Bishop John McIntyre of Gippsland, Australia addresses gay and lesbian issues

Bishop John McIntyre

Two excerpts from Bishop John McIntyre’s  annual presidential address to the 2012 Synod meeting of the Diocese of Gippsland, Australia

On same-sex attraction:

“In the life of our diocese, we rather belatedly committed to a listening process to hear the stories of gay and lesbian people, and to reflect on how seriously we take the commendation of the 1998 Lambeth Conference motion 1.10, which asks us to offer hospitality to these Christian brothers and sisters, who the motion reminds us are “full members of the Body of Christ”. Recent circumstances have now made this a far more urgent priority than perhaps we had previously failed to recognise.

In my president’s address last year I indicated my commitment to be inclusive and welcoming of same-sex attracted people in our diocese, “confident that God is at work in and through all those who are open to the call of God in their lives and wanting to offer ministry in the life of our churches”.

I reiterate that commitment to you now. It comes from a long personal journey of life experience; reflection on Scripture in the context of that experience, and reflection on that experience in the light of Scripture.

It is a simple Biblical truth that has caused me to move to a new place in my understanding of the place of same-sex attracted people in the life of the church. That truth is revealed in the words of Jesus, who says in the Sermon on the Mount, “a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” and “by their fruit you will know them” (Matthew 7.18,20). I have come to know and acknowledge that the fruit of their works makes clear that God has been and is at work in and through gay and lesbian people, who for years have been a part of our church, in both lay and ordained ministries.

You might well ask why it took me so long to acknowledge this simple truth. I think it was the correctness of religious law that blinded me to this truth, a truth that is known only in the experience of grace.

In the first place, I needed to be entirely honest with myself and realise God works in and through me only by grace, and not because I act correctly according to some established religious code. And this insight only became apparent when I was ready to recognise my own brokenness, and that it is not only despite that brokenness, but sometimes because of it, that God works in and through me.

This brought me to acknowledge that the fruit of my works is the only true measure of my worthiness for ministry in the name of Jesus. The key question then becomes, “Do my works reveal a heart transformed by the love of God into a loving heart, and a mind renewed in Christ into his mind of humble, self-emptying service?” That is the Biblical measure of who is worthy to be called by God to minister in the name of Jesus.

As I wrote recently to the clergy, it is a salutary experience to be reminded that at one and the same time no-one is worthy and all are worthy for ministry. Of ourselves we can claim nothing that would cause God to engage us in ministry, yet at the same time, in Christ we are all made worthy. Furthermore, as it was in brokenness that the Christ on the cross wrought the salvation of the whole world, so it is in our brokenness that we become the means of healing to others. This is worth contemplating before we too quickly suggest another be deemed not worthy to minister in Jesus’ name.

Only in light of reflection on God’s Word did I finally come to understand. Despite what I or others may believe is their worthiness, the fruit of the works of many gay and lesbian people has brought God’s blessing to me and to many other people, both in and beyond the church. That is the measure of their worthiness to minister in the name of Jesus Christ in the life of the church, and in the community in the name of the church. That indicates their place in the life of God’s people.

Put simply, I think God has been saying to me for many years now “If it is good enough for me, John, why is it not good enough for you?”

This experience took me back to the Bible and its ethical teaching. Here again, a very simple solution was revealed to me, once I was prepared to walk this journey of discovery with God. I recently read, though I cannot now remember where, an illustration from church history that makes clear the point I have come to understand when seeking guidance from scripture on the place of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church. It is this.

We all acknowledge that the church can never read the Bible in the same way once it acknowledged that Galileo was right. The world is round, not flat, despite what those who first penned the words of the Bible thought and assumed. It took the church a long time to acknowledge this, and in the name of orthodoxy, it treated Galileo rather shabbily along the way.

Here lies an exegetical parallel for our present purpose. Because of recent new understanding, we now all know that same-sex attracted people are not heterosexual people who have made a perverse choice about how they express their sexuality. They simply are what they are. We might like to argue about whether this is how life should or should not be, but that will not change the way it is. And we have to respond to what is.

The Biblical writers had no concept of the possibility of a faithful, committed relationship of love between people who found themselves to be attracted to others of the same gender. They assumed that anyone who engaged in sexual activity with a person of the same gender was a heterosexual person acting outside their God-given nature. By definition, this was for them perverse activity.

Now we know that it is simply a reality of some people’s lives to be same-sex attracted, and not a perverse choice made by them, how can the church ever read the Bible in the same way? It has taken the church, and me, a long time to acknowledge this. And in the name of orthodoxy, we have treated gay and lesbian people rather shabbily along the way.

Further to this, I have become convinced we will never come to a place of understanding on this matter unless we walk the path to understanding together. For too long we have asked same-sex attracted people to wait outside the church, or at most in its wings, while we decide the basis on which they can be a part of the church’s life. The thought seems to have been that when we have decided (and we certainly don’t seem to be in too much of a hurry to do this) we will invite gay and lesbian people into the church on our terms; that is, if they still want to be a part of us. I do not believe this is a particularly godly way in which to go.

