Wednesday, 2 December 2009

I opened the closet door, I found grace in the room

Last week, I wrote about "coming out" - coming out gay, coming out liberal among Christian friends, coming out as "David L Rattigan," my writing alter-ego.

It provoked a mixed response among friends, but there was one particularly gracious response that stood out. It was from a Pentecostal pastor, a fellow Bible College student and the wife of my former Principal, no less. If anyone were to take offense at my often-harsh assessment of my days as an evangelical Pentecostal, it would be someone closest to the situations I wrote about. So it was a welcome surprise that Alison recognized my integrity and greeted my story with openness and understanding.

She has given me permission to post from an exchange we shared on Facebook. In it, we discuss my Pentecostal days and my sexuality, and I think the discussion exemplifies a "generous space" (an expression I owe to my friend Wendy Gritter) we all need to find ourselves in if we're to live together.

Alison began:
I've just spent some time reading your open letter and a couple of the links to your writing which is, of course, challenging to those of us who haven't shared your journey. I thank you for your intellectual honesty and ability to analyse. Also for not misrepresenting the Christianity of your past and my present and not, therefore, having rejected it out of hand. There's a lot of ongoing discussion which could be had - my own thinking re sexuality attempts to be faithful to biblical revelation which I still believe to be God's word (with all that implies); my hermeneutics are very influenced by a feminism which makes me, I think, more liberal than many of my fellow Pentecostals, but wouldn't take me nearly far enough in your estimation, I have no doubt.

I am uncomfortable with the anti-homosexual rhetoric of much of my community but retain a belief that God's intention for sexuality includes the element that both genders should be involved. That men and women together make up the image of God seems to me to be important: faithfulness; vulnerability; give and take; complete openness to the other are all expressed in sexual intimacy with one person for life - sex is to that deepest of human relationships what worship is for the human and God. But I also have to acknowledge that all those things are possible in a gay relationship and that heterosexuality is no guarantee of healthy sexuality.

I am therefore much less sympathetic to heterosexual promiscuity and abuse than to homosexual monogamy or monoandry (is that a word? - it should be). And probably feel that the current controversy re sexuality is analogous to the NT example of meat offered to idols, to which Paul's response in Rom14 is not to attempt to convince those on the other side of the fence (though you know which side he is on and that he is firmly convinced he is right!) but to accept that we all must stand before God and follow our own conscience with regard to how we act. Notwithstanding Rom 1, maybe a 21st century Paul would include sexual orientation issues as a 'disputable matter' (14:1). Thanks also for the Tillich quotation re grace; an unexpectedly lucid Tillich-ism (sorry, I always struggled to read him and usually fell asleep - liked this bit though!)

Let mercy triumph over judgement.
I responded:
Hi, Alison. I sensed from our conversations that you were definitely one to "live and let live," and that you were the sort of person who would be open to other people's stories - but still I am surprised you are so liberal compared to your Pentecostal peers.

I am so warmed to hear that you don't feel misrepresented as a Christian by the things I've written. I look back with a genuine affection - if ambivalence at times - on my days as a Pentecostal, and even though I have some harsh criticisms for evangelical Christianity, I strive to be evenhanded. It means all the more to me that you sense no malice in my writings, since if anyone is going to interpret me as unfair or spiteful, it would be someone so close to the situations I wrote about - an Elim pastor, a Regents member of staff or the wife of the RTC Principal!

Re: homosexuality, I agree that even from a perspective that treats the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, there is room to ask how someone like Paul would answer *today's* questions, and whether he might answer them quite differently from the questions of *his* day.

I can see a real honesty in the way you approach the sexuality question. One thing that led me initially to question the traditional teaching on sexuality was that so many Christians seemed to rely on slandering and misrepresenting homosexuals. It occurred to me that if homosexuality was wrong, surely the case could be argued without recourse to all kinds of myths, slurs and pseudo-science. (I'm talking about the old standards here: gays are a risk to children, being gay is just about sex, there's no love in gay relationships, all gays are promiscuous, being gay is a mental illness, the "lifestyle" is dangerous and ends in early death.)

You seem unprepared glibly to repeat the same deceptions and half-truths, and that's wonderful. When you show a grace like that, I can live with you being on "the other side of the fence," just as you've shown you can live with me as I am.

