Many Roman Catholics, ordained and lay, were understandably concerned when the Vatican issued its statement last fall barring men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” from the priesthood. If a priest is faithful to his promise of chaste celibacy, what difference does it make if he understands himself to be homosexual? Many people thought it was celibacy, not sexual orientation, that mattered when it came to priestly discipline.

I share the feeling of many people in thinking it is unjust to bar celibate homosexuals from the priesthood. But Rome may have had multiple reasons for issuing such a divisive instruction. Among those possible reasons is the way in which the debate over homosexuality, and especially over the influence, status, and authority of homosexual priests and ministers, has roiled nearly every Protestant denomination. Most conspicuous among those churches where attitudes toward homosexuality pose a serious threat to ecclesial unity is the Anglican Communion.

At its 2003 General Convention, the Episcopal Church of the United States of America (ECUSA) voted to approve the consecration of Gene Robinson, an active homosexual living in a committed relationship, as bishop of New Hampshire. At the same time, the Anglican Church of Canada authorized the blessing of same-sex unions. A firestorm erupted, both in North America and worldwide across the Anglican Communion of thirty-eight loosely allied national and regional churches. Conservative and evangelical Episcopalians, especially Anglican primates in Africa, Asia, and South America, made their outrage and objections known in no uncertain terms. Many threatened to leave the Anglican Communion if Robinson’s ordination stood, or to try to exclude the American Episcopal Church from the Communion.

The archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who is the symbolic head of the Anglican Communion, sought to forestall outright schism. Williams, believed to be personally sympathetic to the ordination of homosexuals, urged caution on the ECUSA. He commissioned “The Windsor Report,” released in 2004, which urged the ECUSA to apologize for its actions and to embrace a moratorium on ordaining openly gay bishops and blessing same-sex unions. As Williams recently told the interviewer David Frost, changing church teaching and practice about homosexuality is not a step any one church in the Anglican Communion should undertake on its own. “For a change on that,” Williams said, “I think we would need, as a Communion, to have a far greater level of consensus than we in fact have. Which is why the American determination to go it alone is worrying.”

The forging of any broader consensus on the question of homosexuality seems unlikely. Whether American Episcopalians are determined to go it alone is likely to be decided at their next general convention, to be held in Columbus, Ohio, June 13-21. At the top of the convention’s agenda may be the approval of another openly gay bishop. Liberal and conservative groups are already maneuvering to contest the disposition of church property if conservative Episcopal churches, and even dioceses, consequently leave the ECUSA and affiliate themselves with dioceses in Africa and elsewhere, as some already have. Few observers think the predominantly liberal ECUSA will back away from the ordination of more open or sexually active gay bishops, which many Episcopalians see as the logical extension of a struggle for equal rights that first led to the still contested ordination of women as priests and bishops. The Anglican Church in England, for example, although it ordains women as priests, has not yet, out of a concern for ecclesial unity, ordained a woman as bishop.

Looking at the impending implosion of the Anglican Communion, Rome, from its perspective, is perhaps more forward thinking than its critics suspect in trying to forestall any similar battle in the Catholic Church. Catholics who hope their church will change its teaching about homosexuality, the ordination of women, priestly celibacy and marriage, and contraception, while adopting a more collegial approach to the exercise of authority and greater respect for individual conscience, should be chastened by the current crisis in the Episcopal Church. As an Episcopalian who supports and is thankful for his church’s progressive stances on all these issues, I am nevertheless concerned about the health and integrity of my church.

Situating the ECUSA in the larger Anglican Communion is tricky. Without denying the sense of commonality with the rest of the Anglican churches, I suspect that most American Episcopalians could imagine themselves as a completely separate church, cut off from communion with the other Anglican churches, much more easily than Roman Catholics could think of themselves as a separate national church. As a result, the ECUSA is much freer to adopt changes and move in different directions even if it risks being out of step-and even out of communion-with more traditional members of its international fellowship. For Episcopalians, it may be easier to hold divergent views because there is seldom one official position or central authority to enforce the “orthodox” position. The Episcopal Church is democratic and pluralistic in its rules and decision making, and the authority vested in any individual or role is severely limited. General Conventions are held every three years, with clergy and lay participants being elected to the House of Deputies, and bishops meeting as the House of Bishops. The Episcopal Church mirrors the American political system in many respects; local dioceses, functioning with significant autonomy, elect their own bishops in a local convention representing lay and ordained members, and the decision must then be ratified by a national vote.

