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“CUSTODIANS OF DOCTRINE AND THE WORK OF EMPATHY” – Philip Barlow

I am aware this morning that in this auditorium there may be no shortage of wound, dissonance, passionately held opinions, and perhaps even anger, along with much good will. Given the fraught history, complex feelings, and evolving policies and responses involving LGBTQ people and issues in relation to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is hard to imagine my saying anything worth saying this morning that will not displease some of you. Nonetheless, I decided to accept this uncomfortable invitation to speak with you and I salute my colleagues at the Tanner Humanities Center and those who have created “Mormons Building Bridges” for envisioning and executing this symposium. If we fail to build more sturdy bridges to one another than we have as yet, our difficulties as a people and as a church are apt in the future to bare themselves in more unfortunate ways and at more unfortunate scale.

Here is a blueprint of what I am going to stir around. As a warmup to the scholars who will share their research and to the courageous and sometimes bruised people who will share their experience, helping us to think and feel from fresh perspectives during our day together, I will suggest a sense of proportion about the seriousness of today’s state of affairs concerning the Church and its LGBTQ members. I have no authority to speak for the church nor for any other constituency. It is not my task nor within my capacity to fix the problem. Rather, I will offer a morsel of historical and theological context to well-intended people on all sides of the present thicket. Our era endures high stakes tension for individuals and families in virtually every ward, hence for the church itself and for its relation to the wider community. A growing portion of church members wonder to what extent movement beyond where we are now is possible. I will propose two possibilities without advocating for either. I will conclude by noting that voices from both the church and the LGBTQ community call for an increase in empathy and love as we work things out. “Love,” however, is a word laden with diverse meanings, assumptions, and dynamics, not all of them productive–not all of them even healthy. I will conclude by asking what a hallowed rather than a hollowed love might look like in our conflicted moment. 

Before launching, I urge three cautions:  

First:  The history of our topic includes distressing aspects, including practices and declarations that the church today disavows. There can be little doubt that a large portion of church members’ traditional recoiling at LGBTQ people and behavior is not simply a matter of theology, but has come, as it came to society at large, by this minority seeming alien and unnatural to the heterosexual majority.  Amid such wide disapproval, LGBTQ life, among church members as in the world at large, therefore retreated to the underground. Misunderstanding and misapplied theology in former times meant that one might be excommunicated from the church simply for being a homosexual or –almost beyond contemplation– a transgender human being. Such misunderstanding meant that horrified families might in effect disfellowship a child for the same offense, even expelling them from their home. During the 1960s through the 1980s it meant the adoption at BYU and elsewhere of reparative therapies in the attempt to redirect sexual interest to heterosexual norms. This practice was used nationally at the time but has since been shown to be psychologically and emotionally damaging in many instances. Conversely, the history also contains, in addition to plausible concerns, uninformed and even shrill critiques of the church that have distorted its motives and sometimes descended to cultural slander. Fortunately, a more encouraging and recent aspect to this history includes documentable progress in efforts toward mutual understanding and good will. Today’s symposium is one instance. We have yet a long path ahead.

Second: While there are such things as good and bad acts and people, I construe that in large measure people are more or less trying to respond to their individual “maps of reality” that all of us carry about in our heads. Every person beyond their initial years of childhood carries an explicit and/or implicit set of notions and beliefs concerning the world’s essential nature. As much as behavior itself, it is these interior maps–all of our maps–that require ongoing probing and amendment if mental, spiritual, behavioral, and social health is to flourish. As one clinical psychiatrist puts it to the younger psychiatrists he has taught, “Find out your patients’ religions even if they say they don’t have any.” (M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled. Simon & Schuster, 1978, 186). Because each of our “reality maps” is imperfect, partial, and–if we are wise–a work in progress, we would do well to be patient with one another. 

