By Russell J. Levenson, Jr.
During the summer the Episcopal Church concurred with the Supreme Court in affirming that the institution of marriage now includes same-sex couples. There were cheers and tears of celebration on the floor of 78th General Convention, and the traditional perspective was voted down in a landslide.
As a conservative, evangelical, orthodox Episcopal priest, I did not agree with the decision. Fortunately, the leadership of the Episcopal Church (like that of the Presbyterian Church USA) has allowed for the discretion of bishops and individual clergy regarding same-sex marriage. Unfortunately, some of the debate at Convention included accusations of bigotry and discrimination — painful darts to throw after the tragedy in Charleston. No one wants to be labeled a bigot and clearly no one wants to side with bigots, so voting “against” the measure proved more difficult.
Most Christians I know, and those with whom I have served for more than two decades of ministry, do not support the paradigm shift in marriage, not because we are bigots but because we simply cannot find support for it in our most sacred texts. In my ordination, I pledged that “I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God” (BCP, p. 526).
Some conservatives have, for decades in this culture war, played a role in the great divide on human sexuality. Some forget C.S. Lewis’s wise counsel that the heart of Christian morality rests not with sex but the decisions and actions of the heart. On our side of the remaining gap, we would do well to find more ways to grant greater inclusion and understanding to gays and lesbians. Perhaps some of us may find our way to supporting civil unions. I do.
Nevertheless, the work of reconciliation now rests primarily with those who whole-heartedly supported the monumental shift. Why? Because, frankly, you can tell a lot about the majority by the way it includes the minority. The first task before those who have placed this decision before the greater Church is to ponder the message it sends. It is a decision that will require reconciliation — toward the greater Anglican Communion, now numbering roughly 76 million Anglicans to America’s roughly 2 million; and toward Roman Catholics, Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians, Southern Baptists, Methodists, and countless other Christians for whom the decision simply does not square with what has been a bedrock of their faith. The decision will also hamper efforts by many Christian communities, like my own parish, to build relationships with Muslims and Conservative Jews who cannot support same-sex marriage.
“The ultimate triumph of sanctifying grace in our lives will occur only when we have cast off the triumphalist spirit,” writes Richard Mouw in Uncommon Decency (InterVarsity , p. 179). “Humility is the only fitting attitude for creatures who are on their way to the fullness of God’s kingdom.” Both sides need a dose of humility but, again, those who have won the day carry the greater burden.
The fresh words of our newly elected presiding bishop, Michael Curry, provide glimmers of hope. In his closing sermon to the Convention he urged authentic inclusion, because the Church unites people of different races and temperaments, including traditionalists, progressives, Republicans, and Democrats.
After a generation of infighting, Americans should hope and pray that Bishop Curry’s vision comes to fruition. The Episcopal/Anglican Way has vitally advanced the cause of human dignity and excellence, and at its best has helped heal a host of wounds.
As theologian Ephraim Radner points out, the Anglican tradition has shaped what is now the world language of commerce, scholarship, and the Internet. It inspired the imaginations of writers and poets from Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot, and musicians from Purcell to Benjamin Britten. It grounded and guided Francis Bacon in his scientific research, inspired Wilberforce to work for the abolition of the slave trade, gave Janani Luwum the courage to stand up to Idi Amin, and aided Archbishop Tutu in his confrontation with apartheid.
Anglicanism is a living tradition, still subject to God’s providence. What may on the surface look like dissolution may be the labor pains of a more genuine conception of what it means to be the body of Christ on earth. Our divisions may call on us, corporately and individually, to think of what it means to follow Jesus Christ.
In the last diocese I served, there were six forms of Anglican/Episcopal expression in one small county on the eastern shore of Alabama, many of which broke away from one another. I wonder what God thinks of everybody worshiping in different rooms down the street from one another. Institutional schism is a grave sin and not to be taken lightly.
The specter of denominational churches, wracked by financial and moral scandal across the oikumene, might inspire us to dismount from our competitive high horses and take seriously the body of Christ beyond our parochial bounds. No single denomination is sin-free or contains all truth. The old question remains: How to approach visible unity, beyond winning and losing?
Practicing our faith within divided Christian communities marks a tremendous witness of commitment and faithfulness. The Rev. Richard Kew has written that when opposing sides of the Church push a “non-negotiable political correctness, it stymies any chance of reconciliation. We cannot restore the Church to a pristine state, but if we are willing to set preconditions aside it is then entirely possible that something new, beautiful, and even better can be born as we allow God’s Spirit to take us into his embrace” [“Rekindling the Fire of Hope” TLC, Jan. 16, 2011, p. 21].
New labor pains are upon us. May the Episcopal Church and its leaders have the will and the ways to live together unto unity, and perhaps bring to birth a new “Jesus Movement,” in Bishop Curry’s words, in service of the Whole.
The Rev. Russell J. Levenson, Jr., is rector of St. Martin’s Church, Houston.