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Anglican Schism Over Gay Clergy Inevitable After American Vote?

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Jul 15, 2009
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Six years ago, an openly gay Episcopalian cleric named Gene Robinson was consecrated as a bishop of the church. The global Anglican church, which has 77 million members, was already under strain over differences regarding the role of gays in the faith and even the role that women should be allowed to play in the clergy. The idea that an openly gay man who was living a family life with another man drove some in the Anglican church to the point of breaking away; a global schism loomed.

Three years ago, the Anglican church sought to avoid that schism by pursuing a moratorium on the elevation of gay clergy to the status of bishop.

Despite that moratorium, however, the issue of whether gays belong in the church’s clerical ranks has continued to divide the faith; some North American churches have even broken away from the U.S. branch of the faith, the Episcopalian church, in order to ally themselves with anti-gay parishes in developing countries in Africa and elsewhere.

Last year, conservative Anglicans declared that the schism was all but upon the church; that episode was one more in a string of demands from Anglicans seeking to convince North America’s Episcopalians to "repent" for their support of GLBT members of the faith.

Another splinter group of the Episcopalians, The Anglican Church in North America, formed in June of this year; the new splinter does not accept that gays might serve God in certain capacities.

Now, with the nearly two-to-one vote from a convocation of Bishops at a General Convention in California this week, reported a July 14 Associated Press article, that moratorium may be about to end.

The overwhelming majority of bishops at the convocation agreed that "God has called and may call" gay men and women to the service of the church. While not everyone sees this as meaning that the American Episcopalians are on the verge of discarding that moratorium, which was the result of pressure from branches of the church in other nations, the vote has send tremors through the Anglican church and the wider faith community.

Both sides in the debate agree that the long-coming schism may finally be upon the Anglican faith.

The July 15 episode of NPR’s Morning Edition quoted a member of the Episcopalian GLBT equality group Integrity, pastor Susan Russell, who said of the vote to end the moratorium, "we did that for a time--for the last three years--and that time is over."

Russell seemed to indicate that had the moratorium actually helped stem the push toward schism, things might have worked out differently; but with parishes leaving the fold over the issue of gay clergy despite the moratorium on gay bishops, the denial of such status within the church to deserving and qualified individuals may have seemed merely wasteful.

As Russell put it, quoting from a popular song, "Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose."

The article quoted Russell further. "I think there’s a tremendous sense of freedom and liberation in this church right now," she said.

"The mission of this church will no longer be held hostage to those who are threatening to leave."

The vote came in the wake of the church’s global leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, issuing a warning to American Episcopalians not to hasten the schism by approving a measure to end the moratorium.

Said Russell: "There are those in the wider church who preferred we wouldn’t put tea in the Boston Harbor, but that happened, too," the NPR story reported.

An Indiana bishop, Edward Little, expressed reservations about the future.

"I’m deeply concerned, and particularly for the international ramifications," Little was quoted by NPR as saying.

Added the Indiana bishop, "There’s certainly the possibility that that fracture will deepen, and it could be that in some way, [the American branch of the church will] find ourselves in a secondary place in the Anglican Communion."

The article speculated that the schism together with the Episcopal church’s already-dwindling numbers, might lead to a long-term crisis.

The idea is not far-fetched; as the less devout leave the church, those who stay behind may be more likely to embrace conservative views that condemn gay families and the granting of positions of authority within the church to gay members.

Bishop Little gave voice to a worry that accepting gay bishops "will accelerate individual departures, it will accelerate the number of parishes that decide to leave, and it may perhaps push another diocese or two over the edge."

Another possibility is that if those who view gays as unworthy of clerical positions leave, the remaining church will be stronger by dint of its unity, making for a happier denomination and an increase in membership.

Russell envisioned that outcome, saying, "A church that is obsessed with fighting over whether or not gay and lesbian people can be bishops is not real attractive.

"I mean, ’Come watch us argue over gay people’ is not a great marketing scheme.

"And I’m of the mind the decisions we’re making are going to encourage church growth rather than decline."

Though Integrity has publicly promoted the view that the vote rescinds the moratorium, those who wrote the statement are not ready to go quote that far, that fast.

They say that the statement is simply a broad acknowledgment that gay and lesbian members of the church who are in family relationships with same-sex spouses might be accepted in clerical roles.

Explained one Episcopal cleric, the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, "The constitution and canons of our church as currently written do not preclude gay and lesbian persons from participating" in the life of the church, including its clergy, reported the Associated Press article.

Said Jennings of gay people of faith seeking to serve, "These people have responded to God’s call."

But Integrity is not alone in making definitive proclamations to the effect that the American branch of the church is poised to disregard anti-gay admonishments from abroad.

A prominent Southern Baptist pointed out that the statement clears the way for future gay bishops by saying that the church should heed God call to gay and lesbian candidates of "any ordained ministry."

