Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
June 2008 Issue [Article]

Turning Away From Jesus

Gay rights and the war for the Episcopal Church

Do you love me?
—Jesus to Simon Peter, John 21:16

As an American Episcopalian I belong to a family of forty-four autonomous churches[1] called the Anglican Communion, which currently numbers some 80 million members around the globe and which is now close to schism because of a bitter dispute about homosexuality. I must admit that until quite recently I did not pay much attention to what is often called “the crisis in the Anglican Communion”—in spite of, though perhaps also because of, the fact that for many years I worked some hours of each week as the lay vicar and later as the indigenous priest of a small Episcopal church in rural Vermont.[2] I had other things on my mind.

[1] Of the forty-four churches, thirty-eight are large enough to count as provinces (a collection of at least three dioceses).
[2] My ordination was under a special canon of the church that allowed for indigenous clergy in places too small, poor, or remote to have a professional priest. I have never been to seminary.

But while I was making the rounds of my parish, things were afoot in the larger church that were not dissimilar to the zealotry and self-delusion that would mesmerize our national politics and mire us in Iraq. In other words, what might strike you as an irrelevant story about a religious dispute is in some ways your story, whether you are religious or not, and whether you like it or not. The story invites us to ask if what we see happening to the institutions we love is not at least partly the result of our having loved them less attentively than we supposed.

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.

It would be misleading to imply that every knowledgeable member of the Anglican Communion interprets the newsworthy events of its recent past in terms of a crisis. For church scholar Ian Douglas, the situation in the Anglican Communion and beyond represents “a new Pentecost,” one in which marginalized countries and marginalized groups of people are both rising and converging, with plenty of friction in the process, but with an ultimate outcome in which “the Ian Douglases of the world: straight, white, male, clerical, overly educated, financially secure,

English-speaking, well-pensioned, professionally established,” will move to the margins while people previously marginalized will come to the center. “So my salvation is caught up in the full voicing of those who have historically been marginalized. What we’re seeing in a lot of these church antics is an attempt at a reimposition of an old order.” Douglas is among those who see the rise of religious fundamentalism not as a reaction to modernity but as modernity’s “last vestiges,” the remains of a binary worldview of us and them, black and white, orthodox and heretic.

This all sounds compelling to me, though, as I tell Douglas, I remain an unreconstructed binary thinker, my view of the world being pretty much divided between people who have a pot to piss in and people who don’t. My tendency—perhaps my temptation—is to see the church crisis, at least in America, as I see most other political disputes between bourgeois conservatives and bourgeois liberals: as cosmetically differentiated versions of the same earnest quest for moral rectitude in the face of one’s collusion in an economic system of gross inequality. It goes without saying that by touting this stark binary, I, too, am seeking to establish my rectitude. Still the question remains: How does a Christian population implicated in militarism, usury, sweatshop labor, and environmental rape find a way to sleep at night? Apparently, by making a very big deal out of not sleeping with Gene Robinson. Or, on the flip side, by making approval of Gene Robinson the litmus test of progressive integrity, a stance that I have good reason to believe would impress no one so little as Gene Robinson himself. Says he:

“I don’t believe there is any topic addressed more often and more deeply in Scripture than our treatment of the poor, the distribution of wealth, of resources, and the danger of wealth to our souls. One third of all the parables and one sixth of all the words Jesus is recorded to have uttered have to do with this topic, and yet we don’t hear the biblical literalists making arguments about that.” If this is sodomy, sign me up.

I found plenty to confirm my binary thinking at the September 2007 House of Bishops Meeting, which Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori assembled in New Orleans as a way of highlighting the Episcopal Church’s commitment to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and perhaps in the fond hopes of drawing some attention from what she would later describe to me as the “excessive navel-gazing” of “focusing on sexuality when people are dying and starving and lacking medical care and education right there in our very meeting location.” So down I went, with my eyes as trained as anyone else’s on the belly button,[9] but I came away knowing I’d seen things I could never forget. After an experience like that, “The Big Easy” does not so much name a city as the moral dilemma of what we are to do (and to decry) in the world. I saw people sleeping under bridge abutments and the prison where inmates had stood in the rising water for days. I also saw church-sponsored housing projects, community gardens, hospitality stations where returning members of the “Katrina Diaspora” could get their bearings and even do a load of wash. And I saw the hand-lettered “Murder Board” outside St. Anna’s Episcopal Church, whose priest records the name, age, date, and method of destruction for every person murdered in New Orleans since the start of 2007 and sends flowers to the city hall with each new loss. “Most of us working here,” said the young woman who took me around, “don’t even have time for our own sex lives, let alone worrying about anyone else’s.”

