Church in Trans*ition: An Interview With H. Adam Ackley

On 2013-10-15-1383015_170403609828212_352867380_n.jpg Friday, October 4, Professor H. Adam Ackley said a painful farewell to students, alumni and colleagues after 15 years of serving Azusa Pacific University (APU) as Professor of Theology. The break came after Dr. Ackley, formerly, Heather Clements, informed the administration that he would eventually be changing his name to H. Adam Ackley, a step he says he still has not taken. It is still unclear what policy or ethical position Ackley has violated but he has nonetheless agreed to step aside.

Ackely's termination from APU is one more example of the growing fallout within the evangelical Christian community over issues of gender and sexuality. Yet, his story is unique, as you will see. He makes no effort to universalize his experience and resists all prescriptive statements, focusing instead on his own covenant responsibilities as a Christian. This is sure to frustrate his supporters and other activists who will lift up the injustice of this situation.

Ackley has recently agreed to be a speaker at the Level Ground Film Festival in February 2014, the first and only faith-based LGBT film festival in the world, designed to create safe space for conversation through the arts. "He epitomizes the kind of voice that Level Ground is seeking," say co-founders Chelsea McInturff and Samantha Curley. (If you would like to support Professor Ackley and this important conversation by creating level ground for conversation, you will want to support the film festival. For more information and to donate, click here).

I sat down with Professor Ackley for lunch last week to ask him how he was doing and what he thinks is ahead for the Christian church. Here he is, for the first time after losing his job at APU, in his own words. For the full length interview click here.

RB: You've made some big changes in your life recently, leaving your position at Azusa Pacific University where you taught theology for 15 years. How are you holding up?

AA: By the grace of God, I am still living one day, sometimes one moment, at a time. I haven't knowingly sought any change in my life but have had to adapt to those that have occurred, and in my more serene and obedient moments, I am able to trust that these changes must be God's will. In my moments of struggle, I am at least willing to believe that and wait till I come to peace and acceptance. The change that I made almost a year ago was to stop fighting God to conform to the expectations of others out of my fear of the very things that have recently occurred in my life and to surrender to a possibility to suggested to me by two spiritual mentors -- to pray with trust that God made me as I am (ambiguously gendered) on purpose and not only to accept God's creativity and will and love in that but to learn to be grateful for it. That was a tremendous change, because I had been wrestling with God trying to impose my will (gender conformity) for the entire thirty years of my Christian life.

RB: What advice do you have for the church as it's facing some issues, more accurately, people -- gay, lesbian and trans* members in their midst -- who they have been able to ignore for a very long time?

AA: As one of the more unseemly members of the Body of Christ Paul references in 1 Cor. 12.23, I recognize that I have no right to give advice to those members of Christ's Body who are more honored. As an Anabaptist Christian in the historic peace tradition of the Church, I believe in communal discernment and in living according to the teachings and example of Jesus in the New Testament, therefore I continue to work with the Church toward consensus around the things Jesus taught, like welcoming all people (Luke 14), especially those most often excluded or "lost" to God (Luke 15). To be honest, I don't understand why issues of gender are an issue that divides the Body of Christ or causes others to do so, especially given what Jesus teaches about welcoming all in these parables and what Paul teaches about the insignificance of gender in the community of the Redeemed in Galatians 3.28. And I also don't understand why culturally-constructed definitions of sexual partnership that are not biblical language but rather neologisms of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century West that focus on gender are imported into the Church's discussion of human sexuality. When we clearly come to understand that biblically and medically, gender is not always binary but is rather ambiguous -- particularly in one percent of people who simply can't fit in either category because God didn't make us that way, then recent cultural definitions of sexual partnership strictly defined by gender don't really make sense and can't be worth importing now into our Christ-centered biblical practices as a Christian community where they have never been before and clearly aren't helping us in any way.

RB: What are the 1 or 2 things the church can and should do, in your opinion, to be open to what the Spirit is doing in our time and place?

AA: I will continue to hope we can together remind the Church of the teachings of Her Lord which she seems to have forgotten. (I choose to believe that rather than that She is willfully ignoring Him.) In particular, those of us who remember what Jesus taught in Matthew 18 can help our Church remember how to dialogue with those She finds to be in violation of Her teachings, with the goal of restoration of the relationship just as Jesus taught. Those who are persecuted by the Church need comforting, to be reminded that Jesus is the Shepherd who runs after the one who is cast out instead of staying fenced in with the ninety-nine who are comfortable (Luke 15) and that we are all called to love those who persecute us with perfect Godly love (Matthew 5) no matter how much they hurt us. Sharing the teachings of those who have managed to remain Christian and love as He did under the fire of bigotry and persecution (Thurman, King) is imperative to help us remember that this task is not impossible, no matter how fatiguing it seems.

RB: What do you think is the source of the fear in the Christian community about questions of gender and sexuality (actually all sorts of difficult questions, but let's focus on gender and sexuality)? We expect our politicians to talk even when they don't like the position of their opponent in the conversation.

AA: The Bible tells me that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4.16-18). So I really worry when Christians behave in ways that indicate they are being ruled by fear. It tells me that they have not yet experienced God's perfect love. When someone doesn't know God's love yet and is still living in fear, I pray for that person and hope they will come to know God's perfect love. When they do, I believe that they will stop acting out of fear. All I know how to do in this situation right now is to pray for the fearful, to have mercy and compassion on them because they do not yet know the boundless love, grace and peace that have filled my life when I finally surrendered to God, let go of fear, and stepped into accepting the unconditional love of self, others, and God (agape).

Read the full length interview here.