A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
By The Rev. William R. Coats
Let it be remembered ... that God does not need the churches. The concern for purity, fidelity and unity of the churches as the Church originates in the need of the churches of God, not the other way around. God makes his own witness in the world and makes that witness even in the very weakness of the churches.
The General Convention (2006) has ended. It was inconsistent, confused and frightened. Two major desires were present: 1) to find some way to reach an accommodation with forces at home and abroad that would allow the Anglican Communion to stay intact (and with the America church a part of it); and 2) to find a way to honor our support of the full participation of gays and lesbians in this church. Militant conservative forces at home and abroad announced that to have the former we would have to capitulate on the latter. Instead, General Convention offered a compromise (in order to keep the "conversation" with our adversaries going). This stated that we are sorry for hurt feelings and we won't consecrate gays or lesbians for a while. However, the militant forces at home had long since viewed compromise as anathema while forces abroad had never had a tradition of compromise. Accordingly, our offering was quickly dismissed by the major part of the Anglican Communion (with the Archbishop of Canterbury waiting to "hear" from the Communion). Now we find that the half of the Communion that hasn't been speaking to us for over two years still won't have a "conversation" with us. In fact there was little this convention could do to alter the situation abroad or even at home.
The context of our present dilemma is not clearly understood. Two features are important. The first has to do with an understanding of the American church - what it has become. The second relates to the broad hostility toward the American church that is found at home and abroad, and the role the Windsor Report plays in that hostility.
THE AMERICAN CHURCH
The American social order has always been characterized by instability. Born in a climate without fixed social and cultural forms and fed by a turbo capitalist economy, we, as a nation, have always had a social order brewing with volatility. This is the historical environment (past and present) that accounts both for the non-stop evangelical revivals that began in the colonial period, picked up steam in the early 1800's and continue up to the present day, and for various retrograde social movements. These include the Puritan attack on the Native Americans; the nativist attack on immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century; the rabid defense of slavery by the South; the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century; and the anti-communist hysteria of the early and middle 20th century.
The Episcopal church until roughly the end of World II was never really a fully American church. Its vaguely anglicized ways made it a home for the elites of small towns and big cities. In the Episcopal church one could safely escape the maelstrom of either a hysterical cultural movement or a crude evangelical revival. Rarely, for example, were we involved in the great cultural upheavals of the 19th and (20th?) century: the fight against the Masons, the Sabbatarian Movement, slavery and the Temperance Movement. Essentially we stood aside from those larger societal issues, as when, at the General Convention during the Civil War, chairs were set out for the Southern Bishops and the Convention carried on as if the Southerners had simply stepped out for a long smoke break.
But the new meritocractic America that emerged with the help of the GI Bill after World War II brought to an end whatever passed for an American aristocracy and with it the only identity the Episcopal church had. This, combined with the drastic decline in the birth rate of the traditional Episcopalian constituency, meant that a new church would eventually emerge. What was born was an American church, with all of America's confused, conflicted and contradictory cultural habits.
The 1960's became the time of the great divide out of which two warring factions, impatient with the older polite notions of accommodation-within-differences, struggled for the heart of the church. Much of the church drifted leftward in an effort to respond to the racial tumult of the 1950's and 60's and the social upheaval spawned by the Vietnam war. The question of women's role in the church would occupy much of our attention by the 1970's. Even then a great deal of latitude existed within the church so that opposition at either extreme was still accorded a place at the table; no one was asked to leave the church.
In the mid 1970's, an assertive evangelical revival found its home and base of operations at the Trinity School for Ministry in Pittsburgh, PA. This group proved, however, not to be the ordinary go-along and get-along Episcopalians. By the mid-1980's, the evangelicals became increasingly assertive and uncompromising. Sensing the need to extend their power base, they seized control of the board at Nashotah House, but failed at Virginia Theological Seminary.
