Contradictory position

Virginia schismatics' actions repudiate principals they claim to uphold
February 12, 2007

The defection of nine Episcopal parishes in Virginia from the Episcopal Church to place themselves under the jurisdiction of the Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria represents a repudiation of the very principles of fidelity to Scripture and reverence for tradition that the dissidents claim to uphold.

The schismatics cite the 2003 elevation of V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as bishop of New Hampshire, and the willingness on the part of some Episcopal bishops to allow for the ecclesiastical blessing of same-gender unions as the precipitating cause for their action. They also object to the election of a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori, as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

But on what grounds? If the dissidents claim the Bible as their warrant for schism, then they have to explain why Jesus said nothing whatsoever about sex (although he had a good bit to say about money and caring for those he called "the least of these"). If they cite the Levitical proscriptions against homosexuality, then they should support capital punishment for anyone caught in adultery and refuse to "wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material" -- injunctions that appear in the same Levitical tables.

Jesus may not have directly addressed sexuality, but he did have some choice words about divorce -- and none of them good. Curiously, however, although the biblical teachings about divorce are unequivocal, the dissidents in Virginia are silent on that issue. If they read the Bible as literally as they claim to do, they would deny membership and ordination to anyone who was ever divorced.

At issue here is the historical contingency of biblical interpretation. Christians in centuries past have quoted Scripture to justify their support for slavery and segregation and for their opposition to the ordination of women, positions generally at odds with current understandings of the faith. Yet the schismatics cling to a slavishly literal interpretation of the relatively recondite -- and highly contested -- admonitions against homosexuality, even though they are prepared to circumvent the less-ambiguous teachings on divorce.

The dissidents' second objection to Bishops Robinson and Jefferts Schori and to same-gender unions, namely that their elevation violates church tradition, also is mistaken.

Anglicans (Episcopalians in this country) properly defer to tradition, but historically they also have been willing to call tradition into question and to re-examine their positions. The stirrings of conscience in William Wilberforce, an Anglican, eventually led to the abolition of the slave trade by the British Parliament 200 years ago, despite the fact that many of his opponents argued from both Scripture and tradition.

So, too, with the ordination of women. On July 29, 1974, eleven women were ordained irregularly to the Episcopal priesthood by three bishops, two retired and one resigned. Two years later, the Episcopal Church, in a break with tradition, formally approved the ordination of women. Today, only three of the 100 dioceses of the Episcopal Church deny ordination to women, and a majority of Anglican provinces worldwide recognize female ordination.

In all cases, as in the case of Gene Robinson, these decisions were not taken lightly. Rather, the revisiting of tradition was done through the deliberative processes of the church and affirmed by both bishops and laity. Dissident parishes have every right to disagree and even to depart, but their actions represent a grievous disruption of church unity, akin to the secession of South Carolina from the Union prior to the Civil War -- or a petulant child gathering his marbles and heading for home.

For the dissident parishes of Virginia, "home" is Nigeria. They have elected to place themselves under the spiritual care of an archbishop who recently declared that "Poverty is not an issue, human suffering is not an issue at all" and who is agitating to make it illegal for gays to dine together in public places.

The baptismal covenant in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer calls on the faithful to affirm "the communion of saints," to "serve Christ in all persons" and to "respect the dignity of every human being." My prayer book says nothing about excluding women or gays or Gene Robinson or Katharine Jefferts Schori from that formula.