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The Breaking Body

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The Rev. V. Gene Robinson, the openly gay Bishop of New Hampshire, faces dark days ahead. Did you think the tornado-like controversy over the Aug. 5 consecration of the US Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop had subsided? You may wish to re-think that. And if you’re pro-gay and Episcopalian or Anglican, you had better brace yourself for rough winds ahead.

The Associated Press reports that Episcopal dioceses in Pennsylvania and Texas are accusing the national church of overstepping its authority and violating its own constitution by confirming the nomination of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire and by approving the blessing of same-gender unions. In essence, these dioceses will ignore the decision by the national church’s General Convention and may even attempt to withhold funds from the national church.

“These acts are to be held null and void, and of no effect, in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh,” read a resolution approved 239-69 by delegates in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

And in Texas, conservative Fort Worth Bishop Jack Iker spoke out: “We are here to take a stand for the gospel of Jesus Christ in a time of great dissension and confusion in our church.”

From the AP report:

Both the Texas and Pennsylvania dioceses called on the Anglican Communion to recognize those who oppose the gay bishop and same-sex blessings as “the legitimate expression” of the Episcopal Church.

Delegates in Pennsylvania also approved a resolution that would allow parishes to withhold money from the national church.

The national denomination of the Episcopal Church, with 2.3 million members, is the US branch of the worldwide, 77 million-member Anglican Communion.

“We are dealing with the consequences of that body’s schismatic — literally unity-breaking — acts,” said Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan. “We are trying to call the Episcopal Church back to its senses, and asking the worldwide Communion to help us.”

The furor over the General Conference’s decisions is having a personal effect on an incoming liberal Episcopal bishop in Colorado. The Rev. Robert O’Neill is under scrutiny by right-wing clergy in his new diocese, reportedly because of his stated support for gay issues. For the next six months, O’Neill says he will make “no substantive changes in diocesan practices.”

The ill will goes farther than the Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Texas dioceses, and, if the denominational right-wing gets it way, their anger could set the stage for the establishment of a separate conservative Anglican province in the US.

A week ago, the Diocese of Central Florida voted to repudiate the General Convention’s vote on Robinson and same-sex blessing ceremonies and asked world Anglican leaders to intervene.

The Diocese of Albany, NY, also rejected the decision on Robinson and same-sex blessings and asked Anglican leaders to decide whether the national convention votes “exceeded the limits of Anglican diversity.”

A handful of other dioceses have planned special meetings in response to the General Convention in the weeks ahead. Some dioceses and parishes have already decided for now to withhold payments that would have gone to national church headquarters.

Episcopalians who oppose Robinson’s confirmation will gather Oct. 7-9 in Dallas, at a meeting organized by the conservative American Anglican Council, to decide their collective response.

Conservative Rev. John Howe, bishop of Central Florida’s Episcopal diocese says he will skip the Dallas meeting and take his complaints directly to London, where he will meet with leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion, many of whom say they are also considering severing ties with the Episcopal Church over its decision to approve Robinson.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, has called world Anglican leaders to an unprecedented meeting to be held Oct. 15 and 16 in London to discuss the controversial decision. The Anglican Communion’s 38 leaders, called primates, could decide to discipline or divide the US Episcopal Church.

It could happen. The UK’s Telegraph offers an unflattering, though many may say accurate, depiction of the Anglican right-wing:

The forces of conservatism are an alliance of American Right-wingers and African evangelicals. The Americans believe that homosexuality can be cured by therapy; the Africans that it can be cured by exorcism. In fact, for the fundamentalist Africans, homosexuals simply don’t exist except in Western Europe. It is all extraordinarily like traditional biblical anti-Semitism, which held that God’s plan for these unhappy people was conversion. In the meantime, there may be some good individual gays, as there were good “court Jews”, but that doesn’t mean you would want your son to marry one.

Not all Anglican-Episcopal voices are calling for punishment. Yesterday, the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska chose not to pass a resolution denouncing the Bishop of New Hampshire’s confirmation at its convention in Juneau. The move may lead some Alaska congregations to split from the church, but then again, it may not.

Conservative Rev. James Basinger, rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Anchorage, told the Juneau Empire that he will attend the meeting of right-wing clergy in Dallas and hinted that schism is not a sure thing. “We’re still divided over the issue of homosexual practice,” he said, “but there is also a tremendous desire to be unified.”