By the mid-1990's, they still represented only a small segment of the church, but they were becoming more and more militant, determined and politically active. At this point, they allied with the more evangelical African churches and hatched plans to somehow remove the Episcopal Church as the rightful representative of Anglicanism in America. All the while, their tactics have mixed vitriol, intimidation and wild insulting charges against the larger church. That is, they have become a truly American political machine. They are no longer inclined to accept any form of compromise or accommodation - the traditional Anglican approach to church problems. The old Anglicanism has died in America and so, for the first time, we will have to fight to save our church.
The consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson in 2003 brought to a head this brewing battle between the two major factions in the church. Simultaneously, a great majority of the overseas Anglican Bishops, many of whom were of the same evangelical stripe as our own evangelicals, lined up in a wholesale attack on the Episcopal Church. The consecration of Gene Robinson was a sign to the evangelicals here and abroad not merely that a Scriptural mandate had been violated but that this violation symbolized heresy and defection in the whole American church. The full inclusion of homosexuals meant disregard for the authority of Scripture, accommodation to the world (secular humanism), and failure to believe in Jesus Christ. That is to say, the American church had defected from the gospel itself and could not be said to be in any way saved. We were designated alternately as apostate, heretical or schismatic.
This reaction in the form of almost mass hysteria was replete with the familiar American political tactics of exaggerations, misreading, threats and apocalyptic warnings. The demonization of the American church, coupled with strong anti-American feelings abroad, afforded conservative elements within the Anglican Communion with the opportunity to strike. The American evangelicals, now heavily financed by right-wing political sources, linked up with the African Church and others in the Global South as well as with a number of conservative English bishops. They sought to find a way to rein in the American and Canadian churches. Out of this cauldron of anger and rage came the Eames Commission, established by the Archbishop of Canterbury to address the growing problems within the Communion.
There would, of course, have been no reason for an Eames Commission or the resulting Windsor Report had the commission members not believed the American church was so wayward and apostate that it had to be somehow reined in, constrained, altered or even destroyed. The Eames Commission, therefore, was founded upon the characterization by the American and African evangelicals that the consecration of Gene Robinson symbolized an apostate church. Moreover, it was an opportunity for those who had long wanted to restructure Anglicanism to more resemble Rome. The Windsor Report, therefore, was not an attempt to save the Anglican Communion, for no one elsewhere in the Communion was in crisis. It was rather an attempt to alter, if not to demolish, the churches in America and Canada.
The Report itself was cased in the expected high rhetoric familiar to those on international committees. Its main demand was that the Americans and Canadians, as a kind of gesture of good will, cease from consecrating gays or lesbians, and apologize for the hurt caused overseas by their actions in 2003. Even more significantly, the Report went on to recommend two fundamental alterations in Anglicanism.
First, the Report proposed a strengthening of the existing lines of authority withing the Communion - or the emplacement of a new authority structure altogether. Second, an Anglican "Covenant" would be created, a new statement of belief and action to which all national churches must agree. The committees that eventually would set to work on these matters would, of course, be virtually without any American or Canadian participation since the Eames Commission itself had only one American on it.
Although the more naive members of the Eames Commission could not have intended this, the demand that the American church apologize was clearly a ploy. Knowing the American church would never comply satisfactorily with these demands, the evangelicals engaged in even more furious efforts abroad (now joined openly by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had heretofore merely worked behind the scenes) to destroy the American church.
Many at our General Convention, including a majority of our bishops were equally naive and thought that some gesture of accommodation to the Windsor Report would be the key to solving our problems. They felt that Windsor was a neutral instrument, which would bring peace to the Communion. This betrayed their incredulity. It would be difficult to see how the finished product of the committees assigned to flesh out the Windsor proposals could be other than the constraining and eventual destruction of our church - for this had been the intent of the Commission in the first place!
