Article — From the June 2008 issue

Turning Away From Jesus

Gay rights and the war for the Episcopal Church

( 2 of 9 )

At its most recent meeting last March, the Episcopal House of Bishops passed a resolution urging Congress to override President Bush’s veto of a bill that would have outlawed the practice of waterboarding. The bishops might just as well have passed a courtesy resolution thanking the caterers for the cheese. What most of us reading the press releases wanted to know was whether and under what circumstances Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams would invite New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson to the Communion-wide Lambeth Conference to be held in England this July. Robinson’s consecration in 2003 as the first openly (and without the word openly you must lose the word first) gay and domestically partnered bishop in the Anglican Communion had led a number of American churches to break with the Episcopal Church[3] and to seek “alternative episcopal oversight” from bishops in Nigeria, Uganda, and elsewhere in the so-called Global South. One whole diocese, that of San Joaquin, California, had voted to realign itself with the South American Anglican Province of the Southern Cone; the dioceses of Fort Worth and Pittsburgh were threatening similar defections. Primates heading several Anglican provinces, most of them in Africa, had indicated their intention to boycott the Lambeth Conference to which Robinson had yet to be invited.

[3] The conservative American Anglican Council puts the number of breakaway churches at around 200; a spokesperson for the National Church estimated the more modest figure of twenty-five. There are around 7,200 churches in the Episcopal Church at this time.

Since 1867 leaders of those churches who find their common parentage in the Church of England have gone to Lambeth every ten years at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury in order to discuss their common concerns and to reaffirm what has come to be called the Communion’s “bonds of affection.”[4] The conference is no more a church council, in the sense of a doctrine-making body, than the Arch-bishop of Canterbury is a pontiff, in the sense of one man laying down the law. According to Gregory Cameron, deputy secretary general of the Communion and former chaplain to the current archbishop, “That’s not the way in which Anglicans behave.”

[4] The ten-year Lambeth cycle was interrupted by both world wars, but the conference has been held every decade without interruption since 1948.

But how Anglicans behave, both as a church body and as gendered individuals, has been at issue for some time. At the last Lambeth Conference, in 1998, for instance, bishops passed a set of controversial resolutions (Lambeth 1.10) affirming, among other things, that homosexual practice is contrary to the teaching of Scripture. This came as the result of some careful brokering by a minority of conservative clerics in the Episcopal Church USA, working in consort with leaders of the burgeoning and mostly conservative churches in the Global South during the years leading up to Lambeth. The other major issue at the conference, this one moving on the political trade winds from South to North, was a call for international debt relief. You can guess which of the two initiatives has had the smoother sailing.

Although Lambeth 1.10 was not binding on the Anglican Communion—an impossibility when member churches, especially in the North, are “episcopally led but synodically governed” (i.e., people in the pews get to vote)—the consecration of Gene Robinson five years later was seen in some quarters as a typical instance of American unilateralism in the face of a Communion-wide understanding.[5] Episcopal priest and scholar Ian Douglas, the only American on this year’s Lambeth design committee, recalls a meeting of international church leaders shortly after Robinson’s consecration during which one participant told him, “For us, there’s no difference between Gene Robinson and George Bush.”

[5] Another contributing factor was the 2002 vote of the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster to authorize rites for the blessing of same-sex unions, a practice that takes place in certain U.S. Episcopal churches but with no formally recognized rite. The “Robinson event” probably achieved more attention because it was American, personal, and episcopal in the sense of having to do with a bishop. Bishops represent the point at which the local church meets the larger church. 

Given that perception, it was hardly a surprise to learn at the House of Bishops meeting in March that Robinson was not to be seated at Lambeth and that efforts to include him in a limited capacity (for example, in a Bible study group) had failed. Robinson finds all this dismaying, though perhaps no more so than the continued refusal of some of his brother bishops to take the sacrament of communion with their peers at House of Bishops meetings in the United States, a withdrawal that in some cases predates his consecration.

