Not Angels but Anglicans
A pot-pourri of transatlantic antics
Things are seldom what they seem. The trial of Bishop Walter Righter for heresy was certainly a case in point. Just as the issue of the ordination of women was the presenting issue of a much wider dispute about authority, ecclesiology and Christology, so the Righter Trial is best understood not as ‘about’ homosexuality, but as intimately concerned with the very nature and character of Christian doctrine.
At its meeting in Montana in September 1965 the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church in the USA adopted a resolution on the recommendation of its Theological Committee in response to a request from several bishops that the then Bishop of California, James A. Pike, be presented for holding and teaching doctrine contrary to that of the Church. That resolution restated long recognized sources of the doctrine of the Church, providing, in the pertinent part:
‘Because of the misunderstandings which so easily occur, we say to those outside and inside the Church that the Church’s faith is expressed in its title deeds – the scriptures and the creeds which guard them – and in the prayers and sacramental acts in the Book of Common Prayer, which expresses Christ’s ministry within the Church.’ (Minutes of the House of Bishops, ECUSA, 1985, pp. 23-24)
Such a view on the part of the bishops of the Episcopal Church clearly ruled out any appeal to the canons of the ecumenical councils, or to the tradition as it unfolded. Its view of the Church might be said to be formulaic rather than organic; and rather selective in the formulae upon which it chooses to base itself.
The judgement in the Righter Trial (see summary below) shows a dramatic narrowing of that base. Paradoxically it seeks to impose a particular teaching about Jesus, whilst allowing that obedience to the teaching of Jesus is an optional extra.
An Episcopal Church court today dismissed charges against retired Bishop Walter C. Righter. The Court held that neither the doctrine nor the discipline of the Church currently prohibit the ordination of a non-celibate homosexual person living in a committed relationship.
In early 1995 Righter was charged by ten bishops under Church canons for teaching publicly and advisedly that a practising homosexual may properly be ordained in the Episcopal Church and for violating his ordination vows for ordaining Barry L. Stopfel, a candidate from the Diocese of Newark, who was living and continues to live in what
is described as a committed relationship with another man. After the charge, called a Presentment, was endorsed by the required one-fourth of the Churchs bishops, the matter was referred to an ecclesiastical court of nine bishops.
Seven of the judges agreed that the ordination did not violate the Churchs doctrine or discipline.
Bishop Andrew Fairfield of North Dakota filed a dissenting opinion which adopted the Presenters argument that the Churchs traditional teachings are part of its doctrine and the teaching against ordination of non-celibate homosexual persons is binding on the Church and its bishops. He pointed to evidence in Scripture and the Book of Common Prayer reflected in a 1979 General Convention resolution which he held to be a proscription of ordination of non-celibate homosexual persons.
The majority opinion stated that The Court is not giving an opinion on the morality of same gender relationships. We are not deciding whether life-long, committed, sexual same gender relationships are or are not a wholesome example with respect to ordination vows. We are not rendering an opinion on whether a bishop and diocese should or should not ordain persons living in same sex relationships. Rather, we are deciding the narrow issue of whether or not under Title IV [the Churchs disciplinary canons] a bishop is restrained from ordaining persons living in a committed same gender sexual relationship. The Court also stated, We remind the Church that this issue will not be resolved and the Church unified in its faith and practice by presentments and trials, nor by unilateral acts of bishops and their dioceses, or through the adoption of proclamations by groups of bishops or others expressing positions on the issues.
The Court drew a distinction between the Core Doctrine of the Church found in the New Testament proclamation about Jesus and in the Nicene and Apostles Creeds, and other doctrinal matters or traditional teachings on a range of issues of faith, belief, practice, and morals which have gradually changed over the centuries.
The Court ruled that the Canon on doctrine protects only the Churchs Core Doctrine. It also ruled that other Church teachings and resolutions of the Churchs legislative body, the General Convention, may, at times, be enforceable under the Canons but concluded that the teaching against the ordination of non-celibate homosexual persons was not presently enforceable under the Constitution and Canons of the Church. In a concluding section on pastoral concerns, the majority offered several suggestions about how the General Convention, which next meets in 1997, might offer greater clarity to order the Churchs life on this issue, stating that it could pass a Canon stating explicitly either that ordination of non-celibate homosexuals persons is or is not permitted. It also stated that a trial is a poor way to clarify doctrine or to secure good order in the Church.
