Editorial Note: Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Bishop in the Episcopal church, has been given the honor of kicking off Obama’s inauguration with a prayer. The reason for this seems obvious enough. In recent weeks, the selection of Rev. Rick Warren to give the inaugural convocation speech has prompted an outcry from progressives and gay activists, all of whom who have denounced Warren’s antigay rhetoric and role in the passage of Proposition 8. Robinson, whose election as Bishop has caused a rift in the Episcopal Church, would seem to be Obama’s response to this criticism. And a good response it is.
In the past five years, the Episcopal Church has found itself pushed to the forefront of the culture wars. After Gene Robinson, an openly gay man with a longterm partner, was elected Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, Anglican bishops from all over the world quickly decried the move. Conservative congregations in the US and Canada left the national churches. Some aligned themselves with the Anglican Church of Nigeria and its outspoken homophobic leader, Archbishop Peter Akinola. On December 3 of this year, these conservatives announced the creation of a new denomination, one that will compete openly with the Episcopalians for congregations and tithes. While not recognized by the Anglican Communion, the New York Times described this latest move as “the biggest challenge yet to the authority of the Episcopal Church,” which “threatens the fragile unity of the Anglican Communion.”
The Anglican conservatives have argued that the Episcopal Church acted too rashly in its acceptance of gays and lesbians into the leadership of the church. Archbishop Gregory Venables of the Southern Cone of America, called Gene Robinson’s election “a slap in the face of the Anglican Church around the world.” Reverend Nyhan of St. James the Just described it as “hubris of Biblical proportions, and that’s a polite way of saying diabolical.”
But in fact, Robinson’s election was less an example of cavalier decision-making than the outgrowth of a long and thoughtful debate within the church. Following a request from the Lambeth Commission, the Episcopalian Church published a 135-page document etitled “To Set Our Hope in Christ,” which detailed how the church had come to include homosexuals as equal members of the congregation. Presenting both a theological and legislative argument for gay and lesbian equality, the document includes a long list of commission findings and carefully worded resolutions stating repeatedly how the Episcopal Church is “not of one mind” on matters of sexuality but is committed to “promot[ing] the continu[ed] use of dialogue.” There’s the 1976 Commission on Human Affairs asserting that “homosexual persons are children of God, who have a full and equal claim with all other persons on love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church,” or the creation of a moderately liberal guide on sexuality in the 1980s.
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One rare moment of drama came in 1995, when the Bishop of Newark was put on trial within the church for his ordination of an openly gay priest. Again, the Episcopal leadership looked to find a middle way: while “not giving an opinion on the morality of same-gender relationships,” it refused to convict on the grounds that “there is no core doctrine prohibiting the ordination of a non-celibate homosexual person living in a faithful and committed sexual relationship,” and that “the Anglican tradition has encouraged theological diversity.”
This glacial move towards equality did not sit well with conservatives within the church, a testament to the inevitable shortcomings of compromise and incrementalism. In 1997 yet another Commission stated in despairing tones: “ ’Dialogue’ has become, for many people, a code word for deadlock,” and “Mandated dialogue on human sexuality has run its course.” Unable to convince conservatives within the church of the basic equality between heterosexual and homosexual relationships, and unwilling to abandon its tradition of plurality and legislative democracy, the Episcopal Church found itself confronted by an irreconcilable crisis despite its many efforts to avoid one. As Rev. Susan Russell, President of the Episcopalian LGBT group Integrity, put it: “The number of conferences, of consultations, of opportunities for us to come together in different formations, to talk across the divide, meet at round tables, to talk about what unites us instead of what divides us, to find resolutions that have compromised language, that give local options… all of those were never acceptable to the religious ideologues.”
And so it is that, among those Episcopalians who’ve been involved with this conflict, the general attitude is one of frustration. Rev. Ian Douglas is a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is quick to disparage the conservatives’ move to bring in the African churches. “I find it fascinating,” he said, “that those who claim to be traditionalist, particularly when focused on matters of human sexuality, which I would grant they are, have been drawn to a radical innovation in Anglicanism that contravenes the ancient councils of the church.” In the Anglican Communion (the international confederation of churches that trace their ancestry back to the Church of England) the individual provinces operate more or less autonomously. As Rev. Douglas notes, the conservatives’ inclusion of likeminded African churches is in violation of this tradition, a reworking of the most basic structure of the church.
Still, the fact that the conservatives were forced to do this is telling in itself. Roughly 100,000 Anglicans in the United States and Canada have left their respective national churches, less than five percent of the 2.3 million members. “It’s a tiny fraction of the church,” said Jim Naughton, of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. “Yet it’s being played as if the church is splitting.” As many Episcopalians have pointed out, the conservatives did not have the internal backing to overturn Robinson’s election–even with the efforts of the African Churches and several fundamentalist lobbies. Their recent decision to disaffiliate is a last ditch gamble to assert their preeminence in North America. How it will play out remains to be seen, but in the meantime the Episcopal Church might finally start to move on.