[9] The belly button in this case consisted mainly of the task of composing a suitably tactful response to the February 2007 “Dar es Salaam Communiqué,” in which the primates of the Anglican Communion requested (some would say demanded) further clarification on the Episcopal Church’s position in regard to the future consecration of practicing homosexual bishops, etc.

It was a wry comment but not a dour one. I heard very few of the latter. Among the church workers and not least of all among the city’s priests I was conscious of a purposeful levity, which I might easily have envied had I found it anywhere else but in the aftermath of a disaster. I think of soft-spoken Father Baer, standing like a May king in clergy clothes at the raucous reception after the “Creole Evensong,” punch in one hand, Cajun grub in the other, all sorts of people dancing around him (the theme for the service was

“Ruin to Renewal”), nodding to me as I took my leave and saying, “This is what church is supposed to be.” He knew which briefings I’d been to and which ones I was scheduled to attend the next day, and I think he was urging me not to despair. How could he tell? I support the full inclusion of lesbian and gay persons at every level of the church and state, but could I have at least a partial inclusion of some gaiety? I say this as someone who likes a solemn liturgy and a formal handshake and whose only beef with the so-called frozen chosen is that many of them are not frozen enough. I am talking about something else. I am talking about sitting at a press conference and thinking, Here we’ve got a Presiding Bishop who’s a woman, a marine biologist, and an amateur pilot; an Archbishop of Canterbury who’s a poet, a scholar, and a self-identified socialist; and there they sit like two sad-faced intelligent bears as we bait them with inane questions about the suing of renegade churches and the “healing of homosexual affliction.” A life is for this?

[10] Williams’s cautious approach to “the Robinson event” and his simultaneous unwillingness either to renounce his personal views or to buck very hard against the perceived “mind of the Communion” have drawn criticism from all sides.

I am among those disappointed with Rowan Williams for not inviting Gene Robinson to Lambeth, especially after speaking so often and so well about the rights of gay and lesbian people.[10] But after visiting with certain persons in England, including Colin Coward, the director and founder of the Anglican gay and lesbian advocacy group Changing Attitude, I feel I understand a little better what’s at stake “if Rowan loses the Communion,” which would mean losing any leverage for protecting the rights of sexual minorities in countries whose leadership both ecclesiastical and political is, as one American observer put it, “viciously, lethally homophobic.” Who am I to say what the Archbishop of Canterbury ought to do? I can only say what I wish he’d do, which is slip out of Lambeth Palace well before the dogs are up and go fishing with Gene, a typically dotty Anglican solution to a “global crisis,” I admit, but one not without precedent in the earliest strata of the tradition.

Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi grew up in the West Nile region of Uganda, “always a marginal place as far as many Ugandans are concerned,” says his former tutor Kevin Ward of the University of Leeds. Orombi’s people were fishers, and he has always been fond of the stories about Jesus calling his first disciples from among the fishermen on the lake of Galilee. A rooster crows twice in the background of our phone conversation, during which I ask the archbishop if the polygamous patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible were engaged in sexual perversion. An article he’s written classifies polygamy as such. He says that his parents both came from polygamous families and that “my own example” as well as the outcomes of the biblical stories confirm that this is so. In polygamous families, he tells me, there is jealousy among the wives and “warfare” between the children of different mothers. He also tells me that divorced clergy in the Church of Uganda who wish to remarry must cease to function as priests. “We are clearly following what Jesus Christ put down.”