In saying what I have said here, I want to assure you that I am not demanding that you agree with me. One of the beauties of Anglicanism is our capacity to stay together in Christ with strongly held differences. Another is that our idea of authority includes the fact that you do not have to agree with me just because I am a bishop. We can stay together in the unity of Christ with our differences, and in grace we can continue to learn from each other.

I make this commitment to all of you, whether or not you agree with me on this one issue. All I do, and all I will seek to continue to do, in everything I do, is to seek the will of God. 

Accordingly, I will appoint to office in our diocese those whom I believe God is calling to minister among us, and I will continue to do so with a grateful heart to God for the gifts and skills they bring to us. Furthermore, I will do this within the context of the greater call of God on the whole church, which is to live by grace; to seek justice and to show compassion, in all we do and say. That is my commitment to God and to you, and I am willing to live
with any consequences that may arise from remaining true to that commitment …”

And on equal marriage:

“… I turn now to the debate arising from the call from some in our community for the Federal Parliament to change the legal definition of marriage to allow gay and lesbian people to marry.

On the whole, the response from the churches has been an understandable recourse to the so-called “traditional” view of marriage. To be honest, I am not sure how well this works, because I am not sure there is much agreement in the churches about the traditional view of marriage, and I not sure there is a lot of acknowledgement that even the Christian view of marriage has changed over recent years.

The Judaeo-Christian view of marriage is in the first place fundamentally a realist’s view. Our forebears knew people were going to have sex, no matter what, and so they knew children were going to be born, no matter what. Under God, therefore, marriage was instituted to give legal protection to the children who are inevitably born; legal protection to the good order of the society in which sexual relationships are inevitable, and legal protection to persons in committed life-long sexual relationships. Properly understood, marriage is an institution to protect children, to ensure the good order of society, and to guarantee the rights of married persons.

Secondly, the Judaeo-Christian view of marriage, based as it is in our Scriptures, has from the beginning been in a state of change and flux. Like any other human institution, even those established under God, marriage is an organic reality and it grows and changes over time. To name just one obvious fact, it is clear that in the early days of the institution of marriage in Hebrew life, marriage was not monogamous. The Old Testament stories of the patriarchs and the kings make that very clear.

More recent changes are reflected in the various introductions to the marriage service in our own prayer books, from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer through to the current A Prayer Book for Australia. The three reasons for marriage set out above remain but, with successive changes to our liturgies for marriage, their order has been changed. These changes reflect societal changes in priorities and perceptions about marriage, both in the church and in the wider community. The primary emphasis in our most recent marriage service is on the rights of the couple. This no doubt reflects the growing individualism of our society.

Furthermore, in recent times we have become entirely more tolerant of the re-marriage of divorced persons, and rarely if ever question the right of persons to marry if they do not intend to have children, which most certainly was not always the case.

However, what is interesting is that the right of certain classes of people to marry never seems to have been much under discussion in the church, except in relation to so-called “prohibited relationships”, such as brothers and sisters, or in relation to a person’s age. Certainly it was assumed it would always be a man and a woman who married, but was that not simply because that is how children are born? Or was it perhaps because up until recently there was no perception that people could be anything other than heterosexual?

It is interesting to note, however, that on grounds other than their view of marriage, the early Christians did assume the rights of all people to marry. For example, contrary to Roman law, Christians allowed people from different social classes in the Roman Empire to be married. This was not because of their view of marriage but because they believed that across all social differences, “All are one in Christ Jesus”, as St Paul says in his letter to the Galatians (Galatians 3.28).

So where does that leave us in an age where people are known to be same-sex attracted and where we have the IVF program? Is there not an argument that all people should have access to the institution of marriage, precisely in order to guarantee under law the ongoing protection of children; the good order of society and the rights of those who are in committed life-long relationships? And is it not perhaps unjust to deny the rights of any group of people to that access?

Just as importantly, why would we not want all people to commit to the responsibilities enshrined in The Marriage Act? I have to admit the responsibilities of marriage have not been a highlight of the public debate. However, if one outcome of gay and lesbian people being able to marry was that, like any other people in committed sexual relationships, they too were held accountable under law for the protection of children in their care; for the good ordering of their sexual relationships within society, and for the rights of those in committed sexual relationships, would that not be a good thing?

I acknowledge that in what I have said here I have not addressed much of the theological debate in regard to marriage, and that that is an important task to which we must continue to commit. But as I said in my address to synod last year, whatever the churches’ views on marriage, we cannot expect those views to prevail in law just because that is what we believe. Nor should we try to enforce our views on others. I have no doubt we should participate in the public debate, and that we should do that on the basis of our faith and the values that arise from our faith. But I do not believe it is a value consistent with our faith to seek to impose on others what we believe, no matter how strongly we believe it.

The way of the Gospel, in the end, is the way of persuasion by a godly life, and by godly words and actions. A godly life, and godly words and actions are marked by grace, and the truth on any matter will emerge as we live by the same grace with which we are met by God in Jesus Christ.”

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