This essay is a revised version of a paper read at the “Anglican Life and Witness” conference in Dallas, Texas, on September 23, 1997. It also appears in Transformation (Winter issue, 1998) and was the lead essay in Stephen F. Noll, The Handwriting on the Wall: A Plea to the Anglican Communion (Latimer Press, 1998), which was circulated at the Lambeth Conference in 1998.
My dear Archbishops and Bishops and other colleagues:
I am conscious of, and deeply grateful for, the privilege of speaking to you today, because I believe this week may prove a crisis point that will affect the future of the Anglican Communion as a unified worldwide movement. God is, I believe, issuing a challenge to the leaders of Anglicanism that they must respond to or risk his judgment as the Lord of history and the Church (Revelation 2:18-29).
I realize this opening statement may seem very Eurocentric and “parochial,” as though the health of the small American Church were the sine qua non of the health of the worldwide Church. The fact is, problems in the Episcopal Church tend to become symptomatic. As one African bishop put it: when America sneezes, the whole world catches a cold. In the case of the sexuality virus, it has already spread to most Western churches of the Communion, and Southern hemisphere churches will be exposed more and more because of the financial, educational, and media influence of the West.
The Decade of Sexuality in the Episcopal Church
We Anglicans like to think in decades, it seems, as symbolized by the intervals between Lambeth Conferences which have met every ten years since 1888. It shall be my argument that this past decade in the Episcopal Church USA has posed so great a challenge to the Communion that it is genuinely possible that by the year 2008 the Anglican Communion will be a name without substance. Absurd? Reflect on what it once meant to be a member of the British Commonwealth before Britain pledged its troth to the European Community and how little it means now when one is subjected to visa checks just passing through a London airport!
In 1988, the issue of homosexuality seemed but a little cloud on the horizon of Anglicanism. Prior to the 20th century, the Anglican judgment against sexual license of any sort had been so unequivocal that when in 1920 the Lambeth Conference addressed the new world of Sigmund Freud, it did so with seeming assurance:
Recognizing that to live a pure and chaste life before and after marriage is, for both sexes, the unchangeable Christian standard, attainable and attained through the help of the Holy Spirit by men and women of every age, the Conference desires to proclaim the universal obligation of this standard, and its vital importance as an essential condition of human happiness. (Resolution 66)
As recently as 1987, this “unchangeable standard” was reaffirmed with only slight nuancing by the bishops of the Church of England, who stated:
- that sexual intercourse is an act of total commitment which belongs properly within a permanent marriage relationship;
- that fornication and adultery are sins against this ideal, and are to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion;
- that homosexual acts also fall short of this ideal, and are likewise to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion;
- that all Christians are called to be exemplary in all spheres of morality, including sexual morality, and that holiness of life is especially required for Christian leaders.
At its 1988 Convention, the Episcopal Church USA joined in this consensus by reaffirming once again “the Biblical and traditional teaching on chastity and fidelity.” Twenty-nine bishops, however, dissented from this Resolution, and the next year Bishop John Spong of Newark ordained Robert Williams, an avowed, non-celibate, homosexual man to the priesthood.[i]
The decade since has been a time of unraveling in the Episcopal Church.[ii] When the Episcopal House of Bishops disassociated itself from Bishop Spong’s act in 1990, he encouraged his assistant bishop Walter Righter to ordain Barry Stopfel, another practicing homosexual, within two weeks of the bishops’ meeting.[iii] It was this act that became the focal point of the so-called Righter Trial in 1996. Responding to what we in America call the “in your face” acts of Bishops Spong and Righter, Bishop William Frey proposed a canon at the 1991 General Convention stating that “all clergy of this Church shall abstain from genital relationships outside of holy matrimony.” A majority of bishops voted against this attempt to uphold the Church’s teaching through a binding canon, signaling the unwillingness of Church leaders to stop the sexual radicals’ overt tactic of occupying territory and then calling for negotiations.
This political stalemate has resulted in a paradox that many outside the Church find confusing. The Episcopal Church has simultaneously paid lip service to classic Christian sexual moral norms while allowing rampant violation of those very norms. In 1996, ten bishops attempted to rein in this hypocrisy by presenting Bishop Righter for trial under the disciplinary canon for “holding and teaching publicly or privately, and advisedly any doctrine contrary to that held by this Church.” They lost the case and were stigmatized as “ten men with an agenda,” who were fomenting division in the Church.
The Righter verdict permitted homosexual activists to advance their agenda to a new level: the advocacy of same-sex marriage.[iv] The victory of the early 1990’s had been the condoning of gay ordination, but it followed logically that if Barry Stopfel and others were now “wholesome examples” for the flock of Christ, as the ordination rite declared them to be, the Church should provide some formal recognition of their partnerships. Thus although the 1994 General Convention forbade the publication of any same-sex marriage rites, radical priests and bishops have been performing informal ceremonies with increasing boldness. Bishop Douglas Theuner of New Hampshire, for instance, wrote the clergy of his diocese that he would support their officiating at such acts and had done so himself. The homosexual lobby claims that similar rites are being used in a substantial number of dioceses of the Episcopal Church.
