A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
By The Rev. William Coats
The larger question about Anglicanism is whether we are a church under Canterbury with many provinces (as some now seek to make us) or a Communion with many national churches. Heretofore we have been the latter and as such much of our distinctiveness as a communion derives from the contribution national experiences make to our theological heritage and our understanding, in the present case, of sexual ethics. What the report simply bypasses is that the American experience has deeply effected the way the American church thinks and does theology.
Ask any American in a dispute and his defense will eventually be "I^“ve got my rights" Whether that cry in any instance is substantive or merely a whine is open to dispute, but that we as a nation are steeped in the notion of rights is beyond dispute.
The philosophical theory of natural rights derives from John Locke and was originally employed by English and American republicans against the idea of monarchy. During the pre- revolutionary period Colonial America claimed their "rights" as Englishmen (sic) were being abrogated and denied by the King and the English parliament. After the revolution a notion of natural rights became enshrined in our Constitution as a means of safeguarding certain civil or private practices against governmental intrusion. Soon however the idea of natural rights was employed in the various states in order to extend the suffrage beyond those who owned property. It was also employed during the struggle over slavery, since the slave holding class assumed the natural inferiority and hence disqualification of African Americans. Natural rights theory was subsequently used to bolster the claim of working men and women to join unions or to enjoy humane working conditions. Similarly when women sought the vote in the early years of the 20th century and later in the struggle to revamp laws which had discriminated against women, natural rights was adverted to. Natural rights were employed with singular force between the 1930's and 1960's in the movement to secure a variety of civil rights for Black Americans. It is a crucial reference today in the struggle of homosexual persons for equal treatment in law.
At each point of historical struggle, it should be noted, the defenders of the status quo in America opposed notions of natural rights and adverted to past (sacred) sources). Indeed during the times of these struggles the various national "Instruments of Unity" - the Congress, the courts, the Constitution and the presidency - originally held firm against any change in these areas - and thus denied the notion of natural rights.
The struggle for placement, access and representation of groups marked by exogenous features - skin color, gender, class - took place in the churches as well. Recall that in America for many years the churches refused to baptize slaves. For many years they were forbidden to marry. Slavery in the South was everywhere believed to be biblically countenanced. After the Civil War and on up even to our day segregation was (and is) practiced in the churches. Until the 1960's women could not serve on vestries nor could they be ordained until 1979. During each struggle to extend access for groups excluded from mainstream church life sacred sources were quoted against change. Church officials continually opposed change. And in each instance a key feature in the arguments for change was the notion of "rights." So it is today in the matter of the access of homosexual persons to certain sacraments of the church.
This idea of natural rights has been the single most potent theoretical weapon in the arsenal of those who seek a broad definition of democracy and the goal of equal access for all to institutions and social privileges. The doctrine of natural rights has no empirical referent. It is, clearly, a political fiction. Yet as an imaginative construct it connects with a very deep-seated human desire for respect, dignity and equality. In its original construction rights were seen as an endowment. ("that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights," as Thomas Jefferson put it). Before that time kings had been endowed by God with the right to rule (thus reducing people to "subjects", a designation still employed in England). Natural rights were afterwards were perceived as divine endowments, interior equipment so to speak granting personhood or standing of its own. Thus it meant a kind of inherent equality among all persons and in time could be used to rule out, at least theoretically, the force of cultural and social features that could be used to distinguish among people invidiously or that could be used to bar people from civic participation or civic expression.
I argue that our historical memory is infused with the notion of natural rights. It is peculiarly American and thus part of our national treasure. It is also involved in the way we think theologically
It has been argued that neither Scripture nor Tradition has any notion of "rights." This is true. No ancient document contain such notions. At the same time it must be noted that neither our Scripture nor our sacred tradition have any notion of republican democracy. Yet by the late 1750's all the American churches (heavily influenced by Calvinism), including ours, adopted it as congruent with and necessary for Christian faith. Just as democracy has been part of our national civic and ecclesiastical bloodstream so has the notion of natural rights. Indeed they are twinned in our national consciousness.. I know no other nation which has such a history or consciousness.
While it is true that no theory of rights can be found in Scripture, does it follow that we must expunge from our theological thinking any and all notions of Rights?. Are we to erase our own history? How then are we to employ this ^—unscriptural" notion. The same way that "non-biblical" ideas were employed when the church eventually set aside the Ptolemaic universe and admitted the legitimacy of Darwinism. Non- biblical knowledge prompted Christian people to re-look at Scripture and tradition and to re-engage these sources in conversation. This is what the church did when it lifted the ban on usury, altered the ban on birth control, loosened divorce restrictions, and the dropped its hostility towards Jews. None of these changes could have come about on the basis of a strict reading of Scripture or a strict recourse to tradition. For some time now non-biblical knowledge (secular knowledge) hast been used as a prompt to re-engage our sacred sources in an ongoing conversation.
Because of our deeply held views about natural rights we naturally returned to Scripture in a new conversation. There we found that in the book of Genesis a second stream of thought defended women against men, we found Israel^“s exceptional care for the stranger, we found there Jesus^“ friendship with sinners, with women and with the outcasts..We found the inclusion of the hated gentiles into the young Christian church. In each case we found ether Israel or Jesus or Paul struggling against deeply-held cultural definitions of those who qualify for the kingdom or God^“s love or inclusion into the body of Christ. That is to say, cultural barriers involve definitions of the "other" as having exogenous features ( women, gentiles, homosexuals). It is hard for us to see how especially in the case of Jesus, his friendship with all sorts and conditions of people did not involve setting aside precisely these exogenous features. On this basis we then conclude that in our day all such exclusions for exogenous reasons - by class, sexual orientation, race or gender - are improper.
Thus we then, because of our history - rephrase the question: on what basis can homosexual persons be excluded from sacramental means of grace? Can exogenous features be used to deny the divine love. To enter into a sacred union is, as with heterosexual marriage, to place one^“s human love within the context of the divine love. It is to participate in the intra-personal love the Father has towards the Son in the Spirit. All of us in Christ are drawn in one or another way into this love. We are sustained by it. Without it we perish . Similarly to be ordained or consecrated is to place one^“s service within the self-giving service of the Divine Love. The Father gives the Son, eternally, for the world and through the Spirit we are drawn into God^“s purpose and given power to serve. In ordination we serve the church within the love of the Divine Trinity. Without it our human service is null. To deny access to homosexual persons thus is to deny them access to the Divine love and is on the face heresy.
I come to these conclusions as an American with a history and memory I can neither forget nor forsake. Yet much of the rest of Anglicanism is asking me to do this. I will not. It may be we must part. I will do so in defense of the gospel. Otters must be ready to do so as well.
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