Pope John Paul II, purportedly a man of God and of love, stuck his nose into the Episcopalians’ debate to threaten the notion of Christian unity. Yesterday, the pontiff told the Archbishop of Canterbury that some Anglicans’ acceptance of openly gay clergy members presented “new and serious difficulties” in relations between the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. The New York Times reports:

“As we give thanks for the progress that has already been made, we must also recognize that new and serious difficulties have arisen on the path to unity,” John Paul said, reading from prepared remarks in the papal library.

“These difficulties are not all of a merely disciplinary nature. Some extend to essential matters of faith and morals.”

At a subsequent news conference, Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican office in charge of relations with other Christian denominations, made clear that one of those matters was homosexuality.

Williams, seated beside him, said the Vatican’s concern weighed very heavily on him as he looked toward an emergency meeting of the Anglican Communion’s leaders in Britain later this month. Its focus is the issue of homosexuality.

If Williams is a person of compassion, one who represents the unconditional love of Jesus, he may wish also to consider those who most personally deal with this issue: gay Anglicans.

365Gay.com reports that following the confab between the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Kirler, general secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, took to the BBC airwaves with a warning: To bring attention to the plight of queer people in the Anglican Church, LGCM members may engage in acts of “civil disobedience,” including a hunger strike.

The Archbishop is in a sticky situation, torn between gay and pro-gay voices calling for love and justice and legalistic anti-GLBT voices crying out for Bible literalism. The Telegraph feels the cleric’s pain:

Poor Dr. Rowan Williams, who at the beginning of last year was living peacefully as the Archbishop of Wales and planning this month to speak at the Lesbian and Gay Christian movement jamboree in Manchester. He can have no satisfactory response to all this. If he throws out the gay-friendly branches of the Anglican Communion, he will disgust his own supporters in this country, and lose the wealthiest churches abroad that acknowledge him. If he tells the Southern Hemisphere that the Episcopal church of America has a perfect right to elect an openly gay bishop if it wants to, he will lose a lot of his own wealthiest parishes in England to a well-organised and completely ruthless evangelical campaign that aims to leave him a powerless figurehead even within his own church, as he is outside it. If he does nothing the row will just go on for years.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury As a bishop and theologian, Rowan Williams did peace, love, and understanding pretty well. No British theologian has done more than he has to translate into biblical language the idea that the purpose of sex is the expression and strengthening of mutual love, and that this matters far more than the orifices involved, or the gender of the lovers. He can even put the argument in English, as well as in theologese. He told The Telegraph‘s Graham Turner that “there is a good case for recognition of same-sex partnerships if they are stable and faithful. I would not, however, call it marriage. If physical sex is not always tied to procreation, then same-sex relationships might be legitimate in God’s eyes”.

But that was last spring, and he was only Archbishop of Wales. This spring he was in Canterbury when his old friend Jeffrey John, a now celibate gay who shares his theological views, was put up for a minor bishopric in Reading. Dr. Williams first approved the appointment, and then forced Dr. John to stand down when the anger of the opposition became clear. The argument in his defence was that you couldn’t force on a diocese a bishop whom some parishes thought heretical. But Anglicans have believed each other heretical, very happily, for the past century at least. Women priests are still not accepted in large areas; women bishops are still forbidden under English law. Even where there are women priests, Anglicans do not agree about what a priest actually is or does. Anglo-Catholics believe that they celebrate a Mass; evangelicals don’t believe in a sacramental priesthood at all. These are matters for which people were tortured to death, on both sides, in the Reformation. Why have they now shrunk to quaint and tolerable disagreements, whereas beliefs about sexuality demand exorcism or expulsion?

The article goes on to opine that the reasons include money and the general decline of traditional Christianity in the Western world. That said, the author of the editorial, Andrew Brown, believes that Williams will drive the same knife into gay and pro-gay Anglicans’ backs that he used on his old friend Jeffrey John.

Good God, I hope not.

My take on this as a queer, former Catholic who had her eldest child baptized in an Episcopal church is best described using the words of retired Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong, who uttered these words after conservative Anglicans slammed gays at the 1998 Lambeth Conference: “I never expected to see the Anglican Communion, which prides itself on the place of reason in faith, descend to this level of irrational Pentecostal hysteria.”

Schism is not something to be taken lightly. It is agonizing, messy, and immeasurably costly. But sometimes it is necessary and for the best. In the 2000 Baltimore City Paper article “One Broken Body”, I addressed the painful reality of schism in US Protestant denominations.