This brings us to the General Convention of 1997, which many people saw as decisive for gauging the future direction of the Episcopal Church. The news from the General Convention is ominous but not yet disastrous. On the positive side, with careful planning and much hard work, supporters of the American Anglican Council prevented the Convention from passing any formal and explicit endorsement of the homosexual agenda.[v] It is therefore technically correct to say that the Episcopal Church still affirms the biblical and traditional norms of sexuality and marriage.
But this affirmation on paper does not extend to practice, where “local option” is the accepted order of the day.[vi] Openly practicing homosexual laypersons and clergy spoke without reproach at the Convention. A number of bishops made clear that they now permit blessing of same-sex unions in their diocese. As the House of Bishops proposed further study of whether such rites were possible, Bishop Joe Morris Doss of New Jersey was asked whether this further discussion meant that there would be a moratorium on ordaining homosexuals and performing same-sex “blessings.” “No, it does not,” was his blunt answer. As I shall argue later, this refusal to wait follows necessarily from the revisionists’ claim that homosexuality is a “justice” issue.
The “Kuala Lumpur Statement on Human Sexuality” was brought to the floor of the House of Bishops for endorsement. By a 2 to 1 vote, the bishops declined to affirm it, “deep-sixing” it by sending it to a committee for further study. The votes at General Convention reveal that the Episcopal bishops are divided 50/50 between those who support the gay agenda and those who do not. It is equally clear that those who support it absolutely refuse to conform to traditional standards and their fellow bishops do not have the power or the will to stop them.
The two main decisions of the July Convention with regard to sexuality were the revision of the canons to remove from power all who oppose the ordination of women and the election of a new Presiding Bishop. The canon revision was significant in that it makes clear that the basis for the new sexual ethic is not diversity, or tolerance during a process of dialogue, but justice, as defined by contemporary North American liberationism.[vii]
Let me explain the moral logic of their position. Revisionists read the Bible and the baptismal vow “to strive for justice and peace among all people” (American Book of Common Prayer, page 305) in such a way as to make acceptance of their position morally binding on all. I need to emphasize that they already employ this same logic against those who maintain the exclusive biblical standard of “two sexes, one flesh.”[viii] I can confidently predict that if the present trend continues, opponents of homosexual practice will find themselves in the same situation tomorrow as opponents of women’s ordination today. The exclusion of traditionalists follows necessarily from the liberationist conviction that homosexuality is a non-negotiable human rights issue and that opponents of sexual liberation, whether they know it or not, are bigots (i.e., “homophobes” and “heterosexists”).
The election of Frank Griswold as the new Presiding Bishop was a major source of discouragement to many Episcopalians. During the past 12 years, traditional Episcopalians have come to expect that the national Episcopal Church will always support and even promote the program of the homosexual lobby. For instance, the General Convention committee appointed by national church leaders to consider authorizing same-sex “blessing” liturgies voted in favor of such rites 37 to 7 (deputies) and 7 to 0 (bishops); but when the House of Deputies received this committee recommendation, it voted against such authorization. Now that is what I call stacking the deck.
In 1984, when the current Presiding Bishop was elected, his support of the gay-rights agenda was not perceived as a crucial issue.[ix] That was not the case this time. Everyone knew in 1997 where the two principal candidates stood on this issue. Bishop Griswold has consistently voted with the sexual revisionists in Church councils and has admitted to ordaining avowed non-celibate homosexuals.[x] In 1994, he signed Bishop Spong’s “Koinonia Statement,” along with 80 other bishops, declaring that he would ordain homosexual persons living in committed partnerships.
You must therefore understand that when biblically-minded Episcopalians talk about withholding money from the national headquarters, it is based on the assumption that the national leadership will continue to promote practices fundamentally contrary to the Gospel. We are open to creative proposals from the new Presiding Bishop, but in the absence of such proposals, we will assume that it is “business as usual” in New York.
Three Reasons Why the Current Sexual Agenda of the Episcopal Church is a Church Dividing Issue
In a recent lecture entitled “A Challenge to Episcopalians,” John Stott gave sage advice as to how we should live in the present crisis. He called evangelicals to “stay in while refusing to give in.”[xi] Bishop FitzSimons Allison has put this advice aphoristically as Stay. Don’t Obey. Don’t Pay. Pray. John Stott went on to say that “we must choose the really vital issues on which to protest and fight.”
There are three compelling reasons why the sexuality issue in our Church is decidedly one of those issues over which we must fight.
Rejecting Biblical Authority
The first reason we must fight for traditional sexual norms is that they are clearly taught in Scripture, and the Church that turns away from God’s Word in the Bible undermines the basis of its own authority.