Episcopalian bishops have a form of authority that is much closer to what sociologists would call “influence” than “power.” The local parish selects its priest, with the bishop’s approval; bishops can help shape priorities but are usually unsuccessful if they move too far ahead of their parishes. Each diocese selects its own bishop, subject to the approval of a national convention. There is a presiding bishop of the U.S. church, and the archbishop of Canterbury is the most preeminent figure in the international Anglican Communion, but any suggestion that either of these figures approaches the pope in terms of power or even influence would be met with hilarious laughter.

For several reasons, the current situation with regard to gay bishops who are sexually active is a “perfect storm.” First, while liberal and conservative positions have long coexisted within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, the ordination of Bishop Robinson leaves less room for compromise than many earlier disputes. Bishops baptize, confirm, ordain other priests, and lay on their hands at the consecration of other bishops. Although their power is greatly attenuated by a church polity that mirrors, and in fact owes much of its design to, the American distrust of centralized authority, bishops are the key representatives of the local church. Still, an “illegitimate” bishop affects not only one diocese but the integrity of the entire religious community.

Second, the issue of homosexuality seems to present a stark contrast between different approaches to authority, and particularly to the role of the Bible in decision making. Although different approaches to Scripture can be finessed or compromised on many issues (such as the role of women in the church or the appropriate understanding of the Eucharist), conflict over the appropriateness of homosexual relationships is hard to avoid. A significant number of Episcopalians read Scripture quite literally, and insist that there is no appeal where Scripture speaks plainly and with one voice. Several biblical passages that appear to condemn homosexual behavior (at least for males) are regarded as determinative, especially when there are no corresponding passages that support homosexuality. To claim that the Bible allows homosexual behavior, or to ignore apparently clear statements of biblical morality, threatens the center of the community’s loyalty and adherence to the Word of God through the revelatory text.

On the other side, many Episcopalians insist that the specific words of Scripture must be placed in the context of broader historical or literary interpretation, current understandings of the nature of homosexuality, or the witness of Christians living in faithful relationships with a member of the same sex. Liberals argue either that Scripture, properly interpreted, allows room for a variety of sexual practices or norms, or that even if Scripture speaks unequivocally about sexual ethics, its guidance is not necessarily the final word for the church today. The more significant theological split is occasioned by the latter approach, which challenges not only a particular understanding of scriptural texts but the very authority of Scripture itself. The gap between the more conservative and more liberal perspectives is enormous, with little apparent middle ground.

Third, as in the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church is increasingly polarized along ideological lines. Theological or social disputes are seen in the context of the ongoing “culture wars” that seem to pit religious Americans against “secularists.” The political battles of the past decade and the media obsession with finding and reinforcing opposing views make compromise even harder. It is not surprising that people who read the newspapers and watch television talking heads who take extreme views on the issues of the day will be likely to carry such attitudes about conflict into their activities in their parishes and dioceses.

Finally, I think that while it is seldom acknowledged, the conflict over homosexuality frequently reveals a deep visceral distaste, even disgust, for the behaviors under consideration. Many other biblical prohibitions-against divorce, women speaking in church, eating certain foods-have been altered. People may oppose the practice of ordaining women or consecrating them as bishops, but few appear to be physically disgusted by the prospect. The apparently unequivocal nature of the condemnations of homosexuality found in the Bible is reinforced by the deeper “instinctive” conviction that homosexual behavior simply cannot be what God intends for his creation. And for those on the liberal side (where I am), there is often a similar, almost visceral, reaction that sees opponents as simply intolerant and homophobic.

