LETTER FROM AMERICA

DIVISIVE ISSUES AND INTERIM ETHICS

THIS LETTER IS SENT by e-mail, and seems to lose dashes and quotation marks on the way. This explains why some sentences seem to change directions suddenly and why the clumsy jargon of ecclesiastical activists sometimes appears in the middle of what I hope is otherwise normal prose.

The news

Life here moves along as usual. In the middle of his consecration, the new suffragan bishop of North Carolina put on a round red clown’s nose and was followed in doing so by the Presiding Bishop and the other bishops there. This upset the people who enjoy getting upset about such things, but I thought it refreshingly honest.

Jane Dixon, the suffragan bishop of Washington, told the Episcopal Women’s Caucus that the ordination of women had proved worth the pain to the Church, the pain having been suffered by others. In yet another book on sex, this one from Cowley Press, the secretary of the homosexualist lobby Integrity said that he was “convinced that the time has come when the church will have to cease its self-defeating practice of consoling those who hate, and to start embracing those whose only conspiracy has been to love.”

All Saints, Pasadena, one of the largest parishes in the Episcopal Church, announced a conference called “Beyond Inclusion: Celebrating Gay and Lesbian Commitments and Ministries Within the Episcopal Church.” Among the speakers will be an Episcopal seminary professor who will argue “that, from the perspective of Desmond Tutu’s theology, heterosexual Christians need the full participation of homosexual unions and lay and ordained ministries in order to be a person in the ubuntu sense of the word.”

A professor at another Episcopal seminary will “examin[e] the idea that it is perfectly possible to read the Bible in ways that don’t condemn homosexuality, and that the Bible does not offer a model for family life.” (“Examine” means “argue that.”) A third speaker will “use tradition as a spring board into and beyond inclusion rather than as an orthodox imprisonment.” The latest fashion in homosexual apologetics is the attempt either to deconstruct Scripture so that it does not speak clearly or to claim that it speaks in their favor, neither of which are plausible, but they try hard.

Judging from letters I’ve seen, our homosexual activists seem to feel that with the Righter decision they’ve won – as they have, really – and will not press too strongly at next summer’s General Convention for further approval. They will work instead to pass the canon excluding people like us from acting on our belief, which will be for their feminist allies the equivalent of the Righter decision. (It’s a fair trade: I would guess that perhaps nine out of ten ordained women are at least mildly in favor of approving homosexuality.)

Traditionalist divisions

Traditional believers remain divided in many ways, but the most fundamental difference, I think, is whether they think their relation with apostates matters. As far as I can tell, most think it doesn’t matter. One centrist bishop I know says that the General Convention has no authority to order anything unbiblical and thus can be ignored if necessary, yet he regularly consents to the election of bishops who openly deny biblical teaching. Others stress that we ought to work harder for the Gospel, yet are often quite vague about the ecclesial context in which we are working.

On the other side are those who believe either that they must leave (a growing number) or that we must live by an interim ethic, separating ourselves from heretics and working with fellow believers wherever they may be found, in the belief that God is fundamentally remaking the Church. These people have lost any great drive to “recapture the Church,” thinking it either a lost or a pointless cause.

As one theologian wrote: “We are in for a lot more dissolving of things and it will be some time before something coherent in terms of an institutional church emerges. I think we should turn our attention to considering what faithful Christianity looks like in such an interim situation, a situation in which we do not renounce institutional Christianity and the Church, nor say the Church is only a spiritual reality, but at the same time recognize that the old structures are untrustworthy even by historical standards (i.e. they have never been entirely trustworthy, but now even the minimum we have enjoyed is broken up).”

For example, some dioceses are moving to amend their constitutions to say that “no action of General Convention after 1994 shall be of any force or effect in this diocese until and unless first being approved and ratified by the convention of this diocese.” As you might guess, even so sensible a resolution is quite a radical action even for conservative Episcopalians, and relatively few dioceses are likely to approve it. And as you might also guess, the innovators who have talked so long and bravely about prophetic action are now terribly, terribly concerned about the laws and structures of the Church.

A wider debate

I read with some interest David Sherwood’s letter in the October issue, expressing his concern about those taking a “strong anti-homosexual stance.” He seems to restrict “orthodox Anglicanism” to opposition to women’s ordination, while asking New Directions to “acknowledge the wider debate . . . that exists within our integrity” on homosexuality.

I would have thought that orthodox Anglicanism was defined by adherence to Scripture as conveyed through the tradition, in which case we are no more allowed debate the acceptability of homosexuality than we are the acceptability of ordaining women. One has to misread Scripture rather badly to oppose the latter while thinking the former still open for discussion. If a “wider debate” exists, it exists because some Anglo-Catholics have sinned and many others approved of their sin as long as it was discrete.

In our case, the quiet approval of homosexuality scandalized many laity and alienated most Evangelical friends, and, it must be admitted, contributed both to a degree of misogyny among the members and to the timidity of some leaders who feared exposure if they resisted liberalism too strongly. More importantly, orthodox Episcopalians’ refusal to submit to Scripture on this point deeply distorted their thinking and practice. They could not, for example, think with needed biblical rigor on other subjects, because such rigor would deny them a belief and practice they would not let go.

In Mr Sherwood’s argument that “we need the support of the greatest number of people possible,” I recognize the argument that always kept orthodox Episcopalians from acting decisively, because every exercise of biblical courage would drive away some members of a diverse and theologically inexact organization. Avoiding action did not work at all, even in keeping up the membership.

And we have, after all, the example of a Lord who in doing the Father’s will died nearly alone, to discourage us from making such calculations, which we do almost always to our own benefit.

David Mills is the director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry and the editor of the Episcopal Synod’s journal The Evangelical Catholic.

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