The Lambeth Quadrilateral speaks of the Holy Scripture “as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.” In affirming this, the Quadrilateral expresses the classic Anglican commitment to the primary authority of Scripture in matters of faith and morals (see the Thirty-Nine Articles, especially articles VI and XX). Everything the Church teaches and practices must conform to the revealed Word of God in the Bible. To be sure, some matters are clearer than others in Scripture, and the question of how to harmonize one passage with another can be very complex.
In the case of sexuality, however, the Bible in both Old and New Testaments holds up lifelong, monogamous union of a man and a woman as God’s exclusive norm; it offers no positive examples of non-marital sex; and it specifically condemns fornication and homosexuality as sin. The Kuala Lumpur Statement on Human Sexuality is thus correct in saying:
- The whole body of the Scripture bears witness to God’s will regarding human sexuality which is to be expressed only within the lifelong union of a man and a woman in (holy) matrimony.
- The Holy Scriptures are clear in teaching that all sexual promiscuity is sin. We are convinced that this includes homosexual practices, between men or women, between men and women outside marriage as well as heterosexual relationships.
- We believe that the clear and unambiguous teaching of the Holy Scriptures about human sexuality is of great help to Christians as it provides clear boundaries.
The approval of homosexual practice and same-sex marriage poses one of the clearest challenges to the authority of Scripture in the life of the Church. Only the most strained reasoning can lead one to conclude that the biblical authors would permit, much less endorse, these practices.[xii] If the bishops and other leaders of the Church cannot say No to this clear contradiction of biblical norms, it is hard to believe they will ever be able to use the Bible credibly in moral decision-making.[xiii]
I have been involved for five years in the debate over the use of Scripture in the Episcopal Church.[xiv] During these years, I have encountered appalling apathy, even antipathy, to the idea that one must search the Scriptures and, when all is said and done, obey the Word of God written.[xv] In the Righter trial, the judges, with one exception, simply passed over the body of evidence collected by the presenter bishops that Bishop Righter had knowingly disobeyed his ordination vows to obey the Bible.[xvi]
In a debate several years ago, I asked a well-known lesbian advocate: “Suppose, for the sake of argument, that it could be shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Bible does specifically forbid contemporary homosexual practices. Would it make any difference to you?” “Well, yes,” she replied, “but I would not give up my relationship with my partner because of it.” It is crucial to understand this fact: revisionists enter into “dialogue” with a prior commitment to do what they are going to do regardless of what Scripture says.
Dishonoring Christian Marriage
The second reason why the homosexual agenda is a matter that we must stand against is that it leads to a redefinition of marriage that is in fact a denial of our Lord’s own high doctrine. In his teaching on divorce and his presence at the wedding of Cana, Jesus marked faithful, lifelong monogamous marriage as a sign of his new covenant relationship to the Church. The “mystery of Christ and the Church” to which St. Paul alludes (Ephesians 5:32) is in fact founded on Jesus’ own understanding of his role of bridegroom and savior of his people. Alternatively, Jesus set celibacy, being a “eunuch for the kingdom of God,” as a sign of exclusive love for him. Like Jesus, Paul also calls some Christians to remain unmarried for the sake of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 7:32-35).[xvii]
In their recent “St. Andrew’s Day” statement, several of England’s leading theologians affirm this understanding of the apostolic faith, stating that the Church
assists all its members to a life of faithful witness in chastity and holiness, recognising two forms or vocations in which that life can be lived: marriage and singleness (Gen. 2.24; Matt. 19. 4-6; 1 Cor. 7 passim). There is no place for the church to confer legitimacy upon alternatives to these.[xviii]
Thus Church leaders have no authority to devise a third sexual configuration for same-sex couples.[xix] The impossibility of this novelty is suggested by the moral innovators’ unclarity about whether to model homosexual relations on marriage or over against marriage. Some gay-rights advocates take a “both/and” approach, affirming the sanctity of marriage and the blessing of alternative sexual unions. Others call for a “new paradigm” for all sexual relationships, homosexual and heterosexual.[xx]
The truth is, any new paradigm is utterly at odds with the holy estate of matrimony. Fundamental moral principles and institutions simply do not allow for compromise or third options. The Prayer Book wedding service alludes to a Scripture passage that says: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for God will judge the immoral [literally ‘fornicators’] and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4). The moral logic of this passage is clear: marriage is honored when it is set apart from other illegitimate forms of sexual activity. Therefore talk of blessing the cohabitation of same-sex or opposite-sex partners dishonors marriage.[xxi]
Advocates of a new paradigm for marriage have decried sexual exploitation and abuse but have been vague as to what kinds of relationships are acceptable. I have asked them several pointed questions to clarify their position:
- Will they uphold homosexual unions as lifelong?
- Will they uphold premarital chastity as a rule for all Christians?
- Will they condemn sexual relations other than those sanctioned by the Church?
- Will they insist that all persons remain in that state to which they have committed themselves?[xxii]
No reply. In other words, the Episcopal Church is presently condoning and promoting practices that are in continual flux. As in the case of so many other utopian visions of this waning century, we are being told: “Trust us. We’ll tell you where we’re going once we’ve got there.”