PS The Tillich quote comes from a sermon found in The Shaking of the Foundations. I've never persevered with Tillich's heavier academic writings, but I've really enjoyed his sermons. That particular one is called You Are Accepted. You can read it online here.
Facebook comments became too restrictive by this stage (the above exchanges had to be posted in tiny parts), so Alison wrote a full-length 'Letter to David' in reply:
David, thank you for the warmth I perceive coming from you. I was bold enough to write that i didn't think you had rejected our brand of Christianity out of hand, so I am cheered by your reference to genuine affection and I can affirm that I did not read malice in your writing, though there was, of course, lots of criticism.

There is plenty that is cringeworthy in Pentecostalism certainly; I can't defend excesses though I sympathise with people who are genuinely trying to hear from God and often make mistakes. Actually I don't have to sympathise with those people: I am one! Ah well. I happen to highly value the American prophetess about whom you have written and don't consider her to be extreme. I don't remember the particular prophecy about banks etc. so can't comment on that. As far as her workshop session goes, I was part of that and know that from her angle it was an introduction to teaching people to listen for God's voice. To give Christians the confidence that they are able to hear from God more than they think is, in my pastoral experience, an important thing. We do have the mind of Christ and most sincere Christians who wonder if they have anything to say which might be used by God to speak to others need to be given the confidence to speak out. Then there is the process of weighing and discernment which is where the Christian community and sensible leadership comes in.

What is indefensible is the sort of rhetoric which you mention which 'demonises' gay people. But (oops maybe I am approaching a defence? call it an attempt at explanation?) most evangelicals don't know any gay people personally (that's to say they don't knowingly know any ...) and when one's information comes from media which, referring to any kind of sex, is more concerned with titillation than information, they are afraid, uncomfortable and suspicious. Also there is the concern that society is concerned with equality to the detriment of Christian sensibilities and we are presented as less tolerant than we really are.

Still, I am happy to affirm that gay and straight (don't like that term) people probably: think about sex as much (or as little) as each other would rather not be defined by their sexuality - it is part of a person not the whole are capable of long term commitment and loving relationships often sin sexually.

I'm not sure of the value of vicarious repentance, but as part of a Christian community whose members have often made hurtful comments to you and others, I'm sorry.

BUT ....

I value relationships where I can genuinely disagree with someone without personal abuse intruding and I sense I have one here. I agree with you that if I think homosexuality is wrong then I should be able to justify that position "without recourse to all kinds of myths, slurs and pseudo-science." So here's the beginning of such an attempt.

For me the first two chapters of Genesis are foundational to a meaning of sex. Male and female are made in the image of God and as such express that image most fully when they get their relations right. I argue against many men (including church fathers) that women do not possess God's image in a secondary sense, but just as much as men; against some radical feminists I would insist that women need men too! Gen2 describes the creation of one being which is then divided into two. "For this reason" men and women have sexual relations, thus restoring the original (one flesh) complete image of God. The one-flesh relationship must therefore include the two. Not only that, it is a productive relationship: the two become one who then bear offspring.

So our sexual ethics must reflect our view of God. Promiscuity and prostitution are wrong because we must not create a one flesh relationship casually (1Cor6). Sex outside marriage is wrong because it should entail complete giving of oneself to the other for life, as God has given himself to us and we to him. That's the ideal: God knows that we are also sinners and Jesus said it was because of hardness of heart that Moses allowed divorce. It is no accident that there is so much sexual sin in the world as it is the one area which directly attacks the image of God in humans and when we get it right it is so good.

The danger of what I just wrote is that people will think I mean that single people or infertile people as well as homosexuals are somehow less than God's perfect image. That would be a gross misinterpretation. Man and woman as one flesh says something about God. But every individual also bears God's image and is precious.

There it is - a very imperfect offering which I hope does not wind you up too much!

I must thank you for recognising grace in my previous comments and hope there is just as much in the above. At root, though I'm clever enough to have been an academic, I am really a pastor who finds that my ethics have to work in practice. You said you thought I am the sort of person who would be open to other people's stories; thanks again. I believe it is a pastor's lot to listen more than she speaks, support and value. Please take these two long responses to your original letter not fundamentally as an attempt to (re)convert you to a particular point of view, but as the sort of serious response you deserve. To do less would have been to value you less.

Anyway will shut up now. I hope this has not been too polemic.

Grace to you,

Alison x
True to her signature, I found grace in Alison's words. I responded thus:
I'm really glad we're having this conversation. You have a lot of grace, and as someone whose experience of evangelical Christians has all too often been graceless, I cherish that openness.