Two of the seven, Bishop Roger White of Milwaukee and Bishop Donis Patterson of Dallas (retired), concurred with the majoritys conclusions but raised an additional issue discussing the potentially disruptive implications of the Courts decision.
The Bishops signing the majority opinion were Edward W. Jones of Indianapolis, presiding, Douglas E. Theuner of New Hampshire, Robert C. Johnson, Jr. of North Carolina, Cabell Tennis of Delaware, Roger J. White of Milwaukee, Donis D. Patterson of Dallas (retired), and Arthur E. Walmsley of Connecticut (retired). Frederick Borsch of Los Angeles withdrew as a judge before the Courts decision was announced.
The position of John Shelby Spong, controversial Bishop of Newark, New Jersey is well known. Spong it was who ordained Barry Stopfel
priest. The Bishop of Newark, and not the retired Bishop of Iowa, was in truth the main protagonist in this case.
It is Bishop Spong’s open denial of doctrines of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (for example the Virgin Birth and the Bodily Resurrection) which gives to the appeal of the court to ‘the kerygma about Jesus’ its particular irony.
As the Bishop of the Diocese of Newark, I pledge my full support to the Rt. Rev. Walter Righter, former assistant bishop of Newark. I reject the politically motivated charges of the religious right within the Episcopal Church and expect to see Bishop Righter fully exonerated. The public needs to be informed about a number of factors in this strange episode in church history. First, the ordination of the Rev. Barry Stopfel was carried out according to the letter of the Canons of the Episcopal Church. Mr. Stopfel had the support of the vestry of the Church of the Atonement, Tenafly, New Jersey. He had the full endorsement of the Commission on Ministry. He was approved unanimously by the Standing Committee of the diocese. His ordination to the diaconate by Bishop Righter and his ordination to the priesthood by me were both carried out in consultation with the highest authorities in our national church structure. If Bishop Righter or the authorities of this diocese acted inappropriately in this matter, we did so by following the canons and with the advice of our national church leaders. If this presentment ever gets to trial, that detail will be fleshed out with specificity.
Secondly, the Episcopal Church has never written into its canon law a prohibition against the ordination of gay and lesbian candidates who meet all other standards. The last refusal to do that was at the General Convention of 1991. This attempt was defeated by roll call vote in the House of Bishops, so every vote was recorded by name and is available today. The conservative minority of our church is now trying to win by judicial process what it could not win then by legislative process. That is both dishonest and lacking in integrity.
Thirdly, General Convention resolutions do not have the force of canon law. They are the expressions of the mind of this church to guide our common life, but they have always respected dissent. This church has passed resolutions on abortion, on various boycotts, on foreign policy issues and on a wide variety of other public matters. The suggestion that some bishop or priest who disagrees with the majority sentiment at a general convention might be subject to presentment is ludicrous. There is not a bishop living who has not dissented to some resolution of General Convention at one time or another. Only the canons are mandatory and thus required to be obeyed. Only the canons have the power to bind our corporate life.
In addition to that fact, the only General Convention resolution to which the presentment refers, and which they claim prohibits the ordination of homosexual persons, was passed in 1979 and it was specifically called a recommendation. The day after that vote, 21 bishops issued a public statement noting that this resolution was recommendatory and not proscriptive and these bishops announced their inability in conscience to be bound by that resolution. Among those 21 signatories were the Rt. Rev. Edmond Browning, who five years later was elected Presiding Bishop and the Rt. Rev. John Walker who was shortly thereafter elected Vice President of the House of Bishops. If Bishop Righters action is judged by some to be so deep a violation of the Churchs teaching, it is hard to imagine that we would have elected two persons who shared his point of view to the highest leadership positions within
our Church. That illustrates better than anything else I can cite the negativity and the harassing quality of this ecclesiastical version of ethnic cleansing that has now been undertaken by the religious right wing of the Episcopal Church.