THE IDENTITY OF THE AMERICAN CHURCH
EXPERIENCE AND MODERNITY
How is one to describe the Episcopal church? Or put otherwise, what will be lost when the Windsor process completes its task of destroying our church? Let me list a number of things this church has done, none of which could be said to have direct warrant either in Scripture or Tradition or Reason (assuming, as I do, that what Richard Hooker meant by reason was really Natural Law)
While virtually every one of these activities has been met with furious scorn by old-time and new-time conservatives, they reveal a particular pattern about the way the American church does theology. It is the appeal to human experience, itself a prominent feature of American philosophy. On a personal level, the texture of people's lives - their daily habit-formed lives - has pressed itself upon us and upon inherited fixed forms. The gradual decline of homophobia in America is directly related to our experience of meeting and knowing gays and lesbians and of seeing in their lives a normality and ordinariness which made a mockery of forms of exclusion heretofore based on prejudice and misreading. It is precisely because over the years many straight Episcopalians met and got to know our gay and lesbian friends that the traditional assumptions about and strictures against homosexual persons came to seem so unreal and oppressive. When the authority of experience clashed with inherited forms, the forms have in our church given way.
We did the same with marriage. We knew that marriage can be a glorious partnership, but our experience showed that marriage can in many cases be abusive and destructive. We could not ignore what experience showed us, and once again this experience became a key ingredient in the way we in the church came to think about marriage and divorce.
The same is true in other areas of our social and political lives. Recall that in America for many years the churches refused to baptize slaves. For many years slaves 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 churches practiced segregation. Until the 1960's, women could not serve on vestries, nor could they be ordained until 1976.
During each struggle to extend access to persons and groups excluded from mainstream church life, church officials fought change citing sacred sources to support their opposition. In each case, the experience of meeting and knowing those who had been excluded was crucial to the proponents of change. In addition, in each instance supporters of the new order argued a typically American belief in "natural rights." Why did we as a church (and a nation) adopt the notion of "natural rights," which had no biblical warrant? We did so because it was the best theoretical underpinning to a political and social order unbound by traditional notions of deference, obligation and hierarchy. This reference to "rights" has been treated with scorn by conservatives who (correctly) say the Bible has no such notion. But we have this notion in our collective American blood stream. It is not so in Africa, and not so to the same extent even in England.
Our church has also had a long tradition of according status to extra-biblical forms of knowledge. Whether from science or sociology or psychology the truth found in these areas continues to merit our attention and are factors in the way we think theologically. Indeed - and I think we have agreement with most of our evangelicals - were it not for the findings of Darwin we would all still be Creationists Yet for our evangelicals and other of our foes this use of experience and non-scriptural knowledge counts in their indictment against us. They demonstrate that we have become secular, unbiblical, apostate
As a result we have come to see that God speaks not only in and to the church, nor simply through the church to the world, but that God speaks from within the world. "It is to be noted that God is not especially or exclusively present in the church. His Presence is in the world," said William Stringfellow. When we look at the field of experience or employ non-biblical forms of thought - such as "natural rights" - it is with an eye to what Karl Barth said: "God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog."
What we have done theologically is what internally Scripture does itself. We have involved ourselves in a conversation with the current environment, in our case, modernity. Often a movement or a finding from the culture will arise - say something involving discrimination against women. Now the church has long discriminated against women. However, prompted by secular developments, we decide to take another look in our sacred sources. There we find theological strands we had not seen before. This then warrants a change in practice and belief. Indeed, our theology has been an extended conversation between our experience, modern thought and the Scripture and Tradition
For a long time, we characterized our church as Via Media, the church between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. We did so by constant reference to doctrines and church practices and how they were scriptural or not, or traditional or not. What has happened in America is that we have become the Via Media not between the Roman Catholics and Protestants but between that phalanx of groups and churches that harbor a deep suspicion or rejection of secular thoughts and developments (preferring an undiluted allegiance to biblical and traditional elements passed on from ancient days as though untouched by time, history or context - "The Faith Once Delivered to the Saints") and those bodies which have become so open to the culture as to be but simply the religious version of the latest liberal trends.
This openness, this conversation, means for our adversaries a complete sell-out of the gospel. But I see no evidence that we have surrendered the core matters of our doctrinal identity as we continue our discussion with modernity. Nowhere have we denied the Trinity (indeed we affirmed it in GC 2006), nor have we jettisoned the Incarnation. We continue to affirm the bodily resurrection of Jesus, his atonement for our sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the efficacy of the sacraments, and the holiness of the church. We have simply embarked on an American way of doing theology, one that in no way denigrates the gospel
Is this approach dangerous? Could we end up giving too much away? Yes, it is dangerous and we could give too much away. But we have for a long while now undertaken this project, this way of doing theology. It is who we as an American church have become. And sadly it is precisely this American way that is held in such contempt by forces overseas and their cohorts in our land.
THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN CORE DOCTRINE AND DISCIPLINE
Throughout the dispute over the ordination of women and continuing to the present argument over the place of gays and lesbians in our church, we have acted as though there is a distinction between the core doctrines of the church (what I have listed above) and matters of church discipline. For us, the full inclusion of women and gays and lesbians and people of color - that is, those with exogenous characteristics - is a matter of discipline, matters subject to continuous examination and change. This openness to new understanding is anathema to our adversaries, and to the Archbishop of Canterbury. They seek to raise the matter of sexual orientation to the level of a doctrine of creation, the divine ordinance of marriage, namely, to God's central revealed purpose for human kind. We believe all of these are involved, but not in the same way or with the same weight as the dogmas of the Incarnation or Trinity. The question of sexual preference does not, for us, rise to the level of core doctrine.
Our adversaries, however, treat Holy Scripture as the prime authority in all matters. In doing so, they do not allow for weighting various internal mandates or strictures, much less for setting some aside (such as the prohibition against charging interest). The Scripture is treated as all of a piece with each social assertion and mandate having virtual equal weight. Similarly, those who appeal to Tradition employ the same monolithic approach. But even in Scripture some matters are weightier than others (why else then the compromise with Paul and the church in Jerusalem). It remains our view that adherence to certain core doctrines stabilizes the church, and that flexibility (adiaphora) on certain behavioral matters may be open for discussion in light of new knowledge
It would appear one of the outcomes of our present impasse has already been set by the current situation in the Church of England. That church has for more than 150 years known of the presence of gay priests. At first, the English church combined denial with simply turning a blind eye, hoping the tradition of the "closet" would solve the matter. When over time more and more priests "came out," the English church then devised the fantastical notion that the remedy for this "complex" issue was for homosexuals to remain celibate. Of course, not all obeyed this injunction, many with the tacit approval of their bishops and congregants. Thus, for a number of generations, egregious hypocrisy ruled the day. Matters were stirred up, however, when England passed a civil partners law in 2005. The English bishops quickly met (without, it should be noted, the world-wide Anglican consultation for which the American Church has been chastised) and agreed to permit both clergy and lay to participate in civil partnerships: clergy being still held to celibacy, the laity not. At this point, several English bishops announced that they would personally question and enjoin their newly-partnered gay and lesbian clergy while other bishops said they would refuse to inquire into the sexual life of their homosexual priests.
Out of this mess of lies, contradiction, deceit and hypocrisy, the English (most recently in the person of the Bishop of Rochester) have been lecturing the American church on correct attitudes and behavior. While all persons are to some degree hypocrites (As Bishop Pike once said to a person who claimed he could not join a church because it was full of hypocrites: "There is always room for one more.") the situation in England is so outlandish as to be utterly unacceptable to most Americans who, whatever our faults, do prize a certain degree of openness and honesty. However it is clear the "English Solution" would be the one commended to the American Church, that is, we would be forced to employ the English habit of elevating hypocrisy from a temporary posture to a central church principle.
The idea of dissent is anathema to our adversaries. Their ideal is of the spotless church, with each person united absolutely in belief and practice. Their reference is the New Testament Church or the Christian Church of the first four centuries. These are assumed to be models of unity (after the long struggle to banish heresy), if not uniformity. Those who stand outside such a "unity" are held in great contempt. Witness for example the efforts over the years to harass Bishop John Shelby Spong. Dissent is unheard of in most overseas dioceses, being seen as a form of disobedience. Many priests in Africa must swear personal loyalty to their archbishop. Leaving aside whether such a reading of church history is accurate, the reality of the American context makes such unity impossible (as attempts to enforce a single line on sex, for example, by the Roman Catholic hierarchy has shown)
Our culture of freedom and dissent is simply one feature in our being Americans. Certainly a great deal of dissent is formally heretical, but we have confidence it will not gain a hold. Moreover some forms of dissent help us learn in ways that the strict repetition of orthodox doctrines and phrases do not. We do not subscribe to the view that when one part of the body has strange, odd or unorthodox views it somehow infects the whole and must be proscribed. Do we wish to emulate Ayatollah Khomeini who said of Islamic Iran "If any part is corrupt it will eventually corrupt the whole and must be cut out?"