Finally: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which I am a grateful member, believes in revelation. That can seem quaint or dangerous to outsiders and–like reason itself–is subject to human limitations. Yet I believe I personally have experienced inspiration–the phenomenon of coming to consequential understanding and prompts to action that do not derive solely from reason, instinct, or empirical observation and that seem tethered to something transcendent. Observers of the church who preemptively discount this phenomenon and belief, while professing empathy, risk presumption. Nonetheless, it remains that theology and revelation are cross-pollinated by diverse influences and nested in layered historical contexts, as is secular knowledge. Discerning the permanent from the transient, the eternal from the cultural, and the divine from the human is no simple endeavor. These historical layers affect how our “reality maps” are formed. Remaining uncritical about their provisional character breeds excess certainty, a problem for skeptics and believers alike. For believers, indeed, surplus assurance has drawn censure from the Lord in diverse scriptural accounts, as Saul-become-Paul, Alma the Younger, and Job’s friends all learned. As one of the most influential of all visionaries put it: in mortality “we see through a glass, darkly” (Paul, 1 Corinthians 13:12).

•••••

A strand of history:

During the dire 1860s the American nation was at war with itself. As Abraham Lincoln remarked upon his second inaugural, both parties “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other….  The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

In the years leading up to this war, America’s churches were similarly pulled asunder. Christians north of the Mason-Dixon line called on the Bible to support their case against slavery:  “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:31). “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free… for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  Southerners, in turn, defended their cause using different passages. They cited Paul, for instance, who wrote to the Saints in Colossae: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it…with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord… [and] you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward” (Colossians 3:22;  cf. Ephesians 6:5).  Neither the Old Testament nor the New condemned slavery, the Southern clergy pointed out, but merely regulated it (e.g., Exodus 20:10, 21: 20-21; Deuteronomy 16:14; passim in the Pentateuch).  Hence, they argued, the Lord accepted slavery on earth as part of the natural order. These divisions, North and South, brought schism, producing the Southern Baptist Convention, separated from its northern counterpart in the 1840s. Methodists and Episcopalians split apart during that same decade. The Presbyterians had fractured even earlier. 

A generation later, in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century, American religions went through another constellation of heresy trials and schisms, the deepest religious turmoil since the Protestant Reformation. The issues this time centered on the attempt of the churches to come to terms with or to reject the modern world—particularly by responding to evidence for biological evolution, to science more broadly, and to new scholarship on the sources and historical and literary dimensions of biblical scripture. By the 1920s the nation’s Protestant consensus had imploded over such issues. What survived of Protestantism was subsequently less denominationally defined, reconfigured into Evangelical and (so-called) Mainline camps. The grinding changes of history generate certain eras where new questions and new sensibilities put pressure on traditional understandings. At sufficient strength these forces work like those on the fault lines between the earth’s tectonic plates. Lacking moderate adjustments along the way, the result is sometimes an earthquake.

You and I live in such a time of seismic shifts, a time of new forces–or of old forces fueled by new critical mass–acting on and within religions. A reckoning over what shall be the relation of the churches to their LGBTQ constituents is among the most visible of a cluster of contemporary issues, some of which are helping to fuel the retreat from organized religion itself. Schism appears to be imminent, for instance, for the large United Methodist Church principally over LGBTQ issues. After much struggle, the Episcopal Church has committed to LGBTQ-friendly policies, but at the cost of the loss of some of its congregations and dioceses and of clergy who now seek their ordination not from American bishops but at the hands of bishops from Africa, Australia, and elsewhere who hew to a more traditional practice. The Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and the United Church of Christ all support same-sex marriage. Momentum in this direction builds among other groups and few major religious groups have avoided this struggle

Churches that do not govern democratically by elected delegates to national conferences, but by centralized leadership, in particular the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are in some ways less vulnerable to the fracturing energies of democratic systems. Yet no group is immune from the lurch and jolts of history, of having to negotiate scientific discovery and changing social consciousness. The Church of Jesus Christ is a strong and resilient institution, but when too large a gap develops between the leaders of any group and the sensibilities and experience of large swaths of its constituents, or between competing swaths of these constituents, there can develop a feeling of internal dissonance, an erosion of trust and of a sense of belonging. 