The public also needs to be aware that 75 bishops, or 25% of the total membership of the House of Bishops, had to agree to this presentment in order for it to proceed to trial. This right-wing coalition managed to muster 76 votes, one more than the required number, and then only after an intense last-minute lobbying effort. In order to reach their total, they garnered the votes of 44 retired bishops, many of whom have not attended meetings or participated in the debate of the House of Bishops for more than a decade and in some cases two decades. Their signatories even included one bishop who is suffering with Alzheimers disease and who was not capable of signing for himself. Two of their signatories were members of the Bishops Court that will hear this case and thus had to sacrifice themselves as judges in order for this presentment to reach the necessary 25%. When the facts in the case are revealed, I predict a quick dismissal of these charges and a recognition by the vast majority of our Church that this procedure was nothing more than an unsuccessful attempt at intimidation.
Finally, I note that four of the ten bishops who filed the original presentment have themselves refused to implement the canons which opened the ordination process of our Church to women. They are, therefore at this moment, in violation of the canons, something even they have never accused Bishop Righter of being. This tactic against Bishop Righter is their attempt to postpone the day on which they will be called to accountability.
I am saddened that our Church has come to this. I am saddened that gay and lesbian members of this church are subjected to this continuing abuse. My conviction is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which proclaims the message of Gods unbounded love for all that God has made, including Gods gay and lesbian children, is worth defending with all my might and defend that Gospel I will. I am also convinced that I do so with the support of the vast majority of the clergy and lay leadership of this Diocese.
The Response of the Presenting Bishops to the decision of the court is perhaps over optimistic about what can be achieved, by canonical means, in a church dedicated to ‘creative anomy’. It raises, however, the crucial issue of the connection of moral teaching with ‘core doctrine’: to speak of the Church is always to speak of a nuptial mystery, of the bride to whom the Son of God is Bridegroom and Spouse.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the Gospel of Christ. Galatians 1:6-7
We live in a day of moral confusion and widespread attack upon the Churchs received teaching in many areas, including that of human sexuality. For the past twenty years the most hotly debated issue in the Episcopal Church has been that of homosexuality. This preoccupation has diverted resources and energy from the Churchs primary task of calling all people to repentance and discipleship in Jesus Christ.
While the Church has expressed and reaffirmed its pastoral care for homosexual persons, two related questions have been the focus of debate and occasioned our present disorder: whether non-celibate homosexual persons can legitimately be ordained to the diaconate, priesthood, and episcopate of this Church.
It is not as if the Church has failed to address these questions. Repeatedly and consistently, through Resolutions of the General Convention, Statements of the House of Bishops, and most recently in the publication and release of the pastoral study document Continuing the Dialogue (1994), the Episcopal Church has affirmed and reaffirmed that:
the teaching of the Episcopal Church is that physical sexual expression is appropriate only within the lifelong monogamous union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity and, when it is Gods will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer….
it is not appropriate for this Church to ordain a practising homosexual, or any person who is engaged in heterosexual relations outside of marriage.
Indeed, in approving the pastoral study document, the House of Bishops voted its commitment to:
Continue in trust and koinonia ordaining only persons we believe to be a wholesome example to their people, according to the standards and norms set forth by the Churchs teaching.
Until now, the problem has not been a lack of clarity regarding the Churchs understanding of these matters. Rather it has been the growing number of bishops and dioceses that have chosen to disregard and contradict this understanding both by their teaching and in their actions.
In an attempt to restore order in a Church where it had all but disappeared, we have engaged in a lengthy legal process within the House of Bishops over the past year and a half. Unfortunately, that process has been deeply compromised from its very beginning. We cite as only one example the fact that three out of nine judges authorized or performed ordinations identical to the one in question – and a fourth declared his willingness to do so; yet, only one recused himself, and then only after the majority Opinion had been determined.
Nevertheless, the Court has spoken. On May 15, 1996, the majority held that – all of our previous statements notwithstanding – the Episcopal Church has no Core Doctrine in the area of human sexuality; and therefore neither the doctrine nor the discipline of the Church has been violated.
