It is well for us to begin by placing on the table some of our basic presuppositions and expectations.
We are all here out of a sincere desire to know and do the will of the Lord. We are not facing off against one another. Rather, we want to search together for a better understanding of ourselves and of others. Most of all we want to gain greater certainty about God's plan and good will for humanity. As members of the church, we yearn to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes we think we know so clearly what it is that God would have us believe and do. When we face unprecedented problems, we are prone to get confused and to lose our sense of direction. To gather for study and reflection is to acknowledge that we do not have all the answers we would like to have.
It is an honest and honourable thing to acknowledge our personal inadequacies. More than that, it is salutary for us to be reminded that our righteousness before God is not based on our knowing and doing, or even on our believing. We are saved by the grace of God, not by an act of our own believing the right things. We confess with Paul that we are often so confused that we don't even know how or for what we should pray (Romans 8:26-30).
Bias is another word for "point of view." Everyone has a point of view. That, too, is not a bad thing. In fact it is unavoidable. Our point of view is largely a result of our past history, our upbringing, and our past experiences within the community of faith.
Usually it is not appropriate to say that one point of view is right and other points of view must therefore be wrong. Of course, there are some biases which hurt our neighbour and cause suffering for the body of Christ. A racist or sexist bias is clearly irreconcilable with the gospel according to which there is no longer Jew or Greek, male and female (Galatians 3:28). Thus we need to examine periodically what our viewpoints are, how well founded they are, and how well they agree with the gospel.
In many cases it is not necessary that we all have the same point of view. For example, some of us have grown up with a strong liturgical tradition and have come to associate deep religious experiences with liturgy and organ music. Others find that sort of thing lifeless. Real worship, according to another view, is associated with clapping of hands, the strumming of a guitar, and extemporaneous, from the heart, prayer. Still others value silence and meditation as a primary part of their worship. Most of us will probably agree that none of these points of view is either right or wrong. Nevertheless each point of view exerts a powerful influence on our perception and emotion.
It is only fair that we identify the viewpoint from which these studies are written. We proceed on the assumption that the church is strengthened when Christian brothers and sisters acknowledge and honestly wrestle with their diversity of convictions "making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:3).
Accordingly, we want to take a mediating position. We will try to present the various sides of the relevant arguments in as faithful a manner as we are able. In so doing, we want to help the partners in the discussion to take ownership of their own convictions and to identify the central questions which are at stake.
The purpose of these studies is not to convert people to our own point of view. Rather, we all desire to explore what our convictions and insights are and why we hold them. In the end we may see a need to modify our attitude on certain issues. Whether or not that is the case remains to be seen.
Our baptism into Christ has made us all one in Christ. As members of the one body we realize our dependence on one another. The Body of Christ has need of eyes and hands, ears and feet, heads and hearts. Everyone has a gift to offer, a gift which the rest of the body needs desperately. We do get into one another's hair, at times. That is not necessarily a bad thing. We can see our debates not as evidence of alienation or hostility, but as a sign that we take each other seriously and want to learn from one another's insights as well as from each other's faults.
"Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me." We know this saying is not true. Words can hurt, and hurt very deeply. If we do not want to offend or to be offended unneces-sarily, we should pay attention to the words we use. It is not enough that we use words which feel right to us. We need to be sensitive to how words are perceived by others. If we want to make progress in our discussion, we need to use language which is precise and which does not devalue the other person. This applies equally to people on all sides of the debate. Let us remember that some of those gathered for discussion may be gay themselves, or they may wonder whether they might be.
Language changes constantly. Words which at one time were neutral can become offensive and vice versa. New words are created and old words acquire new meaning. While the Glossary at the end of this book attempts to provide some help, it will no doubt be outdated within a relatively short time. We need to be sensitive about such things.
When Christians study any given subject in the hope of discerning the will of God, they ask God to speak to them through the Scriptures, through the witness of the Holy Spirit, and through the insight of Christian brothers and sisters throughout the ages.
These three things are inseparable: scripture, Holy Spirit, and Christian community. To discern the will of God, we need to listen to all three voices. Our Christian brothers and sisters play an important role in our listening to God. We need to hear how scripture and the Holy Spirit speak to them. The Holy Spirit works also in the people with whom we disagree. When we voice our disagreements, we come to a better understanding of what unites us. This is how the Council of Nicea came to agree on the Nicene Creed which has become a cornerstone of Christian doctrine.
God does not make things easy for us. However we have the promise of Jesus that where two or three are gathered in his name, there he will be present among us.
It is very important in this process that we pay particular attention when our partner in dialog espouses a position which makes us uncomfortable. This applies equally to people on the left and people on the right of the theological spectrum.
To make desirable progress, it is important that we maintain the appropriate focus. We want to deal with issues rather than with personalities. We are not in competition with one another to determine who is right and who is wrong, who wins and who loses. We are together in our search for greater clarity. If we do our work carefully, we will all win in the end.
The subject of homosexuality is sometimes hotly debated in the church and in society generally. Much is being written both in defense of certain viewpoints and as attack on them. Often emotion and our presuppositions threaten to get the better of us. Whatever our position, none of us is immune from making distorted claims and defending them tenaciously.
This can cause frustration. How is one to adjudicate between competing claims unless one is an expert in the discipline?It does not help that even the experts disagree on important points of research.
In our searching we can be sustained by the assurance of Jesus that where two or three are gathered in his name, there he will be personally present (Matthew 18:20). We cling to the promise that God will send the Holy Spirit who will guide us into all the truth (John 16:13). We are on a difficult journey, but we do not walk in darkness.
We need to keep an open mind, to watch developments as they unfold, to listen critically to dissenting voices, and to reserve the right to change our mind as we proceed.
Regular exercise builds stronger muscles and a healthier body. A physical workout produces not only a physically more fit heart, it also raises one's spirit and level of energy. This is true not only in the physical but also in the spiritual realm. Regular exercise of our mind, our emotion, and our faith also makes us stronger and more ready to take on still more demanding tasks in the future. By engaging in this series of studies we can expect to become more fit to tackle even more difficult ethical and theological tasks in the future.
We gain a proper perspective when we gather at the foot of the cross to worship. These studies are not a purely intellectual exercise. They are deeply interrelated with our spirituality. The group will decide when it is most appropriate to meditate and to pray during their study.
The Early Church experienced many internal tensions. In those struggles our Christian forebears learned to return to those things which are essential. There is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of us all (Ephesians 4:4-6).