A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
An Address to the
American House of Bishops
You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who called you. (Galatians v.7-8.)
I could have chosen any number of texts from the epistle to the Galatians which directly speak to the present crisis, and many of them will in fact appear as this address proceeds. But the above is particularly appropriate to the event that has called this forth, namely the assent, even though grudgingly – perhaps even insincerely (I hope insincerely) – given after a long and unequal struggle against the now notorious Windsor Report. The occasion of that report was the consecration of the Rt Revd Gene Robinson to be Bishop of New Hampshire. Did you do well to approve, even to participate, in that consecration? If you did, and let me assure you that your courage in following the promptings of your hearts, and defying the bigotry of those who seem to have very little heart at all, was an inspiration to many of us in all parts of the Communion, even where (as here in England) the hierarchy seem determined to sacrifice not only moral principles but actual human beings to the dubious cause of maintaining the ‘unity’ of the Anglican Communion at all costs – if you did well, then what was the point of accepting under any circumstances a document that insists you acted wrongly?
But first let us examine the issue that is the cause of the division. Some evangelicals will no doubt be scandalized that I have chosen text from the writings of Paul as a basis for an attack on an idea that Paul himself insisted on, namely that homosexuality is in all its forms a sinful activity. I know there are liberals who deny this, but I have no hesitation in admitting that on this point they are wrong, and that the current evangelical interpretation of Paul’s view is, as far as I am concerned, accurate. I can see no specific reference in Paul’s writings to boy prostitution on the one hand, nor on the other to faithful and loving same-sex relations. The malakoi of I Corinth-ians vi.9 quite possibly often were boy prostitutes, but in fact the passive partner in most homosexual couplings in those days would most likely have been a slave-boy who had absolutely no say in what was happening to him; but Paul seems uninterested in the details and condemns them all out of hand any way – not just the person using his making use of the malakos, but the actual passive partner himself. On the other hand, it is true that the New Testament nowhere condemns faithful and loving same-sex relationships, but only because it nowhere mentions them; the evidence suggests that such an idea had simply never occurred. Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality is a clear, unambiguous, above all a blanket condemnation; that is the back-ground against which the argument must take place.
So then evangelicals are right? If we are to be faithful to biblical ethics, we must accept, proclaim, even enforce Paul’s condemnation? Such is the argument; but we ought to note that we – all of us – even evangelicals – perhaps especially evangelicals – have already abandoned the position in connection with another Pauline pronouncement. There are about as many passages about slavery in the New Testament as there are about homosexu-ality; they too are clear, unambiguous and all-embracing, and they justify the practice. But we all decided three hundread years ago that, if he was not actually mistaken on the subject, Paul’s views were of limited value and, because of the unjust and cruel oppression that insistence on his views occasioned, those views must be set aside and the victims of that oppression liberated. And that is exactly the position we are now arguing for in connection with homosexuality. It is no good evangelicals protesting that such an argument flies in the face of the clear position of scripture. It does indeed, but evangelicals themselves have already agreed to such a procedure in the one case, and it is now time for them to do the same in the other – and for the same reason: namely that strict adherence to the scriptural position has resulted in an unjust and cruel oppression.
