Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Bates: The Problem of Dissolution

In a December 19 story in The Guardian, English journalist Stephen Bates argues evangelical conservatives are using homosexuality as a dividing issue - and standing up to them is the only way to save the Anglican church. A goal of The Episcopal Majority has been to build alliances with other Anglicans throughout the world. This story is another indication about the worldwide importance of the issues that the Episcopal Church is facing.

The decision by two ancient Anglican churches in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC at the weekend to secede from the US Episcopal church and seek alternative oversight with the hardline anti-homosexual Primate of Nigeria has been a long time in gestation. It represents the latest shaving-off of conservatives (they prefer to call themselves reasserters) from the American church. It remains to be seen how many others will follow in their footsteps.

Truro church and Falls church have made it quite clear that they have been disenchanted with the Episcopal church's liberal-leaning leadership for a long time, looking for an excuse to go. Virtually nothing could have persuaded them to stay. Although the proximate cause may have been the election three years ago of the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire, Gene Robinson, the real causes lie in a fundamental disagreement over the nature of Anglicanism and a determination to wrest it from its broad and tolerant roots into a more evangelical, conservative direction.

The same thing is happening in England, where last week a faction of like-minded conservative evangelicals, with close ties to the US churches, presented a list of demands to Archbishop Rowan Williams, including a call for the right to appoint their own ministers without reference to their liberal diocesan bishops.

These groups have chosen homosexuality as a defining issue because they believe it is something that will unite and mobilise sympathisers in a way that other current issues in the church, such as women's ordination, have not been able to do. There is still a visceral distaste for the idea of homosexuality and the prejudice against it can be characterised not as bigotry but as something sanctioned by a few (and there are only a few) references in the Bible. Interestingly, the same mobilisation in defence of biblical orthodoxy does not seem to apply to other facts of life about which the Bible's authors were quite as adamant, pre-eminently divorce. Surely this can't be - can it? - because many more folk have experience of divorce in their families these days than of homosexuality, and that even some of the most outspoken evangelical leaders are themselves divorced.

Back in the Washington suburbs it was clear some years ago that the two churches wanted nothing to do with their diocesan bishop, a moderate named Peter Lee, because he had voted in favour of Gene Robinson's election. The bishop pointed out that he had voted in favour of the endorsement of every bishop whose name had come up for election throughout his period in office because each had been elected by his parishioners and, whether he agreed with them theologically or not, conservative or liberal, he believed he ought to respect the decision made by their congregations.

For this he was reviled and insulted by conservatives in his diocese who announced that he was no longer fit to lay hands on their children in confirming them. So he meekly called in the former archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, whose hands were evidently much cleaner (though he'd ordained at least two gay bishops in his time) to carry out the confirmations in his stead. But it's all right because George is a good evangelical.

In the same spirit of Episcopal pick'n'mix, the American churches have chosen the Archbishop of Abuja, the Most Rev Peter Akinola, as their archiepiscopal leader; a man whose vehemence against gay people - quite in defiance of current Anglican position statements - has led him to vociferously support Nigerian government legislation which would prevent gays meeting, let alone campaigning to improve their status and condition in Nigerian civil society. His willingness to cross provincial boundaries to interfere in other churches is also, incidentally, against current Anglican polity.

Even the Americans quail at going quite as far as Akinola does in his anti-gay rhetoric, but that hasn't stopped them in the words of one conservative opting for a black archbishop "even if he does look like the church janitor". Some prejudices are evidently more acceptable than others.

The fact is that what the conservatives demand in the name of orthodoxy is not Anglicanism but a form of congregationalism, inimical to the traditional authority of bishops. The most interesting commentary in the last week has been the response of the Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, on the Fulcrum evangelical website, following the English evangelicals' presentation of their demands to Archbishop Williams.

What particularly annoyed him was the conservatives' presumption in claiming to speak for all evangelicals, when they only speak for a faction - and had not troubled to consult even those before presenting their demands. Wright's condemnation is extraordinary in its vehemence. He has finally woken up to the way the wind is blowing in Anglicanism. Will others do the same? Standing up to the bullies who proclaim a self-determined orthodoxy and a one-eyed moral rectitude may be the only chance to save the worldwide communion from dissolution. Rowan Williams needs all the help he can get.


Anonymous Jim said...

Stephen Bates' post is a great one. It seems that it is time for the us to stand up to the conservatives, so I agree. Standing up to them, it seems to me, means insisting that they understand that God's love is without conditions, the exact conditions the seek to impose on the rest of the Anglican Communion.

What will the conservatives do once they all join with the Primate of Nigeria? What will they do when they disagree with him over some doctrinal issue? Can people who have a history of "creative disagreement and dialogue" remain in communion with someone who is rigid and authoritarian? How would Bishop Duncan fare as a Bishop answerable to the Primate of Nigeria? I do not have answers to these questions ... only questions. It would seem that the conservatives want someone strong such as a Pope. Thus Archbishop Peter Akinola could become the first Anglican Pope for the conservatives, and be under his authority. Would the Global South all follow? This seems to me to be a real possiblity, it would seem to be trading collegiality for authorty in a way Episcopalians are not use.

1/05/2007 1:40 PM  

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