THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 137
To the Episcopal Church of America: Stand firm!
[For archived material please go to tonycrosscolumn.org.uk]
Over the past few years the pressure on the American Church has steadily grown. It is reaching a crisis point as the disagreement between various factions of the Anglican Communion reaches its climax. All eyes are now on whether there will be any American retreat by the deadline date set - September - or subsequently.
There are many thousands of gay people in this country - and elsewhere -who are trusting that the American Church will not give way under this intense pressure. If that church were to backtrack on its firm stand on the acceptability of gay people and gay clergy in the Christian Church then it would play havoc with the whole idea that being gay is acceptable to God. That would have untold repercussions throughout this country and the world and would be a betrayal of all that the American church has maintained hitherto. It is unthinkable that the American Church could backtrack in this way. But what if it did?
The fallout from a capitulation by the American Church would affect all gay people everywhere. It would mean that the conservative elements in the churches would be greatly encouraged in their opposition to homosexuality. It would mean that those who were holding the ring in the middle of the conflict in the Anglican Communion would lose any justification for accepting both sides of the argument as having a certain validity. It would open the door for conservative Christians everywhere to lay the dead hand of a fundamentalist and conservative orthodoxy on the rest of the church. I believe it would mean that the Anglican Communion would enter a dark tunnel - to possibly emerge only decades later.
It would mean that the future direction of the Anglican Communion would be in the hands of the ‘majority’ - the Global South. Massive membership numbers in those churches would give them power to direct the future of the Communion. And we all know that sooner or later that would mean the end of the toleration of homosexuality in any shape or form.
In an article in the Times today Matthew Paris - a well known gay man - has decided that henceforth he is going to refuse to talk about the gay situation in this country - he thinks the battles are over. He see homosexuality as being acceptable to most people and thinks that it will grow more socially acceptable with the years. He doesn’t want to treat gay matters as special anymore. Being gay is just another ordinary situation. Well, he may be right. Certainly it has been widely accepted socially, although there is still some way to go there.
However when one considers the situation in the churches one has to accept that there is rooted objection by many - especially by fundamentalist and evangelical Christians who tend to believe in a literal approach to an infallible bible. Matthew Paris accepts that there are religions opposed to homosexuality, but I think he under evaluates their opposition. He seems to think it is of little importance.
I believe that that is a grave mistake. There have been times in the history of this country when a free and easy society has reverted, after a few decades, to a repressive and moralistic one. I think it could happen again, even in today’s ‘anything goes’ attitude. We should never underestimate the reactionary forces that operate in society.
In other words - we have not yet arrived at a fully accepting and tolerant society and I think it is premature to start relaxing about the situation for gay people in our society. A move backwards by the American Episcopal Church would empower those who are opposed to homosexuality in our own society.
The American Church has gone ahead down the road that they believe that the Holy Spirit has shown them. They would have been disobeying the heavenly vision if they had held back - waiting until the rest of the world caught up with their vision. Now the conservative elements in the Anglican Communion are objecting because their own approach to the bible forbids them to accept homosexuality.
The American Church took many years to get to this position. It was not something done in a hurry. It was not done lightly. It was done with full consultation with all parts of the church. Naturally there were some in the church who did not want to go down this route. There are always some people like that! But full consultations were made and the proposal progressed though the various stages until it was finally agreed for the whole church. A gay man was appointed as a bishop. There were great celebrations. It is unthinkable that the church would now go back on this process.
What if some intermediate action were adopted? Some freeze on certain actions or approaches? Would that satisfy the fundamentalist and evangelical churches in the Global South? What would the effect of such a move be - on the Global South, on the American Church and on the rest of the Anglican Communion? Would it not give the message that the American Church was ready to backtrack if enough pressure was put on it? It would certainly show that the American Church cared about the rest of the Anglican Communion - but would it show more than that? I think it would.
I think that any accommodation of the Global South by the American Church at this juncture would give the message that there is uncertainty in their ranks and that they don’t want to finally say that they are sure that what they are doing is right.
It is obvious that if we all talk until we are blue in the face the Southern Cone churches are never going to agree to the acceptance of homosexuality. For them it is anathema. Any giving of ground now will be taken advantage of by the Southern Cone Churches. The American Church is never going to receive permission from the other churches to go ahead with what they believe is right and their duty.
If the American Church were to accept some half way house arrangement at the behest of the African and other churches, what would be the effect in Britain?
In this country there is a strong fundamentalist and evangelical group that holds considerable power in the councils of the church. The bishops are divided in their allegiances. There is a strong body of evangelical bishops, some in the middle and some who completely back the gay Christians who are fighting for acceptance in the church.
There is a recent report that the Bishop of Winchester has talked of the difficulty that some Bishops would have if the American Church does not retreat from its present position. Apparently he has said that a number (reports vary as to whether it is six to ten or six in ten, i.e. sixty per cent) of bishops from England may stay away from the Lambeth Conference next year. Whatever the accuracy of such comments it does show that there are grave fissures of discontent within the bishops in the Church of England.
The dynamics of the situation in England are influenced by the fact that it is the well attended evangelical churches that contribute heavily to the finances of the church. If the evangelical churches withdrew their funding ( as some have threatened to do) then the Anglican Church would have a severe financial problem. Should that be a deciding factor? The answer must be that it should not influence the decision one way or the other. But it is a factor to remember.
One solution might be for a separate Province of the Church of England to be created - in similar style to that requested by those against women clergy/bishops - so that there could be an element of separation between the two factions. Whether that will ever happen remains to be seen.
Certain it is that this issue of homosexuality - leading to a reappraisal of how we view and use the bible - is not just a very serious issue for us but is the pivotal issue on which the whole future of the Church of England, and indeed the Anglican Communion, rests.
The two issues that stand out stark and clear are the acceptability of homosexuality and the way we regard the bible. These issues have thrown up a fundamental difference of approach between those who would hark back to time honoured doctrine, dogma and attitudes and those who prefer to look forward to utilise all the knowledge and scholarship we can find with which to face the world around.
The major fact that has slowly sunk into everyone’s mind is that there is a vast cultural gulf fixed between some Christians - for example, the African Christians - and the mainstream Christians in the West. There is also a large contingent of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians in the West - but here we also have a large contingent of what are misleadingly called ‘liberal’ Christians. That term is misleading because it lumps together Christians who hold very different views theologically speaking, but all of whom accept the new knowledge that the advances of the last few centuries have brought.
There is therefore this tension between clinging to the old and trying to accept the new without losing anything that is vital to our faith. It is this tension that we are all so bad at managing. Instead of caring for each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, we pull apart and argue and separate from one another. We even refuse to share the Holy Communion with each other because we are silently, in our hearts, accusing the other side of heresy. That or of refusing to move with the times and accept new insights and truth.
So I say to the American Episcopal Church - Stand firm! Don’t give one inch in your beliefs and convictions. You have been led by the Spirit to where you now are - stand your ground and refuse to give in to those who would have you backtrack and abandon the truth you have seen so clearly. There are many, many thousands of gay Christians across the world who are counting on you. Your courageous lead has given them hope that Christians can adjust and adapt to new truth. If you now go back on your commitment to gay people then the future of the Christian Church will be compromised to that extent for decades to come.
And to Gay Christians in every other country I would add this: the American and Canadian Churches need our support. Encourage them in every way possible. Find an email address of a senior person in the Episcopal Church in America and tell them how much their witness has meant to you. Tell them how your battle for acceptance has been helped by their witness. Tell them that you pray for them. And then make sure you do pray for them - and us!