Tuesday, July 04, 2006
by Wayne Besen
Is size all that matters to the Anglican Church? It appears that the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, is willing to steamroll gays to prevent a seismic schism that would decrease membership rolls. In a document titled "theological reflection," Williams asked all 38 regional churches in the worldwide Communion to agree to a "covenant" that could stymie a church's ability to elect openly gay bishops. Those churches that did not adhere would have their status downgraded and become second-class affiliates.
This plan would create an ecclesiastical caste system, with conservatives playing the role of Brahmins, while GLBT affirming churches would become the new untouchables. Yet, it would still allow the demoted denominations to share in Communion.
Not surprisingly, such a convoluted compromise pleased neither faction. Six right wing dioceses declared they would bolt the Episcopal Church, while the Diocese of Newark named an openly gay priest as a candidate for Bishop.
What disturbs me about this debate is that Williams is known for his supposedly liberal views. So, if he sees gay people as equals before God's eyes, how can he so easily relegate them to the back pews with an admonition to behave and be quiet?
The painful nature of this debate brings up existential questions that leaders such as William seem unprepared to face. For example, is the more successful church the one brimming with members based on bigotry or is it the smaller institution walking in righteousness?
While keeping the Communion together is a worthy goal, the price that conservatives are asking is too high for Anglicans of conscience to pay. Those who have embraced full inclusion of gay and lesbian leaders have embarked on a journey and have been enlightened. Once they see homosexuals as spiritual soul mates, it is impossible to go back into the darkness.
What Williams is essentially asking is that liberals subjugate wisdom and undermine understanding for the greater good. But in their hearts, liberals know that something so bad canâ€™t truly be for the greater good. They are being asked to reconcile the irreconcilable and it will never work.
The Archbishop of Canterbury cannot expect progressive Episcopalians to look their gay friends in the eyes and then treat them as inferior. Gay people are either equal and deserve full inclusion, or they are not equals and deserve castigation. The search for middle ground in this equation is futile. If the church thinks Equal-lite is the solution, it is headed for a schism.
In a sense, this skirmish is no longer about gay people in the Anglican Communion. It is about whether the church is still a conduit for spiritual integrity and intellectual honesty. If members can no longer be true to their beliefs, then the institution will have lost much of its power and meaning. Is a church that dictates one's conscience rather than allowing one to live as his conscience dictates worth saving?
Liberal Episcopalians should take comfort in the fact that history does not look kindly on splinter church groups that broke away because of intolerance towards minorities. The Southern Baptist Church will always have the stain and stench of slavery hanging over its biography. I can't think of an instance where a religious group that chose the side of discrimination turned out to be right in history's judgment. In recent years, for example, the Vatican apologized for its treatment of women and Jews. Although there is little hope that the current Pope will change his archaic views, his embarrassing actions will cause a future Pontiff to grovel over today's abusive treatment of gays.
As a practical matter, most church-goers won't even notice the missing malcontents if the Anglican Church splits. The New York Times reported that a Connecticut priest asked his flock how many of them had even heard of the Anglican Communion before the war over homosexuality erupted in 2003, and only a third raised their hands. Given this tenuous connection, it is hard to see how leaving the backward churches behind will cause significant trauma.
I'm not a marriage counselor, but my untrained eye sees a pretty good case for divorce. Many in the Episcopal Church have evolved into a new spiritual species and it will only be stalled by the Neanderthals that remain stuck in another era.
Yes, bigger can be better, but the Anglican Church may soon learn that the size of ideas matter more than the size of membership lists.
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