Future LGBT Priests: Advocates for Christian orthodoxy

This article was originally published in the Sewanee Theological Review, a publication of the School of Theology at Sewanee: The University of the South. It has been republished here with permission.

Ian Markham and Paul Moberly Mazariegos

We do not claim to be professional sociologists. We concede right at the outset that the sample size is small, although please note the number of seminarians at our Episcopal seminaries is also small. We do recognize that ideally there should have been a wider “control” group of other seminarians for the purposes of comparison. What follows is an invitation into a reality that many seminary professors are sharing in anecdote after anecdote. It is intended to be a little mischievous—our stereotypes need to be challenged—and offered in a spirit of serious fun. With these riders out of the way, let the journey begin.

The journey of full inclusion of LGBT persons in the Episcopal Church has been a story of slow and steady progress. Integrity USA was founded in 1974 as a grassroots movement of gay people in congregations across the Episcopal Church. In 1976, the Episcopal Church passed a resolution making it clear that “homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church.”1 By the early 21st century, the Episcopal Church became the center of a global controversy with the election of Bishop Gene Robinson in New Hampshire as the first openly gay bishop. In 2009, the Episcopal Church made it clear that all the orders of ministry are open to all people, thereby inviting gay and lesbians to consider a vocation to Holy Orders in the Church. And in 2015, the Episcopal Church changed the canons of the church to make it explicit that the rite of marriage is available to all people—both heterosexual couples and homosexual couples.

One of the ironies of the slow narrative of the full inclusion of LGBT people in the Church is that both left and right in the Church see it as a triumph for progressive theology. On the one hand, liberals (among them, perhaps most famously, is the former Bishop of Newark, the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong) presented inclusion of LGBT persons in the Church as the climax in a battle against oppressive orthodox theology. For theologians such as Spong, theology needs to be freed from the oppressive propensities of orthodoxy. Spong reproduces a piece by Lee Jefferson on his website “A New Christianity for a New World.” It is a classic piece of progressive theology, which in the end calls into question the authority of the Holy Scriptures because of the very nature of the Bible itself. Jefferson writes, “If anything, this exercise questions whether we should develop stances based upon what the Bible ‘says.’ Simply put, the Bible is a complicated collection of documents that was never meant to ‘speak’ to our contemporary situation, but groups often speak through the lens of the Bible and lob textual grenades on issues like same-sex marriage.”2 The argument here is simple: given the Bible is a “collection of documents” it cannot speak in a coherent way about any issue. For Jefferson and Spong, the LGBT issues reflects a trajectory where the Church moves from ‘orthodoxy’ to a progressive liberalism where authority is not grounded in any God-given text (or of course a person, such as the Eternal Word made-flesh), but in human discernment through an analysis of our experience.

On the other hand, conservatives such as Philip Turner (writing in First Things) argues that when the House of Bishops gave its consent to the election of Bishop Gene Robinson to become the Bishop of New Hampshire, it was a triumph for a liberal theology that had been gathering strength since 1966. It was in 1966 that the Episcopal Church chose to avoid a ‘heresy trial’ over Bishop James Pike’s view of the Trinity. In that moment, argues Turner, doctrinal discipline was no longer required of a bishop. Even over the ordination of women (which Turner supports), misbehaving bishops forced the agenda. Turner sees a Church that is committed to the “espousal of enlightened culture and progressive cultural trends, the use of the episcopal office to further ‘prophetic causes,’ and the inability of governing structures and authorities of ECUSA to restrain independent action on the part of its bishops.”3 In short, Turner argues, “it seems obvious that ECUSA has by its actions confirmed a decision taken unconsciously some time ago to define its primary identity as a liberal (but liturgical) option within the spectrum of American Protestantism.”4 On this conclusion, Turner seems to agree completely with Spong. The full inclusion of LGBT people is a triumph for a liberal theology.
Yet this shared analysis by left and right ignores a crucial piece of data. What exactly do LGBT persons believe? With the recent advances in legal protections for LGBT people (including marriage equality), more visibility in popular culture, and a recognition of pastoral needs such as marriage at the level of General Convention, more and more LGBT people have sought Holy Orders. Increasing numbers of dioceses are sending LGBT postulants to seminary, more bishops are willing to ordain them, and more parishes are in a position to consider them in call processes. Just as the institution of the ordination of women led to a wave of women seeking ordination and going to seminary, increasing acceptance and inclusion of LGBT people has led to more LGBT persons entering seminary formation programs. As they arrive on seminary campuses, what sort of theological approaches and expectations are LGBT seminarians bringing with them? Perhaps unexpectedly, it seems that LGBT seminarians are frequently quite theologically orthodox—perhaps more so, even, at times, than their heterosexual peers. Contrary to the expectation of both Turner and Spong, there is strong evidence that the full inclusion of LGBT priests and deacons will not necessarily skew the Church to the left, but rather to the right. A voting block is arriving that wants to affirm the authority of Scripture, and uphold the historic Incarnational and Trinitarian faith of the Church.

Recently, we undertook a survey of current seminarians in the Episcopal Church who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). Organized by Paul Moberly (a married gay man, then a senior M.Div. student at Virginia Theological Seminary), we undertook to survey the majority of LGBT seminarians enrolled at Episcopal seminaries during the month of November 2016. The Episcopal seminaries are currently training approximately three hundred forty seminarians.5 As with women vocations in the 1970s, there was a “bubble” which was waiting for the ordination of women to be approved, there is some evidence that there is a comparable bubble of LGBT vocations. Though actual numbers are impossible to gather, we assumed that 20 percent of the vocations might be LGBT (a total of sixty-four persons). We reached out to these sixty-four people, through the LGBT societies at the different seminaries. We were pleased with a 45 percent response rate (some twenty-nine people participated in the survey).