He recounts the story of the Ugandan Martyrs, twenty-two young Christian men serving as pages in the court of the nineteenth-century Baganda king, who had them mutilated, wrapped in wicker sheaths, and burned alive for refusing to submit to his sexual advances. Like all such stories, this one has nuances that are seldom part of the telling. The pages’ Christian affiliation made them suspect as cultural agents of the West—a charge that has more recently been leveled against gay and lesbian activists attempting to build partnerships in Africa. Some Ugandan commentators have even suggested that the Baganda king is the real hero of the story for resisting Western encroachment. The devil is an ironist.

The archbishop also tells me about his famous mentor, Archbishop Janani Luwum. When Orombi was a young preacher, he and the people he was preaching to were arrested and thrown into prison. Luwum interceded with then dictator Idi Amin and Orombi was released. Luwum was not so lucky when his turn came in 1977. It is reported that Amin personally shot him in the mouth.

I have never heard Orombi preach, but I would imagine his sermons are not easily confused with the news from Lake Wobegon. I have a hunch he doesn’t believe there’s an eighth sacrament called The Great Big Hug. There is a quality of gravitas to his conversation. “Persecution,” he tells me, “makes you ask genuine questions about what is real.”

There are now forty-four self-identified Anglican churches in sixteen of the United States that are either directly under Orombi’s oversight or under that of one of his bishops. This is in opposition to the wishes of the Presiding Bishop, the urging of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and long-standing Christian tradition that a bishop reside in his diocese. For Orombi these caveats are trumped by violations of a greater magnitude: “If the Episcopal Church could be humble enough to understand that what they have done has contravened what we collectively came to understand and agreed on in 1998, what the Scriptures taught, even during their own time, perhaps the time of their fathers, who came to us as missionaries. The faith we have is a faith they brought to us. They should understand that where we stand is where their ancestors stood, who could still be witnesses of the faith and the gospel they preached.”

He speaks, the rooster crows, my heart paraphrases: I changed everything for you. I would not even be recognizable to my own ancestors. I changed my language, my family structures, my gods. And I am glad for this change. It was a great gift. But now you choose to change what I changed for, and you do not so much as ask how that might make me feel?

Do you love me?

I am not aware that Orombi has made any statements about homosexuality as abrasive as those attributed to a Nigerian bishop who reportedly said (and later denied saying) that “homosexuality and lesbianism are inhuman. Those who practice them are insane, satanic, and are not fit to live because they are rebels to God’s purpose for man.” Still, homophobic seems too limp a word to describe what Orombi does say to me: “The homosexual practice as we know it attacks the very root of humanity”—though I do wonder if the story of the martyred pages is the subtext for “as we know it,” in which case the archbishop and I are thinking of two entirely different practices.

In an email, Kevin Ward writes that “in Uganda there is a long awareness of same-sex activity, but little recognition of gay identity. It is this which is seen as something foreign. The conflict within the American Episcopal Church has been a major factor in alerting Ugandan Anglicans to what being gay is all about. They have identified with traditionalists within ECUSA [The American Episcopal Church], but for Ugandans as a whole it is still not seen as a major issue. Older traditions in Uganda more or less discounted same-sex activity as no more than a harmless sexual outlet when performed between young unmarried people. . . . The conflict in ECUSA has undermined this older tolerance. It has brought a homophobia into society which was not there before.”

Do we love them?

According to Orombi’s assistant for international relations, the Rev. Alison Barfoot, many of our Western categories make no sense in Uganda, though she herself is one of the American traditionalists of whom Ward speaks and thus one likely source for Orombi’s information. “I think the current American/Western use of the word inclusive implies a kind of egalitarianism,” she says, and I agree. “So when a Westerner looks at a church in which only those who have been married in the church go forward to receive Holy Communion, they are shocked because it’s not inclusive. Yet it seems that most of the people

understand this to be a normal kind of stratification to society, and even with that stratification, everyone is actually included in the community and is part of the community. The same thing applies to the local ‘town drunk.’ He comes to church and wanders around. He’s a part of the community, but he doesn’t receive Holy Communion.”

Barfoot, whose degree of influence on Orombi and on divisions in the American church is a matter of some speculation in the West, is clearly moved by the evangelical fervor of the Ugandan church. To her the Nile flowing from its source in Uganda and giving life to the desert is a symbol of the country’s authentic Christianity flowing out to the world.

