[Editor’s note: This open letter to The Episcopal Church USA Bishops from the Rev. Dr. Leander Harding, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Parish, Stamford, Conn., is reprinted by permission. The 2003 Episcopal decisions were to confirm the election of a noncelibate homosexual as bishop and to authorize a “local option” for parishes and dioceses to bless same sex relationships. Dr. Harding posted his letter on his web site: http://leanderharding.classicalanglican.net/
The questions that he raises in The Episcopal Church are relevant to the discussion of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America sexuality task force report released on January 13.
I am trying to understand what you are professing and teaching both explicitly and implicitly by your votes at the General Convention, by your public statements and by your participation in the consecration in New Hampshire.
1. It appears to me that you are teaching more than a strategy of pastoral care of homosexual persons by making exceptions to the church’s received norms. It appears to me that you are teaching that homosexuality is part of God’s original plan and order for the creation on the order of God’s creation of humanity as male and female and that this “gift of God” should be celebrated in the sacraments of the church.
This appears to me to entail a conviction that a number of empirical questions concerning homosexuality have been settled including the question of the developmental origins of homosexuality. You seem to be teaching that it is a settled matter that homosexuality is biologically innate and therefore irremediable. If this is so can you tell me the scientific authorities that you find persuasive? I cannot find a single credible scientific authority who believes that such a complex human behavior as homosexuality can be explained by a model of simple biological determinism.
2. What do you believe about bisexuality? Is it also an order of creation? If so what amendments in traditional faith and practice will be necessary to accommodate this understanding?
3. I hear you saying in defense of the position you have taken that contemporary society has an understanding of homosexual orientation that the original biblical authors did not have. Are there sources for this “new understanding” in addition to the self-reporting of homosexual experience? It appears to me that you are setting up experience in this sense as a sort of theological trump card, which trumps the Bible, the moral tradition of the church and even appeal to the natural and social sciences. This looks to me like a contemporary form of Gnosticism, a claim by an elite to a privileged form of knowledge not available to the uninitiated. Do I misunderstand your reliance on experience?
Many kinds of experience with regard to homosexuality are reported including the experience of those, including priests of this church, who have experienced the healing of homosexuality. On what basis do we decide how much authority to give to self reported experience? Such “testimony” has never been thought a basis for overturning the moral tradition of the church before in Anglicanism. Why do you think it should be given such an authoritative role now? Why do you privilege Gay “experience” over ex-Gay “experience”?
4. You dismiss the prohibition against homosexual acts in Leviticus as part of code of ritual purity, which is not binding on Christians. In Leviticus there are also prohibitions against adultery and incest. Are these to be dismissed as well? If not why?
5. With regard to the text in Romans 1, you teach that Paul is not condemning homosexual acts by homosexually oriented persons but homosexual acts by heterosexually oriented persons. In addition to begging the empirical question of the nature of same sex attraction, this exegesis is contested by a significant number of New Testament scholars, including scholars who support the changes in the church’s teaching you propose, as historically inaccurate. If you became convinced that your exegesis was wrong would you change your position or would your position be that these innovations must go forward even if it is clear that Paul had a sophisticated understanding of homosexuality and still condemned homoerotic sex acts? I feel that engaging in debate on particular texts is pointless because the rhetorical form of your argument is that you are asking me to be bound by an innovative and exegetically weak interpretation of a text which you would then abandon as not authoritative should the evidence go against your interpretation. Interpretation of Leviticus or Romans is not the heart of your argument in any event. Or have I got this wrong?
6. You say “the Holy Spirit is teaching the church a new thing.” Again this sounds like a contemporary form of Gnosticism, like the claim of Joseph Smith or Mary Baker Eddy that the church has misunderstood its scriptures until now and that a new key has been given (in this case contemporary Gay theory) which unlocks the hitherto hidden meaning of scriptures which is unavailable to the ordinary reader. There is a history of claims to new prophecy and new inspiration and it is not the history of the church catholic but of enthusiastic sects. How do the principles of interpretation you propose avoid becoming the latest claim to a privileged illuminism?
7. Some of you say that a sense of conscience and justice has motivated you to proceed with the blessing of a same sex relationships and the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals to the diaconate and priesthood in advance of canonical authorization to do so. Some of you appear to say that the request for reasons of conscience by parishes and clergy for alternative Episcopal oversight cannot be granted because such alternative oversight would violate the canons. Is this not a double standard and a claim that bishops need not be bound by the canons while parishes and parish clergy must abide by every jot and tittle?
8. You seem to hold up two models of decision making for the church. One model is a model of building consensus through dialogue and discussion. The other model is a model of “prophetic action” taken in the face of a lack of consensus. It appears that the model of consensus building is brought out in the wake of prophetic action when what is being discussed is made moot by action already taken and policy already established. Which of these models best describes your approach to these disputed questions within the life of our church now?