Discussions began by dividing into groups, making introductions and then having individuals share why they chose to attend St. Andrew in the first place. The answers ranged from the quality of the youth and music programs, the strong intellectual content now retired pastor Mark Martin brought to every sermon and the close intimacy of the small group ministry. Some people said they knew why they started attending St. Andrew, but were unsure why they keep attending — citing the difficulties in con-necting to people in a large congregation, the failure of the congregation to reach out sufficiently in times of loss and confusion, the current debate over relocating the church and the recent decision to turn down the request of Michelle Wikner and Michelle Norman to use the sanctuary for their wedding ceremony.
Without reporting back to the large group, the discussion shifted to responding to some of the more provocative statements in Wright’s paper. First:
“In order to have any serious discussion about ethical issues, we need to remind ourselves the whole time of the importance of Reason (along with, and obedient to Scripture and Tradition) as one strand of the classic threefold Anglican cord. The current fashion for substituting ‘experience’, which all too eas-ily means ‘feeling’, or ‘reported feeling’, is simply not the same sort of thing. Experience matters, but it doesn’t belong in an account of authority; put it there, and the whole notion of ‘authority’ itself decon-structs before your very eyes.”
Groups were asked how they ranked the factors of Experience, Scripture, Reason and Tradition when it comes to discussing matters of faith and sexuality. After one group noted that we need to keep all four in mind when discussing the issue, all the other groups named Scripture as the first guiding principle. The rankings varied after that point. One group challenged the definition of the vague term “Tradition,” wondering:
- Whether it means helping us get back to a first-century content for what the New Testament writers would mean (a skill that N.T. Wright has been developing for his entire career),
- Whether it refers to the Church’s 2,000-year history since then (which has been hit or miss at best) or
- Whether it (in a Presbyterian context) refers to a Reformed Tradition is based on people applying Reason and Experience to Scripture to challenge church Tradition.
Then we read through and discussed the paragraph immediate before the above quotation in which Wright, somewhat snarkily, writes:
“The fact that our early twenty-first century instinct is to analyze Paul in terms of prejudices and in-consistency shows well enough what sort of intellectual — or perhaps we should say anti-intellectual — climate we now live in within the western church at least. We have allowed ourselves to say ‘I feel’ when we mean ‘I think’, collapsing serious thought into knee-jerk reactions. We have become tolerant of everything except intolerance, about which we ourselves are extremely intolerant. If someone thinks through an issue and, irrespective of his or her feelings on the subject, reaches a considered judgement that doing X is right and doing Y is wrong, they no sooner come out and say so than someone else will accuse them of phobia. If someone says stealing is wrong, we expect someone else to say, ‘You only say that because you’re kleptophobic.’ You will see easily enough where this argument is going.”
Groups were to discuss the degree to which they agreed with Wright’s assessment of the cultural moment, or how and why they found it to be too sharp or dismissive.
Some participants said that Wright elevated Paul’s letters too highly and failed to put them into a framework of Christ’s inclusivity and the command to love they neighbor. Some groups continued their earlier discussion of Experience, Reason, Scripture and Tradition.
Discussions then moved into an account of Presbyterian policy and concerns about living in an “unrepentant state.” Presbyterian policy singles out self-defined, sexually-active gays and lesbians from serving as elders and clergy. Technically, an elder or a minister could be openly unrepentant about other sinful behavior and not face such automatic disqualification — although there could and should be some discipline depending on the severity of the sin.
The observation led to two different questions:
- Are same-sex relationships inherently sinful and, thus, anyone in a committed same-sex relation-ship is in an “unrepentant state”? Or, as argued in “For the Bible Tells Me So,” is there room in the Re-formed tradition for gay and lesbians in committed relationships — relationships that would then be blessed by the church?
- Even if same-sex relations are prohibited — or at least a same-sex relationship is considered to be less than a biblical ideal — why should the church deal with these relationships any differently than it has dealt with divorce over the past few decades — making provisions for members to divorce, remarry and resume church leadership positions despite the biblical restrictions in the New Testament?
Discussion also turned to what options are available to this and other congregations now that the question has been raised. (We will discuss these options in more detail during our final session.)