Episcopalians-R-Us: Part Two

by rthieme on November 26, 2003

(published in the National Catholic Reporter)

So far the discussion has proceeded as if we all know what homosexuals are and why homosexuality causes distress for some in the church. We uncritically accept the categories of thinking given by our cultures and however much we want to believe that our theological statements transcend our cultures, they do not and can not. Cultural presuppositions are embedded in our language and there is an unceasing feedback loop between theology and the context in which it takes place..

So we must listen to other voices in other rooms of a global communion. They may be no less ethnocentric than we, but the clash – once the smokes clears – might indicate a pathway to greater clarity for all of us.

Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, speaking “for and on behalf of the working committee for the Primates of the Global South,” tells us they were all “appalled” that the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA) “ignored the heartfelt plea of the Communion not to proceed with the scheduled consecration” [of Bishop Robinson]and the “clear and strong warning of its detrimental consequences on the unity of the Communion.” He continues, “We can no longer claim to be in the same Communion. We cannot go to them and they cannot come to us. We will not share communion. We have come to the end of the road.”

That might sound like a homophobic American voice but Akinola and his African colleagues do not see it that way. To them, the consecration “clearly demonstrates that authorities within ECUSA consider their cultural-based agenda of far greater importance than obedience to the Word of God, the integrity of the one mission of God … and the spiritual welfare and unity of the worldwide Anglican Communion.”

Persons who claims to speak from a position that transcends “cultural-based agendas” are usually signaling their own cultural-based agendas. A similar stance was taken by Archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi of the Anglican Church of Kenya who announced that his church will have nothing to do with Bishop Robinson or any of the 53 bishops who participated in his consecration. He declared that they are no longer Anglicans and that “we cannot be in the same communion with Robinson, his diocese and the bishops who were in the consecration” adding that “the devil has entered the church and God cannot be mocked.”

What cultural contexts might help us understand these pronouncements?

Willis Jenkins, currently a Fellow of the Institute for Practical Ethics and Public Life at the University of Virginia and a doctoral student in environmental ethics and religious studies, lived in 1998 in the Diocese of Ankama, located in rural Uganda, where he taught in a seminary for the Anglican Church of Uganda. Because he lived in a Banyankama village during a time when homosexuality was becoming an increasingly familiar issue, he observed both the popular and the Episcopal reaction to it.

“I was taken aback by the intransigence of the discord [between progressive and conservative elements of the church],” Jenkins says,. He became frustrated with what seemed to him to be the rhetoric of ethnocentrism. “Much of the tension,” he concluded, “is rooted in cultural values,” and the debate does not so much need theological or hermeneutical attention as it does “recognition of mutual ethnocentrism.”

Both Ugandan and American bishops are guilty of ethnocentrism, Jenkins believes, and both, perceiving their own cultural categories to be universal, create the ground of fear on which they stand.

Jenkins distinguishes numerous reasons for this dynamic, including a long history of imperial dominance in Africa. Rural bishops resist the perceived allegiance of the urban dioceses to western influences and sources of funding. But equally critical are fundamental issues of identity.

The core value of the villages of Ankama is social participation which creates a community cohesion needed for agricultural subsistence. Each person has a prescribed role and the sign of adulthood is the ability to provide children. Identity is thus determined by family position, and social role is determined by identity. Neither identity nor social role is fluid. So the encroachment of western notions of individual identity and sexual promiscuity of any kind are subversive of the very fabric of society and an affront to the theological underpinnings with which they are fused.

It was impossible for the people with whom Jenkins lived to conceive of  “a homosexual” as an individual whose sexual expression is a function of his or her core identity. Such categories were literally unthinkable. “Heterosexuals” for the same reason simply do not exist.

Jenkins speaks from a point of view determined by his experience in a southern Ugandan village. But to speak of “African bishops” or an African perspective on sexual issues is to falsify through homogenization a complex continent characterized by many diverse cultures. Bishop Charles recalled a Nigerian student at the Episcopal Theological Seminary who was asked to speak to his cohorts about “Africa.” The student said he would try but that he had never been outside Nigeria until he came to Boston.

