches accepting this understanding is that those gay Christians committed to the traditional teaching will feel even more marginalised and abandoned by fellow Christians rather than sharing in the blessings promised by generous spaciousness. Is there a form of generous spaciousness as a position that can embrace them alongside those who seek or enter partnerships?

Conclusion

This book perhaps does for evangelicals seeking to respond to gay Christians in the Church what Andrew Marin’s Love is an Orientation (which I reviewed here) did for mission and evangelism to the LGBT community. Like that book it is is an exciting, unsettling, in many ways prophetic, contribution which risks being either uncritically embraced or lumped together with recent arguments from Steve Chalke and Matthew Vines in favour of accepting same-sex relationships (and then treated simply as part of a dangerous liberal tendency in certain evangelical circles). Either response would be a major loss and error. Better to respond to the book by adopting its own posture of generous spaciousness, honestly acknowledging and reflecting on where and why it makes us uncomfortable, taking care “not to quench the Spirit but to test all things, holding on to what is good and rejecting every kind of evil” (1 Thess 5:19-22).

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7 Responses to “Generous Spaciousness” by Wendy VanderWal-Gritter: A Review

  1. Bowman Walton January 9, 2015 at 9:05 pm #

    Writing in First Things, George Weigel suspects that, at least for Roman Catholics, the most important event of 2014 was the emergence at the Synod of Bishops of an African testimony on marriage that is at once traditionalist and liberationist.

    http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/01/africas-catholic-moment

  2. Jane Newsham July 30, 2014 at 9:19 am #

    Thank you, Andrew, for introducing us to this book. I have ordered a copy but in the meantime, I dare to comment:
    Might “generous spaciousness” encourage:
    • an opportunity to repair the damage done by Christianity’s historical response to same-sex couples – exclusion, even persecution, over millennia, and even in some parts of the world today?
    • a more mature Christian response in the ways in which we treat same-sex couples, modelling a respectful and holistic approach (a wider focus than just their sexuality)?
    • an attempt to avoid even the appearance of discrimination as we apply ourselves to mission in our own communities (which comprise both straight and gay people)?
    We have seen another example of ‘generous spaciousness’ recently in the House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage, particularly points 15,16 and 18: http://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2014/02/house-of-bishops-pastoral-guidance-on-same-sex-marriage.aspx
    “15. In Issues in Human Sexuality the House affirmed that, while the same standards of conduct applied to all, the Church of England should not exclude from its fellowship those lay people of gay or lesbian orientation who, in conscience, were unable to accept that a life of sexual abstinence was required of them and who, instead, chose to enter into a faithful, committed sexually active relationship. 16. Consistent with that, we said in our 2005 pastoral statement that lay people who had registered civil partnerships ought not to be asked to give assurances about the nature of their relationship before being admitted to baptism, confirmation and holy communion, or being welcomed into the life of the local worshiping community more generally.
    18. We recognise the many reasons why couples wish their relationships to have a formal status. These include the joys of exclusive commitment and also extend to the importance of legal recognition of the relationship. To that end, civil partnership continues to be available for same sex couples. Those same sex couples who choose to marry should be welcomed into the life of the worshiping community and not be subjected to questioning about their lifestyle.”
    So, under the House of Bishops’ pastoral guidance, we acknowledge that “there are many reasons why couples wish their relationships to have a formal status” and we cease to have an expectation that same-sex married couples “will come in due course to see the need to be transformed and live in accordance with biblical revelation and orthodox church teaching” (or at least, their lives may be transformed but not in the ways ‘expected’ by the Evangelical Alliance, these married couples may feel it imperative to give witness to the Holy Spirit’s calling to marriage, and in time, this particular church teaching may come under review). The guidance also discourages questioning about (civil partnered and) same-sex married couples’ private lives and so, in fact, we may never know details of any “habitual homoerotic sexual activity” that may or may not occur within them.
    For those Church of England churches whose leadership teams currently adhere to the Evangelical Alliance’s policy, this might pose a dilemma – or differences of opinion, some members feeling it right in our rapidly changing cultural climate to adopt the House of Bishops’ guidance on our pastoral response to same-sex couples (especially married couples) and some members who wish to continue to adhere to the Evangelical Alliance’s Ten Affirmations policy.
    However, the Pastoral Guidance is exactly that – just guidance. Church leadership team members are allowed the freedom of conscience and choice to decide for themselves if they wish to follow these particular recommendations or not.
    It’s almost redundant for me to say that I look forward to the day when a similar freedom of conscience and choice is offered to our clergy who wish to enter into marriage with a same-sex partner – but I appreciate that we’re not quite there yet.

    • Bowman Walton July 31, 2014 at 9:25 pm #

      “an opportunity to repair the damage done by Christianity’s historical response to same-sex couples – exclusion, even persecution, over millennia…”

      Welcome back, Jane.

      Is there an historical work on the above that would show Christianity officially responding to same-sex couples in each century and province through the past two millennia? Homosexual acts are one thing, but identities, relations, and official responses to them are something else.

      Evidence of countable couples from that broad distribution of times and places would raise somewhat the plausibility of the belief that the formation of same-sex couples is not dependent on social factors. As you know, the question how biological, developmental, and social factors converge to enable (or promote or cause) same-sex attraction still awaits an evidence-based answer. Hence some speculate that, theoretically, homosexuality could again recede from view as these factors reconfigure over time.

      And it would be interesting to see new sources on the official Church response to anything same-sex– thoughts, acts, milieus, orientation, couples. Those I have seen treat it as a personal vice and nothing more until relatively recently.

