Episcopalians-R-Us

by rthieme on November 25, 2003

(published in the National Catholic Reporter)

Just as California is often said to be the leading edge of American popular culture so that what shows up there will soon show up in Pittsburgh, the Episcopal Church often serves as a bellwether for Catholic and Protestant Churches as to what to expect in coming years.

Not surprisingly, the issues being discussed today are sexual. Above all, they are homosexual, thanks to the Consecration of a gay man who lives openly with his lover as the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire and the recent decision by the Masschusetts Supreme Court deciding that the states ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional.

Carl Jung is said to have said that when we talk about religion we are really talking about sexuality and when we talk about sexuality we are really talking about religion. Jung was speaking of course in the context of Western notions of identity, sexuality, and autonomy, a context most Americans share so unthinkingly that we dont pause to consider that an Asian or African  Bishop who expresses distress over homosexuality in the church may be standing on an entirely different platform. Cultural differences do make the conversation about sexuality more complex and we will address them in the next installment, but from the perspective of western culture alone, there are issues enough to stimulate reflection on why, when the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, a man who lives with another man as his lover and faithful companion, was consecrated  a Bishop in the Anglican Communion, distress flares went up all over the Anglican Communion even though they did not all signal the same sources of distress.

First, let’s consider the broader question of sexuality in the Church.

Whenever we discuss human sexuality in an ecclesiastical context, issues are distorted as surely as our images are warped by the curves of a funhouse mirror. Sexuality is always charged with emotion but the passionate intensity caused by linking sexuality to what we believe are God’s sexual preferences seems to release a particularly nasty kind of ranting, brimming with judgments, hatred or disgust. There’s no war like a religious war and no religious war like one caused by two gay men holding hands at the altar, one a bishop and the other his beloved.

As Jung said, the lines between sexuality and spirituality are murky. Our religious rituals are suffused with the language of sexuality. We speak of love, we speak of being close and caring, we speak of being touched; we speak of surrender, losing ourselves in God and one another, and we speak of being one body, one flesh, one extended if imprecisely defined and often dysfunctional family.

We play music before services as a “warm up,” music designed, regardless of whether it is traditional organ music or a jazzy upbeat clap-your-hands sort of modern minstrel show, to dissolve our boundaries and melt us into a single undifferentiated mass in which we experience relief from the constraints of the roles of everyday life and can bask in a kind of warm bath.

The language of mystical ecstasy is the language of the lover. It speaks of union beyond simple intimacy, of being penetrated with joy and abandon. Who has not noticed, during a charismatic prayer service, the beatific smiles on the faces of our brothers and sisters, rapt in adoration, their hands raised in what can only be described as a delicious sensual rapture?  With the Anglican poet and pastor John Donne, we beseech our God to batter our hearts because we will never be chaste unless we have been ravished, never whole until we have been consumed.

The pervasiveness of sexuality in religious experience helps us understand the widespread terror of sex found frequently in the Church. The inability to discuss sexuality (or money, the other of the twin engines of organized religion) clearly, simply, or directly is caused by that force field of distortion and self-deception. We may begin the discussion in a civil tone but sooner or later we find our voices rising and our feet socketed in muck. The waters muddy and the going gets slow.

Stating the simple truths of our lives, often an easier task in non-ecclesiastical contexts, is considered heroic when done in the context of the church. Normal people saying normal things about their normal lives are turned into saints or devils because their honesty and transparency are so anomalous.

We have all heard preachers getting hysterical about sexual sins. The possibility that women  might control their own lives or bodies through contraception, abortion, or divorce becomes a threat to the very fabric of their being. Meanwhile bodies pile up by the thousands in the Middle East with nary a peep from the same pulpits. The cold sins of indifference, cruelty, hatred and injustice which lead to much more destruction and suffering are frequently ignored.

So when an Episcopal  priest who lives openly with his gay partner in a committed relationship is consecrated a Bishop in the Anglican Communion, it is to be expected that the event will be treated as a major crisis. Men who are only being themselves and disclosing who they have always been are described as the worst kinds of subversives, undermining the Gospel and the sanctity of the Church.

That’s a lot of power to hand over to someone just for telling us what they discovered about their sexual desires.

