Friday, February 29, 2008

"Queering" the church registry

One of Fort Worth's most prominent Baptist churches engaged in an anti-Solomon decision last week, deciding to cut the baby in half by not printing any family photos in its directory rather than printing those of homosexual couples. From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (HT to Mark):
FORT WORTH -- Broadway Baptist Church voted Sunday to publish a 125th anniversary directory without individual or family portraits after some members of the congregation opposed allowing gay couples' portraits to appear in the publication.
In a compromise recommended by the church's board of deacons, the directory will show members in candid snapshots of small and large groups. The group pictures will identify people by name, and every effort will be made to include all of the church's members.
Church leaders said this approach provides the photographs needed by members to identify each other and follows church bylaws to treat all members equally. It also avoids making any statement regarding Scriptural interpretations regarding homosexuality.
The headline writer said "Neither side wins on gay couples in directory." Which rather presupposes a lot, in my opinion -- namely that there are in fact "two sides." And I wonder (actually, I don't wonder) why the Star-Telegram writer laid the blame for the decision on the theological conservatives, saying the decision was made "after some members of the congregation opposed allowing gay couples' portraits to appear in the publication" rather than "after some gay couples demanded to have their portraits appear in the publication."

There's a couple of other things I'm curious about.

First of all, what has these gay couples' self-presentation been? The Star-Telegram report reads as if the three pairs in question already had been attending the church openly and "as a couple." On the assumption that this is correct (I grant a secular media outlet is unreliable on the point), then I think the gay couples have a legitimate request. And Broadway Baptist made its own bed long ago.

If one has been attending a church under a certain public persona and holding yourself out in a certain way, I find it hard to see why this public persona doesn't belong in the yearbook. You can't really object to a photo, as one person in this Star-Telegram story does, on "having to explain it to the kids" grounds. Not if those children are already seeing a same-sex couple at Sunday services, presumably holding hands or other PDAs of the kind considered acceptable for married-or-dating couples. And how would the so-called compromise -- candid snapshots that attempt to cover everyone -- fix that. Are the children not supposed to realize that Adam and Steve were together at all the church picnic photos too? And even if the two are in a portrait-type situation, as the gays wanted, couldn't a parent just as convincingly say to a curious girl [boy] "it's like when you and your sister [brother] had your photo taken together."

As it happens, I know two same-sex-attracted men who live together and go to the same parish. They are ex-lovers but are now Catholics, sleeping in separate bedrooms and committed to chastity, which they have broken once in more than a decade. Never would they either commit a PDA that might scandalize others nor (and here's where I'm guessing) would they insist on being a couple in the parish directory. They are both in it as individuals.

But second, in what meaningful sense is this decision, whatever one thinks of it in the sense of "agree-disagree" or "good-bad," not a "statement about Scriptural interpretations regarding homosexuality," which the Star-Telegram report says it was crafted not to be. Even a decision not to say something says something -- namely that this congregation can't say anything about the morality of homosexuality and therefore this very public matter is one of religious liberty. Or, to use the formulation of St. Augustine, who knew a thing or two about sexual immorality, that homosexuality is one of those "dubiis" in which there should be "libertas." Which is of course a substantive teaching -- that homosexuality is one of those "doubtful things" and is not one of those "necessariis" that call for "unitas." Which does, of course, marginalize and exclude those who believe sexual conduct is a "necessary thing" that requires "unity."

Thus this quarrel underlines something I'm confident I've said more than once. "What a group of people are disputing and why" is a far more telling fact about the world than "how that dispute is decided substantively."

The fact that any Baptist church is even debating whether to put pictures of openly-gay couples in its yearbook tells us how far the gay agenda has wormed its way into the body of Christ. That they decided not to may be a good or bad thing. But more revealing than even the fact of a debate is that the only way the church could "refuse" was not "just say no" but a "compromise" on having no family photos at all. And more revealing still is the fact that the church called in "New Testament experts."
"The New Testament experts [sic] made it clear that thoughtful, intelligent Christians disagree on what the Bible says about homosexuality," [Senior Pastor Brett Younger] said. "Many realized that Christians can hold different opinions on this without letting it divide the church."
Not really. Or rather, there is no disagreement among thoughtful intelligent Christians who hold that the Bible is normative and inspired about what it says on homosexuality. The only way a thoughtful, intelligent person can hold that the Bible does not condemn homosexual acts is by starting from the presupposed worldview (i.e., before any actual engagement with the text) that the Bible is not normative and is not inspired — that it is merely the product of men and thus can be superceded absolutely ("there is no binding magisterium" also has to be smuggled in somewhere or thus inferred).

