MANY conservative clergy have thought Lambeth a chance for their dioceses to make an official statement in favor of traditional teaching. The resolution on sexuality declared what is still (more or less) official Episcopal teaching, it passed by a huge majority, and the Anglicans of the developing world, hitherto approved by our liberals, supported it overwhelmingly. It seemed to provide cover for the “centrists,” the timid, and the calculating.
But very few dioceses have done so. The conservative Diocese of Georgia set aside a resolution supporting Lambeth, after a priest declared that the diocese should not make some winners and others losers. The centrist Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast rejected two such resolutions, while the centrist Diocese of Colorado avoided the discussion. The conservative Diocese of Texas defeated one such resolution and set aside another. In none did the bishop support the resolution.
Some of these clergy had assured themselves and others that their “centrist” bishop was really an Evangelical, because he had told them so privately, and had said that he would soon speak clearly on the controversial issues. He couldn’t speak yet because he “is too new to the diocese” or “has to be here long enough for people to trust him” or “doesn’t want to lose his credibility by speaking too quickly” or “doesn’t want to be sidetracked at the beginning of his ministry by battling over issues.”
Now they feel taken. Bishops and clergy may disagree on the best way to advance the Gospel, but it does seem that in times of confusion Christians must speak clearly, to encourage the faithful and instruct those confusion will hurt — for example the young woman who finds herself pregnant because her Church did not want winners and losers and so would not say a word for chastity.
*An extraordinary response* But they may, of course, speak clearly in service of error. Writing his diocese in January, the Bishop of Arizona declared that after six years of silence “I have made a commitment to work and speak for a more inclusive church . . . and it is my prayer that the church will become more accepting and supportive of all of its members.”
“I will seek to move the church to ordain and to call forth those among us whom we deem to be healthy without regard to sexual orientation or identity,” wrote Bp Robert Shahan. He also wanted to find “a way to bless those who wish to have a [homosexual] relationship set apart in holiness,” though he did not believe, for reasons he did not make clear, that this blessing should be called marriage.
This he “felt led by the Holy Spirit to write . . . in humility as a Gospel teaching from the Bishop and not simply a statement of my position.” He wrote “in the line of succession of the apostles of Jesus Christ by the will of God” to advance “a more inclusive community that more closely reflects what this servant of God believes to be the Gospel teaching of our Savior Jesus Christ.”
It would take several thousand more words than I have, to analyze the letter. His main arguments were, in a paraphrase (an accurate one): “The Church blesses fox hunts so why can’t it bless two people who love each other?”; “We don’t do everything Leviticus says so we shouldn’t oppose homosexuality”; “Much of what the Bible teaches is either outdated or just appalling”; and “Our unity in Christ does not depend upon what He said, because we all disagree about that.”
The Africans he certainly would not follow. “The church in many parts of Central Africa and other regions is as dogmatic as the Moslem culture with which they collide in the ‘two-thirds world.’ It is not an attractive sight. It is a scene where they want to condemn homosexuality quite soundly while turning a blind eye to the instances of polygamy, tribalism, genocide and even female mutilation in their own culture.”
“I tire,” he continued, “of the righteousness that is not of God,” by which he seemed to mean the Africans and those who agree with them. “I tire of a proclamation that is harsh, judgmental and calls forth that same kind of judgmental posture from those who disagree. It creates its one environment in which there is not love, mercy, acceptance, hope, grace, or holiness.”
He ended the letter with an appeal to unity, which “is not about our uniformity of belief, behavior, or our spoken words,” because “The task of the church is not to tell you what to think. The role of the church is to teach you how to think theologically and to develop an informed conscience. . . . When one hears the message of Scripture, it will always be as a call to unity in Christ. It will always be a call into a blessed relationship with God and one another.”
Well yes, of course, surely, but also no, not at all. As our Lord says in John, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (I have told you not only what to think but what to do) and in Matthew “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword,” setting even a son against his father and a daughter against her mother (knowing me will divide you from people who claim to know me).
And rather more to the point, later in the same passage from Matthew, Jesus says “He that receives you receives me, and he that receives me receives him that sent me.” Surely to receive the Apostles means to receive their doctrine. And to refuse their doctrine — to set oneself against Romans 1, for example — is to refuse the Lord.
*A Gospel to pass on* A young friend, one of our graduates, called earlier this evening. He mentioned that he’d been talking with a neighboring priest, who called himself “a true liberal” and whose parish is dying, and who wanted to know why my friend worked so hard.
My friend said that he felt compelled to preach the Scriptures, to call his people to repentance and conversion, and to do everything he could to reach those outside the Church, because he had been given a Gospel he must preserve by passing on. “I suppose that’s the difference between you and me,” his neighbor replied. “I don’t have anything to preserve.”
That is heart-breakingly sad, but at least this priest is not pretending to pass on what he has refused to receive from the Apostles, and claiming the Holy Spirit led him away from them.
David Mills is director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry and editor of *The Pilgrim’s Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness* (Eerdmans).