To people outside the Episcopal Church of the United States of America (ECUSA), the recent saga of internal and external recriminations over the ordination of Gene Robinson, an openly and non-celibate gay priest, as bishop of New Hampshire, is usually understood in the familiar secular language of liberalism and conservatism, of progress and tradition, and of moralism and relativism, with observers taking sides on the basis of their own political or cultural views. Non-Episcopalian U.S. conservatives, in particular, have made great hay over the international reaction among the broader Anglican Communion to the lopsided approval of Robinson’s ordination by Episcopal bishops, treating it as another example of the self-destruction of mainstream Protestants in the thrall of secular liberalism or radicalism. They derive special delight from the “irony” that Third World Anglican leaders, presumably the favorites of liberals on political matters, have led the charge against the alleged apostasy of American “moral
Within the ECUSA (of which I am a member), it all looks very different. Robinson’s ordination has to be understood in terms of the long-standing
tolerance of diversity among varying regional and local churches, reinforced by American Anglicans’ practice of electing bishops from the ground up. And in a broader sense, many Episcopalians view the whole conflict as another incident in Anglicanism’s complex history as a via media (or middle way) between the Catholic Church and evangelical Protestant denominations. This history dates all the way back to the Anglican Church’s founding under Henry VIII and his Tudor heirs. It has involved a centuries-old tension within Anglicanism between those who have wished to keep the church’s rites and theology closer to Rome—the Anglo-Catholics—and those who have wanted the church to pattern itself upon evangelical Protestant churches.
It’s no secret that most if not all self-conscious Anglo-Catholics seem relatively tolerant about gay or lesbian priests or bishops, in line with their emphasis on liturgy and their non-literalist approach to Scripture. By the same token, it’s no accident that the hostility to Bishop Robinson, and to any formal tolerance of active homosexuality, is strongest among self-conscious evangelicals who increasingly insist on a literalist interpretation of scriptural condemnations of homosexuality.
The big question in the current Anglican crisis is whether the battle over Robinson, for all its emphasis on issues of sexuality that past generations could barely have imagined, is just another reflection of that age-old battle, or whether the ECUSA has rejected all Anglican orthodoxy in the pursuit of a sincere but secularist devotion to sexual equality.
Elizabeth Adams’s new book Going to Heaven: The Life and Times of Bishop Gene Robinson, for all its virtues, does not cast much light on that question. As a close friend and an advocate for Robinson, she certainly helps paint a portrait of the bishop of New Hampshire that is hard to square with the conservative stereotype of him as some sort of libertine or secularist. Robinson comes across as precisely the sort of believer who ought to become a priest or bishop: conscientious, selfless, deeply empathetic, theologically orthodox (in terms of the basics of the faith), and capable of reaching out to even the bitterest enemies. (Indeed, her description of the dissolution of his marriage and his relationship with his ex-wife and particularly his two daughters ought to shame many of his heterosexual detractors.) But she probably does him little good by framing his case as simply part of a broader drive within the church for equality and social justice. Perhaps it’s because Adams has written her book for a lay or non-Anglican audience, but she does not really attempt to connect the current crisis with much of anything in the church’s past, other than (misleadingly) the 1970s fight over ordination of women and prayerbook revision, which split Anglo-Catholics and Anglo-evangelicals into “conservative” and “liberal” camps.
You can find a very different, if equally pro-Robinson, take in A Church At War. Stephen Bates, religion reporter for The Guardian newspaper, views the reaction to Robinson’s ordination as the byproduct of an evangelical uprising in the Anglican Communion. Based in the United Kingdom, evangelicals have spread their doctrine through the African and Asian churches via a very conscious missionary effort. According to Bates, the Anglo-Catholics, who fought ordination of women and prayerbook revision in the last big fight within the Anglican Communion in the 1970s and 1980s, are split or neutral about same-sex issues. The evangelicals, who largely accepted ordination of women and often support mega-church-style liturgical innovations far beyond the 1970s revisions, are in the vanguard of the international fight to place the ECUSA under interdict, based on a literalist interpretation of scriptural language about homosexuality. He also suggests that the very different paths of U.S. and non-U.S. Anglicans have a lot to do with the fact that American evangelicals have numerous denominational “homes” for their views; they feel no particular need to take over the Episcopal Church, and haven’t.
Both Adams and (particularly) Bates write about the agony of those in the Anglican Communion, and especially its largely symbolic British leadership, who want to avoid a definitive rupture over sexual issues.
To make a very long story short, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, best described in the current rough lexicon as a liberal Anglo-Catholic, is seeking to convince the ECUSA (and its Canadian counterpart, where formal blessings of same-sex unions have been sanctioned) to hold the line on further “provocative” acts, pending a broader compromise within the Communion. Just as importantly, the latest General Convention of the ECUSA named a pro-Robinson female bishop as its presiding bishop, providing conservative Anglo-Catholics opposed to ordination of women with a fresh motive for making a tactical common cause with conservative evangelicals.
The immediate flashpoint in the whole battle is the demand of some American Episcopal parishes with “orthodox” believers—mostly evangelical, but including some Anglo-Catholics—to pull their churches out of ECUSA and place them under the oversight of more conservative African and Asian bishops. This may be legally problematic: When “traditionalist” parishes have tried in the past to leave ECUSA with their money, buildings, and other assets, courts have said no. But the really big-picture question is this: Who is dividing Anglicanism? Who are the schismatics? Is it the Episcopal churches that have ordained homosexuals but wish to stay within the Anglican Communion? Or is it the several African bishops who have openly threatened departure from the Communion if their demands for expulsion of the U.S. and Canadian churches are not immediately accepted?
The whole history of the Church of England and its progeny is full of semi-miraculous interventions that overcame apparently impossible theological conflicts. Much of what we think of as Anglicanism was produced by Elizabeth I’s decisive if arbitrary edict against further religious innovation, which froze the English Reformation more or less where it was when her brother Edward VI died (with the crucial exception that she insisted on priestly language during communion that validated the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, a key Catholic concession).
And even in the penultimate crisis over ordination of women and prayerbook revision, the spirit of compromise largely prevailed. To this day, a majority of Anglican national churches do not ordain women, and even among those that do, dissident dioceses and individual churches are tolerated. (Less than a decade ago a Washington, D.C., church I once attended went through a formal purification process after a female bishop celebrated Mass there.) And in the ECUSA, at least, hostility to prayerbook revision led to a resolution offering all churches traditionalist “Rite I” and modern “Rite II” language for the Eucharist. It’s a token of the tangled psychology of Anglicanism that Rite II, which most Evangelicals welcomed and most Anglo-Catholics resisted, is by any objective measure more “catholic” than Rite I.
Given this history of conflict and compromise, it will be truly sad if the Anglican Communion finally falls apart over the ordination of Gene Robinson and his likely successors. I know that I personally support Robinson’s ordination as a reflection of my own belief that faithful same-sex relationships are a reflection of God’s unlimited love. But I also value the Anglican tradition as an essential vehicle for the reconciliation of Catholic and Evangelical impulses in Christianity. I suspect a broad majority of Episcopalian lay people, regardless of how they feel about Robinson, feel more aggrieved by the international and domestic attacks on ECUSA autonomy than by the autonomous decisions of the diocese of New Hampshire.
As these two books illustrate, it’s not at all clear which side in the current conflict truly represents the via media. God only knows. And it would be helpful if He manifested His Will with another miracle of intervention.