“One time I was attending a worship service upcountry,” Barfoot writes to me, “and in the middle of the service a man stood up in front of a congregation of about 1,000 people and confessed that he had defiled a teenage girl. He had stubbornly refused to admit this for a long time. He had been removed from ministry [as a lay reader]. . . . When he finished there was a long period of silence, and then the father of the girl stood up and publicly forgave him. I have never seen anything like this before in my life. I thought to myself that I have a lot to learn about the art and practice of forgiveness.”

I guess we all do. And I’m sure I could learn much from an African archbishop who says that persecution clarifies and who’s paid the dues that entitle him to say so. I am not one of those progressive Episcopalians who wonder when my darker little brothers are going to find out about Copernicus.[11] But neither am I such a multiculturalist as to deny my sense that in any mature understanding of forgiveness a “defiled teenage girl” should be the first person to determine what’s forgiven and who’s defiled (and maybe she did, and her father merely acted as her deputy—I wasn’t there) or my sense that the “town drunk” needs and deserves communion as much as I do, or to be so much in awe of the archbishop’s venerable martyrology that I would relinquish the witness of those gay Shadrachs, Meshachs, and Abednegos who kept faith even unto death in the fiery furnace of AIDS.

[11] I allude to remarks made by former Newark, New Jersey, Bishop John Spong that appeared in the Church of England Newspaper nine days prior to Lambeth 1998. Spong spoke of the African Christians as having “moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity...[and as having] yet to face the intellectual revolution of Copernicus and Einstein that we’ve had to face in the developing world.” The remark, coupled with Spong’s reputation as an early supporter of gays and lesbians and an ostentatious denier of Christian doctrines, was as good as a triple play for Northern conservatives trying to build connections with Southern bishops.

The question remains, and it is Gene Robinson’s question, of how we are to learn from one another and tell our stories if we are not even at the same table. Orombi is one of the African primates who have indicated they will not go to Lambeth 2008. Prior to the 2007 Dar es Salaam Primates Meeting, he announced that he would not sit down with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori because “she has publicly denied what the Bible teaches about faith and morality.” But when I say “at the same table,” I am not thinking solely of the table in a conference room, or even the altar in a church.

I am thinking of a story I heard from Ian Douglas. He’s leaving the airport parking lot with an Anglican bishop from Africa. These men are talking to each other; these men are in dialogue. The charge at the gate is fifty dollars, and as Douglas is counting out the bills he notices a look on his companion’s face that suggests mental computation. “Let me guess,” Douglas says. “You’re figuring out how long it would take you, as an Anglican bishop, to earn my parking charge.” It would take a month.

When I ask Jim Naughton, formerly of the New York Times and now the director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C., what the crisis in the church is about, he seizes on “that word about” and laughs. “For as long as this has been happening, people have been saying, ‘This is about x, it’s not about y. This isn’t about their sincere beliefs about homosexuality; it’s about power.’” For Naughton the crisis is about homosexuality, and more especially about “the visceral fear” engendered by male homosexuality. “Absent that match, and the tinder does not catch fire.”

Naughton is less sure as to why that should be so.
[12] But it seems that it has been so for quite a while. When the plot to dissolve the Order of the Knights Templar began in the fourteenth century and its members were tortured to exact false confessions, more were willing to confess to sacrilege than to sodomy. Even on the rack, they had their standards.

[12] Naughton mentioned the fear of homosexual rape, while a number of the sources I interviewed made a connection between homophobia and misogyny, a dread of the “passive” man and the emancipated woman. On the positive side, Gregory Cameron relates feminism’s emphasis on equality to a culture’s ability to conceive of a sanctified relationship between two persons of the same sex. In that regard, Gene Robinson told me a story of two Kenyan seminarians who were overheard marveling aloud about his domestic partnership with another man by asking, “Who cooks?”