      For a concrete instance, a Puritan at Harvard– Michael Wigglesworth– recorded in his coded journal that he was greatly disturbed by his thoughts about his male students. After his death, his eulogist Cotton Mather cracked the code, read the journals, and praised Wigglesworth to the congregation for his love of his students. Mather’s encyclopedic knowledge about all manner of sin is not in doubt, but he clearly had no idea what Wigglesworth had actually recorded, and Wigglesworth himself had no category of ‘orientation’ to explain what he felt. But this was before ‘the discovery of sex’ in the C18. Those in future centuries may find our own categories just as deficient, of course.

      Hope that you are enjoying a glorious summer!

      • Jane Newsham August 14, 2014 at 12:01 am #

        Dear Bowman, thank you for your comment and your welcome. Hoping you too are enjoying our good weather.
        In response to your comment – if only the case of same-sex couples committing to marriage were seen as a matter of ‘personal vice’ (much like cigarette smoking or getting tattooed), then we might not find ourselves and our churches engaged in the intense, protracted, prickly global debate we see unfolding in our generation. Personally, I have sat through countless sermons instructing me that ‘practicing homosexuals and feminists’ are responsible for our nation’s moral decay (1980s), I heard an Anglican minister preach from the pulpit that ‘gay men deserve to die of AIDS’ (1993) and even only last year, a denominational church leader opposed the legislation to extend marriage to same-sex couples not only on the grounds that it would weaken the meaning of marriage but that it would indeed weaken society.. Even if this doesn’t feel at all persecutory at the perpetrators’ end, I dare to suggest that it feels something akin to that on the receiving end.
        It’s true that we have come some way since the days of James Pratt and John Smith (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Pratt_and_John_Smith) but for centuries church and state held identical views on homosexuality – and so no openly gay couples in any of our churches, those in long-standing partnerships would attend different churches (or if the same church, always arrived separately, sat separately and left separately in order not to cause the congregations any discomfort – but always living in fear of discovery). How many people over how many years, have lived with the attendant guilt, shame and fear even while committing to lifelong discipleship nonetheless. In our own day, how many young people are leaving our churches, disheartened by what they see as sexist, homophobic or heterosexist views. In today’s climate, gay people having the temerity / integrity to live openly in committed relationships are affirmed by society but continue to face discrimination in some of our churches (but surely it serves God’s purposes that in our churches we treat straight and gay people in identical ways in order that all people might have equal access to come to faith?). Finally, it would take a lot to convince me that the punitive legislation in some African countries in order to keep their societies gay-free is not felt as persecution by those who have the misfortune to live under it.

        • Bowman Walton August 15, 2014 at 6:26 am #

          Yes, Jane, New England never has better weather than it has tonight.

          And here too, expectations for intimate relationships are far from what they were three and a half centuries ago. Your post on that is helpfully concrete and evenhanded.

          And precise. The sense of being persecuted that you mention does the worst harm that we see now– crises of sexual orientation are a leading risk factor for adolescent suicide in my country, and much bullying of school-aged children is homophobic. This is really urgent.

          It might be helpful to draw better lines between those expressions of the “conserving” positions that do in fact conserve something worthwhile, and those that promote further and quite harmful effects. We might also counsel against some “including” hyperbole about those “conserving” positions (and those who hold them) that induce just as much despair.

          Do you think that this is something that we can do now? It seems to me that we can and should. Which is to say that whilst it might be nice to have the last churchly word on all matters intimate, we need not and should not wait for that to act against a threat to life.

  3. Roger Harper June 12, 2014 at 8:57 am #

    Thank you, Andrew, for highlighting and taking seriously this personal presentation of a case for deeming gay marriage something about which we Christians, including Evangelicals, can legitimately disagree. Thank you too for your perceptive and important questions.

    What light does Scripture throw on whether or not gay marriage is ‘disputable?’ VanderWal-Gritter’s presentation seems to focus more on experience (especially the experience of gay Christians) and the inner witness of the Spirit, than on Scripture. How might a denomination, especially one which tries to base decisions on Scripture, work out deeming gay marriage ‘disputable?’

    I have given some thought to these questions and written about them at http://gaymarriagemaybe.wordpress.com I hope that here you will find the kind of Scriptural exposition that is lacking in VanderWal-Gritter’s book. Starting from careful attention to the words of Jesus (as opposed to starting from Paul and Leviticus) is important because disciples are to listen to Jesus, God’s Son, before listening to Moses and Elijah. Guided by this Biblical ‘red letter hermeneutic,’ we can indeed see that ‘God’s will in this area has not been revealed (or at least clearly revealed) in Scripture such that we are called to obey it.’ VanderWal-Gritter’s enthusiasm for ‘generous spaciousness’ regarding gay marriage, can be argued from the Bible.

    Have you also seen Brian Maclaren’s responses this week to questions on Rachel Held Evans’ blog? His thoughts about how a denomination might avoid schism over gay marriage are perceptive and wise, worth a review or a comment.

  4. Bowman Walton June 11, 2014 at 9:22 am #

    Thank you, as always Andrew, for prodding us away from miserly narrowness toward measured capaciousness. This sounds like a useful book.

    Must the posture/position problem arise if the generous ones can explain what it is that they consider to be morally (un)certain and to whom? The posture becomes the position when acknowledgement of the few known unknowns encourage the impression that nothing is known at all.

    How does a synodical church acknowledge the possibility that ‘invincible ignorance’ is pervasive?

    This may be the place to link to the most recent Anvil.

    http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/anv.2014.30.issue-1/issue-files/anv.2014.30.issue-1.xml

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