Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Episcopalians, Homosexuality, and World Mission

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Episcopalians, Homosexuality, and World Mission

Article excerpt

Worldwide response to the consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop has been vociferous, with bishops from the global south registering particular distress and condemnation. But why is it that Anglicans from quite distant churches, many facing their own dire challenges, have become so disturbed over homosexuality within another province? The answer has to do in part with a prior retreat from international companionship by the Episcopal Church, especially its liberals/progressives. Moreover, in the same measure as their absence from mission relationships, Episcopalians have missed the peculiar ways homosexuality has become significant for the missions of many southern churches, and so have misunderstood both what is at stake in the international debate, and how this has come to bear on their internal debate. Yet if the crisis is indeed missiological at root, there is hope for renewal, just insofar as the Episcopal Church moves toward becoming a more faithful mission companion.

It has often been remarked that the 1998 Lambeth Conference marked a new era for the Anglican Communion, for it was there the bishops of the global south discovered the strength of their collective voice. Since then there has been growing attention in the Anglican "north" to the burgeoning vitality within southern (especially African) Anglican provinces. This has been especially so recently, as the voices of many southern bishops have again been heard in Canterbury and North America, in their open denunciations of the Episcopal Church's decision to consecrate a gay bishop, and in their calls for a renewal of mission unity within the Communion. Their voices have of course been welcomed by conservative Episcopalians, who find important allies for their perspective, while they have been distressing for liberals, who seem hurt and confused that third-world leaders are on the "wrong" side of a progressive issued Corresponding polemical tactics emerge: conservatives marshal Communion-wide support, while liberals defend American autonomy or search for the international minority. What may be missed by both sides in the midst of such tactics, however, is the missiological background to the international crisis: many southern bishops speak from provinces whose communion with the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) has already been impaired for some time, and from provinces in which homosexuality is often a different sort of pastoral issue than it is in the United States.

What I wish to suggest, then, is that the anger, dismay, and urgency that have characterized recent voices from outside ECUSA have much to do with a prior crisis in the Episcopal Church's presence in the wider Anglican Communion, as well as with pressing missional concerns for churches in the global south. Failure to recognize this has allowed the consecration of Gene Robinson, and the issue of homosexuality generally, to raise central ecclesiological questions about the identity and mission of Anglican churches-yet without addressing these underlying missiological issues. Some account of the role of mission practice in the homosexuality debate is required, therefore, if we are to understand those ecclesiological questions in a way illuminative of both their international and domestic importance-and if we are to discover answers fittingly missiological in character.

The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society

If you are an Episcopalian, you are, by virtue of your baptism and confirmation, a member of a missionary society. The full incorporated name of the Episcopal Church is, after all, "The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America."2 Therefore, if it is so that deciding about what it means to he church, as well as saying something distinctively Christian about homosexuality, requires recovering the grounds of our ecclesial identity, then we do well to remember that the identity of the Episcopal Church is closely tied to mission practice. …

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