And the standards endure. I have a conversation with a lay leader in one of the breakaway Virginia churches involved in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit with the National Church over the ownership of church property. Like many an educated Episcopalian, he knows a thing or two about church tradition. When I ask him if he would or could take communion at one of the altars of the apostate Episcopal Church, he reminds me of the seventeen-centuries-old church doctrine which holds that the validity of the sacraments is not affected by the moral condition of the celebrant. So, I proceed to ask, “If a person takes communion from Gene Robinson, is it a valid sacrament?”

He says he’s not sure.

Jesus said that only those who could become as little children would enter the Kingdom of God, and I sometimes try to see these issues through the eyes of a child. For help in my imaginings, I turn to the writer Richard Rodriguez, who is not an Episcopalian but a self-described “queer Catholic Indian Spaniard,” and who says that the Anglican Communion has been given a gift, “an opportunity, in advance of almost everyone else, to say something about homosexuals that would be true, that would be unprecedented, that would be brave.” Rodriguez does not like the word gay—“It’s a very sweet English adjective that doesn’t apply to my life”—and says he doesn’t need the word marriage either, especially if “heterosexuals would prefer to keep that word to themselves.” What he does want is for him and his partner of twenty-six years to have the same legal protections around sickness and death that married couples have, and he does hope that his own church will one day say that brave, true thing, which is that the proper name for his affection is love.

Rodriguez says that he was aware of his homosexuality even as a child. He had a crush on a boy when he was eight. To make this boy go away, he threw a hammer at his face. The boy managed to deflect the blow but hurt his arm and ran home crying. That night his mother called the Rodriguez home. As Richard nervously listened in on his mother’s half of the conversation, he became aware of a change in her tone of voice. “She and the other boy’s mother had come to the conclusion that boys will be boys, that boys will fight with boys, and there isn’t much a mother can do about it. If only she knew that the reason I’d thrown a hammer at his face was that I had a crush on him. And if she’d known . . . the ceiling would have collapsed.” For eight-year-old Richard, the conclusion was stunning: “How extraordinarily dangerous love is,” even more dangerous than trying to hit a person in the face with a hammer.

If the child saw rightly, then the man he became might possibly understand why a divorced bishop in a monogamous relationship with another man would be more of a scandal to his church than Archbishop Peter Akinola, who says, “No comment” when a reporter asks him what orders were issued when he was president of a Nigerian Christian organization implicated in a massacre of some 600 Muslims. Boys will be boys.

Which leaves the question of what my church will be, and I am in no position to answer beyond the realm of hope. But I would take my cue from Gregory Cameron, who, after methodically explicating the polity of the Anglican Communion and at least four different ways of understanding the crisis in the Communion, concludes by saying that in the end it is all about faithfulness, to God first of all, but also to “an Anglican of profoundly different opinions to my own” and to gay and lesbian people as well. “How do I ensure that they do not live in the fear of oppression and violence? How do I take their faith seriously?”

But faithfulness can be no less frightening a word than love. The twenty-two pages of the Baganda king were faithful. Janani Luwum was faithful. The hour is late and the connection is bad when I catch up with Davis Mac-Iyalla, director of Changing Attitude’s Nigeria chapter, now living in exile after being roughed up and temporarily jailed by police. We get only so far before he’s cut off. I call back and we’re cut off again. “I want you to know that the ordinary Nigerian is not obsessed about homosexuality. The ordinary Nigerian is thinking about how to survive. There is no pipeline water, no . . .” No voice. “Why can’t the church bless same-sex unions when the church can bless things that do not have life? The church can bless a car, can bless a . . .” Gone again.

It’s late, as I said, but there is something unsettling about a human voice cut off in mid-sentence. And the thought occurs to me: Is that what it will take to get us through our “crisis,” a gay martyr, and am I talking to him right now? “What is my crime? My crime is that I am honest . . .” Of course there have already been gay martyrs, including the five Nigerian lesbians whom Mac-Iyalla claims were raped in order to “cure” them of their orientation. But many Indians went down before Gandhi did, many blacks died before King. “Please, whatever you do, always know that I am in danger and living at risk . . .” And wouldn’t it be nice, I think (absurdly recalling that old Beach Boys song about two lovers waking up “in the kind of world where we belong”), if for once, just once, we could achieve redemption without blood, if the empty cross would mean not only the resurrection that gives life but a vision of life beyond this constant, dismal, stupid need we have for sacrificial lambs, and all because we are less afraid of violence than of love.