We decry this Opinion as deeply flawed and erroneous. The Courts disclaimer notwithstanding, its decision has swept away two millennia of Christian teaching regarding Gods purposes in creations, the nature and meaning of Christian marriage and the family, the discipleship in relation to sexuality to which we are called as followers of Jesus, and the paradigm of the Church as Bride and Christ as Bridegroom. The distinction of Core Doctrine from other doctrinal teaching is without precedent of foundation in the Book of Common Prayer, the Resolutions of General Convention, or the Canons of the Church. The very term, Core Doctrine, is a specious invention of the Court. There is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, whose ministry the Apostles proclaimed as the Gospel and enduring norm for the Church. There is but one Faith, which must rest on the foundation of this apostolic teaching, and which must find clear and unified expression in both coherent in its unity, and comprehensive in its breadth, bringing every sphere of human life under the Lordship of Christ.
In light of the foregoing, therefore:
1. Categorically reject the Opinion of the Court for the Trial of a Bishop, and stand within the Anglican conviction that the Church
has authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it cannot ordain any thing that is contrary to Gods Word written , neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. (Articles of Religion, XX)
2. We remain committed to the declaration of the General Convention, that The traditional teaching of the Church that marriage, Marital fidelity, and sexual chastity are the standard of Christian sexual morality, and therefore declare that the ordination of non-celibate homosexual persons and the blessing of homosexual unions deviates and departs from the biblical norm.
3. We affirm, with Bishops White and Patterson in their concurring Opinion, that it is not permissible, if it is even possible, in our polity for a bishop to teach or act on teaching which is neither supported by the Holy Scriptures, the Church acting corporately nor the Book of Common Prayer. We therefore declare that bishops who knowingly ordain non-celibate homosexual persons or who permit or endorse the blessing of homosexual unions do so without the authority of the Scripture, of the unbroken apostolic tradition, or of the Anglican Communion and are thereby threatening the unity and order of the Church. As a sign of the seriousness of this threat, we disassociate ourselves from such individually discerned teaching and pre-emptive action by bishops, other clergy, or dioceses.
4. We today propose the following Canon for Adoption by the General Convention in 1997, and we urge its introduction and passage in every diocese as well:
All members of the clergy, having subscribed to the Declaration required by Article VIII of the Constitution of the Episcopal Church, shall be under the obligation to model in their own lives the received teaching of the Church that all its members are to abstain from sexual relations outside Holy Matrimony.
We call upon the Deputies and Bishops to recognize that all previous objections to such a Canon as not necessary have been rendered moot by the Courts Opinion.
5. We declare our conviction that orthodox episcopal ministry must be provided to clergy and laity in dioceses where the bishop has departed from the standards and norms set forth by the Churchs teaching. For their sake, we will take steps to create a fellowship of Episcopal parishes and dioceses which uphold Scriptural authority, and we will also network with other Provinces of the Anglican Communion who share this stance.
The time has come for the faithful members of this Church to act together. The task of the Church is to Bring every soul and every sphere of life under the Lordship of Christ. We call upon all those who share these convictions:
in teaching, proclaiming and upholding the apostolic and catholic faith; to express to their clergy and vestries, their bishops and diocesan leadership their commitment to biblical faith and practice; and stewardship, to those ministries that proclaim the historic and biblical Christian Faith.
We are mindful that this matter is not limited in scope to the Episcopal Church, but one with international and ecumenical dimensions, as noted in this word by a renowned Lutheran Theologian;
Whoever pressures the church to alter the normativeness of its teaching with regard to homosexuality must be aware that person promotes schism in the church. For a church that would permit itself to be pressured to no longer understand homosexual activity as a deviation from the biblical norm and to recognize homosexual partnerships alongside marriage, such a church would no longer be based on the foundation of Scripture, but, rather in opposition to its unanimous witness. (Wolfhart Pannenberg,
translated by Karl Donfried; Zeitwende, 65 1 January 1994)
SIGNED, 27 May 1996:
The Rt. Rev. Keith Ackerman, Quincy The Rt. Rev. Maurice Benitez, Texas (Ret) The Rt. Rev. James M. Coleman, W. Tennessee The Rt. Rev. John W. Howe, Central Florida The Rt. Rev. Jack L. Iker, Fort Worth The Rt. Rev. Stephen H. Jecko, Florida The Rt. Rev. Terence Kelshaw, Rio Grande The Rt. Rev. John-David Schofield, San Joaquin The Rt. Rev. James M. Stanton, Dallas The Rt. Rev. William Wantland, Eau Claire
The decision of the court in Wilmington, not surpisingly provoked reactions throughout the US. We include here two such responses.
