A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond
Readings: Exodus 20: 1-5: Acts 14: 1-5, 19; John 15: 9-12, 17
I could not be more proud to be an Episcopalian than at this time. I know that some of whom claim this denominational identity and a goodly number do not. The reason I am so proud is because the Episcopal Church, in all of its messiness at this time, is dealing one of life's real issues: the issue of "how we respect the dignity of every human being.1"
The story is told that at the outbreak of the Russian revolution, the Russian Orthodox Church was busy debating of proper color of liturgical vestments. That is not the story of the Episcopal Church, which, having taken a stand for full equality of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church is living with the worldwide fall out. The threat is that the church will split apart.
This was the same threat at the time of the Civil War when a portion of the church, quoting Bible to justify the institution of slavery, threatened to leave. This was the same threat thirty years ago when a portion of the church, quoting the Bible to keep women in a subservient position, threatened to leave. Today, a portion of the church, quoting the Bible to judge and condemn the election of a homosexual as a bishop, is threatening to leave. The Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians have all debated the inclusion of gays and lesbians and then have proceeded to table this issue. Episcopalians have taken a prophetic stand. This is what I want to talk about today, not only to let people know what is happening in the church, but also to listen to what this situation may be saying to us at Redeemer, today.
Every three years delegates from the entire Episcopal Church meet in convention to chart the course for the future. This summer in Minneapolis the Episcopal Church made two decisions that have shaken the foundation of the worldwide Anglican Communion. One, the Convention voted by a two-thirds majority of bishops, priest and lay delegates to affirm the consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. Gene's unforgivable sin is that he is an "out" gay man who lives openly with his partner. Had he been closeted there would be no issue. Two, it voted to accept the right of individual dioceses to bless same sex unions.
Your first reaction may be, "What's the big deal?" And, it is no big deal in this diocese and parish. But, for some people in the church already smarting from the inclusion of women in the priesthood and episcopate, already smarting from the alteration of the Elizabethan language of the Prayer Book and already smarting from the open challenges to orthodoxy by people such as Bishop Spong, the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the full life of the church is just too much. It is the final straw. Resentment that has been simmering for decades is now boiling over. Isn't it interesting that anything remotely related to sex has the power to push the panic button?
At the time of the convention in Minneapolis, the archbishop of Nigeria, who learned his lessons well from American and English missionaries, said that decisions made there are a "satanic attack on the church." Earlier this month, 2,650 people, including 14 bishops and 799 priests, outraged by these two decisions from the convention, met in Plano, Texas to create a "firewall" between themselves and the rest of the "apostate" church. Conservative leaders said that to remain in the Episcopal Church would risk the salvation of their souls. The strategy from that Texas meeting is to withhold money from the national church and from any diocese whose bishop voted to affirm Gene Robinson. Next, they petitioned the Archbishop of Canterbury, at a meeting of all the heads of the different Anglican Churches, worldwide, to sanction and subdivide the Episcopal Church, making the conservative bishops and their parishes to be a separate orthodox and true Episcopal Church. Those bishops in London ended their meeting saying, "Yes, this issue could divide the church. Let us establish a committee to study how we can live better together. No formal action will be taken to separate the church at this time." Everyone went home waiting to see what would happen in two weeks time when the consecration of Gene Robinson goes ahead as bishop. In all of the messiness of this issue I am proud of the Episcopal Church.
It is important to realize that controversies threatening the very foundations of the church have been around since the time of Jesus. It wasn't fifty year after Jesus' death that the fledgling community was ready to split apart over whether Gentile converts had first to be circumcised, as are all Jews, before they could be followers of Jesus. Christians in Jerusalem, all former Jews, said, "Of course." Paul, with his converts from the larger Gentile world, said, "Of course not." I am sure the threats and counter-threats at the time were messy and ugly. In the end the church became more inclusive, accepting Gentiles just as they were.2
My point is that conflict in and of itself need not be feared. It is often the labor pains before the birth. Conflict may feel horrible but it is often necessary to interrupt "business as usual" for larger life and health to appear. Anyone living with an alcoholic partner will tell you that, sometimes, in order to save the marriage, you must be willing to risk the end of the marriage.
Even as clear as I am about my reasons for supporting the election of Gene Robinson and the blessing of same sex unions, I must not forget that at best my vision and my truth are limited. At best any of us only see partially. And, yet at the same time, we must make choices and make commitments based on what we do see. What this means is that I can only claim my truth and can never assume that it must be your truth. What this does is to put a stop on the righteous indignation that wants to surface when your side is winning.