In his History of the Episcopal Church, Robert Prichard follows an account of the bitter debates over sexuality that marked the late 1980s and 1990s with this sanguine observation: “The continuing discord did have one positive result. It provided incentive for Episcopalians to adopt new electronic means of communications.” One can understand his need to find a silver lining but might also wonder if he isn’t begging the question of the chicken and the egg.

Undoubtedly the rifts in the Anglican Communion predate what Prichard calls “the Electronic Church,” but few will disagree that the conflicts have been exacerbated by the speed and reach of cyber communication. Nearly every person I talked to and source I read mentioned “advances in communication” as a contributing factor. If conservatives and progressives within the church have any common ground, it would seem to be a compulsion to “get the message out.”

Far be it from me, a man who makes his bread by communicating, to belittle communication; but woe to a church—especially to a supposedly sacramental church—that begins to mistake communication for its bread. In fact, one of the things I’ve always found beautiful about the sacrament of the bread is the way one has to stop talking in order to communicate.

Just as one does in order to listen. The last three Lambeth conferences beginning with that of 1978 have called for a “Listening Process” around homosexuality. According to Gregory Cameron of the Anglican Communion Office, “nothing happened” in regard to this process until quite recently. According to Gene Robinson, who recently traveled some 17,000 miles to talk and to listen to an Anglican primate who’d agreed ahead of time to meet with him, only to be told on arrival that it was simply “too dangerous” for them to be in the same room, the Listening Process “is a myth.” Does it seem altogether perverse to suggest that the usual histories of “the crisis,” which are always framed as a series of things that happened—Bishop Jack Spong said this, Bishop Jack Iker did that—might just as profitably be rendered as a short list of things that didn’t happen and of the interest that accrued as a result? I would like someday to see a history of American race relations framed in the same way. Aren’t we in America stalled in our own “listening process,” a predicament that becomes painfully apparent as soon as we start dealing with something like O.J.’s glove or Obama’s minister? Lots of communication to be sure, but very little listening, nothing heard but the sound of the chickens coming home to roost.

Several risks accrue when a religious body—or a body politic—becomes obsessed with communication at the price of communion. The first is that communication leaves little room for the ambivalent, for the people who are still struggling with the questions and not likely to post the fact on the Web. I met more than a few of them in the course of working on this article, some of them in Holy Orders, most of them uncertain about issues like “gay marriage,” just about all of them the types of people you want to have around when the levees break or the homophobes go berserk. Their best communication skills are in their two hands.

And that leads to the second risk, both to religious bodies and to secular states, which is that communication taken as an unqualified virtue often amounts to the word un-fleshed and the deed undone. When I first became an Episcopalian, I was told that we like to speak of ourselves as a “pastoral church.” From a cynical point of view, that means that we’re reluctant to take a stand. From a more generous point of view, it means that when we do take a stand it’s likely to be next to a tangible person in a physical place. I was reminded of this when I was talking to Kendall Harmon, priest and conservative communicator of some note, about the night he’d spent consoling a gay parishioner whose lover had punched him in the face after learning he had AIDS. No blessing of same-sex unions from old Kendall, not now, maybe not ever, but pastoral care for all and sundry—sounds like the deal.

“On the ground!” Over and over I hear Davis Mac-Iyalla, the gay Nigerian activist, using that phrase in our phone conversation. For months people had been telling me, sometimes with a bit of pique, that what I was looking for was “online” (Jesus!) and here was this passionate Nigerian (“I love the Anglican Church and I will not leave the Anglican Church for anybody!”) telling me about things “on the ground.” Perhaps because that was where he’d spent some unpleasant time with a Nigerian police officer’s boot on his chest. But who knows if he was also trying to tell me where to find the information I needed most.

And that is where I did find it, more than once, and most memorably on a rainy drive from Cornwall back to London. At a bend so murderous I wouldn’t have wondered if half the people in the churchyard turned out to be the victims of mishaps there, I spotted an old stone edifice in the mist, named for St. Endellion, an obscure woman saint often portrayed with a cow. The rector, tall and affable, someone out of a BBC production of Jane Austen or Evelyn Waugh, was making some last-minute arrangements with a member of his altar guild. I hurried after him as he dashed to his car, told him about my assignment.

