Episcopalian Crisis: Authority, Homosexuality & the Future of Anglicanism

By Seltser, Barry Jay | Commonweal, May 19, 2006 | Go to article overview

Episcopalian Crisis: Authority, Homosexuality & the Future of Anglicanism


Seltser, Barry Jay, Commonweal


Many Roman Catholics, ordained and lay, were understandably concerned when the Vatican issued its statement last fall barring men with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" from the priesthood. If a priest is faithful to his promise of chaste celibacy, what difference does it make if he understands himself to be homosexual? Many people thought it was celibacy, not sexual orientation, that mattered when it came to priestly discipline.

I share the feeling of many people in thinking it is unjust to bar celibate homosexuals from the priesthood. But Rome may have had multiple reasons for issuing such a divisive instruction. Among those possible reasons is the way in which the debate over homosexuality, and especially over the influence, status, and authority of homosexual priests and ministers, has roiled nearly every Protestant denomination. Most conspicuous among those churches where attitudes toward homosexuality pose a serious threat to ecclesial unity is the Anglican Communion.

At its 2003 General Convention, the Episcopal Church of the United States of America (ECUSA) voted to approve the consecration of Gene Robinson, an active homosexual living in a committed relationship, as bishop of New Hampshire. At the same time, the Anglican Church of Canada authorized the blessing of same-sex unions. A firestorm erupted, both in North America and worldwide across the Anglican Communion of thirty-eight loosely allied national and regional churches. Conservative and evangelical Episcopalians, especially Anglican primates in Africa, Asia, and South America, made their outrage and objections known in no uncertain terms. Many threatened to leave the Anglican Communion if Robinson's ordination stood, or to try to exclude the American Episcopal Church from the Communion.

The archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who is the symbolic head of the Anglican Communion, sought to forestall outright schism. Williams, believed to be personally sympathetic to the ordination of homosexuals, urged caution on the ECUSA. He commissioned "The Windsor Report," released in 2004, which urged the ECUSA to apologize for its actions and to embrace a moratorium on ordaining openly gay bishops and blessing same-sex unions. As Williams recently told the interviewer David Frost, changing church teaching and practice about homosexuality is not a step any one church in the Anglican Communion should undertake on its own. "For a change on that," Williams said, "I think we would need, as a Communion, to have a far greater level of consensus than we in fact have. Which is why the American determination to go it alone is worrying."

The forging of any broader consensus on the question of homosexuality seems unlikely. Whether American Episcopalians are determined to go it alone is likely to be decided at their next general convention, to be held in Columbus, Ohio, June 13-21. At the top of the convention's agenda may be the approval of another openly gay bishop. Liberal and conservative groups are already maneuvering to contest the disposition of church property if conservative Episcopal churches, and even dioceses, consequently leave the ECUSA and affiliate themselves with dioceses in Africa and elsewhere, as some already have. Few observers think the predominantly liberal ECUSA will back away from the ordination of more open or sexually active gay bishops, which many Episcopalians see as the logical extension of a struggle for equal rights that first led to the still contested ordination of women as priests and bishops. The Anglican Church in England, for example, although it ordains women as priests, has not yet, out of a concern for ecclesial unity, ordained a woman as bishop.

Looking at the impending implosion of the Anglican Communion, Rome, from its perspective, is perhaps more forward thinking than its critics suspect in trying to forestall any similar battle in the Catholic Church. Catholics who hope their church will change its teaching about homosexuality, the ordination of women, priestly celibacy and marriage, and contraception, while adopting a more collegial approach to the exercise of authority and greater respect for individual conscience, should be chastened by the current crisis in the Episcopal Church. …

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