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Episcopalian Crisis: Authority, Homosexuality & the Future of Anglicanism, Part I

Friday, September 29, 2006

By Jay Seltser

The views and opinions expressed in this essay do not necessarily reflect those of the creator of this blog and are the sole responsibility of the author. Essays expressing opinions similar to and counter to those of the creator of this blog are strictly for diversity and to start thoughtful and meaningful discussion.

This the first part of a slightly edited essay that appeared in the May 19, 2006 issue of Commonweal, an independent Catholic journal of opinion edited and managed by lay Catholics.

Many Roman Catholics, ordained and lay, were understandably concerned when the Vatican issued its statement last fall barring men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” from the priesthood. If a priest is faithful to his promise of chaste celibacy, what difference does it make if he understands himself to be homosexual? Many people thought it was celibacy, not sexual orientation, that mattered when it came to priestly discipline.

I share the feeling of many people in thinking it is unjust to bar celibate homosexuals from the priesthood. But Rome may have had multiple reasons for issuing such a divisive instruction. Among those possible reasons is the way in which the debate over homosexuality, and especially over the influence, status, and authority of homosexual priests and ministers, has roiled nearly every Protestant denomination. Most conspicuous among those churches where attitudes toward homosexuality pose a serious threat to ecclesial unity is the Anglican Communion.

At its 2003 General Convention, the Episcopal Church of the United States of America (ECUSA) voted to approve the consecration of Gene Robinson, an active homosexual living in a committed relationship, as bishop of New Hampshire. At the same time, the Anglican Church of Canada authorized the blessing of same-sex unions. A firestorm erupted, both in North America and worldwide across the Anglican Communion of thirty-eight loosely allied national and regional churches. Conservative and evangelical Episcopalians, especially Anglican primates in Africa, Asia, and South America, made their outrage and objections known in no uncertain terms. Many threatened to leave the Anglican Communion if Robinson’s ordination stood, or to try to exclude the American Episcopal Church from the Communion.

The archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who is the symbolic head of the Anglican Communion, sought to forestall outright schism. Williams, believed to be personally sympathetic to the ordination of homosexuals, urged caution on the ECUSA. He commissioned “The Windsor Report,” released in 2004, which urged the ECUSA to apologize for its actions and to embrace a moratorium on ordaining openly gay bishops and blessing same-sex unions. As Williams recently told the interviewer David Frost, changing church teaching and practice about homosexuality is not a step any one church in the Anglican Communion should undertake on its own. “For a change on that,” Williams said, “I think we would need, as a Communion, to have a far greater level of consensus than we in fact have. Which is why the American determination to go it alone is worrying.”

The forging of any broader consensus on the question of homosexuality seems unlikely. Liberal and conservative groups are already maneuvering to contest the disposition of church property if conservative Episcopal churches, and even dioceses, consequently leave the ECUSA and affiliate themselves with dioceses in Africa and elsewhere, as some already have. Few observers think the predominantly liberal ECUSA will back away from the ordination of more open or sexually active gay bishops, which many Episcopalians see as the logical extension of a struggle for equal rights that first led to the still contested ordination of women as priests and bishops. The Anglican Church in England, for example, although it ordains women as priests, has not yet, out of a concern for ecclesial unity, ordained a woman as bishop.

Looking at the impending implosion of the Anglican Communion, Rome, from its perspective, is perhaps more forward thinking than its critics suspect in trying to forestall any similar battle in the Catholic Church. Catholics who hope their church will change its teaching about homosexuality, the ordination of women, priestly celibacy and marriage, and contraception, while adopting a more collegial approach to the exercise of authority and greater respect for individual conscience, should be chastened by the current crisis in the Episcopal Church. As an Episcopalian who supports and is thankful for his church’s progressive stances on all these issues, I am nevertheless concerned about the health and integrity of my church.

Situating the ECUSA in the larger Anglican Communion is tricky. Without denying the sense of commonality with the rest of the Anglican churches, I suspect that most American Episcopalians could imagine themselves as a completely separate church, cut off from communion with the other Anglican churches, much more easily than Roman Catholics could think of themselves as a separate national church. As a result, the ECUSA is much freer to adopt changes and move in different directions even if it risks being out of step-and even out of communion-with more traditional members of its international fellowship. For Episcopalians, it may be easier to hold divergent views because there is seldom one official position or central authority to enforce the “orthodox” position. The Episcopal Church is democratic and pluralistic in its rules and decision making, and the authority vested in any individual or role is severely limited. General Conventions are held every three years, with clergy and lay participants being elected to the House of Deputies, and bishops meeting as the House of Bishops. The Episcopal Church mirrors the American political system in many respects; local dioceses, functioning with significant autonomy, elect their own bishops in a local convention representing lay and ordained members, and the decision must then be ratified by a national vote.

Episcopalian bishops have a form of authority that is much closer to what sociologists would call “influence” than “power.” The local parish selects its priest, with the bishop’s approval; bishops can help shape priorities but are usually unsuccessful if they move too far ahead of their parishes. Each diocese selects its own bishop, subject to the approval of a national convention. There is a presiding bishop of the U.S. church, and the archbishop of Canterbury is the most preeminent figure in the international Anglican Communion, but any suggestion that either of these figures approaches the pope in terms of power or even influence would be met with hilarious laughter.

For several reasons, the current situation with regard to gay bishops who are sexually active is a “perfect storm.” First, while liberal and conservative positions have long coexisted within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, the ordination of Bishop Robinson leaves less room for compromise than many earlier disputes. Bishops baptize, confirm, ordain other priests, and lay on their hands at the consecration of other bishops. Although their power is greatly attenuated by a church polity that mirrors, and in fact owes much of its design to, the American distrust of centralized authority, bishops are the key representatives of the local church. Still, an “illegitimate” bishop affects not only one diocese but the integrity of the entire religious community.