Lest I come across as an anti-intellectual, let me say that there is nothing wrong with these two (or three) worldview premises for certain purposes, primarily scholarly ones. That the Bible is a historical text written by men is, in a certain sense, undeniable and for some historical, sociological or philological work, whether it's the inspired word of God binding for all time and what that means¹ is a question that can be set aside. But ... that does not in any way shape or form make such scholars "experts" in any normative sense or especially competent to testify on doctrine, either on faith or morals. Their expertise explicitly excludes them from such a self-presentation.

So the question becomes, can there be a religion that includes people who do believe the Bible inspired and binding and those who do not. One guess what I think, but the fact is that this Fort Worth congregation has no way to answer that question definitively, in no small part because of the congregationalist structure that is a Baptist pillar. Instead, they worship the One True god ... Diversity:
"This has been a difficult decision for our congregation," said Kathy Madeja, chairman of the deacon board. "Our members continue to have diverse opinions, but we are still a church family and we will continue to struggle with how to honor our diversity," she said. ... (CM: how about honoring God??)
"Broadway will continue as a congregation in which diversity is embraced," [Senior Pastor Brett Younger] said. (CM: how about embracing the Cross??)
And ultimately this is why Episcopalians are in a necessary internal schism over Bishop Gene Robinson. It's not the sin of sodomy per se, but the questions of biblical authority. Robinson's consecration and the defenses of it proved to conservatives that liberal "wetness" went all the way down, with no limits. The two groups do not worship the same god and thus do not belong in the same church, as St. Paul taught. Schism simply objectively was and the so-called acts of schism in the last few years by individual parishes and dioceses in the US and by the African and South American bishops are mere recognitions of that fact.

The Episcopalians may be in the infirmary right now (actually hospice care, I'd say), but this Fort Worth church shows that the rest of mainline Protestantism is starting to call in sick as well.
¹ However that formulation shakes out in the details, about which there are legitimately held differences among Christians and Christian bodies.


A Simple Sinner said...

"Many realized that Christians can hold different opinions on this without letting it divide the church."

Not really...

Not to be contentious as I readily agree with you 99.9% of the the post... But I would contend that for Baptists of this stripe (probably not SBC) if they are content to hang their jacket on the peg of "Saved by grace alone through faith alone" & "once saved always saved" well it stands to reason that at some point some congregations are going to capitulate on this matter.

As you yourself go on to essentially note "something's gotta give."

Essentially flawed theology is always going to beget more of the same.

Mark Adams said...

But I would contend that for Baptists of this stripe (probably not SBC)

Broadway is listed at a member of the Southern Baptist Convention on the SBC's site.

On their own site, Broadway says, "While it carries the name Baptist and is affiliated with several Baptist organizations, Broadway is not subservient to any state or national convention or organization."

CourageMan said...

On their own site, Broadway says, "While it carries the name Baptist and is affiliated with several Baptist organizations, Broadway is not subservient to any state or national convention or organization."

Wouldn't every Baptist church, even the most conservative SBC type, say something like that though? It's not uncommon even to have some Baptist churches not even mention their national affiliation on their Web sites.

I know there's been some centralization of power in the SBC over the past 40 years, and some have accused it of trying to make of itself a magisterium. But that's surely strictly a relative reaction (like US liberals crying "fascism" at every strengthening of government power). The habits, reflexes and self-image of centuries die hard.

Mephibosheth said...

As a Baptist seminarian in Ft Worth in the 90s, I attended services at Broadway more than once. If they are averaging 600 in worship, they are in deep decline.

I think your thoughts on the public persona of openly gay Christians are right on. My experience has been that openly gay Southern Baptists (and I know more than one) are openly gay in public, but not at church. They compromise on that issue because they know engaging in PDA, etc on Sunday morning would be too controversial, but at the same time they can't bring themselves to leave the specific traditions of their childhood or the programming (music, etc) that drew them there in the first place.

I asked one gay SBC member why he didn't find a "gay church" to attend (there are several in our town). He said, "I tried that, they're all too gay and too liturgical."

Brandon said...

Great post, CourageMan. I think I may just become a regular reader. :)

Bill said...

I liked your post - seemed very balanced