“What crisis is that?” he asked. Wise guy? Apparently not. I gave him the sound-bite version.

“Oh, yes, I see. Some of us are very upset about that because we have gay friends.”

He said he’d be happy to talk further with me but he was already late for a visit to a sick parishioner and he had to be back at the church for a baptism that afternoon. I wrote down his email address to be polite, but he’d already given me the Word.

A gift I sometimes lacked as a priest, when it was indispensable, now dogs me as a writer, when it can only bring me grief: a predisposition to love everyone. Even (and sometimes especially) the rascals. I loved Martyn Minns, who offered to say a prayer for the success of my assignment (I didn’t refuse), just as I loved Colin Coward, who helped my wife and me buy our first tickets on the London Tube. And I wish Henry Orombi could have heard Coward describe his devotion to the Office of Morning and Evening Prayer and that Coward could have heard Orombi’s deep voice—perhaps all the more resonant in the ears of a gay man—when I asked him what he saw of value in the Anglican tradition and he said without a moment’s pause, “It is beautiful.”

Most of all, I wish that everyone I talked to could have met the anonymous (as I promised) village curate I met in England, who said she knew, as a woman and as a disabled person, as a child who was always the last picked for teams, what it means to be prejudged and excluded, and who said she would try to minister in a loving way to any gay or lesbian person or couple who came to her church, but that on the rightness of blessing same-sex unions she was simply not sure, and that it was difficult for her—so palpably difficult that I knew I’d ruined the rest of her day just by asking—“to sit here and say I don’t know.” And I’d like to gather all the most strident of those I met in a nice tight pack around her and invite the one who is without doubt to cast the first stone.

I think of all these people as I take my seat in the parish church whose priest I once was and to which my bonds of affection draw me now and then. I will pray for them by name and try not to be anything but thankful when it occurs to me that most of them are going to be just fine. At least the white ones will. Maybe not Davis Mac-Iyalla. Maybe not that priest I talked to in Maine who lost a good chunk of his parish in 2003 (and would have lost even more, he says, if Robinson’s election had been overturned) and who may soon need to find a second job. But the bishops and the primates and the scholars and the church chancellors will all be fine.[12] None of them will live to see the sorts of old ages I sometimes saw when I walked around this town in my younger days. Even the Ugandan archbishop will, within his context and with a little help from his American friends, probably be okay.

[12] One reason for believing the American clerics will be fine is the Church Pension Fund, with current assets of roughly $9 billion.

I’m not so sure about the people I saw sleeping under the bridge abutments in New Orleans. I’m not so sure about some of the people in the pews with me here. The Anglican Communion is still together, more or less, but there is no Holy Communion in the service today. My successor was a woman priest in a committed same-sex relationship, a mother of two adopted kids. Execrable dyke that she is, she was given to such appalling pagan practices as baking a layer cake every Christmas Eve and having the younger children sing Happy Birthday to Jesus and blow out the candles so they would know he was their friend. Oh, let us shed a tear for the loss of orthodoxy in these apostate times!

But it wasn’t her sexual orientation or her sacrilegious confections that were the problem; it was that the parish couldn’t afford to pay her. Had it not been for the bishop’s willingness to flout conventional wisdom and subsidize her position for a time (I imagine his peers shaking their heads: “Good money after bad, Tom”), the people never could have pulled if off. Besides me and mine, there are about twelve people here today, a tally that always calls to mind something the Presiding Bishop wrote in her book A Wing and a Prayer: “To form and educate a ‘professional’ cleric takes a hundred thousand dollars and a three-year displacement. . . . To invest those kinds of resources in someone who will serve a congregation of twelve people seems, at the very least, wasteful.” I get the point, and it is a valid point, but does the Presiding Bishop get the irony of the number twelve?