When the Church gives up the norm of exclusive, lifelong marriage of a man and a woman, it undermines the institution in society as well. Many of us in the West know deep down that the abandonment of marital fidelity over the past thirty years as a public expectation is greatly responsible for the confusion and personal pain of so many in our society. We are aware that “no-fault divorce” laws have not only mirrored the breakdown of the family but have contributed to it.[xxiii] We in the Episcopal Church know that the revision of the divorce and remarriage canons in 1973 has led to rampant divorce among clergy and demoralization of the congregations under their care. We know this, but we shrug our shoulders fatalistically, saying: “What can we do? My mother, my best friend, even my priest and bishop, are on their second or third marriage.”[xxiv]
I believe that the Church must regain the lead in this social crisis that is so close to the heart of our Lord’s own teaching and at the root of so much personal pain and loss. We must repent of our past neglect by restoring and revitalizing the doctrine and discipline of marriage.[xxv] Reforming our practices in the midst of the permissive culture of the West will be no easy task. It is made even more difficult when the national Episcopal Church is intent on undermining the effort. It would be most helpful if the Anglican Communion would provide a counterpoise by offering positive teaching from the biblical and traditional viewpoint.
Embracing a False Spirituality
The third reason that the gay-rights movement in the Episcopal Church presents Anglicanism with a historic test is that it is not just about sexuality but about spirituality. It has been just over 30 years since my conversion to Christ and baptism in the Episcopal Church. During that time, I have been reading continually and widely in works of theology from all sides. What I can tell you with full conviction is that the issue presented to us in the sexuality debate is not just about sex but about the meaning and truth of the Christian faith altogether.[xxvi]
True, there are some folks who hold otherwise orthodox opinions yet differ on matters of sexuality, but most people who stand there are in transition either toward a more traditional or a more revisionist position.[xxvii] If you get in bed with a new periphery one evening, chances are you will wake up next morning in the embrace of a new center. (Or, frightened by the strange bedfellow, you may rush back to your first love.)
The words “sexuality” and “sexual identity” and the so-called “ethic of intimacy” that defines personal identity in terms of sexual satisfaction are part of the revolution in the thinking of late modernity.[xxviii] This revolution begins with the conviction that the Sea of Faith has withdrawn, leaving the world and the human soul empty and infinitely plastic. In the grip of this void, men and women grasp for something that looks like their former spirituality. Falling in love – “Ah, love, let us be true to one another” – and falling into bed are the common substitutes for love of God and love of neighbor.
Sexuality is a surrogate religion. What late modernity takes away with one hand – the divine covenant and purposes of marriage – it offers back with the idea of sex as a sacrament.[xxix] Anthony Giddens, a secularist and a sociologist, puts it this way:
Sexuality, it could be suggested, gains its compelling quality, together with its aura of excitement and danger, from the fact that it puts us in contact with these lost fields of experience. Its ecstasy, or the promise of it, has echoes of the “ethical passion” which transcendental symbolism used to inspire – and of course cultivated eroticism, as distinct from sexuality in the service of reproduction, has long been associated with religiosity.[xxx]
It is understandable that those without God will seek to replace him and his institutions with a surrogate. What is deeply troubling is when the same ideas are taught by Christian bishops and theologians. The clearest articulations of the worldview chasm between classic and late-modernist Christianity can be found in the advocates of North American liberation theology, people like Bishop John Spong and Professor Carter Heyward who claim that one’s essence is “to explore the character of the erotic as sacred power” and “to live, to love, to be.”[xxxi]
I must tell you frankly, Bishop Spong and Professor Heyward are not “fringe” figures in the Episcopal Church. This past July at the “Integrity Mass” sponsored by the gay lobby and attended by the Presiding Bishop and many other church officials at the General Convention, the preacher uttered the following profundity:
Our special task, our specific charism, is to help ourselves and the church reclaim the erotic as a central part of our lives … We know in the deepest places of our knowing that the pathways to our spiritual selves are through our erotic selves. We must chart those paths and make those maps available to the larger church. We must begin with awkward strokes to touch the strength of our erotic power.
Whatever this means, it is not Christianity, but it was greeted by many with equanimity and even congratulation. Twenty years ago, who would have imagined the Episcopal Church would be voting on homosexual marriage? Watch out! Unless someone calls paganism by its name, you may be singing “Eros divine, all loves excelling!” at Lambeth 2008.
Venus is a soft goddess, but she has a demonic alter ego, which emerges in the “exotic” excesses of modern sexuality. Camille Paglia, in her flamboyant yet insightful way, argues that the Marquis de Sade is the true prophet of late modern thinking about sexuality.
