By Leander S. Harding
The Episcopal Church’s 77th General Convention has now adopted a new liturgy for blessing same-sex relationships. The rationale given for these blessings in both the study commissioned by the House of Bishops and by the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music’s triennial report includes a redefinition of Christian marriage which denies the significance of God’s creation of persons as male and female and demotes the significance of procreation and the biological family in God’s plan for humanity.
Among other things this new teaching undercuts the vocations of motherhood and fatherhood, as our gendered identities are cut loose from their biblical grounding. The proposal is radical in its approach to the Bible and in its practical and pastoral applications. It changes centuries of Christian teaching on Holy Matrimony and will be unrecognizable to the overwhelming majority of the world’s Anglicans and the wider oikumene, whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical, or Pentecostal. The proponents of this new teaching regard it as their missionary duty to press forward in response to “the leading of the Spirit.”
Here appears a moral challenge for the majority with the winning votes at General Convention. How will they engage locally those who as a matter of conscience cannot accept the new teaching? To what degree will the new teaching be made a status confessionis, that is, a teaching upon which the Church must unite or divide? This is unclear in light of its presentation as an act of the Holy Spirit, leaving the ominous implication that those who resist are quenching the Spirit.
I suspect that the General Convention will not be of one mind with respect to requiring acceptance of the new teaching as a mark of loyalty to the doctrine and discipline of the Episcopal Church. If it is not to be a status confessionis this should be explicitly articulated, alongside a commitment to protecting the right of conscience by loyal members of the church — individuals, congregations, and dioceses — to resist. The ordination of women sets a worrying precedent here, as General Convention subsequently reneged on its promise to protect conscience, quickly resorting to canonical and legal pressure on traditionalist parishes and dioceses (even as provincial autonomy for the Episcopal Church in the wider Communion is vociferously defended).
It is doubtful that a new teaching can be successfully imposed on the flock of Christ; Christian faith in all its aspects must be the free response of the human heart to the grace of God. Happily, the truth of the Gospel has a winning and winsome power. New teachings go through a period of reception in which the conscience of the whole Christian people takes its proper role in accepting or rejecting a novum as congruent with the faith of the Apostles. For the process to work properly it is necessary that innovators practice properly Christian methods of teaching and persuasion, marked by humility, nonviolence and forbearance.
Great objections have been raised by many progressives in our church to the Anglican Covenant because of its proposed disciplinary measures which are seen as coercive. What limits will be placed on coercion in the propagating of this new teaching on same-sex blessings? Will candidates who cannot accept it be barred from consideration for ordained ministry? Will congregations that cannot accept it be prevented from securing kindred rectors, or dioceses prevented from securing like-minded bishops? Will clergy and lay leaders be excluded from any significant role in the councils of the church? More generally, will those who resist be subjected to ridicule and scorn? Will our oft-touted commitment to inclusivity include a diversity of conscience in this field of theological and ethical innovation? Will we cultivate a Christian ethics of persuasion appropriate to the exercise of conscience, thus avoiding winner-take-all imposition?
If General Convention proceeds to approve same-sex blessings, more departures will doubtless follow. How the “winners” approach the process of reception will, in large part, determine the size of the exodus.
The Rev. Leander S. Harding is dean of church relations and seminary advancement and associate professor of pastoral theology at Trinity School for Ministry.