The prophets of the Hebrew Bible often complained that their audience was slow to heed their message. That sentiment may not be unknown at the church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City. But to an impressive degree church members love their leaders, sing about them, pray for them, believe they are subject to inspiration or revelation, honor their authority, study their teachings, and seek to sustain them. To a great many, the prophets have spoken on matters involving LGBTQ people and the main issues are therefore settled. This, however, is less true for their children and grandchildren who have grown up knowing LGBTQ friends and siblings. Whatever you or I personally think about the issues, we would be oblivious not to observe that a lot of Saints have come in recent time to change their perspectives on gay and lesbian people, with awareness and understanding of transgender and intersex people still in embryo. Those whose perspectives are evolving are not merely people on the margins whose testimonies are thought pale. An increasing portion include Saints with authentic faith in the Restoration and respect for their leaders, but also distressing conflict between these loyalties and their sense of a proper course of action.  So straining has been the tension that some have, with trauma to self and family, stepped away from the church. Many others remain active, but the sense of personal and social discord is rising.

Nationally, 61 percent of Americans in 2017 supported the propriety of gay people marrying one another, up from 52 percent only three years earlier, extending a dramatic rise during the previous decade. The Latter-day Saints ranked as among the lowest of the religious groups surveyed in the percentage approving of the legalization of gay marriage, but the rate of change is staggering. The surveys found that 40 percent of Latter-day Saint church members in the United States supported gay marriage in 2017, up from 27 percent in 2014. Among Saints between the ages of 18-29, those who approve of gay marriage are now in the majority. Even among those who are 65 and older, fully one-third have come to support gay marriage, almost doubling the 18 percent of those who did in 2014. All this would seem to be heading in the direction of a deepening rift between what the church’s leaders are teaching on this matter and the shifting sensibilities and experiences of many everyday church members. In other words, if meaningful unity is to thrive within the church of the future, both leaders and followers of necessity will have to work to address a widening gap. 

The church has consistently taught that God’s law of chastity restricts sexual relations to those between a man and a woman who are legally wed. Only a man and a woman, not others, may be married and in good standing in the church. Today’s church does recognize that the experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. It holds also that “while the attraction itself is not a sin, acting on it is. Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them. With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including [those with same-sex attraction] (close paraphrase of Elder M. Russell Ballard: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/liahona/2015/09/the-lord-needs-you-now?lang=eng#note3; accessed September 14, 2019).

The majority of devout Latter-day Saints try earnestly and prayerfully to respond to their leaders’ words, but many also experience conflict between abstract principles and their application to the particular circumstances of their children, parents, siblings, and friends on this issue that is now part of public awareness and discourse. These friends and relatives may not be heterosexual or cisgender, but they have hopes and urges for committed, full, intimate, and loving relationships that are as deeply seated as those of anyone else. At times members encounter conflict even between two admirable precepts of the church, much like Adam and Eve encountered conflicting commandments from God in the Garden of Eden.  Eve and Adam, representing the human family in embryo, had to choose to break one commandment to fulfill another, as the Book of Mormon explains (2 Nephi 2). Similarly, a widening portion of church members and their families are pulled between the church’s iron-clad definition of marriage and their loved ones’ experience coupled with God’s declaration that “it is not good that man [or woman] should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Our firm commitments both to the law of chastity as traditionally understood and to our equally profound attachment to marriage, family, and love can, for LGBTQ people, be experienced as an excruciating paradox. Counsel not to constrain their self-identity to matters of gender and sexual orientation is received sacrificially by some LGBTQ members; others wonder what would happen if the church’s straight members were asked to do similarly.

••••

Here arises a question, unwanted by many, but one that looms and informs the struggles and hopes of those torn by the status quo:  Is it conceivable that the standing of the church’s LGBTQ members might change in the future? Based on the Church’s own teachings and history, I can think of two plausible answers:  “Perhaps” and “No.” Let us consider each. First: “Perhaps”:  

The church’s leaders instruct that its law of chastity and definition of marriage are based on revelation and are eternal principles. Hence its prohibition on gay marriage will not change. Leaders differentiate revealed and enduring gospel principle from policy (which may also be inspired but is subject to change). Disciples believe in the distinctive authority and inspiration attached to the offices of these leaders. Disciples strive to heed their leaders’ teaching while connecting with their own experience of the world and of right and wrong, as they must, and believe also in the availability of revelation and inspiration for their own lives.

One wrinkle is that Restoration scripture insists that God can command and un-command when circumstances warrant. Section 56 of the Doctrine and Covenants states: “Wherefore I, the Lord, command and revoke as it seemeth me good…” (vs. 4).