“Episcopalians disagree about everything from stem-cell research to abortion to who should be president to whether or not we should be in Iraq,” he told me. “And then as humbly as possible we find our way to the communion rail and kneel and receive the Body and Blood of Christ and find our unity there, and then we go back to our pews and fight about stem-cell research and abortion and who should be president. That is our great tradition. If the Anglican Communion has anything to offer the world, I think that’s it—and that is now all up for grabs.”

That this should be so is no more easily explained than the polarized politics of America. The revision of the Prayer Book in 1979, the ordination of women—first irregularly in 1974 and then canonically in 1976—have been cited as precipitating causes of the current rift. Several of my sources agree with Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church Katharine Jefferts Schori (whose election as the first woman primate in 2006 was also viewed by some as precipitous) that all of these changes might have been handled in a more “pastorally effective way”; that is, in a way more befitting the gentleness of a shepherd than the imperiousness of a shop boss.

For conservatives, though, any such pastoral explanation falls short; indeed, for dissident Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan, a key player in the attempt to carve out an Anglican province in America separate from the Episcopal Church, “the tragedy of this present moment is that in an attempt to be extraordinarily pastoral to one group of folks who are affectioned in a certain way, we have gone over the edge.” For Duncan, sexuality is merely the presenting issue of “the crisis.”

“First and foremost it’s about whether Jesus Christ is who he said he is. Is he the only way to the Father, the only Son of God? Is salvation through him alone? Secondly, it’s about the authority of Scripture. Can Holy Scripture be trusted? The third matter is whether in morality God has given some absolutes and expectations about how Christians are supposed to live, expectations that are more than just suggestions. It’s on that third level, but at all the levels, that the Gene Robinson event pushed the Episcopal Church over the cliff.”

In the light of Duncan’s characterization, the current rift in the Anglican Communion can be seen as a reopening of the wound that the “Elizabethan Settlement” of the sixteenth century was intended to heal.[6] Weary of bloody religious strife between Catholics who saw allegiance to Rome as essential to the legitimacy of the church and radical Protestants who saw Scripture as the only legitimate basis for authority within the church, the Elizabethan reformers struck a tentative compromise of public conformity and private conscience. Emphasizing a common language of worship and a common sacramental life as opposed to a common assent to doctrine, the via media (“middle way”) of the Settlement laid great stress on the Incarnation, the belief that in Christ the Word was made flesh. A focus on the Incarnation carries all kinds of implications, from a lesser tendency to view the political sphere as necessarily profane to a greater tendency to view gin and tonic as gifts of God. (“Wherever three or four Episcopalians are gathered together, there ye shall also find a fifth.”) Perhaps its greatest implication is that a Word made flesh is not a Word set in stone, much less a pretext for factional certainty. “Deem it not impossible,” wrote the Elizabethan divine Richard Hooker, “for you to err.”

[6] Traditionally, the basis of authority in the Anglican Communion has been described by the metaphor of a three-legged stool, consisting of Scripture, tradition, and reason. In the eyes of his adversaries, Duncan and others in his circle want to tip the stool up on one leg.

But it was not as if the Elizabethan Settlement settled all. People will sometimes speak as though the whole of England, pacified by the persuasive cadences of Hooker’s prose, decommissioned their gallows and gibbets and took up handbells and metaphysical poetry. In fact the Settlement was soon to be followed by a bloody civil war and a regicide, and later by a Methodist movement, an Anglo-Catholic movement, a “Catholic question,” and at the end of it all (and here the more restless segments of the Communion would do well to take note) a population famous the world over for avoiding churches like the plague. The issues of the English Reformation are no more settled than the issues of the American Civil War. What makes the present conflict new is its global dimensions. Most students of the Anglican crisis begin their accounts with the phenomenal growth of Christianity in the non-Western world. In 1960, after approximately 150 years of missionary work, there were 50 million Christians in Africa. Thirty years later the figure was 300 million. It was during this same period that most of the missions of the Church of England became autonomous provinces of the Communion as their respective nations gained independence. In other words, there has been and will continue to be a power shift from North to South in every branch of Christianity having global membership. This has been duly noted, not least of all in countries historically on the receiving end of Euro-American might and understandably keen to turn the tables. On the website for the Nigerian Anglican Church (now the second-largest province in the Communion at some 18 million strong), the biography page for Archbishop Peter Akinola gives boldface status to only two words in the text: power and clout (his).