Thanks for your exposition of Scripture, which I didn't find too polemical! For you the Bible is primarily the (infallible?) Word of God; for me it's primarily the word of humans. So biblical arguments may inspire me or lead me to reflection, but they'll never be authoritative in the same way as they are for you. The biblical idea of the image of God in humans strikes me as a beautiful way to view ourselves and our relationships, but I'd want to extend the metaphor to other kinds of human relationships. Since Eve was formed from Adam's side, perhaps Genesis contains the suggestion of androgyny in Adam. From that, can we ask whether two males joined together might adequately reflect the image of God? This is just a thought.

Onto the American prophetess. Following the lead of social scientists, I don't dismiss religious experiences such as prophecy out-of-hand as simple fakery. I think some of those experiences could be valuable. I regard them as "altered states," temporary "alternate realities," or "heightened states of awareness," but also I believe they originate in the human psyche, not the supernatural. My major problem with these experiences in Pentecostal circles is not the experiences themselves, per se, but how they are interpreted for and by the community. I think I would be more comfortable with Pentecostal prophetic experiences if they were framed as indirect impressions of where God might be leading, viewed more tentatively as subjective experiences and open to critical exploration, rather than being considered the "voice of God," or direct "messages," or "words" from God.

I know there are pastors and teachers who try to various extents to emphasize the provisional nature of prophecy, but in my experience the effect is often nullified by the language of "words," "messages" and "voices."
Alison couldn't see my point about androgyny in Genesis, so I elaborated:
I think the androgyny point actually originated in rabbinical interpretation, but I could be wrong.

What I mean is that Adam had in him both male and female. I guess you could interpret that as either very anti-feminist (man is complete without woman) or radically pro-feminist (Adam was *neither* male nor female, so gender distinctions postdate creation).
The exchange continued somewhat, but it widened to include other commenters' points, so I shall leave it there.

Since I've outed myself as Rattigan to friends who only know me by my "real" name, perhaps I should step a bit further out of my closet for readers who know me only as Rattigan. I won't reveal my name (though it probably wouldn't take a great deal of detective work to find out), but I will share a bit more about my background, to put the above discussion in context.

I spent 1993 to 2001 in the Elim Pentecostal Church, which I think I'm right in saying is the second largest Pentecostal denomination in the UK (it is to Assemblies of God what Foursquare is to Assemblies in Canada and the US). I earned my theology degree through Regents Theological College, the organization's official Bible college. Despite being a conservative denomination, the college gave me a fairly thorough theological education, which introduced me to the full array of biblical criticism and alternative, non-conservative Christian and non-Christian ideas. (Not that everyone approved. I remember my decidedly anti-intellectual pastor warning me in advance of the heretical ideas that were "floating around" at Regents. Many pastors, and even some students, scoffed at the college's increasingly academic emphasis.)

I think the broad scope of my education this was partly the result of my choice of classes - I opted for the more academic modules, such as New Testament Interpretation, Philosophy of Religion and Contemporary Theology. Had I chosen just the more pragmatic subjects, such as Evangelism and Missions, it would have been quite easy to coast through college without ever encountering non-evangelical approaches.

Ironically, then-Principal William Atkinson's NT Interpretation classes were ultimately the most formative in my later liberal approach to the Bible. I think this is a credit to his ability to teach without simply imposing his own biases on students. I recall raising laughter by hugging William enthusiastically as I stepped up to the platform at graduation - but it was an embrace of genuine affection, which remains today.

Against this background, it's been a risk to share my changed perspective, my writings and my journey with friends, acquaintances and colleagues from those days. But I opened the door and I found grace.


  1. Dave,

    Thanks for posting this, it is really positive and I think does show a good example of the danger of compartmentalising response by denomitional affiliation.

    I never really met Alison or had significant interactions with William at RTC, sounds like it's my loss.

    Peace, (I would say God Bless but I suspect your definition of God compared to mine diverge somewhat!)

  2. As you say Dave, your theological education is probably a huge reason behind the journey you've taken. Not enough Christians are ready to see scripture or the faith through other eyes. And I feel safe in saying that the same could probably be said for followers of other faiths.

    For me, constant questioning and examination and evaluation of myself, my faith and the texts are vital to my development as a person let alone my spiritual self.

    Thankfully my secondary school education included some very thought through discussions of commentary from other viewpoints. Even simple things like awareness of the Gnostic Gospels, the Apocrypha, the various councils that made the decisions on cannon are crucial to an understanding of the nature of faith itself (faith is not something based on provable facts alone).

    Yours and my journeys have been similar, and different and thankfully aren't finished yet. I love mystery, uncertainty and the constant challenging of myself that comes with being prepared to ask questions.