Some of the debate in the Episcopal Church also focuses on process, on what Rowan Williams called the ECUSA’s “determination to go it alone.” Conservatives point to earlier pronouncements by the Anglican Communion saying the church was not ready to move ahead on this issue, and accuse the Americans of riding roughshod over both the precedents of the community and the feelings of other churches. Liberals insist that they have followed the established procedure for selecting and consecrating a bishop by receiving the required number of votes at both diocesan and national meetings, and that local dioceses and national churches have the right to take such steps.

Both sides may be narrowly correct but both are broadly misleading in their complaints about due process. It is hard to believe that opponents of Bishop Robinson’s consecration would have been less opposed if the church had delayed and tried to convince others of the rightness of this step. One noted conservative voice makes this clear when he writes that this is a “subject on which Bible Christians are not able to change their minds. Not because we are dinosaurs-but because we believe God has already spoken” (Paul Zahl, Understanding the Windsor Report). And on the other side, organizational autonomy and responsibility within a religious communion must mean more than simply justifying one’s actions on the basis of what the official policies allow one to do.

Given these disagreements, how can Episcopalians resolve their differences? Do we remain within an institution that appears to be falling apart, and one that each side experiences as betraying our own commitment to theological orthodoxy or fairness? As a heterosexual who does not view homosexuality as intrinsically sinful or abnormal, can I continue to value the orthodox tradition that is part of my religious identity within a polity that seems so confused about what the “Christian” church should do?

I know many Catholics ask the same questions about their church’s teachings on contraception and other disputed issues. Autobiography is crucial here. My own views are shaped in part by the Jewish tradition I lived in for most of my life, before I became a Christian sixteen years ago. As I experienced and loved it, Judaism is a tradition steeped in a text but also committed at its core to interpretation and adaptation. The structure of the key Jewish sources through which the Bible is read is inherently dialogical; rabbinic figures debate with one another over the meaning of particular biblical verses, citing alternative verses or different meanings of the same words, different analogies, or diverse human experiences. The goal is seldom theoretical understanding for its own sake, but rather practical understanding to allow the community to remain faithful to a long-standing covenant while living in very different historical circumstances. The Jewish tradition has its own liberal/conservative continuum, but the center of the tradition is one of a continually changing and creative interaction of a community with its authorizing texts. This set of experiences and my personal commitment to open intellectual discussion and debate leave me very uncomfortable with the idea that specific biblical passages are always the determining or sole source of divine guidance or inspiration.

My own journey into Christianity was not motivated by rejection of Judaism but rather by a growing appreciation-aesthetic as well as intellectual, emotional as well as doctrinal-of the Christian story, Christian symbols, and Christian worship. Much to my surprise, I found the central story of Jesus’ incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection to reflect much of what I believed about who God is and how he acts. I found the cross to be a symbol of both redemptive suffering and the interaction between human sinfulness and divine compassion. And in the language of Christian worship, I discovered a voice and an idiom that seemed to express my deepest longings for prayer.

I began to attend Episcopal services while I was engaged to a woman studying to become a priest. It was the language and liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, with its soaring Elizabethan prose and its broad incorporation of both Catholic and Protestant sensibilities, that led me to the baptismal font and to confirmation in the Episcopal Church. This is not unusual, because Episcopalians are frequently more likely to define themselves in terms of the Book of Common Prayer than in terms of adherence to particular doctrinal statements.

In addition to the liturgical and symbolic power of Episcopal worship, I was drawn to the intellectual power of the tradition, as reflected particularly in the writings and continuing influence of the sixteenth-century figure Richard Hooker. His massive work, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, is a brilliant effort to define how the Church of England can protect itself from what he saw as the twin threats of Roman Catholic authoritarianism and domination on one hand, and Puritan narrow-mindedness and self-righteousness on the other. A few observations about Hooker’s approach will underscore what is both attractive yet admittedly problematic about the church that continues to be so indebted to his vision.