A related complication is that discerning the difference between expedient policy and enduring principle is not always easy. Nor is the boundary always uncontested even among the church’s leadership. The prohibition of black men from ordination to the priesthood and black people from temple worship after 1852 and prior to 1978 was for decades debated, at every level of the church, as an expression of either policy or enduring principle. After the 1978 revelation mandating the change, Elder Bruce R. McConkie, with candor and clarity, embraced the altered perspective that new revelation had brought:  

There are statements in our literature by the early brethren which we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things…. All I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world. We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. 

(Bruce R. McConkie, “All Are Alike unto God,” an address to a Book of Mormon Symposium for Seminary and Institute teachers, Brigham Young University, 18 August 1978.)

Elder McConkie’s point underscores a founding principle of the Restoration ensconced in what is known as the church’s 9th article of faith, which includes belief that God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” At various times such revelation has prompted certain beliefs of church members and leaders to change.  

An earlier impactful instance is the rescinding of polygamy as an active practice of the church, a change that was announced by President Wilford Woodruff in 1890 as a new policy. Some members and leaders naturally pressed on President Woodruff their concern that the church could not simply pivot and retreat from a practice which leaders had so strongly urged on their followers and for which both groups had sacrificed life, limb, purse, comfort, and the respect of the outside world.

President Woodruff explained that his decision and new direction had in fact come by inspiration, which had confirmed his sense that he was “under the necessity of acting for the Temporal Salvation of the Church.” Specifically, it was made clear to him that a failure to respond to the high-pressure circumstances the church then faced—which included the federal government’s intent to confiscate the church’s temples and much of its finances–would mean the destruction of the church. This pragmatic adjustment, supported by inspiration, appears to have come as a relief to most members but also tore at the fabric of the church, resulted in the removal of two members from the Quorum of the Twelve, and provoked the rise of the separatist fundamentalist movement.

  Perhaps the most impacting instance of revealed change to revealed practice in earliest Christianity was prompted by strong disagreement between the apostle Paul and the apostle Peter and their followers, a breach that threatened to split the church. It was the head apostle, Peter, whose mind and heart and theology were changed by a vision teaching him, against deeply entrenched understanding, tradition, and scripture, that God was no respecter of persons and that the gospel was newly to be shared even with the gentiles.

Luke describes the vision in the 10th chapter of the Book of Acts. It occurs just before a Roman soldier, Cornelius, comes to visit Peter after Cornelius was prompted by his own revelation:  

He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” 14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” 15The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”   (New International translation)

In light of the ancient and modern church’s teaching and experience that new light and knowledge sometimes comes to and surprises our leaders as well as the rest of us, is it possible that at some future point perspectives could change so that LGBTQ members, without church censure, could embrace committed monogamous relationships, if even solely in this life and not through the temples, leaving the Lord to guide more eternal arrangements on the other side of the veil? Trust in the Lord in the afterlife has been urged on other imponderable issues.

I am not learned in such things and do not know the answer. I am not an apostle, whose difficult roles, authority, and offices I honor, even while I am wrenched with the plight of my LGBTQ sisters and brothers and their families and the challenges our church faces on these and other fronts.

••••

The more obvious possible answer to the question about whether the church’s position might change on these matters is:  “No”:  

The prophets and apostles who direct the church harbor a sense that much of the modern world is morally adrift. As President Russell M. Nelson put it recently during a devotional at BYU, there are such things as absolute truths that cannot be altered by human opinion or fashion. Wise and humble people realize, he said, that they discover, rather than create, truth. An unnegotiable difference between right and wrong eclipses relativist arguments. Truth rests upon reliable, immutable laws that a loving God has established for the protection and nurturing of His children and these laws affect us whether we believe them or not. God has summoned prophetic spokesmen to articulate and urge these laws upon us; their commission does not include the authority to modify divine mandates. These spokesmen may feel the sting of accusations of being uncaring or out of touch as they teach what the Lord requires for our progress. However, it would be far less caring, these leaders note, for them not to tell the truth, just as it would be a less authentic caring for parents always to tell their children what they want to hear. (Russell M. Nelson, “The Love and Laws of God,” September 17, 2019; https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/russell-m-nelson/love-laws-god/; accessed November 3, 2019).

