Thursday, January 11, 2007

Sex, Religion, and the Culture Wars

[Editor's Note: We have noted the newspaper ad published by Incarnation Episcopal Church. We have now obtained the text of that advertisement, and it is reprinted here.]

Sex, Religion, and the Culture Wars
An Open Letter to the Community

by the Rev. Matthew Lawrence
Rector, Incarnation Episcopal Church, Santa Rosa

Nothing sells newspapers faster than sex; so when St. John’s Episcopal Church in Petaluma decided last week to leave the Episcopal Church because we allow a gay man to serve as the Bishop of New Hampshire – that made headlines.

This letter is one local pastor’s attempt to shed some light on this overheated topic. I do not claim to speak for every member of my church – one thing we love about our church is its diversity of opinions. But as the senior pastor of one of our diocese’s largest parishes, I can say with confidence that this letter is consistent with the views of the majority of Episcopalians as well as our national church leadership.

Too Boring for the Culture Wars?
Sometimes the only Christians who receive media attention are those who make the most noise with their extreme views. Granted, they do provide entertainment value – extremists are fascinating. By contrast, most Episcopalians tend toward the boring mainstream.

For example, the vast majority of Episcopalians do not believe that the theory of evolution is an atheistic conspiracy designed to destroy the faith of their children. We are proud of our new Presiding Bishop, Katherine [sic] Jefferts Schiori, who happens to also be a microbiologist. We embrace science and reason as essential ingredients to faith.

Nor do we believe that the Bible was auto-dictated by means of an infallible process that cannot be questioned. When we read the Bible, we employ God’s gift of critical reasoning as well as faith. Those who believe that life would be meaningless if the Bible were found to be imperfect would do well, in our opinion, to summon a bit of existential courage.

As Episcopalians, we see with the eyes of faith, but we are not blind. By faith we find a reason to live beyond ourselves. We enjoy people who are different from us; we seek to serve the world’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens and to build a more just society. It breaks our heart when fellow Christians act as agents of oppression.

As an expression of our faith, my parish founded a day shelter for homeless and at-risk women and children called The Living Room. We devote enormous energy to ministries of compassion, fueled by an ancient Christian belief in a universe created and ordered by love. We believe that love and compassion draws us into the heart of the human-divine nexus. This is known as the way of the cross. For us it is the way of truth – but we tend to avoid telling others what their truth must be. This is known as respect, and is another reason why we don’t get much time on TV. We are boring in this way.

Homosexuals in the Church
Episcopalians do not tend to believe in homosexuality as a moral or psychological disorder. We accept the well-researched findings of boring experts like the American Psychiatric Association, which sees homosexuality as a “normal variant of human sexuality.” An important question, then, is not the gender of your partner but rather the quality of your intimate relationship. Are you committed, monogamous, and nurturing? Most of us have come to know homosexuals who are involved in healthy, life-giving and sustaining partnerships. We see that there is no essential difference between gay and straight: we all long for love; we all fail to love perfectly; and as we deepen our spiritual journey, we seek to live in forgiveness and harmony with the Source of love. Episcopalians humbly follow Jesus as One who shows us how this is done, and for that reason our worship centers around Christ.

And yet, a handful of Christian leaders lead the charge that would deprive homosexuals of their civil and human rights. Many who call themselves Christians routinely link homosexuality with pedophilia and incest. If we did not know better, we would dismiss this position as sadly ignorant; but if this is ignorance, it appears to be of the willful variety, and it is dangerous.

It is no coincidence that the few Episcopalians who have left our church must travel to Africa, Asia, and South America to find their support. Their sentiments do not fit well with an American constitution that protects the rights of minorities against a tyranny of the majority. Episcopalians tend to accept as a “given” the open-hearted sensibilities of American democracy. We are proud that Gerald Ford, eulogized last week for his rare decency, was also a very committed Episcopalian.

But still, across our land, the drumbeat of religious intolerance grows louder, as more and more extremists succeed in winning media attention for their views. When, we wonder, will it end?

Just over sixty years ago, a Christian pastor who was also a decorated Nazi officer witnessed the atrocities of an intolerant society. Ultimately, he found the courage to speak out, and was imprisoned in Dachau as a result. His words have been immortalized:

They came first for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up because I was a
Then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak up.
-- Martin Niemoller

Niemoller’s courage is not inspired by a complicated idea. It is simply the Golden Rule, affirmed by every major religion and most of the minor ones too: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We think that’s good advice. Let’s not meekly stand by while yet another movement of intolerance seeks to deprive good people of their common humanity.

This coming Sunday, January 14th, on the eve of Martin Luther King Day, we will hold a special candlelight evening gathering of prayers and songs with theme: “Seeking the courage to speak against oppression.” The service will be held at 7:00 pm, and will feature contemplative chant, silent meditation, and interfaith readings. If you agree with the sentiments expressed in this letter, we invite you and your loved ones to attend.

The following local Episcopal parishes support the direction taken by our church to affirm gays and lesbians as equal partners in the spiritual journey: St. Patrick’s in Kenwood; St. Andrew’s in Monte Rio; Holy Family in Rohnert Park; St. Stephen’s in Sebastopol; and Incarnation in Santa Rosa.

We welcome your comments to this letter. Please drop us a line at, or contact your nearest welcoming Episcopal Church.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pastor Martin Niemoeller was not a Nazi officer; he had been highly decorated for his service as a submarine commander in the German Navy during World War I.

John Henry

1/11/2007 10:48 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

John Henry -- And that changes the truth of his words how?...

1/11/2007 11:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It doesn't change the pastor's words or the philospohy behind them, but there truly was a significant difference between "a Nazi officer" and an officer of the Imperial German Navy.

2/02/2007 2:05 PM  

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