There is something by now familiar, even reassuring, about what happens in my church every third summer. I am an Episcopalian, and I can reliably look forward to popular news coverage of the church’s General Convention — a legislative body made up of a House of Bishops and a lay House of Deputies — latest decision on issues of the connection between sexuality and the sacraments.
This week was no different, and in the New York Times on Sunday, Ross Douthat summarized the conservative view of my troubled church with a column headlined “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” It is not hard to figure out the conclusion Douthat arrives at in his column, which includes this pronouncement: “the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t get from a purely secular liberalism.”
The occasion for this round of Episcopal debate is the passage of an optional rite to bless same-sex unions. Dioceses (rather like states within the communion) can choose whether to allow priests to perform the rite. It that sense, the vote fits well within a religious tradition that was forged amid political and theological conflict over the nature of power in the 16th century. Anglicanism has always been about the attempt — sometimes successful, sometimes less so — to find a via media, or middle way, between stricter sacramentalism of Roman Catholicism and stricter scriptural literalism of other Protestant denominations. Anglicanism is driven in large measure by the same principle that Walter Bagehot identified as essential to the British constitution: the enduring effort to “muddle through.”
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The question of the hour is whether the Episcopal Church can continue to muddle into a sixth century, or whether falling levels of membership suggest inevitable decline. Critics such as Douthat link the church’s progressive stand on sexuality — the consecration of an openly gay bishop in 2003 and now the vote on the same-sex rite — to its troubled numbers. “It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows,” wrote Douthat. “But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.”
Eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes. As I read it, his argument, shared by many, is that the church is essentially translating liberal views of sexuality into the language and forms of the faith. If the Bible speaks out against homosexuality, then a church that moves to embrace homosexuals must be acting not according to theological thinking but to political factors. Put another way, the Episcopal Church has taken the course it has taken on sexuality because it is politically fashionable to do so, not because there is a theological reason to open its arms wider.
The problem with this argument is that it ignores a long tradition of evolving theological understanding and changing scriptural interpretation. Only the most unapologetic biblical fundamentalists, for instance, take every biblical injunction literally. If we all took all scripture at the same level of authority, then we would be more open to slavery, to the subjugation of women, to wider use of stoning. Jesus himself spoke out frequently against divorce in the strongest of terms. Yet we have — often gradually — chosen to read and interpret the Bible in light not of tradition but of reason and history.
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Given that sexual orientation is innate and that we are all, in theological terms, children of God, to deny access to some sacraments based on sexuality is as wrong as denying access to some sacraments based on race or gender. This is not about secular politics (though the secular political world is coming to share these views) but about the perennial human effort to follow the ancient commandment to love one another as ourselves.
If such sentiments lead to snarky op-eds about the end of liberal Christianity, then so be it. That’s in the nature of things, and in the end I would rather belong to a church that errs on the side of opening its arms wider.
Yes, the numbers are down, and may not rise again. I don’t know. But I do know this: the central tenet of Christianity as it has come down to us is that we are to reach out when our instinct is to pull inward; to give when we want to take; to love when we are inclined to hate; to include when are tempted to exclude.
This is what I believe. I respect that others believe differently; nothing should properly create more humility than discussions about detecting the will of God. The nature of the decision of General Convention, which allows for diocesan discretion, is a sensible one, and it implicitly acknowledges that there is room for disagreement. In that sense, perhaps the liturgical proposition of an increasingly small American institution might offer the larger nation a telling example of how to deal with complex issues. After all, a smoothly condescending right is no more attractive than a morally superior left. Both could do worse than think about that as the argument goes on, which it surely will.