Monday, March 05, 2007

The "Other" Issue (Theuner)

The “Other” Issue … Or is it the Primary Issue?
by the Rt. Rev. Douglas Theuner, retired bishop of New Hampshire

[An earlier version of this essay has appeared on some blogs and websites. We have Bishop Theuner's permission to post this revised version here.]

While the world is watching the issue of full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people in the life of the church being played out in the back rooms of the Anglican Communion, another, and for the Anglican Communion perhaps more important, issue is rising to the fore. As the world to which the church is called to bear witness moves slowly but inexorably toward greater understanding and acceptance of a variety of sexual orientations and behaviors, the most significant long-term issue for the Anglican Communion may actually be that of authoritarianism; an element of Christian communal life long distrusted in Anglicanism. In today’s world the death throes of authoritarianism and its partner, patriarchy, seems to have focused for the churches in the area of full acceptance of women and men, regardless of their sexual preference or orientation, as well as their race, ethnicity, age or abilities and even creed.

The Anglican Communion was born in the rejection of monarchical and aristocratic authority in the American Revolution – a rejection fostered not by the church but by the political milieu in which it existed. A large portion of the Church of England’s devotees in the American colonies were Loyalists, opposed to the overthrow of the British monarchy as the legitimate power in this country. Deprived of a functioning episcopate for two centuries, the English-speaking church in America was faced with effective separation from the Church of England by virtue of the fact that the hierarchy of that body refused to pass on to the church in the newly independent colonies its historic episcopate. After all, those colonies had just successfully rebelled against the King of England, the head and Governor of the Church of England. No matter that perhaps a majority of the Church of England clergy had remained Loyalist during the Revolution, including Samuel Seabury, a Revolutionary War chaplain to the British Army, who was refused Episcopal ordination by the English hierarchy. The English bishops could not accede to the American request, thereby necessitating Seabury to seek ordination from the non-juring bishops of Scotland – a move that was successful more for political reasons than specifically religious ones. Once the American Church had received its own episcopate from Scotland with possible further implementation from the established Church of Denmark and the Moravians, the English had no other option than to have parliament waive the political aspects of the ordinal (i.e., subjection to the crown as head and Governor of the Church) and provide further ordination for American bishops by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Thus was what came to be known as “the Anglican Communion,” founded essentially as a result of American initiative. The Church of England decided that it would be more expedient to retain a relationship with the now independent Americans that to let them go off on their own; a lesson from history which today’s Archbishop of Canterbury and the other provinces of the Communion might well find instructive today. The sun set of the British Empire in the United States a long time ago, yet the Episcopal Church there has retained the “bonds of affection” for its mother institution.

Now after some two centuries of collaboration, the Anglican Communion, a world-wide group of autonomous provinces in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, we begin to hear talk of new and hitherto unimagined entities, the so-called “Instruments of Unity”; the Lambeth Conference, Anglican Consultative Conference and, most recently, the “Primates’ Meeting,”, in addition to the Archbishop of Canterbury. From whence did these entities spring and why are they necessary? The answer to the first question is that they initially sprang, as “Instruments of Unity,” from a reaction to the Episcopal Church’s decision to ordain women to the priesthood and, ultimately, the episcopate – the clearest threat yet to the patriarchy with which the communion had so comfortably rested for centuries. And, as those who were opposed to the ordination of women from the beginning so clearly and correctly pointed out, that factor opened the door for questioning the whole basis of sexuality as the determinative factor in acceptance and leadership.

The answer to the second question follows easily. The first and most obvious reaction to any institutional threat is authoritarianism. The patriarchs have “circled the wagons” in response to this threat to their authority.

But authoritarianism has always rested uneasy within Anglicanism. Historically, the Archbishop of Canterbury has been respected among those who identify themselves as Anglicans as “the first among equals." He has had no control over the actions of any autonomous province, much less does any newly created identity like the “Primates’ Meeting”; a new comintern with the obvious purpose of control and through the enforcement of conformity. It has cut its eye teeth in Dromantine and Dar es Salaam, by fashioning itself effectively as an “Instrument of Disunity”. If there is indeed anything “new under the sun,” it is certainly not homosexuality within the church’s life but it may well be the so-called “Instruments of Unity”! Not even honesty about its life is wholly new in the Church. It is this fundamental change in the exercise of authority – and patriarchy – that is the long-term issue facing the Anglican Communion.

But the immediate concern is presented as the full acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people in the life of the church. Because the lives of individual people must always be of foremost concern to the Church, as it was to our Lord Jesus Christ, these people cannot simply be “put on hold” until the communion works out its ecclesial problems, as important as they are. But, at the same time, until the church deals with the issues of patriarchy and authoritarianism it will never be a body in which" . . . there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.”…”if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:25-26)

I have always been one to caution against the facile use of the term “homophobic,” as it seems there are many reasons why some people refuse to affirm gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered people other than “fear of homosexuals.” But homophobia is very real in many cases as, I believe, in the current actions of the Archbishop of Nigeria in championing the criminalization of homosexuals in his own country. I simply cannot understand how some American Episcopalians willingly place themselves under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of a person who espouses such egregious evil. For years the American Episcopal Church and the Lambeth Conference have passed resolutions decrying discrimination of the basis of sexual orientation, as have other provinces of the Anglican Communion. Why are the primates not calling Archbishop Akinola to task for his blatant and hurtful denial of the dignity of every human being?

I suspect that if the “Instruments of Unity” were to call the Archbishop of Nigeria to account for his behavior, it would be left, once again, to the American Episcopal Church to initiate such action. But, the American Episcopal Church does not see the Anglican Communion as an “Instrument of Conformity." We must bear witness to that which we hold but it is not ours to use authoritarianism to try to force others to bend to our understanding. Archbishop Akinola does not understand this, but we do. That is who we are and where we stand. We are not just a church of gay, lesbian and transgendered people; we are a church committed to “respect the dignity of every human being,” according to the primary covenant which ought to govern our lives, that of our baptism into the Body of Christ from which no one can exclude us except our Lord Himself.

Fasting from decision making during this period of Lent is an excellent penitential discipline. Then, I think the House of Bishops meeting in September ought to pass a “mind of the house” resolution asking the Presiding Bishop to convey to the Primates of the Anglican Communion that it has received their advice and counsel from Dar es Salaam and has given it prayerful and thoughtful attention and that it looks forward to being with them at Lambeth in 2008 for further discussion of these matters and others relating to the mission of the Church today. Nothing further should be required or is likely to be either helpful or honest.

Revised 3/4/07 -- Douglas E. Theuner


Anonymous Anonymous said...

" As the world to which the church is called to bear witness moves slowly but inexorably toward greater understanding and acceptance of a variety of sexual orientations and behaviors"

Yes, it does seem inexorable. And sad, just as it was in Corinth, Berlin of the 30's, Thailand of the 80's, and--what?--San Fracisco of the 90's. There is nothing new under the sun even when lightweights like Theuner tell us it is a new day.

3/12/2007 3:14 PM  

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