Why the Anglican-Episcopal clash may spell a theological revision (COMMENTARY)

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The Washington National Cathedral is finishing its first $10 million phase to repair damage sustained in a 2011 earthquake. The second phase, expected to cost $22 million and take more than twice as much time, has yet to begin. Religion News Service photo by Lauren Markoe

The Washington National Cathedral is finishing its first $10 million phase to repair damage sustained in a 2011 earthquake. The second phase, expected to cost $22 million and take more than twice as much time, has yet to begin. Religion News Service photo by Lauren Markoe

(RNS) What’s next for the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion?

The widening chasm was on full display last week as a meeting of Anglican primates voted to suspend the LGBT-affirming Episcopal Church in the United States from participating in decisions about doctrine or polity for three years.

Though no surprise to church watchers, the decision was jarring for Episcopalians who take pride in their denomination’s inclusive stance on sexual minorities.

News reports on the censure invariably quoted Episcopalians dismayed and disappointed that the worldwide Anglican Communion does not share their enthusiasm for LGBT inclusion in the church.

RELATED STORY: Episcopal Church suspended from full participation in Anglican Communion

Episcopalians, from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry down to everyday priests and lay people, remain resolutely confident that they are on the right side of history.

But the Episcopal Church has to understand that affirming a marginalized minority group against an overwhelmingly traditionalist consensus means that, at least for the foreseeable future, its connection to global ecumenical Christianity will be strained.

Of course, if the tide of Christian history turns toward affirmation of same-sex marriage, then the American branch of Anglicanism will be cheered for centuries as a prophetic witness against hate and baseless prejudice.

But if the ecumenical Christian consensus continues to understand marriage as the union of a man and a woman, then the primates’ action last week will be seen as the first formal step toward an inevitable schism.

The censure raises vital questions about how much disagreement can be tolerated; whether divergent teachings on marriage and sexuality constitute minor differences of interpretation or major theological revisions; and how majorities will punish dissenting minorities.

What does the potential Episcopal-Anglican split mean for the evolution of Christian teaching on sexuality?

RELATED STORY: Anglican leaders downplay censure of Episcopal Church

It means that interdenominational Protestant and ecumenical Christian cooperation could be ever more determined by views on sexuality rather than on historic commitments to specific doctrines or practices.

For centuries, the Book of Common Prayer has ordered the worship and prayers of Anglicans across a vast empire and then among independent national churches.

The Anglican Communion can abide differences in language, culture, and style. But, for now at least, different understandings of the nature of marriage are a bridge too far.

The Episcopal Church had already affirmed gay people and accepted gay clergy, but last summer it approved a liturgy for same-sex marriage.

Christianity has long taught that marriage is the lifelong, exclusive union of a man and a woman, ordered to procreation, and that sexual relations are properly reserved for such unions. It will not quickly or easily change its teaching.

There is a tension between the prominence of maleness and femaleness in Christianity’s creation myths and the Apostle Paul’s teaching that “there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28).

But a religion that imagines itself to be the Bride of Christ and envisions the eschatological future as a “marriage supper” (Revelation 19:9) seems especially unlikely to accommodate the idea that marriage is a genderless institution.

Still, even if global Christianity does not soon (or ever) adopt the Episcopal Church’s affirmation of LGBT equality, the Episcopal Church’s and other liberal Protestant denominations’ affirmations have put pressure on conservatives to challenge church support for discriminatory public policies, including criminalization of homosexuality.

In the same communique that censured the Episcopal Church, Anglican primates “reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people.”

Advocates for LGBT affirmation speak of the right side of history, while traditionalists often prefer to think of themselves on “the right side of eternity.” But whether Christian history stretches to eternity, one thing is sure: It is long, and change is often measured in centuries.

The Episcopal-Anglican tension illustrates, above all, that doctrines involving the nature and purpose of marriage are not items of secondary concern. They are foundational to how Christians understand human relationships and their relationship to the divine.

