A series of essays towards General Convention in 2003
13 PENTECOST -- Saint Andrew's Church, New London NH
A month ago, I returned from the Episcopal Church's General Convention, and I'd like to give you a personal report with, I hope, some theological reflection, on the hot issues of sexuality, what you've probably been reading in the newspapers. Specifically, these are (1) gay marriage and (2) the relationship between sexual practice and ordination.
After considering a flurry of resolutions and proposed changes to canon law, covering every point-of-view, the Convention settled on a compromise, which has four parts (which I paraphrase):
At the 1970 General Convention, meeting in Houston, the hot issue was whether to allow women to be ordained as deacons. Bishop Stephen Bayne, in my view the greatest of our 20th century bishops, was typically concise in what he said: "Many people wish this issue would go away, but it won't go away." Neither will today's issues. The only way out is to go through. We should be proud that the Episcopal Church does not believe in running from important issues. My sermon will be admittedly one-sided, and does not represent the only valid viewpoint, but I feel the need to present a case you are less likely to hear from your friends and neighbors, at the country club, on the street, and in the grocery store.
It has taken me twenty years of ordained ministry to reach the point where I now am. I used to think of issues such as these as nuisances, aggravations, peripheral concerns, as useful and attractive as pimples on the face. Today, I see them as capable of speaking to us in profound ways about the heart of the gospel.
As important as it is, service to others is not our real work. (I say that having written a 160-page thesis on the importance of service.) As important as it is, evangelism (in this Decade of Evangelism) is not our real work. As important as it is, Christian education is not our real work. Our real work is salvation, the saving of souls, growth in faith, forming a right relationship with God. For Christians, salvation is the real work of the community, the Church. It is not the task of individuals.
We like -- when it is convenient -- to look to scripture for authoritative words, and many have been quoting scripture, as Shakespeare would have it, "for [their] purpose." Scripture can be quoted quite accurately to support slavery, to denigrate women, to glorify war, to promote hatred of those who are different, and to condemn the eating of pork.
The Holiness Code of Leviticus condemns the breeding of two different kinds of cattle, the sowing of two types of seed in the same field, and the wearing of blended fabric (Leviticus 19:19). If we look at more important texts, like the Ten Commandments, we find proscriptions against murder and adultery, but no mention of homosexuality. We also find a commandment against lying (the stock in trade of some professions today) and keeping the Sabbath (which many of us ignore if the golf looks good or the weather looks bad).
Keeping the sabbath is mentioned 160 times in the Bible. The commandment to tithe comes up 40 times. No one has ever run up to me at the church door or a coffee hour and demanded righteousness in the form of tithing or keeping the sabbath. We tend to use/misuse/abuse the Bible to support our own prejudices. Though recent moves toward "anything goes" may reflect the cultural conditioning of liberals, use of the Bible to condemn things which the Bible does not address reflects the cultural conditioning of conservatives. In truth, one cannot quote the Bible to decide every issue facing us today. To revere the Bible properly we must use it as honestly as we can -- even when it tells us things we would rather not hear.
Jesus himself named the most important commandments: (1) love God and (2) love your neighbor (Mark 12:29). Even the Readers' Digest is given to quoting the Golden Rule: "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7:12)." This is very basic Christianity. The reason I believe that the issues being raised today are important is because they relate very much to both the Second Commandment and to the Golden Rule. This is not peripheral stuff. This is at the very heart of the gospel. The approach we take affects our souls.
Early in my mother's life, it was discovered she had a rather disturbing orientation, an orientation to the use of the left hand! At school, she was compelled to become right-handed. Changing left-handers into right-handers has now been condemned as a practice which may cause psychological damage, but it was thought to be the right prescription in my mother's day.
What is the answer? Do we kill a class of the population, the way the Nazis did? Do we attempt to change them, as we did left-handers? Do we accept them as different from most, yet still God's children as we also are?
Now, late in the game, to my text: CATHOLIC means that God's love is extended to everyone everywhere. APOSTOLIC means that we pass down through the ages the vital faith in Jesus Christ, distinguishing between what is at the core of the gospel and what is peripheral. HOLY means that we are set apart by God as his people -- not by our own actions, not by our own standards, but by God's. ONE means that we do not abandon the Church every time we don't get our own way; we need to learn to live as one, despite our many differences.
Going into an evening session at General Convention, I saw a man carrying a placard which said:
If we care about Christ, about the Church, about our neighbors, we mustn't snicker, we mustn't trivialize, we mustn't turn away from our fellow human beings. We are being challenged to believe in the "one holy catholic and apostolic Church." We should see this as a great opportunity, not just as an annoyance.
A MODERN-DAY PARABLE
You meet and fall in love with a wonderful person -- warm, witty, entertaining, intelligent, good-looking, caring, and in love with you. After a year of dating, you both decide you want to live the rest of your lives together, and you announce your engagement. But the Church says it will not bless the marriage. A civil ceremony is also against the law. We no longer allow men and women to make lifelong commitments. The divorce rate has now moved above 50%. Marriage between people like you two just doesn't work. Live together? Heaven forbid -- that's sinful. There is only one proper, honorable choice -- lifelong celibacy!
"We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church." Amen.
Date: Fri, 20 Jun 2003 13:51:43 -0400
From: John D. Lane
Our family summers in New Hampshire, and in 1991 I preached the following
sermon at the church we attend there, and then preached it a week later here
in Staunton. This issue has been around for longer than what the House of
Bishops Theology Committee calls "a season."
John D Lane
Please sign my guestbook and
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C -- SW Va
My site has been accessed times since February 14, 1996.
Our family summers in New Hampshire, and in 1991 I preached the following sermon at the church we attend there, and then preached it a week later here in Staunton. This issue has been around for longer than what the House of Bishops Theology Committee calls "a season."
John D Lane
Please sign my guestbook and view it.
Statistics courtesy of