The results of the survey

Our first discovery was that LGBT seminarians tend to come from a fairly conservative background. Almost half (48.28 percent) grew up in either an evangelical or Roman Catholic/Orthodox tradition. They had been formed in an environment where Biblical authority had been taken seriously. Often their upbringing was religiously demanding and intense; “coming out” processes for young people in conservative religious families is often a difficult experience, because one becomes vulnerable to rejection not only by one’s family, but also one’s faith community.

Second, we learned that the shape of their theology is creedal. There is, it seems, little sympathy for the Spong vision of a faith beyond theism;6 indeed 100 percent of our seminarians agreed with the proposition that “Christians traditionally affirm the reality of a Creator God.” The survey also revealed that 86.21 percent agreed with the proposition that “Christians traditionally affirm that God is omnipotent and omniscient, and is actively and providentially involved in history.” Additionally, 89.66 percent agreed with the proposition that “In the Nicene Creed, the Christian faith affirms that the one God is a Trinity,” 96.55 percent agreed with the proposition that “At the Council of Chalcedon, the Church taught that Jesus Christ was God Incarnate,” and 92.86 percent agreed with the proposition that “The creeds teach that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead, which has traditionally meant that the tomb was empty.” Even on the Virgin Birth, there was no one who disagreed with the doctrine, although some 32 percent did want to interpret the language in a certain way.7

Our LGBT seminarians are clearly grounded in the tradition. They are, to use Alasdair MacIntyre’s phrase, “traditionconstituted.”8 They see how the tradition connects together. They affirm the key doctrines that make up the Christian worldview. They will want to train their congregations in the faith, to seek formation in Scripture, to ground the spiritual life in prayer, and to faithfully administer the sacraments.

Third, we discovered that they have a high view of Biblical authority. To the question whether they agree that “the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation,” an overwhelming 86.21 percent answered in the affirmative. Those who did not answer “agree” still tended to have a high view of Scripture. For example, one respondent wrote, “They are the word of God as interpreted through human writers. They contain all things necessary for salvation but not necessarily everything.” Interestingly, no respondent made an issue of those texts in Scripture, which are traditionally used to condemn acts of same sex intimacy. Presumably, the 86.21 percent of respondents who affirmed the authority of Scripture have arrived at a settled mechanism of exegesis and interpretation that enables them to affirm the authority of Scripture while also affirming their own sexual identity.

Fourth, as these seminarians become priests, it is clear that in many respects they will be joining the advocates of orthodoxy in the Church. In response to a question about the Christian theology of other religions, over half of the respondents, identified as either “exclusivist or inclusivist” (with a further 13.79 percent wanting to challenge the categories). There was nervousness about open table (with over half—53.57 percent—being opposed to the change in the canons).9 And in response to Cardinal Newman’s view of the Eucharist (Tract 90), only 17.24 percent totally disagreed with Newman. They have a high view of the sacraments.

The Implications for the Episcopal Church

It is clear that Spong is going to be disappointed. His support for the full inclusion of LGBT people in the Church is not going to be progress his theological agenda. Having worked so hard to be included, LGBT seminarians want to be included in the robust, traditional faith. They would be sympathetic to that criticism of liberal theology made by H. Richard Niebuhr, when he wrote, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”10 Our LGBT seminarians are not interested in a vacuous liberal theology that has no authority, no God, no Christ, and no sacraments.

Instead many of these seminarians would be excellent priests in even in more conservative congregations. They will preach the Gospel about salvation in Christ; they will exegete Scripture faithfully; and they will take the Sacraments very seriously. As they participate in national debates in the Church, we should expect a theological seriousness which will push back on the older liberalism of 1980s that saw ‘inclusivity’ as an end in itself.

The result, we suspect, is that over the next thirty years, we will see a gradual shift in the Episcopal Church to a center right theological position. Naturally, our LGBT priests are not going to advocate for a return to heterosexual marriage as the norm, although they do want to affirm the fundamental characteristics of Christian marriage—mutual fidelity, care, and lifelong vows.

Furthermore, they will want to affirm the core doctrines of the Church, the need for salvation through Christ, and the dangers of open table. As a result, those on the right in the Church can expect some successes at General Convention; all thanks to their LGBT allies.
 
1 See The General Convention of the Episcopal Church, 1976. Resolution A069.
2 See Lee Jefferson, “What does the Bible actually say about gay marriage?” 30,
June 2011, as found at https://johnshelbyspong.com/news/what-does-the-bibleactually-
say-about-gay-marriage/ (accessed March 14, 2017).
3 Philip Turner, “The Episcopalian Preference,” in First Things, November 2003.
4 Ibid.
5 The precise number of seminarians is difficult to determine. We tried to
establish the number of postulants currently at the Episcopal seminaries in
November 2016. Our estimates arrived at the following numbers: VTS – 95;
Sewanee – 65; SSW – 50; GTS – 20; Nashota – 30; Trinity – 10; CDSP – 45; Bexley
Seabury – 15; EDS – 10.
6 See John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity must Change or Die?, (London: Harper
Collins 1999), p.46
7 Most of those who answered “other”—the 32 percent—wanted to stress that the
doctrine of the Virgin Birth was not important for the idea of the Incarnation.
One respondent wrote, “Some skepticism about “virgin”, but open to the idea;
suspend judgment in practice.” This was fairly typical.
8 Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (London: Duckworth 1988).
9 The Open Table question provoked the most comment. 46.43 percent did
disagree with the canonical requirement for Baptism before participating in the
Holy Eucharist. However, the vast majority of 25 percent of the ‘other’ answer
wanted to make pastoral allowance, but not change the actual canonical
requirement.
10 H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America, New edition,
(Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press 1988), p.193.
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