Peter Toon on two controversial bishops.
I write as one who lived and worked in the USA from 1991–2001 and was a priest canonically resident in the Diocese of Quincy. My purpose is to explain with reference to two specific cases how the dominance of the divorce culture in conservative Evangelical and Anglo-catholic circles critically affects in a negative way the evaluation by their leaders of what is right and wrong in sexual relations.
Truths – Home and Abroad
It is true to say that the three major monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – teach that homosexual relations are not merely wrong but are sins against the righteous and holy God.
It is also true to say that divorce and divorce with later remarriage are permitted but not encouraged by Judaism, Islam (at least in the West) and by Christianity. Further, in most branches of Christianity remarriage after divorce is actively discouraged and in some cases even forbidden. In Orthodoxy a priest may marry only once, even if his wife dies and he is a widower.
Further, it is true to say that in modern western society divorce and divorce and remarriage are very common and are acceptable in all strata of society. Also in modern western society it is true to say that a majority think that certain rights for homosexual persons should be recognized. Nevertheless there is a sizeable minority in the USA which, though it thinks of divorce with remarriage as acceptable in most circumstances, also thinks of active homosexuality as an offence that far surpasses those of adultery and fornication. And this is well represented in the American Anglican Council.
The Righter Trial
Not very long ago, the ECUSA had the trial of retired Bishop Righter on the charge that he had ordained an openly gay man. My wife and I attended the trial and sat next to this Bishop’s third wife! The ten ‘orthodox’ bishops who brought the charges that led to this trial seemed not to be aware that this bishop’s major fault against God and canon law was the fact that he had three wives alive and was living with the third, after two divorces. In their eyes and that of their constituency (where the divorce culture is firmly in place) his great sin was to have ordained a ‘gay’ man and his own sexual situation was irrelevant. Lawyers at this trial who were defending Righter said publicly, and to me personally, that they could not understand why divorce with remarriage was acceptable to these bishops (most of whom are now in the American Anglican Council) if the teaching of Jesus and the Bible is to be taken literally. For, they noted, active homosexuality was condemned by these bishops on the basis of the use of biblical texts, literally understood.
What these ‘orthodox’ bishops also did not seem to appreciate is that it is the very fact of the divorce culture, accepted within conservative and liberal circles alike, that has provided much of the basis for the demands and successes of the LesBiGay lobby. That is, if one heterosexual group has rights to self-fulfilment and self-realization according to their ‘orientation’ why not also another group – ‘gays’!
And also with you
Today, when the case of (Bishop) Gene Robinson is raised, conservative elements in church and society see only as relevant the fact that he is a homosexual and living in a ‘gay’ relationship with a male partner. This is alone what stands out. And this alone seems to have been what the American Anglican Council and a majority of the Primates have focused upon in recent months.
However, in terms of the Church of God and the Anglican Jurisdiction of the same it has been the case that a clergyman who is divorced is thereby usually either never considered for election or specifically prohibited from being elected and then consecrated a bishop. It matters not whether he is the innocent or guilty party of a divorce. And it matters not what kind of lifestyle he follows after divorce – holy and blameless or the opposite. Divorce means that there can be no elevation to the higher office in this case. However, being divorced does not prevent his salvation and sharing in the life of the Church if he lives in penitence, faith, hope and charity.
But, how can a divorced man be an icon and symbol of the relation of Christ, the Bridegroom, to his Bride, the Church? And, how can a divorced man teach with credibility the Christian doctrine of marriage as a permanent one-flesh union?
Yet, because of the laxity in discipline within the ECUSA since the 1960s, the prohibition against a divorced man being elevated is rarely considered and applied. Thus the fact that Robinson is a divorced man is noted only in passing and his present ‘gay’ life-style is proclaimed by his opponents to the world (which is exactly what gay activists want to occur for it certainly helps their case).
BUT surely those who claim to be orthodox and to uphold biblical doctrine and traditional norms had a duty to point out at the 2003 General Convention, if not before, that the fact of his being divorced was in and of itself the end of the matter as far as the law of God and the good of the Church is concerned. His behaviour afterwards merely underlined in this instance what was already the case. The fact of the matter is that whatever his virtues or vices he is a divorced person and so was ineligible for confirmation as bishop-elect in the Catholic Church. Thus to concentrate solely upon his ‘gay’ lifestyle after the divorce was in a strict sense irrelevant. And to look only at that lifestyle and see that alone as the means of disqualification for elevation was to be guided as much by the norms and mores of part of conservative society (wherein homosexual activity is seen as totally outside the pale) as by biblical texts.
Let us be clear. All sexual relations outside the strict norms taught by the Lord Jesus and his apostles are sinful, and the nature of the sin as sin is no different, be it heterosexual or homosexual. The calling to Christians is to chastity inside and outside of marriage. Thus in writing what I have done above I am not condoning ‘gay’ sex. I am merely and only pointing out that to major on it in the Righter and Robinson affairs was a major mistake and proclaimed to the world (a) that divorce and divorce with remarriage is now wholly acceptable in Christian moral theology and practice in the Anglican world, and (b) that ‘gay’ sex is seen by conservatives as the real sexual sin and carries from heaven a greater guilt than fornication and adultery. Further, massive free publicity has been given by the Robinson affair to the LesBiGay cause, which cannot but benefit in a society where human rights and personal autonomy are given pride of place in moral reasoning.
The Reverend Doctor Peter Toon is Priest-in-Charge of Biddulph Moor and Brown Edge, Diocese of Lichfield – see his website www.american-anglican.fsnet.co.uk )