I attended an Episcopal church one summer a few years ago. I’m not Episcopalian, but I enjoyed the church and the experience. I loved the liturgy and tradition of it—the sense of being part of an ancient, worldwide, structured body of believers. I loved the use of organ and the singing of 500 year-old hymns. I loved the creeds.
But sadly, the Episcopal Church is a dying denomination, and the events earlier this week at the Episcopal General Convention in Anaheim only underscore its deterioration.
At the convention, Episcopal leaders pronounced gays and lesbians eligible for “any ordained ministry,” even though Anglican leaders had sought a clear moratorium on consecrating another gay bishop after the Gene Robinson hoopla of 2003.
This bold move by the American Episcopal church—a slap in the face to the authority structure of the worldwide Anglican communion—is symptomatic of the larger and long-developing rifts in the communion, and it’s likely going to be the last straw before a major schism.
I think N.T. Wright—Anglican Bishop of Durham and respected author/theologian—is correct when in The Times this week he described the situation thusly: “In the slow-moving train crash of international Anglicanism, a decision taken in California has finally brought a large coach off the rails altogether.”
There are a lot of denominational politics at play here, but what this whole thing comes down to is the fact that some within the Anglican world (American Episcopalians) elevate personal preference over the Bible, tradition, and authority. Essentially it comes down to a lack of discipline and a selfish “I should be able to do whatever I want!” attitude that disregards anything that isn’t inclusive or tolerant. It’s a blurring of biblical teaching and an intentional obfuscating of morality to meet the fickle whims and needs of our own variegated sexual impulses.
N.T. Wright addresses this idea in his article:
…But Jewish, Christian and Muslim teachers have always insisted that lifelong man-plus-woman marriage is the proper context for sexual intercourse. This is not (as is frequently suggested) an arbitrary rule, dualistic in overtone and killjoy in intention. It is a deep structural reflection of the belief in a creator God who has entered into covenant both with his creation and with his people (who carry forward his purposes for that creation)… Jesus’s own stern denunciation of sexual immorality would certainly have carried, to his hearers, a clear implied rejection of all sexual behaviour outside heterosexual monogamy. This isn’t a matter of “private response to Scripture” but of the uniform teaching of the whole Bible, of Jesus himself, and of the entire Christian tradition.
Gay Episcopalians would likely retort by pointing out that it is simply unjust. They are Christians and they want to serve God in a pastoral role in the church, and they can’t help the fact that they are gay. It’s just not fair that they are forbidden from the ministry.
Again, N.T. Wright answers this well:
The appeal to justice as a way of cutting the ethical knot in favour of including active homosexuals in Christian ministry simply begs the question. Nobody has a right to be ordained: it is always a gift of sheer and unmerited grace. The appeal also seriously misrepresents the notion of justice itself, not just in the Christian tradition of Augustine, Aquinas and others, but in the wider philosophical discussion from Aristotle to John Rawls. Justice never means “treating everybody the same way”, but “treating people appropriately,” which involves making distinctions between different people and situations. Justice has never meant “the right to give active expression to any and every sexual desire.”
The thinking of the Episcopalians in Anaheim this week is simply a symptom of the larger culture in the postmodern world. We can be whoever we want to be, and no one can argue against the rightness of our own feelings or inclinations. Tradition and authority (and scripture) be damned! What matters is my own experience.
To that, N.T. Wright says this:
It is a very recent innovation to consider sexual preferences as a marker of “identity” parallel to, say, being male or female, English or African, rich or poor. Within the “gay community” much postmodern reflection has turned away from “identity” as a modernist fiction. We simply “construct” ourselves from day to day.
But at the end of the day, the Christian life requires discipline and sacrifice. The deterioration of Episcopal-Anglican relations reflects the unpopularity of this idea in the contemporary world. People don’t want to believe that to be a Christian means that they can’t do things they feel are right, or that they must deny themselves the pleasures they so strongly desire. They don’t like the idea of self-control and restraint. But that’s what being a Christian is all about.
Wisely, N.T. Wright mentions in his article that we must remember that there is a distinction between inclination and desire on the one hand and activity on the other. It is one thing to have disordered or confused sexual desires. It is an entirely other thing to act on those. “We all have all kinds of deep-rooted inclinations and desires,” notes Wright. “The question is, what shall we do with them?”
In the Anglican church, there is no prohibition against the consecration of a person with “deep-rooted inclinations and desires.” But the understanding is that, in reverence to God, scripture, and the church, that person remain celibate. And it’s possible. It just takes discipline.
The Episcopalians—those wild, rebellious, American Anglicans who insist that active homosexual lifestyles are okay to God—are clearly lacking in the discipline department. And as a result, the world’s third largest body of Christians (the worldwide Anglican communion) is losing its unity and–perhaps–credibility.