When I was preparing for the Episcopal priesthood, I noticed that one of the intentions of  a long period of training was to socialize us to accept the fact that when we performed liturgical functions we would be the only men in the church wearing what looked like dresses. That socialization process stands as a metaphor for how sexuality is cloaked and hidden inside the black cassocks, neutralizing our bodies in generously draping folds.

Who knows what the numbers really are, how many gay men and lesbian women hide inside those cassocks?  Who knows what others really do in the privacy of their lives? I can only say that when I was in seminary it looked as if about one quarter of the students preparing for the Episcopal priesthood then were gay. Sixteen years in the ordained ministry suggested that this was a reasonable estimate. It is from those clergy that bishops are chosen so naturally there are plenty of gay bishops. Many of them share this fact in confidential conversations but are reluctant to broadcast it to the world because they have been taught that the real sin lies not in the being or the doing, but in the saying what is so.

The first Bishop under whom I served, the Rt. Rev. Otis Charles, was a married man with five children who after several decades of marriage announced that he was a gay man who had lived a lie. Then Dean of the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, he divorced and moved to San Francisco where he continues to exercise a number of compassionate ministries.

“The real issue is that the church is coming out of the closet,” he says. “That’s the fact. Both the clergy and the episcopate have large numbers of gay men and lesbians.

And the worst part is, in the UK and the USA, there was a high degree of tolerance as long as you did not speak. The most severe criticism I received in general [when I came out] was, why do you need to talk about it? Be what you want, just don’t make us acknowledge it.”

Bishop Charles believes that sanctioning such dishonesty impairs the health and well-being of all in the church.

“We have excluded a large area of sexuality by not talking about it and this has a huge negative impact not only on individuals but also on the community, on the church. How can a bishop be in relationship with members of that community if there’s a whole area of their lives that can not be discussed?”

I once served an urban parish the members of which spoke in glowing terms of two previous rectors with long tenures. They described them as “celibate men” who lived chastely with “companions.” Their commitment to denial was bone-deep and baffling when it was obvious to me that these men were living with gay lovers. In the gay community their behaviors as well as inclinations were common knowledge but straights were unwilling to accept the simple truth.

“You need to understand,” said a parish priest about the reactions of some church members to Robinson’s consecration, “that there is a yuck factor. As long as they don’t have to think about what it means, they can live with the abstraction. They often agree that the consecration merely ratified what everybody has long known to be true but when they visualize what it means to have gay sex, many straight men and women blanch.”

Perhaps they feel similarly about the blessing of same sex unions (which is practiced in several dioceses but not sanctioned by the Church as a whole). In that discussion too we hear the same theological and scriptural rationales for positions on all sides of the conversation but those stated positions frequently obscure the fact that people are not talking about religion so much as sex and how they really feel about homosexual sex.

Anyone who followed the path of women to ordination as priests and Bishops in the Episcopal Church can write the script as to who is saying what on which sides of the question and what they are saying. When a sexual controversy erupts, it is like calling central casting and asked them to send over the usual suspects. So I will merely invoke rather than describe their predictable positions. You, dear reader, can fill in the blanks.

The Consecration raises thorny legal issues for the Episcopal Church that are just beginning to be discussed. Some American dioceses are threatening to withdraw from the Episcopal Church over this issue and some want to establish alternative structures of authority based on theological similarities rather than tradition, hierarchy or geography. This constitutes a novel challenge for the church. When women’s ordination posed a similar threat to political unity a few decades ago, some parishes left the church but had to leave behind the parish’s buildings and belongings because they were owned by the diocese. This time, the threat of whole dioceses to withdraw raises the question of whether parishes wishing to remain faithful to the larger body would have to surrender their property to the conservatives and head for the nearest high school auditorium to worship. This question is currently being studied by canon lawyers and no one knows how it will be resolved.

But this, as I said, is from the Western point of view. When we listen to some of the Asian or African Bishops who are distressed, we find they are not concerned primarily with the issues as touched upon above because in their cultures, identity, community, and human sexuality are framed so differently.

In the second installment we will look at some of these cultural dimensions and see why the search for common ground is not easy to find. We will also see how the problems of the Episcopalians illuminate the landscape of the Roman Catholic Church as well.

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