Friday, June 30, 2006

Sex and the Singular Church

I've been an Episcopalian since 1978, when I was baptized at Trinity Episcopal Church in Iowa City. The following spring, on Trinity Sunday, Bishop Walter Righter confirmed me. I hadn't met the good bishop before, but he made a positive impression. His staff was an ordinary wooden shepherd's crook, which had come from a shepherd's supply store in Virgina. He told a little story about a girl who had gone to church by herself, and then returned home. Her parents asked her about church, and she said, "The bishop visited, and I learned what a crook is." I couldn't help but like the man after hearing that line.

In the fall of 1990, Bishop Righter's name showed up in the news. He was no longer Bishop of Iowa, but Assistant Bishop of Newark. And he had ordained a gay man, living in a comitted relationship with another man, to the diaconate. A few years later, Bishop Righter was accused of heresy and put on trial. In a decision that shocked Episcopalians, the church court ruled that neither the doctrine nor the discipline of the Church prohibit the ordination of a non-celibate homosexual person living in a committed relationship.

In the last thirty years or so, whenever the Episcopal Church is in the news, the headlines are usually about sex. Not necessarily what fantasy writer Terry Pratchett calls the "athletic, tumbling, count-the-legs-and-divide-by-two" sense of the word, but what people now call "gender" and "sexual orientation." First it was women's ordination, then the ordination of gays and lesbians. And while this isn't a debate on the nature of Christ or the Trinity, or any of the more traditional reasons to divide Christians, the controversy over the ordination of gays and lesbians seems more likely to divide both the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion than anything else.

Of course, the ordination of women was supposed to split the church, and it did, sort of. A group calling itself the Anglican Church of North America did break off over women's ordination, and it split again over other issues. The ACNA and its successors never managed to achieve the great scism they anticipated. The Antiochian Orthodox Church tried to lure conservative priests away from the Episcopalians. (In the town of Goshen, Indiana, the priest of the very conservative and Anglo-Catholic St. James Church converted to Orthodoxy, splitting the parish and leaving many bitter feelings. ) The Roman Catholics even offered to accept married Episcopal priests into the Latin Rite. In other words, they bent their own celibacy rules in order to accept priests who agreed with them about the ordination of women. (Eastern Rite Catholic churches have always had married priests, so Rome's celibacy rule was never universal.) Neither church effort was very successful.

While the Episcopal Church lost a few members over women's ordination, it was in line with the membership losses for most mainline Protestant churches. And it did not split the worldwide Anglican Communion.

This time, the chances of a schism look much higher. There's just too much enthusiasm for a split on both sides. If the split comes, I will go with Walter Righter and those who support the ordination of gays and lesbians, but I won't do so with any joy. The Anglican Church has sought the "middle way" since the time of Queen Elizabeth I. Then it was a dispute between the Catholic and Protestant wings of the Church. The compromise was to have a very Catholic service (though with a lot of penitential language included, such as "We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.") and a very Protestant, even Calvinistic Thirty-Nine Articles. In the Episcopal Church, the Articles are now considered historical documents, which reflects the ascendancy of Anglo-Catholicism in the American church.

Over the centuries, the Church has avoided major schism by following the middle way of compromise and inclusion. I hope and pray that such a compromise can happen now.

1 comment:

Peter said...

It's strange to think back on kneeling with my entire family each week and repeating the Prayer of Humble Access you quote from. I would sometimes watch my father and mother mumble these words into their fingers.

Maybe if we Christians spent time doing this together before we got to the point of more schism . . .