Monday, March 12, 2007

Church-Sex Politics

If churches are determined to cause grief over homosexuality, you’d think they could at least be truthful.

Exhibit #1: Rev. Ted Haggard is “completely heterosexual.”

Such were the claims of the disgraced pastor’s overseers as he emerged in February from three months of self-imposed silence and three weeks of intensive counseling.

The 50-year old Haggard was fired as leader of Colorado Springs’ 14,000-member New Life Church, and resigned as president of the National Association of Evangelicals (which claims to speak for 30 million Americans). Why? A former male prostitute disclosed that for three years Haggard had paid him for sex.

One of his handlers said of Haggard: “He is completely heterosexual… It was the acting-out situations where things took place. It wasn’t a constant thing.”

Excuse me? Sex with a man for three years is not “constant”? Sex with a man for three years is “completely heterosexual”? Please.

There is an accurate term for how Haggard claims to have lived—having sex with his wife, and with another man, during a three-year period. It is called bisexuality. A truthful approach would name it accurately and then consider how it might be candidly addressed.

It might even ask what the Bible really says about homosexuality.

Exhibit #2: The ‘Global South’ wants to expel the Episcopal Church (USA) from the Anglican Communion, because the Bible forbids gay bishops and prayers for same-sex couples.

First, some relevant Anglican membership numbers, culled from various websites:

Anglican Communion worldwide – 78 million
Anglicans in Africa – 44 million
Anglicans in the Church of England – 26 million
Anglicans in Nigeria – 17 million
Anglicans in Episcopal Church (USA) – 2.2 million
Anglicans whose ‘Global South’ primates at Dar es Salaam in February were “unable to come to the Holy Table with the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church” – 30 million

The numbers may not say it all. But they say quite a lot. They say that the power of numbers has never been with the American Episcopal Church. And they say that the power of numbers is no longer with the Church of England but with the Anglicans in the ‘Global South’ (Africa, Latin America and Asia). The power of money is another matter—but the Global South bishops would be happier if more of it flowed their way.

Clearly the Global South bishops are now the majority within the Anglican Communion. They made up their minds some years ago that the Anglo churches have strayed from the authority of the Bible. Ordination of women as priests and bishops was among their objections.

But they went ballistic when the Episcopal Church allowed prayers for same-sex couples and ordained Bishop V. Gene Robinson, who has a same-sex partner. In February, at a meeting of the 38 Anglican primates (presiding bishops) at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, they exacted an ultimatum giving the Episcopal Church a deadline of September 30th to stop those practices or face removal from the communion’s central governing body.

Of the 38 primates, 22 are from the Global South block, and 7 of the 22 declined to share Communion with Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori (the first female primate in the Anglican Communion).

The recognized leader of the 22 and of the 7 is the Most Rev. Peter Akinola, Archbishop of Nigeria.

He has gained notoriety in several ways. In September he excised all references to the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury from his church’s mission statement. In December he undermined due process within the Episcopal Church by accepting into his Nigerian archdiocese 15 Virginia congregations who opposed ordination of a gay bishop.

But he is also famous for backing legislation pending in the Nigerian legislature that would sentence practicing homosexuals—and anyone who supports them—to five years in prison.

When other Anglicans pointed out that the bill contradicted the worldwide Anglican position that gays should not be persecuted, he appeared to back-pedal on his support. Yet the Christian Association of Nigeria, to which his church belongs, still supports the legislation, which has passed two readings in the houses of the National Assembly and is one Senate vote away from passage.

Akinola, of course, is free to have whatever personal beliefs he wants about homosexuals. And he is not alone in the conviction that Christianity cannot tolerate homosexual practice. But you’d think he could at least stop saying, “How do I know? The Bible tells me so.”

The Bible does nothing of the kind. The same-sex couples Akinola refuses to bless are never mentioned in the Bible. They are individuals who discover in themselves an exclusive or predominant attraction to members of their own gender. Not one of the biblical writers has a clue that such individuals exist, and not one of them condemns people who are gay.

The Bible does condemn homosexual misuses of sex. But the consensus of modern biblical scholarship is that the practices condemned are: homosexual rituals in idolatry, homosexual rape, homosexual exploitation of children, homosexual prostitution, and homosexual acts by heterosexuals.

The biblical writers never deny that gay people experience better physical, mental and emotional health in stable, partnered relationships—and they never say that Christians should take a position which basically encourages gay promiscuity, so that they can turn around and belittle it—or, worse still, criminalize it.

Historically the Anglican Communion has been distinguished by its ability to cherish a broad diversity of theological views in a single worldwide community. The diversity was maintained because the national churches within the Anglican Communion all agreed to respect one another’s distinct traditions and identity, including their internal positions on controverted issues.

The power play by the Global South bishops abrogates that mutual agreement. Their pretext is to claim that the Episcopal Church (USA) has departed from the Bible. The pretext is untrue. But the power of numbers has made it successful.

By claiming their negative assessment of homosexuals is required by the Bible and thus a litmus test of orthodox Anglicanism, the Global South bishops are well on their way to making every national church salute their position as the only one a faithful Anglican can take. That places the Episcopal Church in an impossible position: stay in the Communion by denying the clear findings contemporary psychology and biblical scholarship, or finish off the Communion by telling the Global South bishops they have no biblical or ecclesial basis to make such a demand.

Katharine Jefferts Schori appears to be in denial about this. She has yet to call the seven primates to account for perpetrating both a misogynistic slight and an ecclesial assault upon the Eucharist. She has soldiered on nobly since Dar es Salaam, trying to convince Episcopalians to make the concessions the Global South primates want, in order to buy time for reconciliation. She says that the passage of time will allow all parties to the conflict “to wait on God for clarity.”

Yet there is no indication that Global South bishops desire reconciliation. They believe they already have clarity on gay unions and gay bishops. And they want the Anglican Communion to be their church, not hers. Meanwhile, blessed with the clarity provided by biblical scholarship, the Episcopal Church knows that God did not use the Bible to prohibit prayers for same-sex couples or ordination of gay bishops.

Undoubtedly this will be much on the minds of the Episcopal House of Bishops, as they begin a four-day meeting March 15th near Navasota, north of Houston. They cannot bind the Episcopal Church to any official position on these matters, since that is the prerogative of the General Convention, which does not meet until 2009. But in another Global South assault on due process in the Episcopal Church, the primates require an answer by September 30, 2007. It should be an interesting six months.

Bishop Robinson grasps that the ultimate question is whether or not Episcopalians will be true to themselves. If so, they will follow his counsel and “get on with the work of the Gospel” no matter how the Global South primates react. If not, Episcopalians will confirm that the Anglican Communion is already dead and buried, and that it should be renamed what it already has become: the Orthodox Church of the Global South.

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