Admiral of Morality: No neutral corner: Being Anglican in a time of angry polarization

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

No neutral corner: Being Anglican in a time of angry polarization

God's quarrel is with the whole human race, white and black, male and female, liberal and conservative, rich and poor, gay and straight

Almost overlooked in the media frenzy over the spectacular fall from grace of megachurch pastor Ted Haggard was the installation on Nov. 4 of Katharine Jefferts Schori as the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the American branch of the 78 million-member Anglican Communion.

Like Nancy Pelosi, who will become the first woman speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2007, Bishop Jefferts Schori is also a pioneer, becoming at her installation in the National Cathedral the first woman ever to preside over an Anglican province in the nearly 500-year history of the Anglican Communion. Both women assume their new roles in troubled times.

The Anglican troubles began in 2003, when the Episcopal Church decided to consecrate an openly gay man as the bishop of New Hampshire. This act ignited a religious civil war that spread rapidly around the world.

Conservative Anglicans regard the election and consecration of an openly gay bishop as a repudiation of biblical authority. In their view, gay sex is a forbidden activity for Christians, as St. Paul and the holiness code of Leviticus make clear. Indeed, conservatives regard attraction to members of one's own sex as a disordered form of love that needs to be overcome rather than expressed - a traditional position recently reiterated by the American bishops of the Roman Catholic Church.

Liberal Anglicans - including Jefferts Schori - disagree. In their view, homosexuality is not a choice. Human beings are born gay. They no more choose to be gay or lesbian than they choose to be tall or short. What they can decide is whether to be promiscuous, taking their pleasures where they find them, or to be faithful to one partner in a lifetime commitment of mutual love and respect.

Liberals believe that Jesus calls heterosexuals to a life of sexual fidelity as heterosexuals and homosexuals to the same standard of fidelity as gay and lesbian. Both are included in the general call to holiness, and no one stands outside the circle of God's loving acceptance.

And that is where the argument stands at the present time. Simply put, the two opposing positions, liberal and conservative, could not be more sharply different. Either gay sex is a disordered form of love and needs to be renounced, or it is part of God's good creation and needs only to be faithful.

This polarized state of affairs has left moderates in the Anglican communion depressed and dispirited. Moderates are people who are appalled by the willingness of both liberals and conservatives to accept schism as the price of defending the truth, however differently both sides define "the truth."

They agree with the late Reinhold Niebuhr that God's quarrel is not with this or that faction of the human family. God's quarrel is with the whole human race, white and black, male and female, liberal and conservative, rich and poor, gay and straight.

Jefferts Schori echoed Niebuhr when she suggested that the present crisis in the Anglican Communion is not the fault of liberals only or of conservatives only, however much each side would like to blame the other. The crisis represents the failure of everyone, liberal and conservative alike, to nurture, love and pray each other into the greater holiness and wisdom these trying times demand.

Speaker-designate Pelosi faces a similar crisis. Can political liberals and conservatives declare a truce in their culture wars long enough to identify and work collaboratively toward a common good? If not, the failure will not be the fault of conservatives only or of liberals only. The failure will be the fault of both. Or, as Pogo once memorably put it, "We have met the enemy and it is us."

Of course, the question is always posed in morally sharper terms to the church than it is to society in general. After all, liberal and conservative Anglicans are joined to each other by the waters of baptism, a bond they believe is thicker than blood. They share a common history and liturgical tradition, celebrate an identical list of saints and martyrs, laugh at the same self-deprecating jokes, support many of the same charitable projects, recite a common creed, and participate in a common Eucharist.

If, given these shared memories, Anglicans cannot love and forgive each other, whom exactly can they love and forgive?

David C. Steinmetz is the Amos Ragan Kearns professor of the history of Christianity at the Divinity School of Duke University in Durham, N.C. He wrote this for the Orlando Sentinel.

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