If it happens that Paul is against us on the question of homosexuality, he is nevertheless very much on our side on another aspect of the present contro-versy, namely the hostility of conservative minds to the promoters of change and innovation; and nowhere more so than in his letter to the Galatians, which is wholly devoted to just that topic. The last thing he would recom-mend in such a situation is accommodation of the kind that the Archbishop of Canterbury has insistently pressed for and you American bishops have belatedly agreed to. On the contrary, when confronted with “false brethren secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us in to bondage” he tells us that “to them we did not yield submission even for a moment, that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.” Defiance, and not concession, should have been your watchword in greeting our recent ambassador to you, the Bishop of Durham. And even more perhaps to the Archbishop of Canterbury himself. Dr Williams is not a wicked man, but he has proved to be a spineless one, and his fearless commitment to cowardice has brought the Communion to the brink of a disaster which now probably cannot be averted. No more than Peter at Antioch can he avoid the charge of deliberate and conscious insincerity. Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Wales was precisely the kind of bishop that Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury is now trying to browbeat into submission. Your reaction to him should be the same as Paul’s reaction to Peter’s manifest dishonesty and insincerity. “For before certain men came from James, he ate with Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away.” Not therefore by accommodation. Not by agreeing to Peter’s insistence that we cannot afford to alienate the ‘circumcision party’? On the contary, Paul “opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.” And that is what you should have done – nor is it too late to do it now. Those of you who are convinced of the utter wrongheadedness of the whole enterprise which resulted in The Windsor Report must surely now stand up and say so, not quietly among yourselves so as not to rock the boat, but openly and vehemently speak boldly as they ought to speak. The damage to the Anglican Communion which so many of you seem to fear has in fact already been done, so that the very notion of such a Communion has now been rendered morally bankrupt by the shame-lessnesses of the compromises of principle that were made to preserve it.
In Christ Jesus, Paul assures us, we are all sons of God through faith. He goes on to list pairs of distinctions which no longer have any force: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female…” But he has left out the last pairing surely; the list cries out to be completed with, “There is neither straight nor gay”. Our modern view of homosexuality as a wholly natural condition, as much a part of nature as heterosexuality, undoubtedly contradicts the biblical view, and in particular the Pauline view. There are those for whom this automatically means that the Bible must be right, and therefore we must be wrong. And yet they eat black pudding without a qualm, though we are assured – by the New Testament as well as the Old (Acts xv.29, xxi.25) – that this is one of the worst sins you can possibly commit. Their wives and daughters happily go to church – oh horror! – without any covering for their heads (I Corinthians xi.2-16, one of the longest continuous arguments in the whole of Paul’s writings). They utterly ignore Jesus’ unambiguous and repeated demand that his disciples abandon all family ties and all property, and follow him as a beggar on the road. I do not think they are at fault on any of these points, but it does render ludicrous their contention that they have to insist on the condemnation of homosexuals because it is scriptural. Where the scriptural shoe pinches their own feet they happily remove it; they insist it must be worn only where it pinches other people.
If we look again at the contrasting pairs listed above, the Christian tradition has a very poor record in connection with every one of them. It has discriminated between Jews and its own non-Jewish cultural background; it has discriminated between the slave and the free; and it has certainly discriminated until very recent times, and even yet in large parts of the Anglican Communion, between male and female. You yourselves have an excellent record on remedying this last injustice, and quite a good one on removing the injustices suffered by homosexuals. Your acceptance of The Windsor Report is a step backward. I hope I can persuade at least some of you to step forward again, either as a united body or, if that is not for the moment possible, then for those of you who see the wrong that has recently been done to have the courage to stand up as individuals and protest against it. It is likely that your recent decision about the report was a cosmetic exercise only, and that many, probably most, of you are in your own minds opposed to it and do not intend to let it have much influence on your actual practice. Yet even this is nevertheless to strengthen your opponents, and to deny to your friends in other churches what is beginning to look like their only hope and comfort. And there is in any case a presumption in matters of open debate (as distinct from cynical politics, of which we have all become victims in recent years) in favour of at all times saying what you mean and meaning what you say.
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” What you have been doing is right, and those who are protesting against you, trying to inhibit you and, if that fails to exclude you, are wrong. You are being asked to call it sincerity, and thus to give them no offence; but call it by what is often and evidently its right name, self-indulgent peevishness, and you are under an obligation to resist them: they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s should-ers, but they themselves will not move them with their finger. The Windsor Report presents itself as an attempt to preserve the unity of the Anglican Communion. First, let me remind you that all the great crimes of Christianity have been perpetrated in the name of preserving – or if necess-ary imposing – unity, and The Windsor Report is no different in that respect. They make much of you, but for no good purpose; they want to shut you out so that you may make much of them.
“…it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now we, brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh per-secuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now. But what does the scripture say? ‘Cast out the slave and her son; for the son of the slave shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.’ So, brethren, we are not children of the slave, but of the free woman.” Amen – so let it be.
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