Humanity has no special status in the universe. Sade asks: “What is man? and what difference is there between him and other plants, between him and all other animals of the world? None obviously.” This is a classically Dionysian view of man’s immersion in organic nature. Judeo-Christianity elevates man above nature, but Sade, like Darwin, assigns him to the animal kingdom, subject to natural force… Since man has no privileges in Sade’s universe, human acts are “neither good nor bad intrinsically.” From nature’s point of view, marital sex is no different from rape.[xxxii]
It is worth noting that several revisionist Episcopalian theologians have left open a place in their moral evaluation of sexuality for such exotic practices as sadomasochism and pornography. [xxxiii]
Official proponents of the gay agenda in the Episcopal Church have rightly denounced pedophilia as exploitative. But they also insist that sexual identity, and homosexual “orientation” in particular, is inborn. (Actually, only some of them think this. Others believe sexuality is “socially constructed” and can be chosen.) In any case, it follows that the Church should help young people, even children, identify their particular sexuality, with all options open. Once again, the moral logic of the innovators is impeccable, but their moral conclusions are intolerable. The explosion point for many traditional Episcopalians has come when they have faced the reality that they have to protect their own children from their own Church![xxxiv]
The culture of sexual liberation is a new name for an old religion: libertinism. Unlike ancient libertinism, the modern version, “liberationism,” is a highly politicized movement.[xxxv] One may marvel at the adeptness by which the “Integrity” lobby in the Episcopal Church achieved most of its goals in a mere 20 years. But this is not accidental. Liberationism is based on the assumption that all of life is a quest for power and that all articulations of truth clothe a hidden desire by one group to dominate another. Words are, in their view, as malleable as sex. Thus they use slippery rhetoric about “same-sex blessings” and “committed relationships” when they mean “marriage,” and they intimidate traditional Christians by calling them “homophobic” or “heterosexist.” It is for this reason that we who have observed close-up the operation of this ideology warn you who have not: it is foolish to play by the normal rules of deliberation and persuasion when your opponents are playing by a different set of rules.
God has given us several little testimonies in the New Testament about the dangers we now face: I refer to the letters of Jude and John. These books make clear that moral behavior is part and parcel of the Gospel.[xxxvi] Jude plainly identifies his opponents, who obviously claimed a high spirituality, as “godless men, who change the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ into a license for immorality” (verse 3). This verse reminds one of Dostoevsky’s observation in The Brothers Karamazov that “if God does not exist, everything is permissible.” Libertinism is thus a sign of practical atheism. Jude’s strategy for dealing with such folk is militant: “contend for the faith once delivered to the saints” by denouncing false teachers, even as you build yourselves up in the holy faith. Similarly, John urges the church to test the spirits, knowing that some spiritualities are in fact the spirit of antichrist (1 John 4:1). While we must be careful not to demonize our opponents as persons, the New Testament does encourage us to see ourselves in the midst of a world of contending spirits, some of whom have clothed themselves as an angel of light.[xxxvii]
“Come Over and Help Us”
If my analysis of the crisis facing the Episcopal Church is anywhere near accurate, it is crucial for the rest of the Anglican Communion to take notice and “come over and help us.” It has frequently been said in recent years that Third World Anglicans are in a much stronger place spiritually than Westerners and that re-evangelization of the original colonizing nations is called for.[xxxviii]
What I am asking for is a special form of this: help us defend the Gospel of Jesus Christ from an attack by a foreign, essentially pagan worldview. Many Third World Christians know from their own recent history the striking difference between worship of nature gods and the one true God. We in the West have forgotten the nature and power of paganism, and so we find it harder to believe that it is cropping up in our midst, especially when it is packaged in terms of liberation of victimized groups and new light breaking forth from God’s word.
In particular, I believe the Lambeth Conference in 1998 offers a decisive opportunity for the wider body of Anglicans to speak clearly on the question of Christian sexual norms. The Kuala Lumpur Statement on Human Sexuality has already been widely circulated and gratefully received by biblically-minded Episcopalians, even though our House of Bishops chose to sidestep it. I would hope that the Lambeth Conference would declare that the Kuala Lumpur statement represents the historic teaching and the exclusive moral norm of the Church. I highlight the word exclusive because many revisionist leaders use the word “norm” statistically. Yes, of course, they say, marriage is the norm for the heterosexual majority, but there can be another discontinuous norm for the homosexual minority. That is not what the word norm means morally, where it serves as both an ideal and a boundary marker of true faith and order, of following Jesus or turning away from him.
If the Lambeth Conference joins the Third World Anglicans in affirming the Kuala Lumpur Statement, it will give many of us Episcopalians great encouragement. It will help us rebuff the frequent accusations that we are not true Anglicans but fundamentalists and literalists in Anglican garb and that we are the “troublers of Israel” (1 Kings 19:7-18).[xxxix] Let me refer you to this encounter between Elijah and King Ahab in the Old Testament. Who is the true prophet and who the true troubler? God knows. Lambeth can assist by defining the essentials and the limits of what is truly Anglican.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has called for a larger dialogue on sexuality. Frankly, I am of two minds about such a proposal. On the one hand, I think the biblical and historic norms, as summarized in the Kuala Lumpur statement, are sufficiently clear and relevant, and the Communion might best “just say No” to the agenda being brought to it from the West and get on with the mission of spreading the Gospel. On the other hand, I have no objection in principle to the leaders of the Church reviewing Christian doctrine within the classic formularies and its application to contemporary experience.