They indicate the divisions within the American Church on this issue, and show that those divisions go deep.
In the Cathedral Church of Saint John, Wilmington, Delaware, on May 15, 1996, a momentous decision occurred for the Episcopal Church. An eight-bishop Court, for the Trial of a Bishop, by a seven to one vote, rendered its opinion that Episcopal Church doctrine does not prohibit the ordination of practising homosexuals. Likewise, the court stated that it did not find sufficient clarity in the churchs teaching at the present time concerning the morality of same sex relationships to support the charge that Bishop Righter violated his ordination vow to uphold the discipline of the church.
James H. Thrall, writing for the Episcopal News Service, observes that Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning praised the court for its thoughtful and thorough work, and stressed we will all be diminished if this action is thought of in terms of winners and losers. The whole church will be blessed, he said, if we see that as another significant step on a difficult path of discernment. The court has shown the world an Anglican way of seeking a common mind.
Whereas Bishop Browning praises the decision of the court, I deem it a tragic juncture in the life of our denomination. I respectfully reject his praise of the decision; and I repudiate the decision itself.
The basis of the ruling of the Court was to make a distinction between Core Doctrine and other teachings. Core Doctrine, the court remarks, is about Jesus and is unchanging. Other doctrine, which primarily means moral doctrine, is doctrine that is subject to change.
In the most recent issue of the Central Florida Episcopalian, Bishop Howe is accurate and incisive when he observes: The distinction so critical to the majority opinion — between unchanging Core Doctrine and changeable doctrinal teaching is argued by the court with great lack of precision as to which is which, and why, with absolutely no precedence in the Book of Common Prayer, the canons of the Church, or the resolutions of the General Convention. No such distinction has ever been made up until now. The very phrase Core Doctrine is an invention of this court. If it alone is binding, one must inquire why its distinction from other doctrinal teaching has never been noticed before.
What is doctrine? For all of its years, until now, the Church has judged doctrine to be something that is received by the Church and
not made by the Church. It is as Jude 3 says – the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.
The Revd Dr. Stephen Noll, a theologian of no mean reputation, reminds us that Doctrine includes not only theological truths like the Trinity but also obligatory moral teachings … Anglicans have always seen doctrine as inextricably bound up with morals. The catechism includes examples of faith (the Creed), morals (the Ten Commandments)… This assumes that the Church has a normative moral doctrine … A bishop in promising to teach and exhort with wholesome Doctrine has clearly been seen as teaching both faith and morals.
Terrible forces are loosed when the shepherds (read bishops and other ordained clergy) depart from the revealed doctrine, both theological and moral, of Scripture. The destructive path that our leaders continue to choose for our church is not likely to change any time soon. What arrests my attention is the likeliness that our God will simply allow our errant shepherds to play themselves out and the larger church with them. That happens over and over again in Scripture and Church history.
I see our denomination as evidencing corporate behaviour that is different from other mainline denominations. From my vantage point I observe that other denominations in the post-sixties have pushed to the edge of the theological and moral envelope but are in a drawing back process. I am watching them re-center themselves into Scripture and their statements of faith. Alas, I see our senior leadership bent on ill advised and self destructive social experiments and ventures.
These are difficult days for the Episcopal Church. But difficult as these times are I want to reiterate what you already know – that there are many faithful people of all four orders of ministry, that is, the laity, deacons, priests, and bishops, seeking to live and do ministry with biblical integrity. Our Cathedral is full of such people. As I looked out at the crowded pews of our Cathedral last Sunday that thought dominated my thinking, not the Righter court decision. I thank God for you and your faithfulness. You bring me great joy.
I wish you every good blessing.
Dean Richard Lobs
Sunday, May 19. 1996
information that comes to us or that came to us concerning the Bishop Righter heresy trial.