Sometimes church members cite the Bible to buttress their teaching against active expression of LGBTQ behavior. Such citations are often problematic, since it is not self-evident that the story of the union of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis, for example, had in mind gay or transgender issues as we know them today, any more than the biblical story of creation contemplated modern physics and geology. The account of Sodom as it has come down to us in Genesis 18 and 19 is garbled beyond hope as a moral argument for today’s LGBTQ issues. And the same Leviticus that condemns same-sex behavior also condemns the eating of shrimp and proclaims the ritual uncleanliness of menstruating women. So we have that old problem of sorting the permanent from the transient and separating revelation itself from deductions and inductions we make, sometimes unconsciously, about revelation. Latter-day leaders, however, often do not rest the crux of their teachings on marriage on authority from biblical sources.

A more compelling argument in defense of traditional marriage is made by leaders and thinkers who link the case to implications of Joseph Smith’s teachings on God’s plan of Exaltation, although not all thinkers come to compatible conclusions. Taylor Petrey, meticulously working through the thicket, argues that LDS theology faces serious credibility issues by preserving pre-critical assumptions about sexual difference, given the current state of scientific knowledge (“Towards Post-Heterosexual Theology,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 44.4 [Winter 2011] 129). Another Latter-day Saint scholar counters that church leaders’ insistence that gender” is eternal and pre-existent cannot be brushed aside. Terryl Givens points out that while the 1995 document, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” does not define what it calls “gender,” it does seem to assert that “independently of mortal biology, and enduring before and beyond earthly, socially-constructed roles and patterns of behavior, human identity is constituted in terms of an eternal binary that the scriptures refer to as man and woman.” This “eternal differentiation transcends and swallows up earthly echoes, rooted as they are in social roles, acquired habits, and the traditions of the fathers.” This differentiation seems crucial to the church’s tenet of eternal parenting, Givens argues, as well as for “an interdependent unity and completion”–that is, an ontologically essential complementarity (Wrestling the Angel, 166.)  Apostle Erastus Snow went so far as to declare that an eternally bonded Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother is what in fact comprises the Latter-day Saint notion of “God.” (Wrestling, 110).

From this perspective, the powers linked to procreation and marriage, instituted before the Fall, reveal gender and sexuality as sacred, linked to the divine, and in some sense enduring beyond mortality. This theology frames marriage as a bond between a husband and a wife not because of naïve assumptions, not as an expression of some neo-Puritan prudery, but because there is something eternal and divine about the complementarity of maleness and femaleness—something that is at the heart of things, something entangled with the very purposes of God in creating the world.

•••••

Whether the church’s present position turns out to be permanent or open to further light and knowledge, and whatever our personal views may be, those of us who choose to remain loyal to and involved with the church must address things as they now are, navigating the challenge of at once sustaining our leaders as well as our LGBTQ and straight friends and siblings. 

That is going to require improvements from where we are at present and at present there is one change on which all sides might agree. Voices among both LGBTQ leaders and Church leaders call for greater understanding, compassion, and love. The first principle on Affirmation’s list of “Shared Leadership & Organizational Values” is “Christ-like love” (https://affirmation.org/who-we-are/our-vision/; accessed November 12, 2019.)  As Elder M. Russell Ballard has urged: “We need to listen to and understand what our LGBT brothers and sisters are feeling and experiencing. Certainly, we must do better than we have done in the past so that all members feel they have a spiritual home where their brothers and sisters love them and where they have a place to worship and serve the Lord.” (BYU devotional address, November 17, 2019;  https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/church/news/elder-ballard-tackles-tough-topics-and-gives-timely-advice-to-young-adults?lang=eng; accessed November 12, 2019). President Oaks, President Nelson, and other leaders speak similarly.

Now the thing about “love” is that it is easy to pronounce. While we may think we understand it, many meanings, assumptions, and dynamics–some decidedly contrary–fly under its banner. Imagine several mounds of white powder before us on a table in a lab. Each mound looks alike, but analysis reveals them to range from powdered sugar to baking soda to talcum powder to cocaine. Their properties, their effects, are dissimilar.