Hooker looked for positions and principles that could unite diverse individuals, and he tried to distinguish the essential elements that are worth fighting over from the nonessentials that are not. He was uncomfortable assuming bad motives by his opponents, in part because he recognized the gray areas of human life. He wrote that “Our end ought always to be the same, our ways and means thereunto not so.” Hooker saw in the Church of England a sign of “a course more calm and moderate,” providing a model for the other churches that were immersed in “mutual combustions bloodsheds and wastes.”

The substance of his position is reflected in the way he argued his case. The structure of the Laws proceeds by presenting long quotations from key Puritan writers, acknowledging what was reasonable in their position, and then stating the areas of disagreement and trying to indicate why the Puritan view was wrong. He tried to find a position both sides could agree on. And Hooker was not so sure of the truth of his own position that he demonized his opponents, nor did he draw the lines so firmly that those on the other side were viewed as outside the realm of redemption or the true church. Hooker went so far as to believe that Roman Catholics could go to heaven, a highly unpopular position a few decades after the reign of the Protestant-persecuting Queen Mary and around the time of the Spanish Armada.

It is partly from Hooker that Anglicans (including Episcopalians) inherit their long-standing view that Christian authority derives from the interaction of Scripture, the tradition of the church, and human reason and experience. Hooker began with the authority of Scripture, and believed that it was normative when it provided clear guidance. But the Christian tradition’s centuries of reflection on Scripture, and the reasoned consensus and consideration of the contemporary community, are essential once we recognize that the Bible does not provide an unambiguous set of answers to contemporary questions. This tripartite approach is necessary and complex, both because none of these sources is univocal or self-disclosing without extensive interpretation, and because the sources can and do conflict when applied to complex problems. (Even the seemingly unambiguous condemnations of homosexual behavior need to account for the very different meaning of the key terms in much earlier and different cultural contexts, and the difficulties of imagining how the writers may have responded to a different set of potential relationships offered in a different historical situation.)

I was drawn to this broad and somewhat ambiguous view of authority, partly because it reminded me of the exciting and playful element of interpretation that I had so loved in the Jewish tradition, but also because of a temperamental and moral distrust of certainty. My own religious experiences were not unequivocal or overpowering revelations of a Christian God who crowded out or eliminated all other options; my journey into the Christian community was not a story of sudden enlightenment or joyous salvation but rather a long process of exploration, doubt, and subtle but revealing suggestions of a God who had done amazing things and who seemed able to be revealed through mundane and mixed human lives. It was this vision, with all its ambiguity and halting movements, that was embodied in an Anglican tradition and an Episcopal Church that struggled explicitly with the tension between faith and reason, certainty and doubt, unity and diversity.

The center of the Anglican tradition has insisted on bringing together a Catholic and Protestant approach to Christian worship, order, and theology. The church is “Catholic” in many respects. Sacraments are central, parish leaders are “priests,” bishops lead dioceses, and Episcopalians try to take seriously the tradition of apostolic succession and the connection of the U.S. church with fellow Anglican churches throughout the world. In these ways, Episcopalians are somewhat more content than many other Protestants to affirm belief in a church that is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”

Yet at the same time, Episcopalians are self-consciously “catholic with a small c,” reflecting the historical refusal to accept the form of organization and authority centered on the bishop of Rome. It is no small matter that the name given to the new church in the United States in 1789 was the “Protestant Episcopal Church.” The form of organization developed along with the formation of the U.S. government, and the church structure reflects the concern for balance of powers, lay influence, and distrust of centralized authority that also define the U.S. Constitution.

As the current crisis exemplifies, the temperamental taste for finding middle ground, for avoiding extremes, and for striving for unity in the midst of diversity, is both the strength and weakness of the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion as a whole. For those seeking a church with room for a wide variety of views, the Episcopal Church can offer a welcoming embrace, a settling calm in the midst of doctrinal storms, a place to learn and talk about how to make sense of our varied perspectives. As long as members of the community maintain Hooker’s distinction between the essential and the nonessential, and view most of the disagreements as being open to serious discussion, a tolerance for different views can be fostered.

