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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church

Trying to Understand the Nature of the Opposition to Bishop Robinson

Trying to Understand the Nature of the Opposition to Bishop Robinson

By Robert Schneider

Since the consecration of V. Gene Robinson, really since General Convention 2003, I have been trying to understand the nature of the opposition to this act. Why are there so many angry people? And why are so many of them saying that this is the "last straw" for them? Several friends, including a layman who attended the Plano meeting, have spoken of their great dissatisfaction in general, and usually kindly, terms. But I recently found a major general accusation articulated in the following statement, taken from a address by The Rev. Richard I. H. Belser, rector, Saint Michael's, Charleston, S.C., that Kendall Harmon posted on his weblog. Here's what Fr. Belser writes:

"The reason, I believe, was that for the past 30 years, the Episcopal Church in this country has been moving toward the development of a new religion. At those official church conventions, the name of Jesus was occasionally mentioned and there was much talk about mission, but if one listened carefully, it became clear that the "Jesus" being invoked was not the Christ of Scripture, the unique Son of God and only way to the Father, and that the mission being endorsed had a lot to do with politics and little to do with the Gospel of Salvation. Some years ago, Bishop Fitz Allison, who has been God's prophet to warn the Episcopal Church that this day was coming, and like all prophets, has been both vilified and ignored, Bishop Allison explained that the Church's new religion called for disclosure and acceptance of human sin, rather than for repentance and forgiveness. It's a therapeutic religion, where clear moral standards are set aside in favor of ethical ambiguity and broad tolerance of each other's choices. Where tolerance rules, love becomes sentimentality, nobody is called to repentance, and the Cross of Christ becomes unnecessary. It's possible, according to the new religion, to have what our current presiding Bishop calls pluriform truth. You have your truth; I have mine. We'll pretend God doesn't care what we believe as long as we get along with each other."

Now as I puzzle my way through this, you need to know that I am a cradle Episcopalian who left the Church around 1970, at the age of thirty, and didn't darken its doors again except on ceremonial occasions for twenty-five years. I returned to faith in the early nineties, around the age of fifty, because God blessed me with two spiritual experiences, of his immense Compassion and of his creative power-the first brought inner healing, the second awe, the mysterium tremendum. I spent some time with the Quakers, then realizing that I thirsted for a sacramental spirituality, returned to my Episcopal roots and found that I had come home. By the time I had returned, women were being ordained (thank God!), and the Prayer Book had been revised. It took me a while to get use to the "new" one and discover its riches, but I have grown to love it despite some loss of the majesty of the language of the '28 version. I also liked the spirit of the Church-its inclusiveness and in the case of my parish, St. Luke's, its commitment to be a sanctuary of compassion and healing for all, because when I returned to the New Testament, that was precisely the kind of God and Jesus I found there.

So I took the consecration of Gene Robinson in stride, though as a brother in Christ and former committee colleague of Kendall's I knew that there was strong opposition from men and women of conscience. What I was unprepared for was the depth of anger expressed by so many. It appears that this event has triggered a long train of grievances. So, what is it? What are the changes that many people are so unhappy with? Why do so many think that ECUSA has departed from the Faith and from tradition?

Why do these Episcopalians think the church has given in to secular and political influences and abandoned the gospel of Christ's salvation?

Well, it certainly is clear to me that the Church has changed in many ways. Take some major decisions, the first having to do with internal discipline and orders. The decision in the late 1940s to allow persons who had been divorced to remarry in the Church was certainly a big one (though I was too young at the time to know). It would seem to be directly contrary to Christ's interpretation of the Mosaic law. Yet now, one hardly blinks an eye at it, and even clergy who have divorced and remarried prior to their call to ministry now serve the Church. Would anyone today claim that their ministry was not the result of the calling of the Holy Spirit? Or be unhappy that this act of reconciliation broke down a barrier that doesn't belong in the Body of Christ?

Then there is the civil rights movement of the sixties, which I witnessed first hand in the South as a student at Sewanee. We Episcopalians now would never think of going back to segregated churches, but it was a real struggle then, with many pastors way ahead of their flocks. That was a big change. But, can anyone think that the Church was not led by the Spirit in this struggle? Here was an excellent example of the Church having to respond to the heart of the Gospel message and break down another barrier both in society and in the Church

Then, during my absence came the ordination of women, following which (along with the prayer book revisions) many left ECUSA and joined one of those twenty or so splinter Anglican churches that don't ordain women. Evidently many who stayed were not particularly happy, as several who have left since this fall have cited women's ordination as something that still sticks in their craw. I think there is still discrimination in the Church toward women priests, but, my, we have come a long way since 1976. Yes, I've heard the argument that because Christ became a man, only men can image his priesthood; that position implies that Christ was incarnated into masculinity instead of into humanity. Can anyone think that in this case the Holy Spirit was not at work, breaking down an artificial barrier that denied us wonderful female pastors, teachers, preachers (I've yet to hear a bad sermon by a woman-maybe some day), evangelists, and, thank God!, maternal figures? I am truly puzzled that there remain so many Anglicans world wide who think ECUSA departed from the True Faith when the Church brought women into the apostolic succession.

That brings me to the Prayer Book. The Rev. Dale Brown, former leader of the Church of the Brethren, once said to me, "Episcopalians can tolerate a good deal of diversity in matters of theology and biblical interpretation, but there are two things they always fight over, the Book of Common Prayer and the apostolic succession." He said that around 1980. After getting acquainted with the new Prayer Book, I began to pick up on its significant changes from the '28 version. It is certainly more catholic: many new liturgies of both daily prayer and major feasts ground it more solidly in the catholic tradition; the addition of two rites of Reconciliation encourage private confession; the rubrics that encourage a much greater participation of the laity enhance the ministry of the Baptized; the spirit of the book is even more sacramental than the older one. Now, I also think that the '79 book is less penitential, and that seems to upset many, both evangelicals and catholics. It lack phrases like "miserable offenders" and some of the language of wretchedness and breast beating found in some of the eliminated collects. Yet, contrary to some of its critics it hardly abandons the word "sin" (which appears not only in the Eucharistic Thanksgivings but in countless other places).