WINDSOR AND BEYOND
We have now reached a crucial point in our church's life. At one time the basis of unity within our Communion was to be found in the Lambeth-Chicago Quadrilateral of 1886, 1888. In it we expressed our loyalty to the Scriptures, the Creeds, the two dominical Sacraments and the Historic Episcopate. At no time during the last 50 years has this church in any way backed away from this commitment. Instead, now we are being told that there are new points of unity.
First, we are being asked to ascribe to the view that homosexuality is an impaired condition - remedied only by life long celibacy - and that the life within the church for homosexual persons will always be problematic as well as proscribed.0 Second, we are being told that agreement on this issue has now become the central tenet of the Gospel as the Anglican Church understands it: not the Creeds, not the divinity of Jesus Christ, not the Trinity, not the resurrection of Jesus Christ, not the atonement by his death, not the Sacraments - but the impairment and proscription of homosexual persons. All now stands or falls on this singular point. There are forces at work that would destroy this church in order to establish another church on these new grounds. In that sense, to fight for the Episcopal church against the Windsor process is to fight anew for the Gospel. This, of course, may mean being shunned by a large portion of the Anglican Communion. At present, there is already a split; we have been "walking apart" from at least one-half of the Communion for more than two years. But recall that being an Anglican is not the same thing as being a member of the Anglican Communion, particularly if sinister forces have indeed hijacked that Communion. It will be good to be apart for a while. What is unacceptable is cooperating in our own death.
Most of us have been trained to seek peace, love and reconciliation. These indeed are optimal values. Few of us like to fight. We see it as somehow a betrayal of Jesus. Circumstances change cases. It is time to call this campaign against our church what it is - the power of death. It is the raising to the status of an idol the demeaning and exclusion of gays and lesbians. It is a sign that the freedom we have been granted in the resurrection continues to be sullied by those enthralled by the idol of homophobia. We must fight against these principalities and power. When we are threatened with extinction, I doubt that Jesus would want us simply to capitulate in His Name. I invite you in his Name, to STAND FIRM AND FIGHT.
1 We are told (scolded) that this church in its efforts to include gays and lesbians in the full life of the church is unbiblical We are reminded that Paul in Romans castigated those engaged in homosexual acts. Indeed he does. But look closely. Paul's stricture is against heterosexual males freely choosing to have sexual relations with those of the same gender. In so doing they would in effect threaten marriage, which Paul held to be an ordinance and gift from God. In that sense Paul would be correct. But Paul could not possibly conceive that homosexuality was a condition, a same-sex affectual orientation. How could he? Few in the West could until the 19th century . Virtually none in Africa do today. But if this condition is involuntary (in the same way that heterosexual affect for those of the opposite gender is involuntary) then this means a homosexual person regardless of his or her sexual activity is already outside the context of marriage, since it no longer applies to him or her. It means, further, that his or her potential sexual activity is also outside the context of marriage. If then sexual activity is to be prohibited, what biblical ground could be employed? Only that which applies to those choosing the married state. This means that sexual activity between gay or lesbian persons intending a life long monogamous union must be allowed. This is biblical logic, faithfulness to Scripture. Furthermore if the human person is created in the image of God, then this means we were formed as persons in the image of the Trinity (and not a Monarchical Deity), that is, we are grounded in the midst of God's eternal activity of self-giving love: the love the Father and the Son display in the Spirit. Humans are intended in all their relations and especially in marriage for self-giving relationships. To deny this to gays and lesbians would of necessity be a denial of the Trinity of God.
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