Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Order and Orders.

I wrote this in a comment over at The Church Mouse Blog, but I think it's worth repeating here.

Mouse writes that both Ruth Gledhill, who writes for the Times, Michael Perham, Bishop of Gloucester, have essentially stated that the debate around sexuality and ordination is essentially a second order issue. I have to admit I have some sympathy for this viewpoint. I get tired of all the debate, all the wrangling. I feel something like I do about discussions about the Anglican Communion: all this dithering is fine if you have the time and the money for it, but I've said before and I'll say again that the rest of us have work to do. It's very easy to jump from that to "this is not a first order issue."

It's not a first order issue for anyone who has been ordained or consecrated without controversy and has never had to worry about whether someone else will question their ministry because of their sexuality.

It's not a first order issue for anyone employed by the church who doesn't feel they have to hide or disguise or even break off a close relationship (not necessarily a sexual one) because of what others in the church might think and the effect on their livelihood.

It's not a first order issue for those who don't have to question whether their time and gifts as volunteers will be accepted and appreciated, those who don't have to "come out" to anyone, those who don't have to constantly answer questions from their friends about why they are religious if their religion (or at least its bureaucratic structure) is so anti-queer.

This is not a first order issue for those who have the privilege to ignore it.

I cannot tell my brilliantly gifted organist friend, made unwelcome for not fitting into a heteronormative mould after being a church musician since the age of six, that her pain at such a cruel rejection is not a first order issue. I cannot tell my spiritually astute friend who is not pursuing a vocation to ordained ministry because he is bisexual and feels the barriers would be insurmountable that this denial of his gifts is not a first order issue. I cannot tell my friend who would love to get involved in all sorts of outreach work, faith-based or not, that it is not a first order issue that the C of E is not a safe space for her. I cannot tell my friends that it is somehow okay for the church to behave this way as long as it does some other good in the world, or that I am not afraid for my own livelihood should I be deemed unacceptable in some way unrelated to my ability to do my work. I'm quite serious about that last point: I live with a man who is not my husband, I'm quite open about it, and I'm well aware that a number of years ago that would have meant I'd be considered completely unsuitable as organist/choirmaster. As long there is not full inclusion, we are in the tricky business of drawing lines in the sand, and it is only by God's grace that I am currently on the "acceptable" side of the line.

That doesn't mean I think the other work of the church is unimportant. That doesn't mean I think we should not be striving to heal the sick, comfort the mourning, bind up the brokehnhearted and proclaim liberty to those who are captive. Of course we must do these things, we must care for the widow and the orphan, we must alleviate poverty. But excluding people from any level of ministry based on their gender or sexuality seems to me to be at direct odds with that.

The basic underlying message of Christianity, as far as I can tell, is that God is loving and God is merciful; it will always be a first order issue when the church fails to act like it.


Wormwood's Doxy said...

Excellent commentary, Song. Thanks.

Song in my Heart said...

Thanks, Doxy.

SEEKER said...

Point well made. Thank you.

UKViewer said...


Wonderful commentary on the double standards applied to so much of what goes on and the unstated discrimination which can effect people who offer their gifts so painfully.

I cannot conceive why it is this way and feel that it should never be my place to judge others, especially having been through a divorce, which in some places might disqualify me from what I feel called to be.

Life in Christ is about loving others as Jesus loved us - unstintingly, without prejudice and in an open hearted way. Oh how I hope that that day will come.

it's margaret said...

It is a first order thang. Because equality and justice are a Gospel imperative....

and, my wv: ovenisms.
so, cook it Song!

Erika Baker said...

Sorry to throw in a query. Isn't first order issue a theological term that refers to that which is really and truly important about God and about our faith?

That doesn't mean that there aren't issues of the day that are absolutely truly and imperatively important.

Song in my Heart said...


If that is what "first order" issue means in the context of this conversation, this is the first time I've seen it explained in those terms.

I would still disagree, though. How we treat people reveals what we believe about God.