So, here I am, still trying to figure it out. Looking back over the litany of changes I hardly see that what has come into being as what Fitz Allison (another Sewanee connection) called a "new religion." Rather, I see a church that takes more seriously Jesus' message that the reign of God is inclusive and breaks down barriers of class, race, gender, sexual orientation and status; and a church that tries to live out the Pauline message that we are to be "ambassadors of reconciliation." I see ECUSA trying to live out the good news of God's inseparable love in Christ Jesus. Now, is the Church I have returned to "therapeutic," as Allison claims? Yes, and why not? Is that not the kind of ministry Jesus conducted? Has he forgotten that the Greek word used when Jesus heals means "saves"? Did not Christ reach out to the outcast, those declared "unclean" by the religious of his day? And was he not faulted for it? In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25:31ff), the Son of Man doesn't say, "Oh, you've confessed yours sins, now you can come to heaven." He says, "You fed the hungry, clothed the naked, etc., so come, blessed of my Father!" That is the Church's task. What the church welcomes are broken persons who need healing of spirit and soul, and tries to show that the best medicine is God's love and compassion, and the best model for our own lives is the Jesus who called him "Abba" (and so can we), and that we can be Christ to each other. Perhaps that accounts for the fact that in my own parish, nearly 90% of our parishioners were baptized in or have been confirmed or received from other denominations, some of whom were verbally beaten up for their sins from the pulpits of their former churches and are in recovery from toxic forms of Christianity.

As one who sins, I can personally testify that what brings me closer and closer to righteousness is my responding to the overwhelming love of God in Christ, that tells me that I do not have to carry these burdens any more and encourages me to change for the better. Because of this therapeutic model of salvation, I do not any less meditate on the mystery of Christ's suffering or death or feel any less joy in his resurrection or in his presence in the Eucharistic feast and in the congregation of those gathered to celebrate this wonderful gift.

Perhaps what we have here is a problem of language. People who are committed to the traditional language of repentance, confession, atonement, etc. do not see that the kind of therapeutic language I am comfortable with brings out another dimension of the gospel message, and so they confuse it with the secular language of therapy that I think Allison and others like Fr. Belser accuse ECUSA of embracing. But I have to say that in my limited experience in the "new" ECUSA, I've heard no one say that one's sins are accepted and don't matter, and that anything goes (frankly, I think those phrases are coded references to homosexuals). I do think that there is less emphasis on a formal set of moral rules and a more of a recognition that there is such a thing as moral ambiguity, and that intention is a central part of moral or immoral behavior, and that therefore, as Jesus advised us, we shouldn't be passing judgment on others, but leaving judgment to God. All the better, since his Justice is swallowed up in Mercy, whereas ours too often is not.

No better examples of the latter are the fulminations that have been hurled at ECUSA since General Convention, over the issue of homosexuality and homosexuals in the Church and ministry, the most recent change and the latest crisis. I will not lay out my reasons here for accepting and supporting without qualification the election and consecration of Gene Robinson, and other gay and lesbians called to ordained ministry, but I do want to say that I have not come to this position lightly. It is the culmination of years (off and on) of listening, reading and thinking. My influences have been discussions with a therapist friend about homosexuality and homosexuals and their lives; reading some of the scientific and psychological literature on the subject; examining various and differing interpretations of biblical passages on same sex behavior and studying them in their historical and cultural contexts; looking at the same in the light of what I had learned about concepts and assumptions of human sexuality in Greek and Roman cultures during my years as a classics professor; reading the arguments of moral theologians on the issue, including people like James Nelson and Louis Smedes. I also read about and got to know gays and lesbians and their stories of inner conflict and suffering and their experiences of abuse, discrimination, and in some cases persecution; and also what it meant to some to have stable, enduring relationships and in one case observing briefly such a relationship; and I met Roman Catholic priests, who came out to my wife and me. Finally I pondered the whole matter in the light of my understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So, I welcome this further step in making my Church a more inclusive church. And I cherish my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ with whom I share the ministry of the Baptized in my parish. Perhaps much of the opposition and anger at this development would not be so intense had others been able to make the same intellectual and personal journey to understanding and acceptance which I have made.

I would like to add that one more point: one of the ironic things about the opposition is its own failure to address the dilemma its proponents have created for themselves. If you insist that "homosexuality" is a sin (failing in this to distinguish between orientation and behavior as well as the contexts of the latter), then what do you do with gay men and women who say, "The Holy Spirit is calling me to ministry." Do you say, "Shh, go back into the closet"? Do you say, "Depart from me into outer darkness, you sinner"? Do you pull a Baptist and say, "I hate your sin but love you the sinner" (as if the two could be separated)? "But in any case, we don't want you ordained." How are they going to handle this?

So, has my Church abandoned the faith? No. Does it fall short in living out the Gospel? Yes. Just as every other church does. But I am glad to be back, thanks be to God!

Bob Schneider
Boone, NC
January 2, 2004

Editor's Note:

Bob Schneider is retired from full-time teaching at Berea College and is presently an adjunct in philosophy and religion at Appalachian State University in Boone, where he teaches New Testament Literature.  Since 2000 he has served on the Committee on Science, Technology and Faith of the Executive Council.

Visit Professor Schneider's Science and Faith site at Berea College

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