By Wesley Hill
“Why would you want to be in the Episcopal Church?” an Episcopal priest friend asked me, sincerely. He didn’t mean to be unkind. He simply knew my deep conviction that same-sex marriage is a departure from the teaching of Scripture and was genuinely trying to wrap his mind around why someone who holds that view so tenaciously would want to belong to a church whose trajectory is moving in the opposite direction.
As I write these words — from Austin, as it happens, where the 79th General Convention is well underway, and where I have just preached in an Episcopal parish — my church is debating how much leeway it will allow to so-called traditionalists on marriage, partly under resolution B012. The current uneasy truce, as is well known, permits same-sex marriage throughout the church except in those dioceses whose bishops decline to allow it. Smarter minds and godlier hearts than mine have been debating how to proceed from here, and I don’t want to wander into the canonical weeds at this point.
What I’d like to do instead, very briefly, is to try to answer my friend’s question. Why would someone like me want to stay? And why am I hoping my progressive fellow Episcopalians find a way to make it possible for me to stay in good conscience and, Lord willing, serve this church as a priest?
Two words: family and witness.
Bishop Daniel Martins has spoken of his “conversion to the church” after being raised as an evangelical, and my story is similar. I grew up loving Jesus. My earliest childhood memories involve drawing pictures of the Bible stories depicted in vast and glowing stained glass in my Southern Baptist church sanctuary. In high school, I told my dad I thought God was calling me to a Baptist preacher. But the I didn’t have much of a sense of the Church as a family. I thought of it more along the lines of a voluntary organization: One ought to go along on Sunday mornings (and Sunday nights, and Wednesday nights), but one needn’t do so. What mattered above all was one’s individual relationship with Jesus, and, like the repentant thief on the cross, one could easily be with Jesus in Paradise without baptism, without Communion, without Church.
Something shifted for me, though, when I learned how idiosyncratic such a view is in light of Scripture and the history of the Church. God, I came to understand, does not will to save us without each other. And it is God, not we, who chooses the others with whom we will be saved. Certainly God may act outside the visible boundaries of the Church, but does not normally do so. We are saved not as individuals but as “members one of another” (Rom. 12:5). Salvation just is churchly: We are saved insofar as we are incorporated into Christ’s body, Christ’s family.
What that means, I’ve come to believe, is that I must rejoice in or else suffer through whatever fate befalls that family, whether in judgment or in mercy. No matter how wrong I think the decisions of the Episcopal Church may be, I ought not — I cannot, in fact — try to escape its passage through judgment and redemption by extricating myself and looking for a “better” family somewhere else. That’s not how Church works. I don’t get to choose my family members, and I don’t get to decide our fate.
The second reason is witness. If I were to leave the Episcopal Church because I disagree with the majority of my fellow Episcopalians about the moral (and indeed ontological) status of same-sex marriage, the implication would seem to be that I think my view is a kind of “private” conviction, and I simply need to find the best niche market for it, in light of its rejection in my church.
But that’s not the way I think about the traditional Christian view of marriage. It’s not a “private judgment,” applicable only to those already convinced of its truth. Rather, traditional marriage is a divine given, part of the fabric of creation and of the redeemed order in Christ. It shall not be revised but renewed in the kingdom of God — when the earthly parable or mystery yields to its heavenly consummation (Mark 10:1-12; Eph. 5:21-33; Rev. 19:9).
What this means is that while traditional marriage can be lamented, rejected, or rebelled against, it cannot be undone. And therefore, my calling in the Episcopal Church, as I understand it, is not to defend traditional marriage so much as it is to bear witness to it — to point to it, to remind my brothers and sisters of its givenness and permanency, to highlight its scriptural contours and its ultimate destiny (Matt. 22:30), to hold it in trust until its truth and beauty can be seen again for what it is.
(In a later post, I may explain more fully my thoughts about staying, especially given my journey to the Episcopal Church from the Southern Baptist Convention. Until then, consider my reflections here: “Canterbury Testimonies and the Scandal of Christian Disunity.”)