Besides that, if sexuality is truly not a first order issue in that sense -- if it is not central to doctrine -- then why so many barriers, so much talk of waiting and restraint?

Erika Baker said...

The point, for me, is that if something is first order issue, like the Nicene Creed, then those who do not profess to believe it are called heretics and are not really "right" about what Christianity believes. If you don't believe in the Trinity you're a Unitarian, not someome who follows conventional Christianity.

1st order issues are the baseline of our faith and we can rightly expect the church to be firm about them.

Other things, like how we treat other people, are hugely important and come under the category of "things we can learn about and change our mind about over time". And so we have learned that it's not ok to keep slaves, that we don't burn witches, that women should be equal to men, and that gays are just like everyone else.
Only that, with gays people, we are, within Christianity, still in the learning period and some get there quicker than others.

Those who try to make the gay question into a first order issue are really saying that it is one of those non-negotiable things about God and about our faith.
That's why I object to the term.

It's hugely important, and it is not a first order issue precisely because we need to change about how we think about it.

Song in my Heart said...

I don't think it is a "first-order" issue (in your use of the term) that homosexuality is not sinful, although I personally recoil from any interpretation which says that it somehow is. But I do not have the last word on what is a sin and what is not a sin.

But does not the Nicene Creed acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins? Does not the Nicene Creed state that for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven?

Not "the forgiveness of sins, oh except for gay sex, no forgiveness for that one." Not salvation for everyone except people who are gay, or people who have slaves, or people who kill.

The creed is a statement of belief, not a statement of our actions, but I expect the church's actions to be informed and governed by it. What do I do with a church whose actions are not in line with its professed beliefs?

Erika Baker said...

I agree completely with what you say.
Those who have a different view would also subscribe to the idea of one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, but they would say that you first have to repent of your sin, and for gay people that means not having sexual relationships.

In principle, that's not a bad definition, because true awareness of wrongdoing should result in a desire to change, and, for example, continuing a life of burglary because you can always be forgiven afterwards is not the right attitude.

Therefore, I do think we have to make up our minds whether homosexuality is sinful. God will have the last word, but we need at least a day to day working hypothesis.

And if we think it is, we then have to work out whether it's a sin grave enough to punish the sinner for relentlessly, or whether it's nor rather a case of beams and specks of dust!

Song in my Heart said...


Sorry -- I didn't catch that your comment had fallen into the moderation trap, I hadn't intended to ignore it!

I haven't done the theology to try and judge whether homosexuality is a sin. My instinct tells me it is not, or that if it is, it is a minor one. None of the arguments I have seen to the contrary have been particularly convincing to me. I'm no theologian, so that's how I make most of my decisions -- what does it feel like, and what have others said that might be relevant?

The example of burglary is interesting. Burglary, unlike homosexuality, has obvious negative consequences for the victim and for society at large. And yet... what is theft? Taking another's property. What is property, really? Claimed ownership, and hence control, of resources. When a society agrees to certain rules around the ownership and control of resources it is able to function in a more stable way.

That's great, but what if the distribution of resources is unfair? If I buy clothing made by children working in a factory in a country with poor labour laws, I am taking advantage of another's weakness for my own benefit. We don't call this theft because it happens within a market, goods or money change hands. But am I not guilty of theft? Of taking time and resources for myself that rightly belong to another, in circumstances where they must comply or suffer? Is this not theft?

When I think about how interconnected the world is, and how complex, and how my actions affect everyone else in small but tangible ways, I am overwhelmed by the impossibility of ever being anything other than a sinner. I cannot possibly keep track of the effects of all my actions, and I cannot possibly devise a rule or system which will cover all eventualities. No matter how you slice it, I am going to do things that hurt people -- beloved children of God -- even if my motivations are impeccable. I will fail. I will miss the mark. I will sin.

That doesn't mean I don't try to do better... but it does mean I pick my battles.

I'm running out of steam so will have to come back to this another time, I think.