Listening In Church

In new book, Theology's Rev. Hefling and others agree to disagree on sexuality issues in the Episcopal church

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

The turmoil in Christian churches over issues of sexuality - such as same-sex unions and ordination of gay men and women - may not be resolved easily, says Assoc. Prof. Charles Hefling (Theology), but it could provide a basis for a much-needed, and perhaps ultimately transforming, dialogue.

"Throughout history, Christians have been embroiled in one dispute or another," Rev. Hefling, an Episcopal priest, explained. "Those quarrels may have been unedifying, but in the long run they helped to refine and clarify what Christianity is, and what it is for."

In that spirit, Rev. Hefling conceived, edited and contributed to a recently published book of essays, Our Selves, Our Souls and Bodies: Sexuality and the Household of God . While the book takes its cue in part from developments in the Episcopalian church, and its authors are all Anglican, Rev. Hefling feels Our Selves, Our Souls and Bodies can speak to a diverse audience.

Similarly, although most of the essays deal with homosexuality, Rev. Hefling says the book addresses the wider question of how Christians should approach "sexuality in all its many-sided mysteriousness" both as individuals and as a group.

"Even in religious and theological circles, people tend to shout at one another when these issues are raised," he said. "It's quite understandable, because these are things you are passionate about, but this does not advance the discussion. We should not, however, give up. Instead, can we find a way to talk calmly and civilly with one another?

"That is the attitude with which the contributors to this book came," he continued. "No one feels he or she has the last word and we are all as willing to listen as talk."

Assoc. Prof. Charles Hefling (Theology)-"Even in religious and theological circles, people tend to shout at one another when these issues are raised."

The authors include an archbishop, a bishop, priests and faculty members from such institutions as Yale Divinity School, Catholic University of America and Virginia Theological Seminary. The book also features a study guide that individuals or groups can use to help further their own examinations of sexuality-related issues.

In planning the book, Rev. Hefling said he did not set out to obtain every possible viewpoint, although he feels the authors do offer a variety of opinions - not all of them in agreement. He also is pleased with the range of writing styles, from objective and scholarly to personal and experiential.

"You have narratives, arguments, first-person accounts, theological reasoning and pastoral reflection," he said. "What there is none of is diatribe."

Rev. Hefling's essay, "By Their Fruits: A Traditionalist Argument," exemplifies the book's intent to downplay the controversy over homosexuality and offer thoughtful insight. Rather than assessing the merits of Christianity's stance on homosexuality, Rev. Hefling examines how its tradition and doctrine have evolved in other areas, such as usury. The changes in Christian moral teaching on taking a profit on a loan of money, he said, could serve as a basis for revising traditional judgments on homosexuality.

"I'm interested in doctrine and the fact that doctrine develops and changes over time," Rev. Hefling said. "These are not merely opinions but formal teachings of the church. I suggest simply that it's not beyond the realm of possibility, that there are reasonable grounds for change."

One of the more heartfelt essays, "Christian Parenting and the (Gay) Child," resulted from an experience which served as a major inspiration for the book, Rev. Hefling said. He and the author, long-time acquaintance James Robertson Price III, were discussing family life a few years ago when Price revealed that his son had recently announced he was gay.

"He said, 'What do I do as a Christian parent? How do I begin to think about this?'" Rev. Hefling recalled. "He felt it was an important question: If you are a Christian parent whose child is gay or lesbian, how might the teachings of the tradition help you respond to potential conflict with your child?

"In the past couple of decades, we have been seeing this happen more and more, where people are affirming their sexuality publicly as well as privately," he said. "It means there is a great reexamination taking place and that is another reason why we, as a church and even as a society, need to have a conversation rather than an argument."

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