Friday, December 09, 2005

The Gay Issue

A few weeks ago, I was hanging out in the RLP chat room when I was joined by a fellow Episcopalian. She had checked my profile prior to beginning the conversation, and asked me what I meant by "liberal Episcopalian".

It is an ambiguous term. Am I politically liberal? Yes, but that's not what I meant.

With some denominations, you can assume what the average pew sitter believes with a degree of accuracy. Things are not so easy with Episcopalians – there are a few things one must believe, and many things one may believe. And the definitions of what one must believe are relatively open; for example, saying "the Bible contains everything necessary for salvation" is different than saying every word in the Bible is literally true.

One priest defined it as buoys: some want to keep those buoys are far apart as possible; others want them to be fairly narrow. I like the buoys to be spaced far apart, and thus qualify as a liberal.

I tried to think of the least offensive way to short-hand this. In the end, all I could think of what the latest hot-button issue (for Episcopals as well as many other mainstream denominations), gay ordination. Then I tried to find the least confrontational way to phrase it. What I finally typed was, "I was not offended by the ordination of Gene Robinson."

Gene Robinson is an openly gay man (with a partner) who was ordained bishop last year. That ordination brought the issue to the forefront for our denomination.

When I typed it, I was aware that it could begin an argument. The lady I was visiting with respectfully said she was opposed to the ordination, but was even more hurt by the schism it has caused in the church.

Later on, trying to respect her opinion, I compared the action of the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA) to the US invasion of Iraq. In both instances, the United States acted aggressively without consideration of world opinion. I agree with one, and disagree with the other. In my lazier moments, I call one action "right" and the other "wrong".

I also described the church's action as being prophetic. She asked me what I meant, and we were interrupted before I could respond.

For our example, let's take another controversial action, whose heat has comparatively cooled off: women's ordination. Most denominations now admit women into the ministry. The Episcopal church was not the first to ordain women (I think the Methodists were first), but it was among the first. It's an accepted fact, and many who originally opposed women's ordination now recognize it as a blessing.

Those who opposed women's ordination cited scripture to support their case. It must be admitted that women's roles in scripture are primarily subservient in both testaments. There are exceptions (e.g., Deborah in the Old Testament), but they stand out by their scarcity. They cited Paul's admonition that a woman should remain silent in church. Their understanding of the Bible was literal.

Those in favor of women's ordination read these passages as a reflection of the culture in which they were written – considerably more male-dominated than today's. They cited the leadership roles played by women in the New Testament. For example, some of Paul's missionary trips were funded with a rich woman's money. Their understanding was dynamic; new meanings could be extrapolated based on historical and theological analysis.

As I say, today most people who now attend a church with a woman minister (regardless of denomination) recognize what a gift that ministry is. Most people recognize that the decision to ordain women was the right decision.

But at the time it was highly controversial. Many people left the church because of it. Many people in the world-wide Anglican communion opposed the action, as did the Archbishop of Canterbury. Some felt it was the right action, but at the wrong time.

How do you know the right time? Sometimes you take the action, and cross your fingers. The test of years proves whether you did the right thing at the right time. Right action is not a question of majority rule. Sometimes someone has to take the lead, however unpopular, and hope the crowd will catch up to them.

This kind of risky action can be prophetic. In this example, we learned that – in spite of Biblical and societal prejudices to the contrary – women can be leaders, can speak forthrightly in church, can be ministers.

I hope, in time, that we will look at these years of turmoil concerning the "gay issue" and realize that the Episcopal did the right thing at the right time in this instance as well.

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