(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University)

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  • Tom Downs

    Good commentary. Just one qualifier: there was no suspension Censure is closer. The meeting in question does not have the power to suspend; at least that is the view of the Archbishop of Canterbury. A close reading of the actual communicay (not the early leaked and significantly spun version) says essentially that a majority of the primates attending don’t want the Episcopal Church presenting its point of view on this question as representing theirs, or.that of the Anglican Communion. It’s a rejection of TEC’s views on same sex marriage, not a rejection of TEC. In all likelihood TEC will still send representatives to the various meetings of the Communion, but keep a low profile.

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  • David

    If they want to keep the conservatives in the church and the most of the moderates they will repent. It is pretty arrogant to say we are all behind this when a 40% of the members don’t agree.

  • Thomas Didymus

    So what’s this to me? I can go to any Anglican church in the world and participate fully. No one is checking credentials at the door. Of what conceivable interest can it be to any Episcopalian or other Anglican whether or not ecclesiastical bureaucrats of the American church get to vote in conclaves whose decisions have absolutely no import for our religious practice or for our lives.

  • Well, this was coming, no doubt. We had a “gay” priest, he is and continues to
    be a wonderful man and priest. As far as we knew he did not have or ever
    brought a partner to church. I do not care about his personal life in respects to
    who he is with. He left not because he had problems, but simply we could not
    afford two priests. We had several “unity” events where two gays joined in what
    can be considered a marriage. We have a male deacon who has a gay daughter
    and she is a priest and has a partner and her congregation has no problems with
    either of them. This is going to be the future and we need to find a way of acceptance its not going away.

  • Debbo

    “Christianity has long taught that marriage is the lifelong, exclusive union of a man and a woman, ordered to procreation, and that sexual relations are properly reserved for such unions.”

    That’s true. It’s wrong, a simplistic, literal is reading of inaccurate translations, but Christianity certainly did teach that for centuries. Just now they’re beginning to get it right. How refreshing!

  • Heather Hall

    Really happy to see the Anglican leaders censure the Episcopal Church. Hopefully this will help them wake up. If they look at where Jesus is working in the world today, they will see He is blessing and using churches that uphold Biblical teachings including an orthodox understanding of homosexual conduct as sin. The Episcopal Church, on the other hand, has long been a dying church, with negative growth and one of the highest loss rates of young people of any denomination. Additionally, a large % of active Episcopalians have not supported the church’s LGBT position and a large % have left the church for churches in which Jesus is alive and present with power. Some of the fastest growing churches in the US are the split-away Anglican churches which were formed when those who incorrectly interpret Jesus’ teachings on sexuality seized control of the church. I urge Episcopalians to use this opportunity to engage in self-reflection and return the church to a Biblical, Christ centered…

  • David

    Gays have been going to seminary for quite some time to get their agenda across but to be honest I don’t think anybody is buying it. All they do is run family after family off and pretty soon we will be extinct. I think the Episcopal Church needs to repent and get back on track.

  • Doug Desper

    Let us not look on the Episcopal Church as a monolithic Church. Be assured that there are many, many people in the Church that do not agree that Marriage revision was the right decision in the name of equality. Although General Convention formed a policy it is not at all accepted across the board in the church. The so-called Marriage Study entirely omitted Jesus’ affirmation of bonds and marriage in Genesis 2 (see Matthew 19). Although a lot of traditionalists have walked away from TEC due to these kinds of seismic changes there is the potential for many more consequences just within the Episcopal household itself.

  • Anonymous

    And what agenda is that? That we shouldn’t discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation? Homosexuality does not harm anyone. The consensus of social science shows that gay couples are just as committed and faithful as straight couples, and they are just as capable parents. Why would these faithful, loving relationships be deemed sinful (and spare me your Biblical prooftexts. You can use the Bible to support almost anything, including slavery)? I am proud that TEC accepts LGBT people into their church. They are far more Christ-like than any of the modern-day Pharisees in right-wing churches.