Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Small steps that reverberate

Lots of folks are hearing about the Episcopal Church in the news because of the recent events at General Convention that made some small movements towards full inclusion of the LGBT faithful in the life of the church. Articles in major dailies around the country, stories on NPR, all far more noticeable than the usual blog-chatter.

Let's review. The consecration of an honest gay man as Bishop in 2003 became the rallying point for conservatives who resist the changes in the church. Indeed, conservative, anti-gay movement in the church is defined solely by their shared disgust with gays and contaminated by the ultra-partisan conservative political movement in the US. Although they point haphazardly at other issues, it's really only about this one.

Why this issue? A conservative saddened by these events, Fr Tim Chesterton, notes:
They could have chosen a couple of other issues, on both of which the Bible is every bit as clear (more so in my view), and which are every bit as relevant to the struggles of people in the modern world.......Sadly, for the vast majority of Anglicans the issue of homosexuality does not carry that personal price-tag. Most of us are straight; we aren't the ones who would be bearing the cross if the church as a whole agreed that same-sex unions are not a legitimate part of a life of following Jesus. Gays and lesbians are an easy target, because there aren't many of them (tho' more, perhaps, than some Christians would like to think).

Personally, I think it's a tragedy that we're drawing these lines in the sand at all. Historically, it's not been our way as Anglicans. On the (equally clear) biblical teachings about war and peace and about usury, we've allowed for a variety of biblical interpretation. Why is homosexuality so despicable that we don't make similar allowances?

It's the "ick" factor-- and the ultimate "us vs. them". The nasty power play of conservatives in the US is now (mostly) over; their effort to take over TEC failed, they've left the Episcopal church. Plan B is to try to replace the liberal TEC with a parallel structure, but their numbers aren't very high, and schismatics make other people nervous.

Those of us watching know that the problem is not that the American church is uniquely friendly to GLBT. The Americans don't have more gay clergy. And they certainly haven't performed more gay blessings (let's remember that full civil unions are legal in Britain). It's just that the Americans are honest about it. So it was only a matter of time before the conservatives flexed their muscle elsewhere. It's a basic schoolyard fact that if you attempt to placate bullies, instead you embolden them.

Well, the conservatives have tried it in England. The Archbishop tried to placate them with a letter in which he disparaged "gay lifestyles" and even disapproved of partnered gay clergy. And despite pleas from activists like Madpriest that they wake from their somnolence, the liberals have for the most part not stood up to the bullies, or for that matter the Archbishop. Until now. As reported in The Times
Pro-gays in the Church of England are planning a survey of all LGBT clergy, in and out of the closet, in London, Southwark and throughout the Church. In the capital, they reckon, it is as many as 20 per cent. They are also intending to survey precisely how many gay blessings have been and are being done. Again, estimates put the number in the hundreds.

After that, bearing in mind the General Synod elections next year, they will make a push for the Church of England to approve gay blessings and gay ordinations to the priesthood and episcopate, as The Episcopal Church has done.
And in a related letter, a wide group of English liberals protests (rightly) against the Abp of Canterbury's missive-- which also compared faithfully partnered gay people to straight people having an affair. Well then. Someone woke up!

The really offensive nature of the Abp's letter is particularly striking given the change in his own views. As quoted by commenter klday in the comments to a previous FoJ thread below, Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Wesleyan University says
In an essay entitled “The Body’s Grace” (1989), Williams suggests that the problem with homosexuality is sexuality itself. Unlike heterosexual relationships, which the Church can reduce to reproduction, “same-sex love annoyingly poses the question of what the meaning of desire is—in itself, not considered as instrumental to some other process.” Facing desire itself, we face our own vulnerability—to loss, to humiliation, and to joy. Williams then goes on to sketch non-reproductive desire as an image of God’s (often unreciprocated) yearning for humanity, grounding his vision in Hosea, Samuel, and even Paul. If anyone can still stomach it, then, those who undertake the “painstaking exegesis” for which the Archbishop calls would do well to start with his own.
(More resources on the theology of same sex marriagehere).

