Courting schism

A gay bishop in the espiscopal church

Among the varieties of Christian experience, none is more pleasing to the senses than a stately Anglican liturgy, from the opening procession to the altar to the choir’s hymns and chants. Liturgy-and language appropriate to it-is what makes Episcopalians recognizably Anglican, and not just another American Protestant denomination. Not long ago, I asked a professor at the church’s General Theological Seminary in New York what theological issues most exercise his students. Without a pause he said: “Who stands where in the [liturgy’s] procession line.”

The professor spoke only partly in jest. Theology has never been the Episcopal Church’s strong suit, nor has credal commitment. The bishops have long tolerated the presence of eccentric nonbelievers in their ranks, from the late Bishop James A. Pike to the recently retired Bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong, who continues to write books repudiating the very doctrines the church’s liturgy celebrates. Given this tradition of doctrinal elasticity, it follows that Episcopalians abhor nothing more than a public family fuss. So it was not at all surprising that when delegates to the church’s recent General Convention voted to accept the Reverend V. Glenn Robinson as the church’s first openly gay bishop (“open” meaning that he does not hide his domestic relationship with another man), there was much talk from both sides about the “pain” that a decision either way would cause. There were also appeals to the Holy Spirit that God’s will be worked through the votes of the church’s bicameral legislature, and not a few warnings of schism by those opposed to Robinson. In the end, Robinson was accepted after a brief pause to investigate last-minute (and unfounded) charges of moral turpitude. The real news was that the church decided a theological issue by avoiding a serious theological debate. In other words, Scripture and tradition took a back seat to congregational politics.

The issue, one that roils every major Christian denomination, is whether homosexual acts are compatible with Christian faith and practice. By supporting the Diocese of New Hampshire’s election of Robinson as bishop, the Episcopal General Convention in effect said yes. The only surprise was the convention’s faux suspense.

Although the Episcopal Church has a married clergy, many of its priests are homosexual. Obviously, the church does not keep statistics of this kind. Yet, among Episcopalians themselves, estimates of gay and lesbian priests vary from 30 to more than 50 percent in dioceses like San Francisco and New York. In these and other cities it is not at all difficult to find congregations in which everyone on one side of the Communion rail is gay while the folks in the pews are split between homosexuals and heterosexuals. As one woman priest recently complained to me: “If my husband needed counseling from a priest, he’d be hard-put to find one that was neither a woman nor a gay man.” If these admittedly unscientific reports are anywhere close to accurate, it is not unreasonable to assume that many of the delegates to the convention voted to support Canon Robinson as a way of supporting their own sexual relationships.

Why should homosexuals be drawn to Episcopal ordination? An important reason is the Episcopal Church’s reputation for tolerance. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was a de facto policy among clergy and laity long before the U.S. military thought of it. Another reason is the beauty of the Episcopal liturgy itself-the emphasis on “smells and bells,” as Episcopalians often put it. Back in the 1970s, when gay men formed the Metropolitan Community Church, now a de facto national denomination, they adopted a clerical look and liturgy not unlike those of the Episcopal Church. One rarely finds a gay congregation with clergy dressed like business-suited Baptist ministers, though of course every denomination-Mormons excepted-has at least some clergy who are at least covertly gay. My own hunch is that gay men, at least, are drawn to the more liturgical churches, including the Roman Catholic, in the same way that they are disproportionately represented in the fashion and theater industries.

Yet another reason is organizational: unlike most other national churches in the Anglican communion, the Episcopal Church is highly congregational. As in most other Protestant denominations in the United States, if an Episcopal congregation does not want a woman or a homosexual in its pulpit, the vestry doesn’t have to accept one. Finally, the Episcopal Church has long encouraged what are called “tent-making” priests: that is, men who work at secular jobs during the week, and fill in pulpits where needed on weekends. Obviously, such an arrangement allows tent makers considerable freedom in their private lives.

Evidence for much of this was presented at the General Convention in the form of a survey based on interviews with more than twenty-five hundred Episcopalians. The faithful’s essentially congregationalist view of the church was underscored by the study’s finding that most Episcopalians care deeply about their local congregation, are uninterested in what goes on at the Episcopal church three blocks away, and are put off by what goes on at the diocesan or national levels. The study also found that the Episcopal Church is indeed a “seeker’s church.” Despite declining numbers, the church does better in attracting disaffected members of other churches than in holding on to those born Episcopalian. Not surprisingly, it was the liturgy that most attracted converts. Indeed, the study only confirms what most observers have always assumed. Anglicans have long seen themselves as a “bridge church” between the Catholic and the Protestant traditions. Thus, in this country the bridge has become a niche church where former Roman Catholics find a home along with Protestants moving away-and sociologically “up”-from stricter, more fundamentalist, and less liturgical denominations. To these have been added those spiritual searchers who prefer to do their seeking in the company of others. My own view, however, is that any church that cannot pass on its own tradition to its own children is courting eventual loss of identity.

For all these reasons, then, it seems unlikely that we will see a major schism in the Episcopal Church. To be sure, some conservative congregations and even some bishops may choose to realign themselves with like-minded bishops from outside the United States. Piecemeal defections like that have been going on for decades, giving rise to tiny groups like the Anglican Catholic Church. At the same time, the Episcopal Church may see a small increase in members-especially gay and lesbian candidates for ordination. The only problem will be where to place them. With a membership of 2.3 million and falling, until recently the church has enjoyed a surplus of clergy.

If schism occurs anywhere, it will be in the Anglican Communion, where the ties between national churches are already stretched over the issue of homosexuality. Within that wider family of faith, the Episcopal Church is ahead of the pack, or estranged from it, depending on one’s stand on the issue in question. Already, bishops of the more conservative (and far larger) churches of Africa and Asia have said they will not accept an actively gay clergy-or church blessings on gay unions, a step the General Convention approved as a kind of local option. My guess is that when the primates of the Anglican Communion meet next month, Rowan Williams, the new archbishop of Canterbury, will press for a live-and-let-live policy, thereby putting the onus of schism on the church leaders from Asia and Africa.

Obviously, Episcopal acceptance of an openly gay bishop will further strain ecumenical relations with Rome and with the Orthodox churches. The Vatican has never given high priority to reunion with the Anglicans, and the pope is likely to watch and wait while the Anglican primates struggle to keep their house in order. In a reversal of roles, the pastorally inclined Anglicans are now the ones who are forced to take a principled stand while Rome, having taken a stand, continues to make adjustments, however conflicted, on the pastoral level. As for the Episcopalians, they have taken a vote, but they have yet to articulate a theology that would justify their calling it “prophetic.” Of the three pillars of Anglican theology-Scripture, tradition, and reason-none was invoked on behalf of bishop-elect Robinson. end

Published in the 2003-09-12 issue: 

Kenneth L. Woodward, author of Getting Religion, was religion editor of Newsweek for thirty-eight years.

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