Truly it is a wondrous, exciting and challenging time in which to be a member of the Anglican Communion and to be a member of this great Episcopal Church in the United States, for over these last nine months history has unfolded before our eyes. A painful event in the life of our church, the calling into trial for heresy of one of our bishops has claimed much of our attention and our energy, and I wonder, do all of us who claim to love this great Church which is a part of the Anglican Communion, do we really understand what has been happening and why? Johns Gospel is very appropriate! The final sentence ought to be a sentence that we have written in our hearts from last Wednesday until God calls us home.
to dismiss all charges was based on two very important church issues that you and I need to understand as Episcopal Christians, if we are able to move forward with this decision and understand it as it relates
to us and to the larger Episcopal Church.
The first issue that was addressed at the heresy trial, and for which Bishop Righter had been charged, had to do with Church Doctrine. In Anglicanism, of which we are an integral part, there is a long standing tradition of appealing to functional doctrine as supplying the basis for reckoning a church to be a true church. Now this core doctrine comes to us from the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thats where the core doctrine comes from and it is rooted in and grounded upon Holy Scripture as found in the New Testament, not the Old Testament…
The court in reaching its verdict of acquittal held to that very ancient distinction between core doctrine also known as Kerygma and the Churchs teaching, also known as didache, for those things necessary for our life in the community and the world.
Core doctrine or Kerygma, is found in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, the preaching and evangelism of the Church as revealed in the New Testament and other Christian Documents. Scholarship identifies the basic contents of the core doctrine or Kerygma or charismatic teaching as follows and Im sure these are familiar to most of you, but I want to run them by you. 1. God in Christ fulfils scripture. 2. God became incarnate in Jesus Christ. 3. Christ was crucified. 4. Christ was buried. 5. Christ rose again. 6. Christ was exalted to God. 7. God gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit. 8. One that Episcopalians have some discomfort with, there will be a Day of Judgment. 9. Therefore repent.
This Kerygma, or core teaching, during a period of controversy which culminated in the first four general councils of the Church expressed through the Apostles and Nicene Creeds and in agreement with the Vincentian Canon make it clear that core doctrine or Kerygma is understood as the essence of Christianity and is absolutely essential for salvation. It is binding on all who are baptized and therefore core doctrine or Kerygma is unchangeable. I want to say that one more time, core doctrine or this Kerygmatic teaching is unchangeable.
Now under the Churchs teaching or didache, its doctrinal teachings (doctrinal teachings of the Church are used by the Church to guide its members in living the faith day-by-day in the Church and in the world) Bishop Righter was also charged with teaching heresy, and we need to know what all that was about. Doctrinal teachings grounded in Holy Scripture, seek to interpret the Holy Scriptures, in other words, the core doctrine or Kerygma, that I have just recently shared with you, and the Churchs tradition must come to us and clearly be understood so that the people of God may understand and live out faithfully the mission entrusted to us as Gods people. An example of such doctrinal teaching is the doctrine of marriage. There is another one, the just war doctrine; since the Sixteenth Century the history of Anglicanism has been marked by an effort to understand the relationship between traditional teaching and the demands of life within a changing social, political, and theological order. I think that needs to be clearly understood, that is the genius of least in First World countries) and a greater life expectancy for most people and a world-wide population explosion. The position of contraception was strongly resisted in the Anglican Communion only one generation ago. Just ONE generation! Now the church is wrestling with the changing roles of human sexuality and life as Episcopalians. We need to be perfectly clear in under standing that there are concurrently, no Church Canons or Laws that prohibit the ordination of any person who is a homosexual and is in a committed same-sex relationship. There are no canons, no laws, that prohibit that. I wonder how many of you knew that? In nineteen hundred and seventy-nine the House of Bishops by themselves, without concurrence from the other house, the Deputies, issued a statement to the Church which was nonbinding and is now seen by this current court as a pastoral directive that said the ordination of gay persons was inappropriate.
Because of the changing focus of the Churchs doctrinal teaching, the second count of heresy against Bishop Righter was unsustained
and thrown out by the ecclesiastical court in a vote of seven to one. Now my friends, these were not liberal bishops. This was not a stacked deck. These were people of God who had been called together to take on a very difficult and challenging call, and they based their decision on doctrine and teaching.