Lead us not into temptation. But I can’t help finding it bitterly funny that the entire Anglican Communion is tied up in knots about whether it is just to withhold the “minor sacraments” of Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony from a person on the basis of his or her sexual orientation but is quite content with restricting a person’s access to the “major sacraments” of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion and other riches of our beautiful tradition based on the demography and economics of his or her neighborhood. It’s about theology, right? I know of certain “progressive” Episcopalian clerics who will argue strenuously that the canon requiring someone to be baptized in order to receive communion is too “exclusive,” but I don’t know any who would argue that the canon requiring that a baptized person be ordained in order to celebrate communion is also exclusive—even though the first stricture mostly affects the casual visitor while the second stricture mostly affects the people who don’t head for the door every time a homosexual priest is or is not elected bishop. I suppose that’s about theology, too.

My non-Christian readers are likely to see this disquisition on sacraments as a bit of obscurantist trivia having little to do with them or with the subject of this essay, and if they do, my trap is sprung. Yes, the eucharist has meanings peculiar to Christians—but it can also be taken as a universal symbol of how any community shares its wealth, its bread and its wine, what the old socialists called the roses and the bread. The consecrated wafers placed on the tongues or in the upturned hands of the faithful, one per person and all the same size, have a secular equivalent in the basic allotments of health, education, and welfare—of life, liberty, and the off chance of happiness—that every citizen at the common table can expect as his or her due. If the obvious implications don’t make you squirm, if they fail to explain why I resolutely refuse to apply the word “left” to the progressive side of “the gay debate” in my church or to just about any debate going on outside the church, then nothing will.

The same goes for the crisis in the Anglican Communion and all the money that each side accuses the other of using to press its advantage. Don’t they know anything yet? Money doesn’t determine what we talk about; money determines what we don’t talk about: like, for instance, how we’re going to divvy up the money. A church that was as “inclusive” as the progressives want it to be, and as “biblically based” as the self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy want it to be, would instantly rectify the situation described by Bishop Stacy Sauls of Lexington, Kentucky (after telling me about visiting a small Appalachian church that hadn’t seen its bishop in five years): “The problem is that the most isolated places need the priests with the greatest skills. But the system works so that the priests with the greatest skills go almost always to the places that are well-resourced already. Bishops in the Episcopal Church actually have very little power. The deployment system is basically a free-market system.” In other words, it’s part of the same system that distributes the rest of our goods and services and that most middle- and upper-class electorates, both ecclesial and secular, are quite happy to leave exactly as it is.

Anglicans like to say that their Communion has something to show to the rest of the world. I believe they’re right, and in ways both glorious and sad. When Gene Robinson says to the House of Bishops that the Lambeth situation has been very painful for him, but that certain of his conservative brothers in the House have been in pain for a much longer time, and that he takes inspiration from the example of their faithfulness, he is showing us how our secular debates might bear the image of divinity. He is showing us what his mother saw the day he was born.

But some of what the church shows the rest of the world is much less lovely, which is to say, no more than the world’s meanest reflection. What the church in crisis shows to an America in crisis is how very silly we can start to look when we debate such important but minor “sacraments” as gun rights and copyrights and abortion rights and not the major sacraments of bread and roses and building the kind of society in which a woman’s reproductive freedom is not pinched in the forceps of her income bracket and a young man can find better employment than supplying his name to a murder board.

This assignment wasn’t my idea, I want you to know. Becoming a priest wasn’t my idea either. I was asked, and I did what I could. I said my last service five years ago and I have no plans to resume. The people in this parish know better than to ask me even to lead the Psalm. After all those years of talking, my wish is to keep still. Yet here I am again, on assignment and on my knees, and in my head I am back in the pulpit, where the lay reader has just delivered a homily he found on the Internet like a pearl of great price. He’s a better preacher than I ever was, and a humbler one too, for at this very moment I am addressing the entire Lambeth Conference, I am addressing both houses of the Congress, I am addressing the nominating conventions of the two grand old parties of the United States, but only three words will come out of me, and they are not even my words. I hear them all the time in this church, which is one reason I come here so seldom. They blaze from me and at me, relentlessly in both directions, like lights on the M-3 on a rainy night until I am driving blind with shame and with rage. Feed my sheep.

More from

| View All Issues |

July 2017

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now