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A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond

Anglican Authority and Homosexuality

Anglican Authority and Homosexuality

By The Rev. William Coats

"By what authority do you do this?" Jesus was asked (Mark 11: 28). In our day the same question applies. "By what authority can we ordain non-celibate gays and lesbians?"

In 1600 the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker outlined a view of authority which has since became a standard model for Anglicans. Hooker wrote (more complexly than I am alluding to here) of Scripture, Tradition and Reason as a tri-fold set constituting authority in the new Anglican Church.. For Hooker this approach set Anglicanism off from authority as known in the Protestant and Catholic communities of his day. Now Hooker meant by reason something different than what we in our post-Enlightenment age mean, but the unique feature was his addition of a "third thing" to the usual pillars of authority - the Bible and the traditional teachings of the church. How are we to understand this "third thing"?

In 1690 The English philosopher (and Anglican) John Locke wrote a political treatise outlining the nature of government. In it he argued that men [sic] were created free and equal in rights. This "natural rights" concept suggested that something inhered in each individual and thus political sovereignty should be located other than in the body of the monarch. This revolutionary notion was at odds with the notion of the divine right of kingship which had been bolstered both by the Bible and 1600 years of Christian tradition. In time Locke's notion, especially as it came to fuller expression in the American and French revolutions, was accepted by the Church of England and by Western civil societies as the cornerstone of democratic theory. But why should this doctrine be accepted? Because the voices of those who were excluded in monarchial and aristocratic societies were heard. It was their testimony which then altered how both scripture and tradition were to be understood and how political authority would be redefined.

In the 18th century slavery was challenged by no less than the famous Anglican composer of the hymn, "Amazing Grace." John Newton was a ship Captain and slave trader who after his conversion to Christ turned against slavery and influenced the great Anglican William Wilberforce who in the 19th century was instrumental in abolishing the slave trade in England. Now slavery had been upheld in England and America as both biblical and traditional. Yet upon talking to slaves and hearing of their suffering he argued "the blood of many thousands" are crying against us. Thus it was, over time, the voice of the slaves which altered how the Bible and tradition were to be understood in this matter (Abraham Lincoln, recall, was deeply affected by his conversations with Frederick Douglas, the former slave).

Again in the 19th century the beginning of the struggle for Woman's rights was met by a fierce public resistance which spoke of the "traditional"^role of women (in the home) and the biblical opposition to a public role for women (in the 1840's at an anti-slavery rally in London, American woman were at first not permitted to speak - on biblical grounds!). Yet the persistent public voice of women outlining their exclusion and misery was determinative. With the hearing of these voices both the understanding of the Bible and tradition were altered in the direction of woman's equality. When in our time women sought representative office in the Episcopal Church and then ordination those who opposed this by alluding to the Bible and tradition were weakened in the face of the "tradition" of hearing the voice of those who suffered or were marginalized. Their testimony enabled a new understanding both of Scripture and tradition and led to woman's ordination in 1979.

The Episcopal Church in 1973 altered her canons on marriage. Until that time, in accordance with Scripture (especially Jesus' words quoted in Mark 10: 11, Matthew 19: 9 and Luke 16: 18 ) and the long Western tradition forbidding divorce and re-marriage, we had allowed re-marriage only if the first marriage could be shown not to have existed (i.e. it was declared null due to impediments). Why then did we change? As far back as John Milton voices had been raised suggesting that not all marriages work ("a drooping and disconsolate household captivity, without refuge or redemption."), that many are prison houses of abuse and neglect, forcing many into desertion or inappropriate behavior. Those who were trapped in terrible marriages were heard and the canons were changed to allow for divoce and re-marriage.

Now we come to one of the pressing issues of our time: Homosexuality. Once again we hear from Evangelicals that the authority of the Bible prohibits civil unions of homosexuals and the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals. Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholics argue from tradition and add that homosexuality is a "moral perversity" and that civil unions would "destroy the institution of marriage." Yet at the same time there has been a profound change of heart by many previously skeptical church people about the role and place of homosexuals in society and church. This has come from listening to the testimony by gay and lesbian persons of the harm and abuse they have suffered. They have also testified to the pain felt when precluded from having normal family lives, i.e., sacred unions. Once again this testimony has risen to be considered along with Scripture and tradition. For many it has altered our understanding of the Bible and tradition, just as the testimony of the excluded had a positive effect in previous social disputes.

Clearly not all human testimony can be granted the status of authority. Some human testimony is self-indulgent or deceitful. What is significant about the examples I have used is their context and character. These are voices of hurt and suffering and diminishment. Can we grant authority to actions which result in human anguish, torment or belittlement? I ask why Jesus was so severely chastised by the Pharisees for his somewhat loose and idiosyncratic use of the law (Mark 7). Why was he so loose? It seems likely he acted as he did when the "tradition of the Law" led, whether intentionally or not, to human pain, suffering and misery.

My claim, therefore, is that with regard to the present day dispute over the place, privilege and function of homosexuals, the case for complete inclusion and rights rests on the oldest and most traditional sense of "authority" as this church has known and practiced it for 400 years, and, I suggest, as Jesus practiced it 200 years ago..

You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.


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