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A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond

As the World Groans

As the World Groans

By Ronald E. George

From Sightings 11/13/03
Used with permission of the author, Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School

A memorable phrase from church history has come to mind since the consecration of the openly gay Gene Robinson as bishop coadjutor of New Hampshire.  The fourth century biblical scholar Jerome once wrote of his church's recent history: "The whole world groaned and was astonished to find itself Arian." 

A complex theological and political history lies behind this remark, and by the time Jerome made it, the dust had all but settled upon the Arian controversy.  It had begun more than a half century earlier with the teachings of Arius, a priest and popular preacher who maintained that Christ was not "very God of very God," as we say in the Nicene Creed.  We're accustomed to believing that the Council of Nicaea (325) settled things, but it didn't.  The Council of Ariminum (359) undid the Nicene Creed by stealth, which provoked Jerome's reflection on the groaning world.  Orthodox bishops, however, gathered enough votes in 362 to cast the creed of Ariminum upon the ash heap of history. 

Debating an essential doctrine is a far cry from the Anglicans' current disciplinary matter of whether active homosexuality is an acceptable way of life for Christians and their pastors.  Nevertheless, the world and the church are groaning. 

Jerome's church was certainly more riven by the Arian controversy than Anglicanism has been since the 16th and 17th centuries.  Yet he concluded that it was better to maintain visible unity with heretics than to exclude them.  That argument ought to singe the ears of jurisdictions of the Worldwide Anglican Communion that would now sever relations with the Episcopal Church of the United States of America because it has endorsed Robinson's consecration. 

Assume that Jerome would be appalled at Robinson's confirmation, but he would not oust a bishop who held that homosexuals deserve full membership in the Episcopal Church. 

In "The Dialogue Against the Luciferians," Jerome quotes Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, who had died more than a century earlier.  Cyprian had written to fellow bishops about whether Christians, especially bishops, who had abandoned their faith under Roman persecution should be restored to church membership.  Cyprian was opposed to it.  He believed, however, that church unity was more important than winning the disciplinary battle. 

Jerome then argues allegorically from scripture: "As in [Noah's] ark there were all kinds of animals, so also in the Church there are men of all races and characters.  As in the one there was the leopard with the kids, the wolf with the lambs, so in the other there are found the righteous and sinners, that is, vessels of gold and silver with those of wood and of earth."  Jerome argues that God one day will separate the wheat from the chaff in the church: "No one can take to himself the prerogative of Christ, no one before the day of judgment can pass judgment upon men.  If the Church is already cleansed, what shall we reserve for the Lord?" 

Those of us who believe in full church membership for homosexual people are not leaving the church, though some would argue that we already have.  I pray that my sisters and brothers in Christ who disagree will not cast us out or disassociate from us or, as some have suggested, seek shelter in some strange alliance with Anglican bishops in Africa. 

Eventually, as in the fourth century, it will all come down to a vote, but let it be a fair contest among those willing to speak the truth in love and not sunder the Body of Christ in the erroneous belief that we have no need of one another.

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Ronald E. George is Lay Vicar of Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in Madisonville, Texas. 

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