But our experience of dialogue in the Episcopal Church should serve as a warning. When the questions are posed and the committees chosen by revisionists in the bureaucracy, the dialogue is skewed and artificial from the beginning.[xl] I would urge that any dialogue include a genuinely fair representation of the entire Anglican Communion at all levels.
Even more importantly, I would ask that the Lambeth Conference demand genuine accountability from participants by specifying that no dialogue should take place until all the participants agree to obey the current norms.
To call for dialogue while acting as if a conclusion (and a totally unprecedented one at that!) has already been reached is not real dialogue. What we traditional Episcopalians have experienced in recent years is a kind of double-talk about “continuing the dialogue.” Revisionists call for dialogue even as they violate existing rules, claiming “justice” as their guide. Forgive the analogy, but it is like a terrorist taking over an airplane and then calling for negotiations. So the Lambeth bishops must say to the American Church: “Sure, we’ll talk, but first lay down your weapons!” Sadly, I predict, they will not do that. But that reveals something: they are not really interested in dialogue, they are interested in victory for their cause. Dialogue is a ploy to pacify and distract their opponents while they continue advancing their agenda in the Church.
I am not demeaning these opponents (yes, they are opponents). I am taking them dead seriously, based on their words and deeds over the past 25 years in the American Church. They are contending for the faith as they understand it; it just happens to be a different faith from that delivered to the saints of the New Testament and classic Anglicanism. Perhaps you think I am too pessimistic. Try it! Challenge them to uphold current Anglican standards in word and deed. If they do, I will gladly repent of my pessimism and be part of a true dialogue. That simply has not been our experience here.
After a certain vote in the General Convention that went the way of the moral innovators, someone turned to Bishop William Frey and said: “Well, Bill, I guess the handwriting is on the wall!” “Yes,” Bishop Frey replied, “and it says the same thing it said the first time.” The original handwriting was addressed to a complacent ruling class which had duped its people with idolatry.[xli] It read, Mene, Mene, Tekel Parsin: “God has numbered your days and brought it to an end” (Daniel 5:26-28). Is it possible that these are God’s words to the Episcopal Church today? John Stott himself acknowledged that the time might come when a Church so renounced the truth that it would cease to be the Church. Then the Christian’s obligation is to leave. I am sorry to report that many conscientious Episcopalians have reached the conclusion that that time has already come and gone.
But I, along with John Stott, believe that that time has not yet come. Grim as I have made things sound in the Episcopal Church USA, I am actually hopeful for our future. I am hopeful because we have a God for whom all things are possible. I am hopeful because the majority of American Episcopal church people do not support the gay-rights agenda. They are confused and divided in their loyalties. They respect their tradition and their Prayer Book. They also respect and defer to their priests and bishops, many of whom have not been candid with them. I am hopeful because a sizable remnant of leaders are finding their voice to speak out in the name of historic Anglicanism. Finally, I am hopeful because you are here and God has linked us together in this great fellowship of the Gospel in the Anglican tradition.
I subtitled this talk “Why the Sexuality Conflict in the Episcopal Church Is God’s Word to the Anglican Communion,” and I conclude with a warning that failure to deal with the crisis in the Episcopal Church will endanger the unity of the Anglican Communion. Representatives from your provinces, meeting at Kuala Lumpur, have already raised the alarm in your statement on “Anglican Reconstruction.” This is a question that cannot be delayed. What will become of Anglican unity if the American church breaks into two bodies out of communion with each other, with one body officially linked to Canterbury and the other officially committed to Kuala Lumpur? If Anglican leaders look the other way in 1998, such a situation is distinctly possible.
I believe that if the worldwide Communion would speak clearly and forcefully to the American Church, there might be a turning back in our Church to the faith once delivered to the saints. It would hardly be painless and without distasteful conflict, and even division. But if you will send a message to the Church in America, like the Risen Lord’s message to the churches in Revelation, who knows but that what has been so far a Decade of Sexuality might conclude, as it should have been all along, as a Decade of Evangelism? Such a message would encourage the faithful and call those who are lukewarm to rediscover their first love in Christ and his Word.
The handwriting is on the wall. Please spell it out for us, by the grace of God that is given you and the help of the Holy Spirit. Thank you.
[i] Williams proved an embarrassment to Bishop Spong. Shortly after his ordination, he claimed that “monogamy” was a straitjacket and that everyone, including Mother Teresa, needs sex in order to experience life. These views are not uncommon in the underground gay movement, but they got Williams defrocked when he stated them in public. See Robert Williams, Just As I Am: A Practical Guide to Being Out, Proud, and Christian (New York: Crown, 1992) esp. xi-xxiii.
