Flogging the Bishop

An Episcopal priest responds to Bishop Spong’s open letter to Rowan Williams.

By Gawain de Leeuw

Bishop Spong, pushed to the margin even by his own colleagues, probably for reasons that have little to do with theology, should relax.

Look, I sympathize. I admit I’ve sometimes felt uncharitable toward our furry archbishop. Maybe if Rowan would just have the balls to stand behind his personal piety, the world would be a much better place. But is such thinking realistic?

In his most recent letter, Spong takes Rowan to task for preferring unity over truth regarding the church's stance on homosexuality, informing him about the history of our denomination’s misdeeds, which I’m glad he did because the archbishop clearly had no idea. But I wish Spong had also told the story of the congregational, democratic nature of the Social Gospel in this country. That is, perhaps, old news to us, but it might be enlightening to the Fuddy Duddy of Canterbury.

As an American Episcopal priest, however, I feel that no one is looking at the real issue, which is not to get the archbishop to come on board the gay world cruise, but rather to deal with far more critical issues at local and regional levels. It’s really not up to Rowan to make everything all right. Why should we demand that our spiritual leaders become supermen? Aren’t we U.S. Episcopalians capable of doing what needs to be done all by ourselves? In response to the Anglican primates we said: we’re a democratic church. Period. Let’s go dump some tea in Boston harbor. Then Rowan came. So?

It’s pretty practical, actually. Gay Christians—and their friends—vote. They are on vestries. That’s our church. We don’t need some Holy Primate from across the sea giving us the go ahead to live the way we see fit. We have the power to make and implement our own decisions.

The issues of the U.S. Episcopal Church, I suspect, are not the issues of the Anglican Communion. My concerns include things like how am I going to pay for my secretary or the air conditioning or my after school program, and why isn’t anyone coming to my cool ultra-progressive church? It isn’t that people don’t approve of me or my parish; in my area everyone knows where we stand and they love what we’re doing. They’re just in a time and money crunch, as so many of us are today.

Gay rights is just one of many issues that needs work in a hypercapitalist country. And in fact, I believe we’re ahead of the game in that department. Good leaders in the Episcopal Church do not worry about sexuality—we’ve already decided that gay people are a full part of the church. Now how about turning our attention to some other challenges, like the growing blight of mega-churches and the budget shortfalls that make it tougher and tougher to pay for the basic upkeep of church buildings?

Spong is wrong to assume that this fight is Rowan’s. The fight in the Episcopal Church is ours. It’s great that the Archbishop is coming, the Archbishop is coming. To be honest, that’s all he needed to do. But the work that has to be done is here. And we don’t need him to do it for us, or to give us the thumbs up.

Bishop Spong has lots right. But he’s mistaken if he believes that Rowan’s personal views are essential to making the church a paradise—gay-friendly or otherwise. If anything, simply holding people together might be the best way to keep the conflict where it should be—in local provinces. And that might mean saying as little as possible, and listening as much as possible to the many different audiences that make up the global house of God.

I don’t think that Rowan is as clueless as he seems. Perhaps he knows that instead of shouting, it is better to wait and see. Maybe he is simply staying connected in a world that is falling apart. And that is enough—to be patient and stay the course. Rowan’s not our daddy. Right?


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Gawain de Leeuw is the rector at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in White Plains, N.Y. His last piece for SoMA was Stepping Out to the Beat of the Holy Spirit.

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