Let us move beyond last Wednesday and recommit yourselves in communion to agree to disagree on weighty matters such as human sexuality, but not to let our disagreement destroy the Body of Christ or denigrate this great Anglican heritage which is ours. Let us not permit the continued bashing of Gods gay and lesbian children. Let us struggle with the higher ground that gives us unity with diversity. For thats who we are as Anglicans and Episcopalians. You know, we all might have a different opinion, but Ill share mine with your. I do not believe that Jesus Christ, Gods Son, would have given His life for this Church, and for me and for you, unless He really believed in the concept of diversity; because He knew when He was with His disciples that they were not in agreement, that they didnt understand, that they never really would be One; but he celebrated the diversity of those brothers and later those sisters, and gave His life, so that you and I might be able to sit here today and celebrate our diversity.
In the name of Jesus Christ, Gods resurrected Son who gives us freedom and peace and diversity we pray. Amen.
A strange shoal, homosexuality, on which to crack up a whole church. But the 20th century is a strange time. You can never tell.
Disapproved in Scripture and disallowed in Christian moral teaching, homosexuality is accumulating major power within the major Protestant denominations. The clearest evidence of that power is the recent judgment by an Episcopal court that sodomy constitutes no barrier to ordination.
The court, in other words, finds homosexuality no different in substance than heterosexuality: six of one, half a dozen of the other, you say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to.
The court, whose members are bishops, had been asked by 76 brother bishops to find that another of their number–Walter C. Righter–had transcended doctrine and good order when he ordained a practising homosexual. The request, issued in the form of a presentment against Bishop Righter, galvanized and titillated not just the Episcopal Church, but American Christianity. One could call it the last stand of orthodoxy–moral and theological–within the church. If Episcopalians couldnt figure out that homosexual practice ran counter to 2,000 years of Christian teaching, then what precisely could they figure out?
The bishop-judges came down squarely on the side of whats the big deal? This they did while claiming they were not passing judgment on the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality. Of course, that is exactly what they were doing: judging the moral irrelevance of a mans, or a womans, bed partner. The judges said, in essence: if it feels good, do it.
The next logical step is a formal vote–which will likely take place at the churchs general Convention next year–to declare sexuality a morally neutral undertaking. The vote, when it comes, will split the church and cause moral traditionalists to take their patronage elsewhere while turning the Episcopal Church, once a vital and not unpowerful institution, into a kooky backwater–albeit a backwater with classy buildings and great music.
What is it about sex? How did it get to be a wedge issue in religion? If Christians fall to fighting among themselves, you might suppose it would be over key doctrines about the question of salvation. Ah,
but maybe thats what were rubbing up against here in this matter of sex. Sex, to the 20th century, is salvation: salvation here, salvation now. The relationship with
the human body, visible and pleasure-giving, rather than the relationship with God, unseen and formidable, is at the center of modern concerns. Salvation, in religious terms, is down the road. In worldly terms, you have only to reach your hand across the bed.
Sexual preoccupation is the logical hallmark of a society that, if it hasnt entirely forgotten God, seems to have forgotten what He wants–which makes the churches collaboration in these amnesiac proceedings altogether baffling.
The bishop-judges of the Episcopal Church, rather than interpose a religious standard against worldly preferences, adopt the worlds preferences as their own. Thereby they raise a question: What is the point of a church that doesnt think like a church or talk like a church? Is it doing anything a DC based agitation committee couldnt accomplish with, very likely, greater expertise and professionalism?
The sad thing about the Episcopal Church is that it used to attend with quiet dignity and a certain pizzazz that influenced other believing bodies. It doesnt do that now. It throws itself with gusto into secular battles, generally taking the side you would think a church would walk miles to avoid taking.
Thats just it: The Episcopal Church is a new kind of church with–evidently–a new mission in religious circles, that mission being to reshape the whole Christian understanding along more tolerant and broadminded lines.
As an Episcopalian, I should know. I watch this stuff with pain and anxiety. Nowadays, when someone asks me: Are you still an Episcopalian? I have a ready answer.
Yes, very still.
William Murchison is a syndicated columnist throughout the USA. This piece originally appeared in the Dallas Evening News and is reprinted by permission