LIVING IN ACT 4 OF A FIVE-ACT PLAY
Act 1 is the creation, from the beginnings of the whole 'cosmic canvas' to the emergence of consciousness and 'creatureliness as a companion to and reflection of God'. Act 2 is the long and convoluted Old Testament story of the Jewish people through enslavement, liberation, exile etc etc. Act 3 is obviously the story of Christ, the central act (for the Christian) of God's incarnation in our little world.
In Act 4 our vocation is not to look to a template of spotless purity or obedient citizenry but to allow ourselves to be swept up in the adventure of the kingdom, inaugurated in Jesus and completed on the last day; and our relationships are evaluated not by looking them up in the owner's manual but by communal discernment as to whether they strengthen the community in its daunting challenges to embody God's glorious future in an often hostile present.
Christian IdentityTo be a Christian, says Wells, is to switch (whether dramatically or gradually - dare one say? - or even imperceptibly) from seeing ourselves in a one-act play to this context of a five-act play and in particular to this 4th Act in which we have our existence, suspended between Acts 3 and 5. Since we only live in our own time we must take both what we believe about Act 3 and what we expect or hope for in Act 5 on faith, but as we have seen before at Wychwood Circle that is not to dismiss either as unreasonable or even improbable. What this vision does provide is an understanding of Christian identity. one where no single Act makes sense on its own or provides the definitions or rules that some may yearn for. And in Act 4, says Wells, there is both liberation and discipline, the latter being essentially the desire to be 'faithful to the character of God revealed in the first three acts' and anticipated in Act 5:
[B]eing a Christian in Act 4 doesn't mean keeping one's nose clean and holding one's distance from anyone who looks suspiciously like they might end up in the wrong queue on judgement day. On the contrary, it means finding ways to be with those with whom one will be spending eternity ...
Sexual IdentityAnd so to three judgement calls which we may be reluctant to make but which are essential to understanding sexual identity, both socially and theologically: 'The first call is whether sexuality is something you do or something you are'. The second is the relationship between LGBT people and the largely heterosexual society at large, particularly if sexual identity is integral to human identity. Wells gives three extended answers to this question, including this point, comparing humanity to a football team or a newspaper editorial process where there are many roles and many kinds of people are needed:
A narrow binary gender distinction between male and female impoverishes human life by assuming there are a very limited number of key activities and roles, focused around reproduction, security of shelter, food and clothing, and nurture of children. But in most of the world today the understanding of human flourishing goes beyond these narrow Darwinian contours of personal and species survival.
So for Wells, while the church should be asking itself what kind of people it needs to fulfill its mission in Act 4 - by implication, all sorts, obviously, all of whom bring unique strenghts and insights - individual Christians may also ask themselves (in words resonant of the Book of Common Prayer), 'what kind of a life do I need to live if I am going to support such a community and in its service find perfect freedom?'
'In the front seat of the van'And the role of LGBT people? Well, they should know about being marginalised and scapegoated, rather like 'those people closest to Jesus' heart, Jesus' company and Jesus' ministry'. They also by their very nature 'break the assumption that human existence is indelibly tied to reproduction'. And his third point is perhaps uniquely perceptive and relates back to the first chapter in Part Two, on Family and the breakdown of the so-called nuclear, or industrial, family 'which no longer reflects the social and economic reality of a critical mass of the population' (p 68):
LGBT people are ahead of the majority population in exploring the longevity and sustainability of desire and tenderness that is neither upheld by the sanction of social endorsement nor cemented by the responsibility of offspring and nurture.
Redefining marriage and the shape of the post-industrial family?Nothing pious or specifically for Christians or people of faith there: it's a social issue that we could all do with pondering. And on marriage, such a preoccupation of the poor old Church of England if not for the rest of us, (and the theme of a separate chapter):
[P]erhaps the question in our generation should not be 'Have LGBT people any right to be married?', but rather 'Can the church begin to redefine marriage for a very different era without the wisdom and experience LGBT people can bring?'In a book that bravely tackles a whole range of issues, mostly in chapters of five or six pages, this chapter is unique, as well as central, in occupying nearly 17 pages. It is almost as if the rest of the book has been constructed around it - but that is a wild guess if ever there was one. Relevant as 'identity' is in our culture, it could nevertheless be the one topic which we should recommend to others who may not want to read the remaining 26. But that is to prejudge what gems may yet emerge in later, denser chapters.