On January 19, 2021, the College of Bishops of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) released a pastoral letter providing guidance titled, SEXUALITY AND IDENTITY: A PASTORAL STATEMENT FROM THE COLLEGE OF BISHOPS.
In this pastoral statement, we seek to address the need we perceive for greater clarity regarding pastoral ministry to those who self-identify as Christians and who are same-sex attracted, especially those within our greater ACNA flock. We understand that there are other matters of grave importance within the larger context of human sexuality (such as gender dysphoria and bisexuality), but these matters are beyond the scope of this statement.
In our statement we desire to answer the pressing questions for our Church: What should our biblical and pastoral response be to those within our Church who self-identify as Christians with same-sex attraction? This raises two more related questions: What is the biblical vision for transformation with regard to same-sex attraction? What is the most helpful language to employ in describing the reality of same-sex attraction?
Under “Identity and Language,” the letter states, in part (emphasis mine):
We, therefore, believe it is our responsibility to provide direction and speak clearly as the Church navigates these crucial and important matters. We point out three problems we see biblically and historically with using such designations as “gay Christian,” and, for that matter, “same-sex attracted believer.”
One, there is the confusion caused by lack of definition and common understanding of designations such as “gay Christian,” and “same-sex attracted believer.” An associated issue follows: who would ultimately determine the definition that the rest of Christianity would use? The plain sense of such designations is simply a reference to those of the same sex with a particular sexual desire of being attracted to each other. The additional complication with these phrases is that the LGBT community at large does not distinguish living the lifestyle of a gay person from someone only having same-sex attraction. Certain Christian groups seem to be the only ones attempting to nuance gay behavior from same-sex attraction. The Christian community, however, is left without a commonly understood meaning. Confusion, misunderstanding, and misperception have resulted. This is the problem with using non-biblical and non-historical language in defining Christians and their groups.
Two, beyond the challenges of common understanding of the terms, in the Bible and in the history of Christianity, we do not find the people of God defining themselves or forming relationships and communities according to sexual desire and attractions. Instead, relationships and communities are defined in terms of commonly shared beliefs, prayer, commitments, and service.
It is true that Christians have historically entered into communities with others. These communities throughout the history of Christianity are most commonly known as monastic. Yet the power of the monastic movements, originating in the time of the Roman Empire and continuing to the present, is the non-attractional basis for them. Most of them did form with same-sex communities, but they did not ever call themselves any name associated with sexual desire. Furthermore, not all in those communities had the same natural sexual attractions. Even though celibate, their original purposes had nothing to do with sexual inclination and attraction. Instead, they identified themselves around prayer, a particular rule of life, commonly shared commitments, service, and work for God and for others. Their celibate lives were focused in same-sex communities together to foster worship, devotion, witness, work, and charity. Specific vows were required to guard these pure commitments of life and service together: chastity, poverty, and obedience. If anything, the monastics demonstrate the wisdom of forming a community rooted not in attraction. The vows offset attractional lifestyles oriented to money, sex, and power with poverty, chastity, and obedience in order to shape a person into a pure servant of God and not one driven by natural desires.
Three, there is also the concern we have with adding more adjectives to describe different sorts of Christians. Weighing the biblical testimony, we certainly cannot in good conscience encourage more such modifiers without biblical or historical precedent. Designations such as “gay Christian,” or “same-sex attracted Christian” are simply not what the spirit of the New Testament offers as a way of defining a Christian or his/her community. We are not ultimately “gay Christians” or “same-sex attracted Christians;” we are Christians. We are men and women whose lives are hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:3). Our journey of transformation is a pilgrimage in which we count all things rubbish for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:8). This is why the only name commended in Scripture to take over our identity is “Christ-in-one,” (Christian).
We appreciate that for some these designations have missional uses, especially when engaging unbelievers and new believers. Still, we do not believe it wise nor commendable to adopt categorically the language of “gay Christian,” or “same-sex attracted Christian” as the default description for those who experience same-sex attraction within the ACNA. At the same time, we seek to respect those within our ACNA family who may disagree with our conclusions and yet remain true to the biblical witness regarding Christian marriage. As bishops, we are not seeking to win a debate. Instead, we desire to proceed cautiously and build the greatest degree of unity possible among biblically faithful Christians.
No doubt the issue of the use of language to describe our identity in Jesus is urgently pressing in our current cultural milieu. Identity has become a kind of idolatry wherein one is taught to choose, nurture, and proclaim a certain type of personhood. This then becomes a sacred position that cannot be questioned.
Amid the resulting personal destruction of such an idolatry comes the great gift of the Gospel. Jesus has saved us from making our own identity; he has given us his identity. As bishops, we recognize the urgency to bolster this life-giving proclamation and to bring biblical clarity wherever this may become confused. To insist on the adjective “gay,” with all of its cultural attachments, is problematic to the point that we cannot affirm its usage in relation to the word “Christian.”
Despite the guidance from the College of Bishops, a small group within the ACNA issued a letter on February 22, 2021, titled, Dear Gay Anglicans. In a clear, “in your face” act of defiance, the author replaced the word “Christian” with “Anglican.” Such a stunt would be expected from a rebellious juvenile; not so much from adults within the ministry of Jesus Christ. The matter is only compounded by seemingly, in my opinion, pretending to be innocent in this matter.
On February 23, 2021, ACNA Archbishop Foley Beach issued a letter in response to the Dear Gay Anglicans letter. It read, in part (emphasis mine):
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I am writing today to address a letter which was put out yesterday via social media. A group led by aspirant, Pieter Valk, has put out a letter entitled, Dear Gay Anglicans, in response to the College of Bishops’ pastoral letter on identity…
While it says they are not undermining our Pastoral Statement, they actually are. Replacing “gay Christian” with “gay Anglican” is pretty much in your face. My immediate reaction to the letter was that it was pretty benign and wasn’t going to change anything about what we teach.
However, it has already had international ramifications. I have had to deal with two provinces already (actually now three as of a few minutes ago) — and this is just the first day. In many of our partner provinces, the practice of homosexuality is against the law, and to make matters more difficult, they usually don’t understand the nuances of the word “gay” or “homosexual attraction” — they just hear the practice of same-sex immorality.
Some of our clergy signed onto this letter, and I do not want you to ostracize them or condemn them. They have signed this in good faith, and you and I need to listen to them. You do not have to agree, but as Christians, we need to learn again how to discuss issues with those we disagree with — and then be able to continue to love and care for them. However, if you are one of the clergy who signed on to this, I expect you to send me an email explaining why you signed a letter and beginning a private, non-punitive, conversation with me about your concerns…
Lastly, may I suggest for those who are really invested in these issues, to meet and actually study the bishop’s statement, unpack it, and seek to really understand what we are saying to the Church.
It is Lent — Time for prayer, repentance, a dose of humility, study of Holy Scripture, and sacrificial giving of ourselves and possessions.
On February 23, 2021, the author of the Dear Gay Anglicans letter, Pieter Valk, announced that he had taken the letter down at the request of his bishop. The following day, Valk added further explanation.
What I find most concerning about Valk’s explanation is that he frames our fellow Anglican provinces located in Africa as the primary causal factor for the removal of the Dear Gay Anglicans letter. To do so is misleading. This will be the subject of Part II.
I wish to close with a prayer.