[ii] See Philip Turner, “Episcopal Oversight and Ecclesiastical Discipline,” in Ephraim Radner and R. R. Reno, eds., Inhabiting Unity: Theological Perspectives on the Proposed Lutheran-Episcopal Concordat (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) 111-133.
[iii] Bishop Righter claimed during his trial that Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning had been consulted about this action and had suggested that Bishop Righter, rather than Spong, officiate.
[iv] In my recent book, Two Sexes, One Flesh: Why the Church Cannot Bless Same-Sex Marriage (Solon, OH: Latimer Press, 1997) 13-26, I argue that the terminology of same-sex “blessings” and “unions” camouflages the real intent to introduce a unisex understanding of marriage.
[v] The Convention did authorize dioceses to include “domestic partners,” which includes unmarried lovers of either sex, under church health insurance policies.
[vi] On “local option” as a transitional stage toward full mandating of homosexuality, see Two Sexes, One Flesh, 92-93.
[vii] In Two Sexes, One Flesh, 53-66, I argue that the liberationist definition of justice is not rooted in any other major traditions of Western justice but is in fact antithetical to them.
[viii] In a recent parish newsletter, the Rev. Edgar Wells, Rector of the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin (!), New York City, stated that “a self-accepting homosexual person who aspires not to celibacy but to sharing their life with another person is as acceptable for ordination in this diocese as any celibate or married person.” He goes on to say that “our policy is clear, and I could not be on the Commission on Ministry if I did not agree with it.”
[ix] Bishop Browning was one of the twenty bishops in 1979 who signed a “Statement of Conscience” announcing that they would not obey or enforce the Church’s official and traditional teaching on sexuality.
[x] In his diocesan newspaper, Anglican Advance (Nov./Dec. 1993), Bishop Griswold is reported to have said: “I believe that it is quite possible for a homosexual person not committed to celibacy to live a wholesome and profoundly Christian life.” In the June/July issue, he stated: “Can the values of the Gospel and the taking up of one’s cross and following Jesus be found in sexual expressions outside marriage and celibacy? … I have to answer ‘yes’ based on my own experience of grace in the lives of persons whose sexuality has been expressed outside these classical and normative categories.” In an interview for Christianity Today (Jan. 10, 1994) 44, he said that he had ordained homosexual priests: “The question with respect to sexuality is, How is this person’s sexuality part of their living of the gospel.”
[xi] This lecture, given in Falls Church, Virginia, in February 1997, has been circulated by EFAC-USA (P.O. Box 110, Hague, VA 22469; 1-800-472-2593) and published in The Episcopal Evangelical Journal 1/8 (Jan. 1998) 7-9.
[xii] In his recent William Tyndale: A Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995) 239, David Daniell expresses Tyndale’s and Anglicanism’s “plain sense” critique of scholastic hermeneutics, which “can become a licence to what is little more than wilder forms of free association, whereby words can mean anything, according to whim.” The attempts to root homosexual practice in Paul’s hymn to love (1 Corinthians 13) while ignoring his teaching on the shape of Christian relationships (1 Corinthians 6:9-20) is an example of contemporary scholasticism at its worst.
[xiii] Cf. Two Sexes, One Flesh, 40.
[xiv] See, e.g., my “Reading the Bible as the Word of God,” in Frederick H. Borsch, ed., The Bible’s Authority in Today’s Church (Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1993) 133-167.
[xv] In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer (Dec. 28, 1997), Bishop Frank Griswold employs the following rationalization for the Church to contradict the Bible: “Broadly speaking, the Episcopal Church is in conflict with Scripture… The only way to justify it is to say, well, Jesus talks about the Spirit guiding the church and guiding believers and bringing to their awareness things they cannot deal with yet [John 16:13]. So one would have to say that the mind of Christ operative in the church over time … has led the church to in effect contradict the words of the Gospel.” Bishop Spong in his Nov. 12, 1997 letter to the Anglican Archbishops, uses the same argument and proof-text.
[xvi] See Two Sexes, One Flesh, 34-35, n. 20.
[xvii] This interchange was with Virginia Mollenkott at the 50th annual Witness conference held at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa., in October 1992. For other examples of open rejection of the plain teaching of Scripture, see Two Sexes, One Flesh, 38-39.
[xviii] The St. Andrew’s Day Statement: An Examination of the Theological Principles Affecting the Homosexuality Debate (Church of England Evangelical Council, 1995) was written by a theological working group including Michael Banner, F.D. Maurice Professor of Moral and Social Theology at King’s College, London; Markus Bockmuehl, University Lecturer in Divinity at Cambridge University; Oliver O’Donovan, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University; and David Wright, Senior Lecturer in Ecclesiastical History, University of Edinburgh.
[xix] According to the Thirty-Nine Articles, “The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith; and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture that it be repugnant to another” (Article XX, Book of Common Prayer, 871).