Charles speaks of these cultural issues in a very personal way. An English friend lived with a same-sex partner who was Ghanaian. When the pair lived in Ghana, they were part of a larger extended family and there was little discord. But the relationship became difficult when they moved to England, in part because the Ghanaian could not handle being identified as a “gay man.”

“He was, of course,” Charles said, “but only in terms of our cultural categories. He functioned as he had always functioned, but he was perceived differently. The fact of naming was very difficult.”

Charles also identifies political dimensions in the various African perspectives dating from 1979 when Western conservatives began trying to pass legislation preventing any gay or lesbian from being ordained. Thwarted at every ECUSA General Convention, they developed a strategy in 1998 to co-opt African, Asian, and Latin American bishops wherever they could and make them their allies and achieve internationally what they could not achieve nationally.

The supreme issue for Charles which he feels transcends ethnocentric aspects of the debate is that the opposition encourages acts of injustice and violence.

“Somewhere along the line,” he says, “someone has to say even to the African Bishops, it is fine for you to believe as you will and it’s fine for you to hold your cultural norms, but you cannot speak in a way that gives permission to others to act with violence and think they are doing the will of God.”

That “Gospel position” which includes but genuinely transcends cultural differences is the Holy Grail of this conversation about sex. Shared core gospel values might be used to contextualize the debate in a less confrontative way. But the search reveals that it is not only global cultures that blind adherents to the real sources of their emotions and theologies but the culture of the church as well.

“Not one clergy I have spoken to has any sense of why we are offending the southern hemisphere,” reports an Anglican priest who has served the Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches as a resource on sexual matters. “They just talk about disturbing the unity.”

Back home in America, regardless of the emotional or psychological roots of some of the arguments against ordination of homosexuals, the issues are always framed theologically.

“It’s Scripture and tradition,” states another Episcopal priest. “The arguments are predictable and come from those who consider themselves the defenders of the orthodox faith. Jesus came not to destroy the law but to fulfill it … Paul’s lists of sinful behaviors….

it’s all about order and authority,” he explained. “It’s incomprehensible to me. Isn’t Jesus enough? I ask them. Isn’t Jesus a sufficient center for the Church?

“They just look at me. The issues for them are doctrinal and have to do with the sanctity of marriage and the definition of order.  It hearkens back to the Thirty Nine Articles which are foundational for the Anglican church. The articles say that the scriptures are sufficient for salvation and nothing ever needs to be added. Of course they mean scripture as interpreted by them. Anything other interpretation, any notion of an evolving rather than static faith, is a departure from God’s will and the authority of the Church. So other interpretations of scripture or tradition are condemned.

“You can understand why, from their point of view. If other interpretations are allowed, then nothing is legitimate or authoritative and it all turns into chaos. Then where does the authority come from?”

For most Anglicans, the unity of the Communion is based on a shared interpretation of a tradition which allows for complexity and diversity without the necessity of resolving all issues in doctrinal terms. The Roman Catholic Church insists on a doctrinal unity which is alien to the Anglican ethos. But in both institutions, the implicit cultural norms of the church itself, those unwritten but widely known rules which govern how an institution in fact acts and behaves,  are at the core of the sexual conversation. Yet those norms are seldom discussed explicitly. Theologians like Bishop John Spong who have long advocated a progressive approach to sexual matters or who deconstruct their own theological arguments are considered fringe elements.

That’s not surprising. The hierarchical structure of the church and the way clergy are promoted is very much like the military. A study of military promotion revealed that the inclination to change anything in the institution declines in direct proportion to one’s rank so those elevated to positions of authority are committed to preserve the institution and its norms. Damage control replaces a passion for justice. In that regard, the Church is no different from any other institution hesitant to engage in meaningful self-critique, but the absolute nature of its claims make that lack of authenticity and courage more conspicuous and some would say more damning.

The current struggle over sexuality is a mirror into which all Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches might look. Perhaps the current troubles of the Anglican Church can serve as a reflecting shield in which we can all look at the Medusa head of reality and say what we see without being turned to stone.

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