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ARE WE AN INCLUSIVE CHURCH?

ARE WE AN INCLUSIVE CHURCH?

By the Rt. Rev. David J. Bena

January 28, 2004

Last week, as I was checking in at an airport, the airline staff person asked if I happened to be a Catholic or an Episcopal priest. When I said I was an Episcopalian, she responded, "Well, are you an inclusive Episcopalian or an exclusive Episcopalian?"

Sensing that I was being baited, I replied, "What does the word 'inclusive' mean to you?" She hesitated, and then said, "Oh, I don't know...a place here everybody can go and feel welcome."

"Good answer," I quickly shot back, "Then I am a part of the inclusive church...But tell me, when you say a place where everybody can go and feel welcome, do you mean that there should be no rules regarding ethical behavior for the members of the church? Is it OK for someone to come every week and steal a purse on the way out? Do we need to teach him some ethics about stealing being wrong, even though some would say that kleptomaniacs don't choose that lifestyle - it just seems to be with them from birth?"

"Well, of course we have to have rules. I don't want someone stealing my purse. What I'm talking about is an inclusive church that welcomes everyone in spite of their sexual proclivities."

"Oh," I responded slowly, "so actually, when you say inclusive church, you're really confining it to a SEXUALLY inclusive church?" "Right!" she said gleefully, seeing that she had made contact!

"OK, now let's look at that. Do you mean there should be no rules regarding sexual behavior? Is it OK for another woman in the pew to hit on your husband? I've been told that some people find it impossible to sustain a life-long relationship with another person, and that they have within them an uncontrollable need to have multiple sexual relationships. If we find folks like that, should we say it is OK for them to commit adultery or go through a number of marriages and to feel really good about themselves in spite of that problem?"

"You are being difficult!" she responded impatiently. "Of course it would be wrong for someone to think that they can have my husband sexually. You know what I'm talking about - same sex!"

"So," I stated tentatively, "in your estimation, an inclusive church is simply a church where people can practice sex with people of the same gender and be told that it's perfectly normal."

"Well, not exactly. Only as long as they're wired that way, and then it would be OK."

"Three problems here," I said, as gently as I could. "One - there is no scientific evidence whatsoever that anyone is 'wired' that way. There is opinion, but no scientific evidence. While we do know about chromosomes and gender determination, we do NOT know about a gay gene - after extensive searching, no gay gene has been found. We really don't know why some people prefer same-sex relationships. It's possible that some were taught that way as children, that some were curious and got into the life style; that some craved a lost relationship with a parent; and that some do not remember a time when they were not drawn to same-sex relationships. That's the first problem - we don't know what causes it. The second problem is that, even if some may be 'wired' that way, that does not mean therefore that homosexual activity is an acceptable alternative lifestyle. It looks like some people are 'wired' to be lifelong pedophiles; some are 'wired' to have many sexual relationships at the same time; some are 'wired' to have an ongoing sexual relationship with both genders at the same time. Does being inclusive mean that there are no sexual standards beyond how one is 'wired?'

The Church has always tried to be compassionate and inclusive. But it does have a teaching responsibility. It has to hold up standards in a compassionate way...or there will be no standards at all. And the third major problem is that our Scriptures and Tradition hold up only heterosexual relationships as honorable. The whole theme of the bible (not just a few proof texts) about sexual activity is that it a gift of God to be shared between a man and a woman in a covenanted relationship.

What I'm saying is that we are inclusive, in that all are welcome to come worship, accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and be a part of the family. But just as a nuclear family has a teaching responsible, so does the Church. We need to, in a loving but firm way, teach the ethics and morals of the Historic Church, and raise up leaders who will model that behavior. To use a trite phrase: we need to love and welcome the seeker after truth, but not honor lifestyles that do not honor Christ. If we REALLY love seekers as Jesus loves them, we need to be teaching them and assisting them to break free from lifestyles that enslave them. And teachings from the scriptures are really the authoritative way we can do that. THAT is what really makes us an inclusive, loving Church."

"Thank you," she said, as she continued her work, pondering these things in her heart.

The Rt. Rev. David Bena is Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Albany, New York.

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