The prospect that some in the Methodist and Presbyterian communities seek and leaders of those churches are working desperately to avoid–schism, disunity, breaking up–has a history as old as Christianity and is woven into the denominations now visiting these questions. Christianity itself was founded when the first followers of Jesus left Judaism behind. One of them, Peter, founded the Catholic Church. When that church became vastly wealthy and powerful, its authority was challenged in a series of uprisings that created a new pole of Christianity. The very meaning of Protestantism comes from the root of its name: protesting against the religious status quo for the right to consider different ideas, to reach different conclusions, to worship in different ways, to find authority in a completely different place.

Religious beliefs–especially when tied to a powerful church-equals-state system that governs moral precepts, land ownership, taxation, and commerce–can lead to vast, bloody wars. Europe was stained red by all the fighting in the 16th and 17th centuries: bloody insurrections to stamp out the teachings of John Calvin in the Netherlands and France; the costly defeat of Catholic Spain’s once invincible armada; the murder of inconvenient wives before England’s King Henry VIII decided to break with Rome and establish the Church of England.

Decades and decades of war led to the establishment of U.S. Protestantism’s mainline denominations during and after the Revolutionary War. Calvinism led to the Puritans; its ethic of hard work, order, democracy, and a strict adherence to Scripture now lives on within the Presbyterian Church (USA) and other, smaller Presbyterian denominations. The Episcopal Church is the American offshoot of the Anglican Church, created by Henry VIII. The autonomous Methodist Episcopal Church was constituted in 1784, at the historic Christmas Conference in Baltimore.

Infighting has remained a major and ongoing (if far less bloody) presence among U.S. denominations. People take their most deeply held beliefs seriously. And when they perceive their church to be straying from those beliefs, or when issues of the day create differences between personal conscience and denominational stance, the sense of betrayal or aloneness is strong–so strong that the only options might be to fight or split.

Slavery was such an issue for some denominations, including the Methodists. Northern Methodists opposed the practice and those in the South embraced it. In 1844, the tension led to schism, leaving two churches: the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. (The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the African Methodist Episcopal [AME] Church were set up for people of African descent prior to the mainstream Methodist split; they still exist today, using the same doctrine and system of governance as the current United Methodist Church.)

But, as the Methodists showed, schism can lead to reconciliation. In 1939, slavery had been long abolished and the two bodies, which both had assimilated into the general behaviors of American Protestantism, came together again (along with a smaller group, the Methodist Protestant Church) as the Methodist Church. As one body, however, there were still conflicts–governed by a General Conference and smaller regional conferences, one Central Conference was set up specifically for African-American Methodists who had not aligned with the all-black AME churches. That segregation ended in 1968, the same year that a union between the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church led to the formation of the United Methodist Church.

Slavery divided the Presbyterian Church into two as well; reunification did not happen until 1983. “Historic Principles, Conscience, and Church Government,” a report issued that year, says schism, though monumentally painful, is sometimes the only way to go. “It is perhaps fair to say that no knowledgeable member or officer of the church can agree with every requirement in the ‘Form of Government,’ and with every position which the church takes on every issue,” the report says. “Scripture is our highest authority and no church governing body may bind conscience contrary to Scripture. It can, however, interpret Scripture and require that those who disagree either submit or withdraw peaceably. Because of the right to withdraw, the individual conscience cannot be bound by actions of the church.”

In other words, schism can be a valuable protection for the Christian of conscience who cannot uphold his or her denomination’s laws and does not agree with the institution’s interpretation of Scripture. People of conscience can worship with those who share their beliefs and avoid those who, in their estimation, exclude and/or persecute those with whom they disagree. Methodists and Presbyterians are no strangers to schism; many in those faiths realize that sometimes the only option for everyone’s best interests is to break apart. For some, this can lead to more honest worship, a more joyous relationship with fellow church members, and even spiritual salvation.

Back in 2000, I reported that the Episcopalian and Anglican churches were showing fissures over the issue of homosexuality. It appears that schism now may be the only way for both sides of the worldwide Church of England’s debate to walk away with even a small slice of satisfaction. No, breaking up centuries-old churches is not something anyone wants. But, in my opinion, it is better to split than to consign others into the hell of a second-class church citizenship supposedly mandated by God. In my belief, no deity worthy of worship would treat her or his GLBT children so cruelly. Sadly, though, some her her/his creations may do just that. It is better to run for safe, affirming shelter before the gale-force winds of intolerance and legalism hit than to be crushed by their punishing blows.

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