The President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Albert Mohler, in an article posted at Christian Web site Crosswalk, wrote that the American arm of the Anglican church had approved the measure "in open defiance" of the global church, and said that the 2003 elevation of Robinson
"brought [the church’s] worldwide communion to the brink of disaster."

Wrote Mohler, "In taking this action, the Episcopal Church now signals its absolute determination to defy Scripture, tradition, and the urgent cries of its own sister churches in the Anglican Communion."

Mohler noted that, "delegates to both the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies attempted to describe the action as a way of remaining true to their church’s own principles and convictions.

"In one sense, the delegates could make this claim with something of a straight face," continued Mohler.

"After all, as speakers during the debate made clear, this action is an honest reflection of what the Episcopal Church has now become."

Mohler continued in this vein, writing, "In other words, the denomination has pressed forward with the agenda of normalizing homosexuality and homosexual relationships and the moratorium on gay bishops was, in light of larger developments within the church, both awkward and artificial."

Mohler added that, "the American denomination has, in effect, told the Anglican Communion that it will go its own way, whatever the cost.

"Adding insult to injury, the General Convention also expressed its ’abiding commitment’ to the worldwide body.

"Apparently, this commitment does not extend to keeping its promises," Mohler added.

The Southern Baptist writer’s observations of the situation within the Anglican church included a jab at that so-called "liberal agenda," with a quote from David Virtue, who, Mohler reported, lamented that, "It’s a clean sweep for the liberal agenda in the Episcopal Church."

Added Virtue, "The orthodox are finished."

Mohler referenced the recent formation of the Anglican Church in North America, writing, "Traditionally, the Communion has recognized only one denomination in each country. The Communion will have to make some decision concerning which church is truly a part of its fellowship.

"If the Anglican Communion has the slightest concern for orthodoxy and biblical standards of ministry," Mohler went on, "the actions taken in Anaheim should make this decision much less difficult."

Voices from within the church, as well, expressed dismay at the vote.

In an article carried on July 15 in the UK newspaper The Times as well as the Anglican Web site Fulcrum, the Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, called the church’s drift toward schism a "slow-moving train crash," and said that the vote had "brought a large coach off the rails altogether."

Wright seemed to lay the blame for global tensions at the American church’s feet, writing that with the vote, the American church members "were formalizing the schism they initiated six years ago when they consecrated as bishop a divorced man in an active same-sex relationship," though Wright went on to acknowledge that, "matters didn’t begin with the consecration of Gene Robinson.

"The floodgates opened several years before, particularly in 1996 when a church court acquitted a bishop who had ordained active homosexuals."

Wright got to the nub of the matter in writing, "Many in [the Episcopal Church] have long embraced a theology in which chastity, as universally understood by the wider Christian tradition, has been optional."

Going on to declare that heterosexual-only intimacy and marriage are part of a "covenant" with God, Wright claimed that, "Jesus’s own stern denunciation of sexual immorality would certainly have carried, to his hearers, a clear implied rejection of all sexual behavior outside heterosexual monogamy."

Continued Wright, "This isn’t a matter of ’private response to Scripture’ but of the uniform teaching of the whole Bible, of Jesus himself, and of the entire Christian tradition."

Wright went on to say that, "We must insist, too, on the distinction between inclination and desire on the one hand and activity on the other--a distinction regularly obscured by references to ’homosexual clergy’ and so on.

"We all have all kinds of deep-rooted inclinations and desires. The question is, what shall we do with them?

"One of the great Prayer Book collects asks God that we may ’love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise’."

Noted Wright, "That is always tough, for all of us. Much easier to ask God to command what we already love, and promise what we already desire."

Wright also called into question the use of sexuality as an indication of a person’s identity, and, along with that, a basis from which to pursue equality.

Wrote the bishop, "The appeal to justice as a way of cutting the ethical knot in favor of including active homosexuals in Christian ministry simply begs the question.

"Nobody has a right to be ordained: it is always a gift of sheer and unmerited grace.

"The appeal also seriously misrepresents the notion of justice itself, not just in the Christian tradition of Augustine, Aquinas and others, but in the wider philosophical discussion from Aristotle to John Rawls," Wright reasoned.

"Justice never means ’treating everybody the same way’, but ’treating people appropriately’, which involves making distinctions between different people and situations," the bishop continued.

"Justice has never meant ’the right to give active expression to any and every sexual desire’."

Wright issued a call for church unity, writing, "Contrary to some who have recently adopted the phrase, there is already a ’fellowship of confessing Anglicans’. It is called the Anglican Communion."

Added the bishop, "The Episcopal Church is now distancing itself from that fellowship.

"Ways must be found for all in America who want to be loyal to it, and to scripture, tradition and Jesus, to have that loyalty recognized and affirmed at the highest level."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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