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Dec 20, 2013 | Friar Trent Hale, OSF

Commentary: Phil Robertson, Won't You Join Me for Dinner?

Friar Trent Hale, OSF

As a young, gay Episcopalian, theological debate about homosexuality is not just another issue of exegesis or ethics: it is an issue of my tangible reality. When I hear people discussing “homosexuality,” I hear them discussing “Trent Hale.” In response to the current debate in regards to Phil Robertson's statements on homosexuality, I desire not to submit yet another rant about why my theological conclusions or interpretations of scripture are better or truer than those of another person or group, but I wish to do what is at the heart of Sacred Scripture: share a story.


I was raised Roman Catholic. I loved my parish community, and I spent my high school years serving that body of Christ-followers. After high school, I joined an order of Franciscan friars and attended seminary. It was in that support community that I was able to come to terms with my sexual orientation. I was taught by my confreres to be grateful and rejoice in my God-given sexuality.


After discerning to leave the order and the seminary program, I returned to my parish community. I publicly came out to friends and my parish, and I thought I would be able to return to being an active participant in the life of the Church. I was wrong. I was asked to give up my public ministry, and I was clearly given the message that I was to take my rightful place on the margins of the Church. I have never before felt such immense pain, anger, and betrayal than by having a community, to whom I gave so much of my life, quickly push me aside when I no longer fit into their clean model of conformity. This pain and grief was quickly healed by the embracing and loving arms of the Episcopal Church. In this prophetic communion I found Christ-followers who were brave enough to simply hold and embrace me without any requirement that I fit into an “ideological mold,” if you will.


This journey of reconciliation came to beautiful resurrection in my recent reception into the Episcopal Church. At this liturgy, I was surrounded by loving brothers and sisters of Faith who continued to embrace me unconditionally. I might also add, my partner, an active leader in the United Methodist Church, was also present, and I am sure he received as many smiles and hugs as I did–this is Church!


Bishop Fisher reminded us of something extremely important before the liturgy. He reminded us that the Anglican tradition is a tradition of “both and.” My current Episcopal parish is certainly a sign of this tradition. Our little community has such a wide variety of characters that it is at times laughable that we should all be associated somehow. We come from every socioeconomic, political, and religious background imaginable. We bring to the table different theological ideas, liturgical tastes, and certainly very different personalities. We are young and old. We are conservative and liberal. We are men and women. We are gay and straight. We are a messy church with no clear-cut mold into which everyone must fit. Amazingly, we still respect everyone’s right to do ministry and to be a first class citizen of the Church. Though we are “all over the place,” we find our unity in the Eucharist. This is the beauty of our Episcopal tradition! This is the Church that I first fell in love with!


So what does this story have to do with the public debate raging on about scripture, the theological implications of homosexuality, or the “limits” of free speech? Well, not much really! The funny thing about public debate is that it becomes quite a bit of talking and very little listening to and appreciating the present reality. What is missed in all of this debate is the bigger picture, the messier picture and harder truth that no one wants to address. Picking sides and slinging around statements that claim that we have the absolute, infallible, and always-applicable truth is merely a vain attempt to make perfect and certain that which will always be imperfect and uncertain–our humanity.


A friar once told me: “Sitting down to a meal with someone is the most authentic and vulnerable action someone can do because we are eating in front of another person. Every time we place a piece of food in our mouths we are saying to the person across the table: ‘I am hungry. I thirst. I have needs. I am vulnerable. I am dependent. I am feeble. I am not indestructible.’” How much more appropriate it would be for us, then, to respond to theological disagreement (or disagreement of any kind for that matter) by coming to the table of Christ’s Body and Blood? In light of recent public debate, I have no desire to change Phil Robertson’s mind on any topic. My desire is to sit down and eat a meal with him. It is in that moment we can both realize the big issue--we’re both utterly lost and in need of a Savior.


So what should our response be as Episcopalians? Well, quite frankly, exactly what we’ve been doing: being the messy, outrageously diverse, and lovable communion we all know we are. I did not join the Episcopal Church because everyone was like me or agreed with me, but I did join this community because I knew I didn’t have to live in fear. I knew I didn’t have to hide parts of myself. I knew I could be in disagreement with some of my fellow Episcopalians, but we could still sit down at the table of Christ’s body and blood. This body of Christians is a big enough communion that the Bishop Gene Robinsons and the Phil Robertsons of the world should both feel equally welcomed, loved, respected, and allowed to participate fully in the life of the Church.


This need to have questions settled once and for all is a perverse and vain obsession of our human condition. I invite Episcopalians into the deep end of the pool where these public debates don’t matter, because ultimately we can, together, sit around the altar and say to one another: “I don’t know. I’m lost. I’m broken. Won’t you join me in falling completely on the gift of God’s unconditional love?” What an exciting message we are in a position to bring to this debate! We are able to say: “This doesn’t really matter! Let us love God and our neighbors as best as we can, and we will see one another on Sunday for a beautiful meal!”


Friar Trent Hale is a member of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Huntsville as well as the Sam Houston State University Episcopal Student Center. The views expressed on this reflection are Trent Hale's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Order of St. Francis or its Brothers.