"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.
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.
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?
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).