FSG: Faith, Sexuality and Gender

On the margins of orthodoxy

The consecration of female bishops is a greater source of disunity than that of gay bishops 8 July 2008

Some of my readers might be shocked to read such a statement from me. In which case, let me explain.

The Church of England yesterday voted to ordain women to the episcopate. The arguments against this decision were the classic Catholic ones: that there is no precedent or authority for the move, either in Scripture, Tradition, or in the Anglican Communion itself acting in isolation from other churches that see their authority and the truth of their sacraments as based in the apostolic succession. The victorious women, on the other hand, or at least some of them, claimed that the vote in their favour constituted an end to the discrimination that had been practised against them. This sort of language is totally inappropriate, inaccurate and misplaced. It’s nothing to do with discrimination. Who do the women think were discriminating against them, and for what reason? It’s supposed to be about discerning the will of God, not untapping previously denied job opportunities. This sort of response shows a complete lack of concern for Church unity; and, in that, it seems to me to betray an absence of the Holy Spirit.

And the point is, this decision does introduce profound disunity into the Church. There are many bishops, priests and laypersons who just won’t be able to accept it, on theological grounds not those of discrimination. Many of these will end up leaving the Church. Many who stay will be faced by terrible dilemmas about who they can worship and serve under and with. It’s not just a case of some male priests being unable to accept the authority of a female bishop; but also, they and many laypersons won’t accept the authenticity of the priesthood of those ordained by a female bishop. Over time, this could spread enormous confusion and fragmentation into the day-to-day life of the Church; or else, the thing will just prove unworkable, and the men and women concerned will either just leave or split off to form their own continuing and – in their eyes – authentically apostolic church.

Now, I am sympathetic to the Catholic position and the people – women as well as men – who just can’t accept the validity of a female episcopate. I’m a Roman Catholic myself; and while I advocate a loving, compassionate and non-judgemental attitude towards those who have difficulty adhering to the Catholic Church’s moral teaching in all areas of sexual life (and that includes myself – a bisexual and transgender man), I do try, however imperfectly, to live out a life of faithful obedience. I feel I need to reiterate this to combat a reaction to my stance against women bishops that might make out I was being self-serving and hypocritical: being a gay (actually, bisexual) man, thinking it was absolutely fine for gay male bishops to be sexually active; while being misogynistically opposed to women bishops. This is completely not the case: I don’t think it’s just fine for a gay bishop to be sexually active; and I’m not opposed to women bishops out of aversion towards women – I don’t have an aversion towards women; I love and desire them, as it happens, and enjoy friendship and fellowship with them.

The thing is, the question of women bishops is a more fundamental issue of doctrine than that of gay bishops; and it introduces more disunity into the Church, in ways I’ve attempted to outline above. The teachings about the Church itself, and the apostolic foundation of its authority and sacraments, are absolutely integral parts of Catholic dogma. If you start introducing bishops who, by virtue of that teaching, cannot be regarded as authentic, then the whole edifice is literally subverted from within. A male bishop whose morality is questionable, and certainly would be regarded as sinful from the standpoint of traditional Catholic moral teaching, is nonetheless still an authentic bishop if he has been chosen by his peers and consecrated in accordance with tradition. (This is leaving aside, for a moment, the question of the Catholic Church’s denial of the belief that the Anglican Communion actually does have the apostolic succession!) So his morality is more a matter of discipline and moral example than fundamental dogma.

The fact that the issue of female bishops introduces more division into the church than sexually active gay clergy is illustrated, for me, by the fact that the breakaway conservative evangelical movement, GAFCON (discussed in my previous post), is potentially going to end up being just as divided over this as over the anti-gay-clergy sentiment that unites it. So far, GAFCON has glossed over this issue so as to prevent a united front. But there are undoubtedly going to be African dioceses and conservative evangelicals that will be unable to accept the authority of women bishops; and so you’ll end up with at best a two-track break-away GAFCON Church, with parts of it happy to accept women bishops and others who elect to come under the authority of male bishops only. The geographically dislocated character of the GAFCON movement – with some Western dioceses or individual churches choosing to come under the authority of bishops from other continents – could be the thing that facilitates this dual approach. However, it will break up the traditional association between a bishop and the geographical territory over which his pastoral mission extends.

This lack of engagement with the profound issues raised by women bishops is, for me, demonstrated by the one part of the GAFCON website where they engage with the question of female ordination. This is an interview with a Ugandan bishop, where – in answer to the question, “What is the Church of Uganda’s position on the ordination of women?” – the following answer is offered:

“The Bible is very clear that homosexual practice is sin. But, nowhere in the Bible is being a woman described as a sin. The ordination of women and the ordination of practicing homosexuals cannot be compared. They are not the same issue. People of equally strong evangelical conviction come to different conclusions about the ordination of women, but we in Uganda have understood the Bible to teach that God created men and women in His image and both can be ordained to serve God in His Church.”

Well yes, if this is the quality and consistency of theological understanding that is being applied to these issues, GAFCON is going to have problems! So women can become bishops because it’s not a sin to be a woman! Well, thanks a lot for the enlightenment! And gay men can’t be bishops because being a practising homosexual is a sin – well, a) that’s not very pastorally sensitive to the gay members of your congregation, and b) what about ‘out’ but non-practising homosexuals – is it a sin to be gay, and even if it is a sin (which the Catholic Church doesn’t teach), does that mean gay men can’t be bishops? We’re all sinners, after all.

And yes, people of strong evangelical convictions will come to different conclusions about the ordination of women – particularly, their ordination as bishops. And one wonders how united the GAFCON break-away Church will be able to remain as more Western, liberal dioceses introduce women bishops, while traditionalist evangelical and African dioceses won’t accept the authority of women.