But for those seeking a clearer vision of theological truth, the Episcopal Church can be a frustrating place indeed. The drawbacks are obvious in times of significant disagreement, as each portion of the community seems to have the right to draw the line wherever it chooses. Specific disputes cannot be resolved easily by appeal to a central authority; the degree of autonomy of each parish and diocese, and the pluralistic and democratic nature of national decision making, can exacerbate tensions and create the basis for continuing conflicts. Of course, similar tensions exist within Roman Catholicism, as the current upheavals in Boston and elsewhere show. Still, at least to an outsider, Catholic disagreements tend to be either resolved or submerged more effectively, because of the Catholic Church’s embrace of a more unequivocal central authority, one that can set clearer boundaries and even restrict discussion. (Or at least discipline theologians and remove editors!)

One of the most attractive and intriguing aspects of the Episcopal Church is its faith that a democratic religious community that locates control in the individual or the parish can still remain faithful to an ancient tradition of creedal orthodoxy and discipleship. It is not surprising that such a community is likely to be more contentious, disordered, and ambiguous than one with clearer lines of authority or arbiters of orthodoxy. Whether democracy and creedal orthodoxy are compatible is now being sorely tested, and there is much at stake for other religious communities in the outcome.

In a wonderful essay on Hooker, Rowan Williams emphasizes that worship involves God’s ability to transform us in our frailty. Hooker was, in Williams’s words, a “contemplative pragmatist,” struggling to find a way through complex disagreements and insisting on the creation of a community that provides sufficient room for diverse views on all but the most essential matters of faith. Williams suggests that Hooker’s vision of Christian community is of a community that is “dialogical rather than a simple process of instruction.” I imagine that is a vision of the church that many Catholics share.

Archbishop Williams himself is the preeminent Anglican theologian in the world, a brilliant scholar and writer who combines breathtaking intellectual energy and productivity with a deeply spiritual and reflective approach to the nature of the church and Christian life. Although he has staked out liberal positions on many issues, he is also seen as being deeply committed to preserving and handing on the orthodox tradition. It remains unclear whether his sensitivity and intellect will allow him to resolve the conflicts within his church, or whether his role as its most important institutional figure will constrain his ability to develop a creative position that would be viewed as institutionally and theologically acceptable to both sides. His current calls for a moratorium and for more faithful reflection are appropriate but may be insufficient to bridge the chasm between members of opposing parties who are convinced they are hearing and following God’s word.

I remain within the Episcopal Church in part because I want to be a member of a community that allows for diverse views and alternative interpretations, views that force me, along with others in my community, to struggle with what we think God is doing. I would rather be part of a church whose conservatives force me to be informed and guided by Scripture, even when I am inclined to dismiss what seem like anachronistic and even unjust teachings. And I would rather be part of a church whose liberals force me to listen to new voices and perspectives, even when I am inclined to dismiss them as modernist, unorthodox, or faddish.

To my mind, the question of whether an openly and sexually actively gay person can serve as a bishop is not a matter of essential Christian faith, nor is the identity or faithfulness of Episcopalians threatened by such service. I respect those who feel differently, but I think they are confusing the essential with the inessential. I believe the identity and faithfulness of the church are threatened far more by those who think the Gnostic Gospels or The Da Vinci Code has more to teach us than the Nicene Creed or the central texts of the Bible. I wish the ECUSA had waited a bit longer to take the step to ordain a sexually active homosexual person as bishop, and I wish the opponents of that step were more willing to consider whether God may be doing something new in our own time. But I continue to be an Episcopalian because the arguments, the disagreements, and even the threats of schism are all part of a messy and all-too-human way of struggling together to glimpse the nature and actions of an ultimately unknowable and infinitely loving God.

Barry Jay Seltser is a writer and researcher living in Boston.

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Published in the 2006-05-19 issue: View Contents
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