Those are the very attributes, some say, that many conservative clerics in the American church feel they have been losing for the past thirty years. Barbara Harris, the first woman to be consecrated bishop in the Communion, has called the split in the American church “the death rattle of patriarchy,” perhaps confusing a rattle with a cackle. Many of the American dissidents belong to the evangelical wing of the church—the same wing that launched some of the most significant missionary efforts in Africa and elsewhere in the British Empire. Clergy in these younger churches tend to hold more traditionalist views on what Americans call social issues, though African Anglicanism is no more monolithic than its American counterpart. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for example, has compared homophobia to apartheid. Still, his stand is hardly typical of his continent, and it took no great leap of imagination for those losing the ideological war in the United States to wonder if they might fare better by forging alliances in warmer climes.

Some will find the idea of American conservatives using foreign bishops to support the interests of a white male hegemony in the Episcopal Church altogether preposterous, though it is perhaps no more preposterous—or less effective—than using the votes and tax dollars of working-class Americans to further the interests of the corporations that take away their jobs. It’s the old drill of building a network, capitalizing on the most divisive issues, and locating the funds.[7]

[7] In a 2005 online article “Following the Money,” Jim Naughton cited donations from non-Anglican, right-wing foundations to splinter groups like the American Anglican Council and to the Institute on Religion and Democracy, which began “an in-house effort called Episcopal Action.”

What would be preposterous, I think, is to see the strategic maneuvers of conservatives as motivated by anything less than the absolute sincerity of their beliefs. That a bishop would risk his church pension or that a congregation would risk losing its buildings and assets in order to retain some vague sense of “patriarchal power” seems like too little bang for the buck. For me, it is the methods more than the motives that invite scrutiny, and the similarity of these methods to those of corporate culture that has the most to say to readers outside the church. What is “provincial realignment,” at bottom, if not the ecclesiastical version of a corporate merger? What is “alternative oversight,” if not church talk for a hostile takeover? For that matter, how far is “hostile takeover” from the sort of church talk that makes frequent reference to the mission statement, the growth chart, and evangelism’s “market share”? Martyn Minns, Peter Akinola’s irregularly consecrated missionary bishop to the breakaway churches of the conservative Convocation of Anglicans in North America, told me that he had learned more during his years at Mobil Oil Corporation than he’d ever learned in seminary.[8]I suspect that is a much less exceptional statement than either Bishop Minns or the rest of us would care to admit.

[8] As an “irregularly consecrated bishop,” Martyn Minns also has not received an invitation to Lambeth.

I was more surprised, when I asked Minns what writers in the Anglican tradition had most influenced him, to have him cite Philip Jenkins’s The Next Christianity and Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat. Friedman’s status as an Anglican aside, this is a ways from Richard Hooker. This is sola scriptura with a weird appendix, Matthew, Mark, and Mega-trends—and it is this aspect of the “global crisis” in Anglicanism and of the cant attending it that one would expect to be of greatest concern to any person marching under the flag of orthodoxy: this reverential awe for the “global forces” that we ourselves animate, the idols that speak with our voice. The global dynamics of Anglican realignment work in a manner not unlike the global dynamics of outsourcing and extraordinary rendition: the Galilean carpenter (or the Kabuli cabdriver) has his part to play and his cross to bear, but it’s the little Caesars calling the shots.

More from Garret Keizer:

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