In pronouncing “love” some people have in mind an emotion, a fondness, perhaps a swooning associated with “falling in love.” Others think, consciously or not, of sex. Or of the aspiration “to be one” or maybe of simple “niceness.” As many a therapist or bishop could attest, some of what passes for love in relationships is in fact dependency or co-dependency or the urge to possess and control: “I love you so long as you do what I wish”; “I hurt you because I love you.” A white person in 1850s Atlanta or 1950s Los Angeles might be “kind” to a black person in a face to face encounter or even be fond of that person, but that sort of regard commonly did not work to dissolve a structural inequality between them in society and before the law.

In contrast to all this, I am thinking now of what the Greek New Testament calls agape. The sort of love that Christ may have had in mind when he flouted common sense, saying “Love [agapate] your enemies.” As evidence of the divine presence, this Christ also managed to say, somehow, while impaled on a cross, “Father, forgive them.” Agape is also the word used in our earliest texts of Paul’s famous account of love that we know as 1 Corinthians 13. I think of an indivertible love that acts for the flourishing and well-being of others regardless of one’s mood or fondness for another. A love that knows the import of deep listening, that diagnoses with humility and understanding before it presumes to prescribe, much less to judge. A love that is so empathic that “it leans-in and listens until the other person’s lived experience seeps into their souls and one understands another on a visceral level” (Kendall Wilcox, personal correspondence, September 2019.)  A love that is as imaginative as it needs to be to hear, to be present for, and to act in support of another. I’m thinking of a love that may not arrive at agreement, but loves undeterred.

Love is simple in one sense, of course, and some children are naturals at it. We all have radar that helps us sense authentic or faux expressions of this term, no matter what words, even well-intended words, are expressed. Because there are untold ways for spoken “love” to run askew, may I conclude by positing two observations? The first is that it is not an inevitable conclusion that more (even authentic) love on the part of straight and LGBTQ church members will yield agreement on the proposition that God approves or disapproves of gay marriage. For some time to come we may have to enact a better love than we have thus far managed, even in disagreement.

The second observation is that our LGBTQ friends, who commonly know ill-treatment, do not always sense love in every case where it is verbally uttered.  Here are two examples, borrowed from confiding friends, of how professed love can come across to them:

“Maybe before you say to an LGBTQ person trying to live by church rules that ‘We understand’ and ‘We sympathize’ and ‘Don’t let your gender be the whole of your identity,’ you should volunteer to live celibately and apart from your spouse for a long season each year.”

For many (most) LGBTQ Latter-day Saints and their loved ones, no amount of listening with empathy and love can adequately assuage the pain of repeatedly hearing “clearly taught truth” that says our sexuality and gender expression are not fully welcome in the church today and will be “perfected” (read: erased) in the eternities. Reminding us perpetually of our “eternal identity as children of loving heavenly parents” seems to be another way of saying that we are children of God…created as mistakes. This can be demoralizing to LGBTQ members who know that they have not chosen to be gay or transgender and who work for years to feel peace about how they experience their sexuality and gender. We are told to find some peace with who we are now, in this mortal and fallen state of being gay or transgender, while also finding hope in being perfected in the next life – [i.e., made straight….] That can feel discombobulating on the best days … soul crushing on the worst days.

Whether it is accurate to infer that the church’s position implies correction of a disordered sexual orientation in heaven is a separable question. My friend’s lament nonetheless reflects a common understanding held by both straight and gay members of the church. Hence the trauma of enforced celibacy expressed above captures what it can feel like to be a gay person in a church framework. This means that members of the church, like me, face hurdles as we seek to enact, rather than merely to pronounce, love and empathy. How shall we proceed?  

For the moment, let us listen well to each other today. Let us find the instruction inherent in these lives we are about to glimpse. Let us absorb and question and converse with the scholars who can help our field of sight.  Let us, by the end the day, somehow be better prepared to face these hurdles together. 

And for those among us who aspire to Christian discipleship and who also respect the authority of church leaders, perhaps we can ponder, with righteous discontent at our own understanding, a new yet ancient injunction. Of all the many laws in the Hebrew biblical tradition (613 by Talmudic count), their foundation for many centuries before Christ were two: love of God and of neighbor, whom people were to love as themselves. Given the deeply entrenched primacy of those two commandments for every Jew long before the mortal Jesus, exactly what was “new” when Christ declared, “A new commandment I give to you: that you love one another as I have loved you”? 

What manner of love is this?  What is its character, distinct from what has preceded it? How shall we enact such new love in the present circumstances?