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THE TONY CROSS COLUMN

Article No. 191

Gay Bishops and the Covenant

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Gay bishops and the Covenant.

The news is that Bishop-elect Mary Douglas Glasspool has received the required number of consents for her to be consecrated as Bishop on May 15th. This is good news for some and bad news for others. 

One the one hand it means that the American Church has not been cowed or turned away from what it thinks is right by the stand taken against it by some other of the Anglican Churches worldwide. Once Bishop-elect Glasspool is consecrated there will be two gay Bishops in the American Church and, far more importantly, it will be clear to everyone that the American Church is not going to hold back from doing what it believes the Holy Spirit is directing it to do.

It was possible that the Episcopal Church in America would follow the advice given to it to resist the temptation to make more gay bishops. They have chosen otherwise and it is clear that they will now continue down that road as they, and they alone, see fit.

On the other hand we have the churches which agree with the Anglican Church in Nigeria and others and see gay bishops as something very wrong indeed. These churches cannot agree that homosexuality is anything other than an evil thing. A perversion. An ugly contradiction of what God wants in us. 

That viewpoint is, they maintain, firmly based on a biblical basis. For this they look at Old Testament verses (such as Leviticus) and New Testament verses (Romans) and also on how they interpret the doctrine of creation: God created man and woman to be united and marriage is therefore a divine institution.  To match two men together or two women together and call it marriage is, in their opinion, a blasphemy. Partnerships are seen as a half way house on the way to the status of marriage. And that is something that God cannot accept, they aver. Homosexuality is sinful and, indeed, is an abomination to God.

The crux of the problem that is splitting the worldwide Anglican Communion (comprising thirty eight churches) is that the anti-gay Churches believe that the New Testament directs them to have nothing to do with people who contradict God’s Word. If homosexuality is accepted as normal therefore, this will require them to disassociate themselves from those members of the Anglican Communion that hold to such beliefs. They wish to separate themselves from such churches.

In fact their Archbishops even refused to take Holy Communion with the other Archbishops in the thirty eight churches. They refused to attend a Holy Communion conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In effect they have withdrawn from fellowship with pro-gay churches.

The churches that object to homosexuality could not be reconciled to other churches that accept homosexuality. There has been virtually no ground for compromise. They just refuse to have anything to do with churches which, in their opinion, are compromised on this subject.

It was - and is - therefore extremely hard for the Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC) - who is, by historical fact, the ‘primus inter pares’ - first among equals - in Anglican matters, to move forward in any matter of reconciliation or compromise.

So what was to be done?  The ABC formed and requested that the Windsor Group formulate a way forward to deal with the problem of present and future dissent among member churches. The Windsor Group came up with the business answer: a covenant by which all of the thirty eight churches who joined would give up their existing autonomy and agree to be bound by a majority vote. The ‘majority vote’ would be preceded by a convoluted system of consultation and discussion - but the end result is the same: if any one of the thirty eight churches was deemed by the others to be out of step in a way that the majority thought important, then that church would have to leave the central group and  be relegated to the ‘also ran’ group.  As such they would be excluded from any decision making of the majority group.

Isolation of  pro-gay churches is essential for the anti-gay churches because they consider that they must break off all contact and fellowship with them. Their religion requires them to have nothing to do with them.   

The Covenant is, basically, a mechanism that enables some churches in the Anglican Communion to preserve what they consider to be the purity of their faith by excluding other churches in the Anglican Communion that do not meet their criteria. The present proposed covenant, as revised, in effect relegates fellow Christians (i.e. pro gay churches) to where their influence in the larger group will be nil.

The Covenant shows, in my opinion, an unchristian attitude of exclusion. It is being created and adopted in order to provide for churches that have a particular biblical interpretation concerning homosexuality. Although it is asserted (correctly) that having a covenant is a biblical concept, the Covenant is really just an exclusionary tactic. The acid test is this: if the final arrangement does not exclude the American Church then some African, together with some other Churches, will refuse to join in. It is a ‘them or us’ situation. You can have the Americans or the African (together with some other Churches), but you cannot have both. 

Many think it would be better for the Anglican Communion to continue down the path it has taken since it’s inception - what might be described  as a Christian federation of churches centred on the Archbishop of Canterbury.  A group of churches, bound together by all sorts of ties - historical, traditional, liturgical, missionary etc - but not presuming to condemn each other about their individual practice or understanding of the gospel.

It is of course right that there should be much closer ties between the various Churches in the Communion than there have been. Closer discussions and sharing should reduce divergence and help more traditional churches to update themselves as to what is required in the modern world. At the same time that would  introduce, perhaps, more reflection in those churches that wanted to explore new paths. While there should be much more group discussion and joint decision making, it is necessary for any convoy to have someone at the head who gives the agreed directions as and when appropriate. Ships cannot sail in a convoy unless they acknowledge a Commodore who gives the overall direction.  It also helps if the various ships refrain from training their guns on each other! 

 In such an arrangement the direction taken by the Anglican Communion would be determined more by consultation. No one church or even a group of churches should dominate the policy of the whole group which is what will happen if the Covenant as presently formulated is adopted. We shall have to wait to see whether some Churches amend or refuse to adopt a Covenant that takes away their autonomy. 

When all is said and done, the present dispute reveals the sort of rift that cannot be easily healed. It may take decades before the churches are able to agree and, perhaps, come together again in full fellowship. The present proposed covenant is an attempt to remove the obstacle to agreement for one section (the anti-gay churches) at the expense of losing another section (the American Church) altogether. That cannot be right. 

So now we have are to have a second gay Bishop in the Anglican Communion. We should salute the Episcopal Church in America. It is now down to them to demonstrate several things. Firstly they have to show that they have given due thought and prayer and consideration about this matter which is considered such a heinous act by some of the other churches in the Anglican Communion.  Secondly they have to show that a gay Bishop can indeed - as Bishop Robinson has already demonstrated - be a force for the advancement of the Kingdom. Thirdly they have to demonstrate that a lady Bishop is a good thing - able to do the job and to exemplify the life of Christ. And fourthly I guess they have to stand ready to make peace overtures to any of the more evangelical brethren who have taken such exception to what they are doing. Perhaps the greatest thing they have to do is maintain their love for all even in the face of accusation and blame.

Hopefully, the time will come when there will be new opportunities for reconciliation. I guess it may arise when evangelicals come around to seeing that gay people are normal people, that they can be filled by the Spirit just like any other Christian, and that they  are used of God in the building of the Kingdom as are other Christians. That may help them to rethink their attitude to the biblical texts they now rely on and - even more importantly - to have an attitude of loving acceptance towards Christian brothers and sisters who happen to be gay. 

I wish Bishop-elect Mary Douglas Glasspool every blessing as she takes up the onerous task ahead. And I continue to pray for our ABC whose bed of thorns has just got a bit more thorny.

Tony Cross
March 2010 





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