Wall Street Journal, 12 Aug 03

A Schism Averted?

By Harvey Cox

Once again, the Episcopal Church has defused a major crisis in -- there's only one way to put it -- a very Episcopalian way. By confirming Bishop Gene Robinson, a gay man, the Episcopal Church has done the other denominations a great favor. It has boldly stood up to a difficult issue, and the signs are good that it will avoid a major schism -- and not for the first time.

The Episcopalian record is encouraging. When Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians split into northern and southern contingents over slavery in the 19th century, the Episcopalian church did not. When some Episcopalians quoted "Let women keep silent in your churches," and threatened secession to oppose the ordination of women priests, a handful of parishes left, but the church stayed together. When the Rev. Barbara Harris was consecrated as the first woman bishop, more rumblings about schism were heard, but nothing serious came of it, and now the petite Bishop Harris sips tea with her fellow Anglican prelates at Lambeth Palace. When other churches might have fragmented into bitter subsects, Episcopalians agreed to disagree, and they have preserved the decentralized unity of the 70 million- member, worldwide Anglican communion.

Episcopalians handle deep disagreement better than most. How do they do it? As they never tire of reminding the rest of us, theirs is a "bridge church." It combines the Reformation's reliance on the Bible with a strong Catholic emphasis on tradition. It also recognizes reason and experience as sources of authority. Historically, looking to all of these elements together has enabled Anglicans to maintain a strong but supple authority, and to handle conflicting interpretations without excommunicating anyone.

When one of these pillars is asserted without being balanced by the others, however, there is always trouble. The opponents of Bishop Robinson's confirmation who quoted Bible verses during the discussion in Minneapolis must have known they had a weak case. The same word, usually translated as "abomination," which in the Hebrew Scriptures is frequently applied to certain homosexual acts, is also used to condemn eating any pork product or even touching the skin of a pig. Those who enjoy crisp bacon with their fried eggs or a game of touch football on the beach should take notice. The trouble with flinging out texts is that everyone is selective about what to quote and what not to. Not only did St. Paul tell women to be silent in the churches, he also told slaves to obey their masters. Opponents of emancipation and of women's ordination often cited these verses, but this only illustrates clearly that we need to rely not just on the biblical text itself but also, as we do in constitutional law, on the history of its interpretation.

What about tradition? The opponents of Bishop Robinson also cited "the tradition of the church" to oppose him. But tradition means "handing over"; it refers not just what has happened in the past, but also to what is going on now. Christians believe that God continues to be active in the church and leads his people into new truth. At the Minneapolis meeting Bishop Robinson said God did not stop revealing his will when the scriptural canon was closed. This is an insight drawn from the "Catholic" side of the Episcopal heritage. It was brilliantly articulated in the 19th century by John Henry Newman, an Anglican who became a Roman Catholic, in his celebrated work "An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine." Newman believed that the truths imbedded in biblical doctrines only gradually come to light over the centuries as the church faced new challenges. The farewell message of an earlier Pastor Robinson, as he sent the Pilgrim fathers (who were of course Anglicans), off for the new world were, "Remember, God has yet new light and truth to break forth from his holy word." It is a sound insight. Episcopalians, like most Christians, are Trinitarians. They believe the Divine Spirit, which guides the church today, is just as divine as the Father and the Son. Consequently, the living tradition of the church, when taken in tandem with the Bible and with past tradition, must also be recognized as a valid expression of authority.

Reason also has a role to play, although never on its own. It must always be guided and corrected by Scripture and tradition. It is clear to any reasonable person today, for example, that when the biblical prohibitions against non-reproductive sex were first enunciated, the population problem was the reverse of what it is today. Most children died in infancy, plagues and natural disasters struck frequently, and there was always the possibility that the tribe itself could perish. Every drop of semen had to be directed toward replenishing the race. This is hardly our issue today.

As for experience, another pillar of authority, all we have to do is look around us. In the last decades many gay and lesbian people, including the Christians among them, no longer feel they have to pretend or dissimulate. They are now part of our lives. They fix our TV's, sit in the halls of Congress, teach in our schools and colleges and write the books we read. The vast majority of them shun the gay demimonde. They are too busy doing cancer research and practicing their cellos. In most of these fields they can rise to whatever level their ability and dedication permit. Most of us would prefer to be in the hands of a skilled gay brain surgeon or airline pilot rather than be left to the mercy of a straight one who is just learning the ropes. Luckily we are spared that choice today. Should the church remain the only exception to what we experience and appreciate every day in the other areas of or lives?

For years now many local churches of different denominations have identified themselves as "open and welcoming" congregations. What they all report is that after an initial flurry, soon gay and lesbian members simply attend communion, sing in the choir, present their adopted children for baptism, sign up for spiritual retreats, staff the food pantry and attend Bible study and prayer groups. They do not like to be singled out as different, nor do they want to belong to a "gay church." They want to be treated with dignity and respect, as we all do, while they try to meet their own spiritual needs and follow the teachings of Jesus (who never uttered a syllable about homosexuality) to care for the wounded, feed the hungry and show compassion to the broken-hearted.

Several other denominations have been stalling for years on the status of gay Christians in the church. Should they be welcomed at all, or barred at the door? Should they be content with second-class citizenship and excluded from leadership? Should we go back to pretending they are not there at all when everyone knows they are? We as Christians need to get past this enervating debate so that we can move on to other pressing issues that require the churches' attention, such as the growing gap between the rich and the poor -- about which Jesus did have something very clear to say.

I am not an Episcopalian, but I commend that church for the deliberate way it proceeded to come to a decision about the nagging questions that have paralyzed so many other churches. The rest of us have been set a good example.

Mr. Cox, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, is the author of "Common Prayers: Faith, Family and a Christian's Journey Through the Jewish Year" (Mariner, 2002).