Second, the issue of homosexuality seems to present a stark contrast between different approaches to authority, and particularly to the role of the Bible in decision making. Although different approaches to Scripture can be finessed or compromised on many issues (such as the role of women in the church or the appropriate understanding of the Eucharist), conflict over the appropriateness of homosexual relationships is hard to avoid. A significant number of Episcopalians read Scripture quite literally, and insist that there is no appeal where Scripture speaks plainly and with one voice. Several biblical passages that appear to condemn homosexual behavior (at least for males) are regarded as determinative, especially when there are no corresponding passages that support homosexuality. To claim that the Bible allows homosexual behavior, or to ignore apparently clear statements of biblical morality, threatens the center of the community’s loyalty and adherence to the Word of God through the revelatory text.

On the other side, many Episcopalians insist that the specific words of Scripture must be placed in the context of broader historical or literary interpretation, current understandings of the nature of homosexuality, or the witness of Christians living in faithful relationships with a member of the same sex. Liberals argue either that Scripture, properly interpreted, allows room for a variety of sexual practices or norms, or that even if Scripture speaks unequivocally about sexual ethics, its guidance is not necessarily the final word for the church today. The more significant theological split is occasioned by the latter approach, which challenges not only a particular understanding of scriptural texts but the very authority of Scripture itself. The gap between the more conservative and more liberal perspectives is enormous, with little apparent middle ground.

Third, as in the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church is increasingly polarized along ideological lines. Theological or social disputes are seen in the context of the ongoing “culture wars” that seem to pit religious Americans against “secularists.” The political battles of the past decade and the media obsession with finding and reinforcing opposing views make compromise even harder. It is not surprising that people who read the newspapers and watch television talking heads who take extreme views on the issues of the day will be likely to carry such attitudes about conflict into their activities in their parishes and dioceses.

Finally, I think that while it is seldom acknowledged, the conflict over homosexuality frequently reveals a deep visceral distaste, even disgust, for the behaviors under consideration. Many other biblical prohibitions-against divorce, women speaking in church, eating certain foods-have been altered. People may oppose the practice of ordaining women or consecrating them as bishops, but few appear to be physically disgusted by the prospect. The apparently unequivocal nature of the condemnations of homosexuality found in the Bible is reinforced by the deeper “instinctive” conviction that homosexual behavior simply cannot be what God intends for his creation. And for those on the liberal side (where I am), there is often a similar, almost visceral, reaction that sees opponents as simply intolerant and homophobic.

Some of the debate in the Episcopal Church also focuses on process, on what Rowan Williams called the ECUSA’s “determination to go it alone.” Conservatives point to earlier pronouncements by the Anglican Communion saying the church was not ready to move ahead on this issue, and accuse the Americans of riding roughshod over both the precedents of the community and the feelings of other churches. Liberals insist that they have followed the established procedure for selecting and consecrating a bishop by receiving the required number of votes at both diocesan and national meetings, and that local dioceses and national churches have the right to take such steps.

Both sides may be narrowly correct but both are broadly misleading in their complaints about due process. It is hard to believe that opponents of Bishop Robinson’s consecration would have been less opposed if the church had delayed and tried to convince others of the rightness of this step. One noted conservative voice makes this clear when he writes that this is a “subject on which Bible Christians are not able to change their minds. Not because we are dinosaurs-but because we believe God has already spoken” (Paul Zahl, Understanding the Windsor Report). And on the other side, organizational autonomy and responsibility within a religious communion must mean more than simply justifying one’s actions on the basis of what the official policies allow one to do.

Given these disagreements, how can Episcopalians resolve their differences? Do we remain within an institution that appears to be falling apart, and one that each side experiences as betraying our own commitment to theological orthodoxy or fairness? As a heterosexual who does not view homosexuality as intrinsically sinful or abnormal, can I continue to value the orthodox tradition that is part of my religious identity within a polity that seems so confused about what the “Christian” church should do?

  1. Anonymous permalink
    Monday, July 16, 2007 8:38 pm

    I must say that this is a well thought and well executed piece, however it does presents a rather disturbed view of the ECUSA that I had not known before. If the “church’s” leaders are in favor of the dimunition of Scriptural authority, the opposition of their 500 year old tradition and the general secularist principle that is accept, it has truly lost its ground.

    In your last paragraph you asked if you could both accept homosexuality as norm and still claim the values of an orthodox tradition. In the end the liberal view is a disavowal of that orthodoxy. In fact, the Episcopal bishops in their liberal recreation of their ‘church’ have abandoned Christianity to simply become a secular organization with the option to follow Christ or not.

    Essentially, the Episcopalian Church is neither being torn apart nor is it seeking to be liberal or conservative. The Episcopalian Church is in ruins and neither conservative or liberal can accept that it has passed – conservatives because they can’t accept its death and liberals because they use the name of Episcopalian as a wolf uses sheep’s clothing.

    There is no more Episcopal Church, it has faded with the acceptance of every wind of doctrine. It’s fate is not reserved to itself but rather something that will spread to the entire Anglican Communion. Those who are true to the Anglican Church are reduced to few options… the premiere choice of which is returning to the True Church from where it received its “orthodoxy.”

    I would say five hundred years is a good run. Episcopalians are out of the race, but Anglicans have a few more years yet. In the end, what is not of God, will not stand.

  2. Thursday, January 24, 2008 4:58 pm

    Great article, it is so much more beneficial if both parties can come to a Collaborative Divorce or Uncontested Divorce, everybody wins in this type legal process! Especially if you can put one’s ego in check, and have a mutual agreement… Maybe even give a little and take a little less in some regards it might seem that your the one always giving more, but in the long run it will come back to you 10 times…


    Howard M

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