You certainly can and should compare gay and women bishops: they’re both a product of the liberal West. But women bishops are a more fundamental threat to the Anglican Communion as a Church in the Catholic tradition. Admittedly, to evangelicals such as the Bishop of Uganda, this may not be such a problem. But then, GAFCON doesn’t seem to be too bothered about fostering the unity of the Anglican Communion, either.

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GAFCON: Schism and the Repudiation of Homosexuality 29 June 2008

How significant are differences in belief about openly gay clergy and church blessings of gay unions? Very significant if you consider that such things are said to form part of a “false gospel”, and have contributed to the formation of an alternative episcopal hierarchy in the Anglican Communion at the GAFCON conference, which ended in Jerusalem today.

The gay issue has naturally dominated much of the press coverage of GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference). However, this movement is about much more than mere disagreements about marriage and sexuality, important though they are. It’s also about evangelical Anglicans, and those from developing countries (particularly Africa), finally making a break from a church whose compromises between evangelicalism, liberalism and catholicism are rooted in a long history (including the history of British imperialism) and in the moral uncertainties of modern Western society. These compromises and ambiguities are no longer perceived to be necessary or relevant to a confident African Christianity and a militant evangelicalism who base their certainties in Scripture and the traditional cornerstones of Anglican doctrine: the four Ecumenical Councils, the three Creeds, the Church Fathers, the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer.

The first thing to be noted is that GAFCON is a schismatic movement. It tries to make out that it will be able to co-exist with the ‘official’ Anglican hierarchy, and that it is just a movement and alternative discipline within the Anglican Communion. However, it is taking the classic form of a schism: seeing itself as the representative of true Anglican-Christian orthodoxy, tradition and liturgy; and setting itself up as able to command authority over all the Anglican faithful by virtue of its claim to uphold the ‘true’ Gospel over against the ‘false’ Gospel that the official hierarchy is unable to confound. It is hard to see how a single Church could survive with two organisations and groupings of bishops competing against each other to be accepted as the very basis for unity, and of coherence of belief and practice, within the Church. The truth of the matter is GAFCON really seeks to supplant the established Church hierarchy and, in a sense, re-launch the Anglican Church as a whole – and not just one movement within it – on its own foundations. It will doubtless take many millions with it, who will believe that it is the ‘true’ Anglican Communion. Many millions will not follow, however, and will retain their allegiance to the established church that has the Archbishop of Canterbury loosely as its head.

The question I would wish to ask is this: will such a schism strengthen or weaken the Church’s witness on homosexuality? Is it more powerful for people to have radically differing views on sexuality within the same community of believers, or to take a stand on the issue to the extent of breaking up over it and forming separate churches? I ask this because I think that gay clergy and blessings are a bit of a straw man. Or should I say they’re being made out to be the ‘last straw’, the final outrage, that’s forcing the hand of the dissidents. But this is really a pretext, and it isn’t necessary to risk splitting up the Communion for the so-called conservatives to express their concerns and their opposition to what is being done in certain parts of the Communion, particularly in North America. This is a matter of discipline not of fundamental Church doctrine: the common Anglican teaching remains that gay clergy should not be in actively sexual relationships, that marriage is an exclusively heterosexual thing and that there is no such thing as an ‘official’ blessing ceremony for gay unions, although these may be carried out by clergy as private occasions.

Admittedly, there are many in the liberal wing of the Communion – and not just in Canada and the USA – who have more affirming views on homosexuality, and consider that loving gay relationships are a positive thing, indeed a gift from God. And such people might even go so far as to sanction gay marriage. However, these views are not the mainstream; and in any case, the traditional Anglican way has been to accept that there is a diversity of beliefs within the Church, reflecting the plurality of beliefs within society at large. The fact that in some churches, they preach that it’s all right for two male or female clergy to share each other’s bed has never up to now been thought to prevent other Anglican churches from believing and preaching diametrically opposing views and still to consider each other as Christian brothers, united in their search for God and for truth. But now, the new organisation is saying that people who advocate and practice such a “false gospel” can no longer be in communion with them: effectively, they would exclude them from their version of the Anglican Communion – they would be excommunicated, meaning they had put themselves beyond the redemption won for us by Christ.

It’s the fact that it isn’t really necessary to set up a dissident church within a church in order to disagree fundamentally with the liberals on these points, and continue teaching the opposite, that makes me think that the gay issue is merely a pretext for a split that the evangelicals and African churches involved have wanted for some time. In reality, it’s the only issue of substance that divides the new proto-church from the old. The statement of belief issued by GAFCON, the Jerusalem Declaration (see above link), is essentially no more than standard traditional Anglicanism that most Anglican believers would have no difficulty in embracing – deliberately so, as the new movement seeks to impose itself as the true Church. The gay issue is being made out to be more extreme and threatening than it really is (because, as I say, the majority of believers do not follow the ultra-liberal line) to justify a split that is ultimately about re-centring the Communion on evangelical principles: Scripture and a specifically conservative-Anglican acception of Tradition; as opposed to the Trinity of (evangelical) Scripture, (Catholic) Tradition and (liberal) Reason that has provided the foundation for the co-existence of multiple interpretations of the faith within the Anglican Communion hitherto.

Ultimately, the new movement is not interested in the gay issue: they simply want out, and want it out of the church. No actively gay person will be welcomed within their Anglican Communion. And it’s in this refusal to exercise the Church’s pastoral mission to its gay followers, as much as in the schism GAFCON is bringing about, that the bishops behind the new movement are failing in their duty to act as a focus for unity in the Church and a witness of God’s love to the world.