One reason I so admire my Jewish sisters and brothers is because they realize that God is larger than any image, doctrine, word, interpretation or convention resolution that we use to describe God. In Exodus the people are warned, "Thou shall not create any graven images of God."3 Even in this liberal, cutting edge parish, if we think we have the truth in a bottle, we are no different from those meeting recently in Texas. Traditional orthodoxy is one way to speak of the experience of God. It is not my way. And that is all I can say is that it is not my way. To call it false for someone else is to assume my vision is 20-20 and is to play God.
I am proud to be an Episcopalian is because this church has historically been the church of the big tent welcoming diversity of thought and practice, claiming that our relationship with each other is more important that our position papers. We have always agreed to disagree, sometimes more gracefully than others. We recite a creed but never tell people how they must interpret it. Unreformed Catholics and Neo-Unitarians worship in the same church. Right to lifers and pro choice, anti and pro-NRA people and supporters and opponents of the war in Iraq all worship around the same altars in the Episcopal Church. What those who gathered in Texas are trying to do is to change the historic character of the Anglican Communion by only allowing under the tent those who believe and practice a newly defined orthodoxy. No one was allowed to enter that meeting in Texas unless he/she signed a statement of agreement with the position opposing homosexuality as a vile sin.
It is easy to puff out our chest in the rightness of the decisions made in Minneapolis. And, I am convinced that they are right. Our commitment to inclusivity is foundational to who we are as a parish and as a people. But, inclusivity is never a finished product. Our work on this issue is never finished. Inclusivity is always a journey to that place where we are uncomfortable, afraid or feel threatened by someone with whom we feel we share little in common. If the truth be told we all have these places where we judge and isolate ourselves from people who challenge our self definitions. Maybe it is group of black teenagers with "dreads" walking down the street or Hispanic men waiting around a corner looking for work. Maybe it is a born again Christian that knows she is going to heaven and earnestly wants you to go there too. Maybe it is someone who wants to shoot bears and deer. Maybe it is someone missing arms or legs or someone mentally challenged. Maybe it is someone with more money than class or too much class and no money to back it up. Maybe it is the person you work beside everyday who let you know who he really is and what is really going on in his life. Inclusivity is always a journey to that place where we have to face our discomfort and fear around the person we feel threatens us. We all live at that place. None of us are ever home free on this issue.
So, we are not all that different from those who gathered in Texas to express their outrage and fear over welcoming gays and lesbians into the leadership of the church. We are just at a different place on the same journey of dealing with what threatens us. When we forget this, we give ourselves permission to judge and condemn. As I have said many times, "to be a Christian means that it is our job to do the loving and to leave the judging for God."4 So, at this time it is our job to love the people who hate and fear so many of us. Is that any different from what Jesus preached and lived?
This is a holy time in the Episcopal Church. It is a time when God's all-inclusive love is being made a little more present. But, it is also a time to revisit our own journey toward inclusivity and to look at those places that are hard for us. We must do this lest we judge those who feel so threatened by who we are.
Exodus 20: 1-5 Then God spoke all these words: 2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before* me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God.
Acts 14: 1-5, 19: Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, `Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, `It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.' -- 19 After much debate and discussion, James said, "Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God.
John 15: 9-12, 17
9. As God has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept God's commandments and abide in God's love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
MISSION STATEMENT OF THE CHURCH OF THE REDEEMER
The Church of the Redeemer is a Christian Liberation Community in the Episcopal tradition. We experience God as justice among all people and as wholeness within ourselves. Our mission is to seek God's justice and wholeness for this earth and all its inhabitants Approved by the Vestry: Sept. 23, 2000
THE VISION OF REDEEMER
The Church of the Redeemer is a Liberation Community in the Christian and Episcopal traditions. We experience God, the sacred, the Spirit, primarily within those actions and events that liberate people from that which keeps them from reflecting the dignity and value of who they are: Daughters and Sons of God. Building on our valuable Christian and Episcopal roots, we, in this parish, are active creating a new model of what it means to be a community of faith.
Redeemer is a "come as you are party" that takes the word "family" seriously. Our diversity is our wealth. Our questions and dreams unite us rather than our answers.
Everything we do in terms of our worship, our ministries, our education programs, our social life and the way we conduct our affairs is guided by this vision.
2 Acts 14: 1-5, 19 Text on page 7
3 Exodus 20: 1-5 Text on page 7
4 From sermon of the Rt. Rev. Stephen Charleston at the 2003 Convention of the Diocese of Newark.
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