But I want to finish with a quote from our regular FoJ commenter counterlight, who in the same thread comments,
The Anglican World seems to be such a separate world sometimes that we forget that this conflict has major consequences far beyond our intramural struggles.

What would be the consequences for the struggle for gay rights? What would be the effect on gay cultural life, if a major historical branch of Christianity dropped its policy of segregation? What would the effect be on the religious conflicts within the lgbt community if this church not only accepted them but actively sought their participation in all aspects of its life including leadership?

What would be the effect on the larger society of such a change? How would the public image and the credibility of Christianity change?
Isn't that a fascinating question? Imagine! The forces of hate would lose the "ownership" of the "Christian card". Religion could become a tool for hope, rather than a weapon of destruction. This would allow all of us to move beyond this stupid obsession with the bedroom. Rather, we would simply apply the same rules of fidelity and integrity to any couple, and instead focus our efforts together on things that really matter, like poverty and peace and justice, like feeding the hungry and healing the sick--things that unite people of faith and secular progressives to improve our world.

And this possibility, so loaded with promise beyond a relatively small (if historically powerful and influential) denomination, explains why the press keeps returning to the question of The Episcopal Church to its new potential of hope, occupying a position at the forefront of justice, rather than following along behind.

If the Episcopalians, the definition of Establishment America, can do it, well can be done.


Cross posted at Street Prophets


James said...

And this possibility, so loaded with possibility beyond a relatively small (if historically powerful) denomination, explains why the press keeps returning to the question of The Episcopal Church and its new potential of hope, occupying a position at the forefront of justice, rather than following along behind.

It explains part of the reason. The rest of the reason, as most likely the larger portion, is that the news media knows sex sells. Talk about homosexuality in positive or negative terms and both straights and gays will listen/read. I don't think the media are as interested or concerned with the rights of the GLBT community as they let on - it's all about selling their product. OC, ICBW

Mary Clara said...

Preach it, sister!

IT said...

I don't think so, James. it's too incremental and not really very sexy at all.

Tim Chesterton said...

IT, thanks for you link to my post; I'm grateful that it seems to be resonating with a few folks out there in the blogosphere.

I must just make one point, though. I'd caution you about the 'ick' factor line. I can't speak for others here, but I'll speak for myself on it. I've tried to search my heart whenever I've heard this claim, and asked myself, 'Is it true for me?' I may be deceiving myself, but I honestly don't think it is. My reservations have to do with biblical exegesis and natural theology, not disgust. I know far too many fine gay and lesbian people, Christian and otherwise, for this to be a factor for me.

As I say, I'm only speaking for myself, but I suspect I'm not alone.

IT said...

Thanks Tim. I think my point was more the "otherness" than the "ick" per se, that is, it's easier to disregard those with whom one has nothing in common.

Tim Chesterton said...

Agreed - which is why it is very important for all of us to spend time getting to know people with whom we disagree and discovering the many things we do have in common.

David said...

Fr. Tim has gotta be one of my most favorite conservatives* in the Anglican fracas. While I don't agree with him on several topics, I believe I'd actually like him a good deal if we ever met ;)

* He's not a "real" conservative of course, since he's concerned with things near & dear to the hearts of such - like war and usury.

JCF said...

My reservations have to do with biblical exegesis and natural theology, not disgust.

Scratch the surface of "natural theology" (or "natural law"), Tim, and I believe it's about little more than "This seems right, ergo natural" whereas "That seems wrong (disgusting), ergo unnatural".

It's all highly subjective. [As is biblical exegesis, too, but that's for another post.]

There's nothing at all wrong w/ our individual subjectivities: our innate senses of rightness or wrongness about things...

...AS LONG AS we don't turn those subjectivies into the (so-called) Voice of God!

Tim Chesterton said...

t's all highly subjective. [As is biblical exegesis, too, but that's for another post.]

Agreed - on both sides.