By Becky Ankeny. Meetinghouse, 2017. 42 pages. $3/pamphlet; free eBook.
Evangelical Friends in Northwest Yearly Meeting have for some time experienced schismatic turmoil over the issue of same-sex marriage—or, as Becky Ankeny puts it, “full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church.” Although it goes unmentioned in A Leisurely Introduction, it is within this context that Ankeny, general superintendent of the yearly meeting, has written this study guide, which is intended for those “on the fence.” By this, she means Christian readers who are sympathetic to gay rights but afraid they might “throw out the Bible as a source of guidance.” During her yearly meeting debates, Ankeny argued that “the central themes of the Bible support full inclusion.”
The book is essentially composed of various thematic groupings of biblical references, but the value results from the way in which Ankeny not only paraphrases these passages, but boldly extends each one through her own interpretation. It’s not clear to me how well this will play with her audience, but then, I am not a product of evangelical culture.
In addition to such thematic collections, there are some more technical appendices that discuss homophobia in the various ancient cultures that produced the Bible. And then there are general introductory sections. One offers the observation that biblical rhetoric depends largely upon analogy: “Analogy usually convinces through emotion and imagination, since it is not primarily logical or rational.” Another mentions what psychology tells us about human decision making, for example, the notion of “confirmation bias.” It’s a shortcoming of the book that insights like these are not treated at greater length. Another shortcoming is that the sections devoted to sin take up disproportionate space; are vague, wide-ranging, and ambiguous; and their pertinence to the issue at hand remains unclear.
It is noteworthy that this curious little book does not make overt references to Quakerism. For this reason, it is an interesting exercise to recognize implicitly, or between the lines, so many vital foundational principles of Quaker theology in it. To a naïve eye, they may seem like innocuous commonplaces, but I can recognize them as restatements of dramatic and powerful arguments from the Hicksite schism, which led the Orthodox to react with horror over the “licentious” implications of freedom of conscience under the guidance of the Inner Light: Elias Hicks’s Perfectionism (his proposal that the believer can progress to a sinless state, 1 John 3:4–5); the Hicksite insistence that nothing is a priori unclean (Romans 14:14); the Friendly conviction that laws are meant to serve human dignity, and not the other way around (Mark 2:27); the reminder that the greatest law is the law of Brotherly Love of God and neighbor (Matthew 22:36–40); and of course, that central foundation of Quakerism, “the Light of the World” in human conscience (John 10:27; John 8:12).
I find it particularly striking that when Ankeny stresses the importance of not judging others (Matthew 7:1–3), she adds, “Our neighbors are responsible to God for their own relationships to God.” Hicks insisted on this point in 1824, asking his flock: “How then shall we undertake to give a brother or a father a belief? If we do it, what wicked and presumptuous creatures we are, because we take the place of God … Mind thy own business.”
In conclusion, the book’s strengths are its good ideas and very powerful theology; its problem is that they receive such cursory treatment. That leads to a certain lack of framing and perspective. A prime example of this is Ankeny’s fleeting reference to the possibility that the eunuchs mentioned so frequently in the Bible were not literally castrated, but that this was period slang for “gay.”
Ankeny’s book would be more powerful if she had expanded more upon the most critical message: “Encouraging gay and lesbian humans to enter marriage invites them into a good way of life that heterosexuals ought not to withhold.” As a gay Quaker, I can affirm that this is truly the ultimate question, because conservatives believe same-sex love leads away from God, while our own testimony—to all those who have ears to hear—is that our love leads us very much toward God.
In the end, the conclusion of Ankeny’s valuable and thought-provoking contribution rings perfectly true with the values shared by every Friend: “The key is to be in personal relationship to God, where one listens to God and does what one hears God say.”