[xx] See Charles E. Bennison [Bishop Coadjutor of Pennsylvania] “Rethinking Marriage – Again,” Anglican Theological Review 79 (1997) 506-525. This article was originally presented at the Second Consultation of Episcopalians for Same-Sex Unions (July 1996).
[xxi] On October 12, 1997, an article appeared in The Sunday Times (London) stating that a majority of bishops of the Church of England are willing to approve of and even bless unmarried “cohabiting” heterosexual partners.
[xxii] “What about the bi’s?” The notion of bisexuality appears to be a slippery category that can include people who move back and forth between heterosexual and homosexual partners.
[xxiii] See Maggie Gallagher, The Abolition of Marriage: How We Destroy Lasting Love (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1996); and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, The Divorce Culture (New York: Knopf, 1997).
[xxiv] A lesser known fact about the now famous Bishop Righter is that he was divorced and remarried twice while he continued to function as a bishop in good standing. Apparently Bishop Righter’s practice is now perfectly acceptable to his colleagues. In the Philadelphia Inquirer (supra note 16), Bishop Frank Griswold argued that the acceptance of remarried priests and bishops shows that the Church can revise biblical norms.
[xxv] I have made a number of specific suggestions for reform in Two Sexes, One Flesh, 99-100. Some of these ideas have been taken up in the “Covenant with the Family” recently proposed by the Institute on Religion and Democracy (for copies, write Diane Knippers, IRD, 1521 16th Street, NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20036).
[xxvi] A almost sixty years ago, Dorothy Sayers [Creed or Chaos? (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949) 27] identified the Nazi threat in terms of spiritual warfare: Something is happening to us today which has not happened for a very long time. We are waging a war of religion. Not a civil war between adherents of the same religion, but a life-and-death struggle between Christian and pagan.” I am contending that today’s revisionists are analogous to the “German Christians” who co-opted the church to serve a hostile worldview.
[xxvii] Cf. my colleague David Mills’s critique of “centrism” in “The End of Liberalism” in The Evangelical Catholic (May/June 1997) 2-16.
[xxviii] I have taken the term “ethic of intimacy” from Tim Stafford, The Sexual Christian (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1989) 15-19.
[xxix] A national Episcopal Church manual titled Sexuality: A Divine Gift (1988) made the claim that sex in itself is a sacrament. Cf. also Morton T. and Barbara Kelsey, The Sacrament of Sexuality: The Spirituality and Psychology of Sex (Rockport, Mass.: Element, 1991).
[xxx] Anthony Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992) 181.
[xxxi] Heyward, Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God (San Francisco: Harper, 1989), 91; John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Harper, 1991) 243. For an analysis of the anti-Christian basis of their worldviews, see Stephen M. Smith, “Worldview, Language, and Radical Feminism,” in Alvin F. Kimel, ed., Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992) 258-275.
[xxxii] Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (New York: Random House, 1990) 236-237.
[xxxiii] See Carter Heyward on sadomasochism, in Touching Our Strength, 109; and L. William Countryman on pornography and prostitution, in Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988) 245, 264-265.
[xxxiv] Just as the Anglican bishops at Dallas were discussing this paper, it was reported that at an Anglican youth conference in Wales the previous weekend the main speaker was an avowed lesbian and the literature available promoted the gay lifestyle. “This is war,” the moderator at Dallas said. “We cannot tolerate this.” “You have to understand.” an American bishop replied. “This is what they call sensitizing you.”
[xxxv] It is the virtue of Jeffrey Satinover’s book. Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996) 229-247, that he links the drive for homosexuality with “the pagan revolution” in late modern society.
[xxxvi] Cf. Richard Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter (Waco: Word Books, 1983) 34: “Antinomianism is a perversion of the gospel itself.”
[xxxvii] Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 271-284, traces the intellectual characteristics of the antichrist of late modernity.
[xxxviii] The disparity between the fruits of the Decade of Evangelism in the West and in the Third World was strikingly apparent at the G-Code Conference in 1995. Cf. Cyril C. Okorocha, ed., The Cutting Edge of Mission: A Report of the Mid-Point review of the Decade of Evangelism (London: Anglican Communion Publications, 1996).
[xxxix] This was the clear implication of Bishop Browning’s tirade against traditionalists at the General Convention, as when he said: “Biblical literalism may be someone’s tradition, but it’s not our tradition and it’s time we came home to our Anglican roots.”
[xl] This was true of the “sexuality dialogue” conducted by the national Episcopal Church from 1992-1994, and the same-sex marriage study in 1995-1996, conducted by the House of Bishops’ Theology Committee and the Standing Liturgical Commission. For the latter case, see Two Sexes, One Flesh, 113-117.
[xli] In “Good Restaurants in Gomorrah,” First Things (Feb. 1998) 14-16, Prof. Russell Reno argues that the key to understanding the Episcopal Church is that it is dominated by upper-middle-class concerns, among which sexuality ranks high.