Gay Leaders in the Church
What do slavery and circumcision have to do with the debate over ordaining homosexuals? An Episcopal priest explains.
My church is filled with young and old. Our members are also male and female, black and white, married and single, straight and gay. When the Episcopal Church ordained the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man in a long-term committed relationship, as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, some in my parish were upset, but most yawned. Around the world, however, many people were appalled. The Episcopal Church had gone too far.
To address the Episcopal Church USA’s decision to ordain Robinson, Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, formed the Eames Commission, a group of Anglican bishops and lay people, to decide how the Anglican Communion should respond to divisions in the church over homosexuality. Last October, the Eames Commission released its findings in the Windsor Report.
Back at my parish people were interested because there had been speculation that the Episcopal Church might be declared out of communion with the rest of the Anglican Communion. Would the worldwide Anglican Church split apart?
In typical Anglican fashion, the report steered the via media, or middle way. It stressed the need for all to move forward together and for continued dialogue. The report called the Episcopal Church to task for ordaining a homosexual as bishop, and it criticized the Canadian diocese of New Westminster in British Columbia for blessing same-sex unions. But the report also rebuked conservative bishops who had violated the church’s traditional lines of authority by intervening in dioceses other than their own.
Perhaps because the report was evenhanded on an issue so divisive, it did not settle concerns about a church schism, and many in my parish remained uncertain about the future of the Episcopal Church’s relationship with the rest of the Anglican churches in the world. So, when Trinity Church in Tariffville, Conn., hosted a discussion on December 14 with the Rt. Rev. Josiah Fearon, an Anglican archbishop from Africa who served on the Eames Commission and opposed the ordination of Gene Robinson, and the Rt. Rev. Andrew D. Smith, the bishop of Connecticut and a Robinson supporter, more than 15 members from my parish braved the cold hoping to learn more about the implications of the commission’s findings.
To explain his position, Archbishop Fearon described the social structure of his tribe and his diocese, and, by extension, much of Africa and Christianity in the global South. He said his own people have no word for homosexuality (small wonder HIV/AIDS is such a crisis in Africa). People who have “that proclivity” are sent to the medicine man because it is considered a spiritual disease. His response to the Episcopal Church’s decision was informed by this tribal denial of the existence of homosexuality and by his reading of Scripture—particularly Leviticus, which calls homosexuality an “abomination.” That same book, of course, proclaims menstruating women, and the men who touch them, to be unclean, and outlines the violent ways in which the community should treat people with skin disorders.
Fearon asked us to think of the worldwide Anglican Communion (all churches theologically rooted to the Church of England) in familial terms. “We are all one big family and so called upon to get along,” he declared. He explained that his concept of family is patriarchal, a structure that gives the father, as the head of the family, first and final authority on everything. This is how the archbishop leads his own nuclear family, as well as the diocese of Northern Nigeria, where his word stands over and above the beliefs and desires of everybody else—be they priests or parishioners, straight or gay, female or male, spouses or children.
The archbishop was articulate and passionate. He is deeply concerned that the controversy over the ordination of a gay man might split the Anglican “family,” and he prays it won’t. He also wants the Episcopal bishops who ordained Robinson to “repent”—to apologize for their actions and never ordain another homosexual.
Bishop Smith, who voted in favor of the ordination of Robinson, did not defend the Episcopal Church’s decision. Rather, he described the Anglican Communion in historical terms. He made the important point that the church, which is an association of independent churches across the globe, is not hierarchical in the way the Roman Catholic Church is, which was one of the reasons that the Church of England broke from Rome in the 16th century. The larger church really is a “communion”–many churches in a fellowship of equality with each other. And communion is the glue that holds us together—from the sharing of bread and wine in the Eucharist to the fellowship of people who respect each other even when they may disagree.
Smith also pointed out that the Anglican Communion, like the Episcopal Church, holds a constant tension between differing points of view on Scripture, tradition, reason, and social change, in such a way that a middle course is generally followed. Is it possible, I wondered, to maintain these tensions in Fearon’s vision of the church?
At the end of the evening, the archbishop’s cool presentation and suave demeanor left me with a lump in my stomach. In a word, I felt he was disingenuous. His petition to the Episcopal Church to “repent” was really a demand that we see things the way he does—to embrace, under the guise of “family,” a structure that is hierarchical and patriarchal, exclusivist and misogynistic.
Though Fearon didn’t address the role of women in the church that evening, I couldn’t help thinking as I sat there that none of my female colleagues in holy orders—deacons, priests, bishops—would be allowed to serve at table in his diocese, and many others around the world, simply because they aren’t men—and straight men, at that. Which Gospel tells us that Jesus considered men to be more fully children of God than homosexuals and women?
Fearon’s bottom line seems to be this: The Episcopal Church must travel down a one-way street to meet the traditionalists at their place of comfort. He implores the Episcopal Church to understand his culture and how distasteful it finds homosexuality. Yet, the Episcopal bishops and laity who voted overwhelmingly to ordain Robinson would like to receive the same consideration from Archbishop Fearon and those opposed to Robinson’s ordination. We find it distasteful to be told we must be anything less than fully inclusive.
At our General Convention, the Episcopal Church supported Robinson based on our reading of the Gospels, the canons of the church, and our sense of prayerfulness. We recognize that social and cultural mores, as well as theology, doctrine, ethics, and values, have always changed and always will, and we believe that these changes can be the work of the Holy Spirit. We see similarities between the shifting mores concerning homosexuality today and the change in attitudes towards slavery, which is clearly sanctioned in Scripture, in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Indeed, change can be good. As one participant noted, the Jesus movement was founded on changes that Jesus introduced to Judaism, embracing the marginalized, in the new covenant and the Good News of the kingdom of God, here and now. Acts 15 describes a monumental change in the sacred theology of the early Jewish Christian community. The point of contention, Acts 15:1 tells us, was circumcision: “Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’”
At the end of the day, the apostles and elders in Jerusalem decided to look beyond the ancient Jewish law—it had become antiquated—and to allow Gentiles to join the fledgling Christian movement without being circumcised.
If only today’s traditionalists could recognize an obsolete ancient law when they see one, and finally embrace homosexuals with the flexibility and openness that first-century Christians showed the Gentiles.
Puck Purnell is rector at Old St. Andrew’s Church in Bloomfield, CT.
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