Commentary: End of Anglican orthodoxy?

UPI, Aug. 7, 2003 (Opinion)
Father Guy Hawtin

BALTIMORE, Aug. 7 (UPI) — The confirmation of the Anglican Communion’s first openly gay bishop by the American Episcopal Church’s national convention represents a profound break with scriptural authority and catholic order that radically redefines the word “traditionalism.”

It forces everyone in Anglican Orders — male and female — with anything approaching an orthodox understanding of biblical authority into the traditionalist camp. In doing so, it throws into far sharper contrast the fundamental issue in the theological struggle that has increasingly divided the communion since the 1960s.

For most traditionalists, this is welcome. It is tiresome to be written off as misogynist Neanderthals, opposed solely to liturgical revision and women at the altar. For most of us, the problem has always been one of scriptural authority: Does the Bible mean what it says it means, or are we free to revise it to accommodate every contemporary fad?

Theological niceties will, of course, largely be lost, or ignored, by a media that is broadly sympathetic to the gay agenda. Some new traditionalists are, thus, likely to be reluctant to come out of the closet, so to speak, for fear of being branded “homophobes.”

But the sexual scandals currently afflicting the Roman Catholic Church make it difficult for the parochial clergy to ignore the issue. And this, in turn, makes it harder to portray opposition to the consecration of a sexually active homosexual bishop as anti-gay.

Many, if not most, of the Roman Catholic priests who are claimed to have seduced young male parishioners cannot be criminally charged because the youngsters were above the age of consent. Rather than criminal acts, these cases thus involve a betrayal of pastoral responsibility and, as such, are matters of civil suits for damages.

It is not unreasonable to fear that the Rev V. Gene Robinson’s consecration might well serve as license for gay clergy to cruise their parishes, with baleful legal and financial implications for the Episcopal Church and its parishes.

But truth to tell, Bishop-elect Robinson’s confirmation drives a coach and horses through the whole notion of clerical chastity, gay and heterosexual. It would be hypocritical in the extreme for a bishop to discipline an unmarried curate for failing to “contain his [or her] vessel” when a colleague in the House of Bishops manifestly refuses to contain his.

And what of couples contemplating marriage? How can they be expected to grasp the orthodox concept of marriage as an unconditional and lifelong union between a man and a woman when a bishop has abandoned wife and kids to set up house with another man?

Ultimately, Bishop-elect Robinson’s consecration is a further step in the marginalization of the Episcopal Church in American religious life. By most estimates, the jurisdiction has lost some 1.5 million members since the 1970s. With single-sex unions on the way, this latest episode will not do much to halt the hemorrhage or enhance recruitment.

But on past experience, it is unlikely to prompt the departure of many parishes. In church law, parochial property is held in trust for the diocese and, generally, Episcopalians have proved unwilling to sacrifice their stone and stained glass on the altar of orthodoxy.

Nor are clergy likely to depart in significant numbers. Their reluctance is by no means attributable solely to fear of losing pay, perquisites and pensions. America’s traditionalist jurisdictions have a woeful track record of ugly quarrels and bitter divisions. This does not inspire confidence in people struggling to raise families on modest church salaries.

Inertia, however, can also be expected to play a role, as illustrated by the following story: An elderly priest, on returning from national convention, was asked by his wife how things had gone. “Terrible,” he said, “There was a workshop on dualism, and the delegates were so taken with it, the convention voted to declare Satan co-redemptor.”

“Oh gosh!” replied wife, “That’s total apostasy.” “Right!” the old priest exclaimed, “Another thing like that and I’m out of this church!”

Father Guy Hawtin is Rector of St. Stephen’s Traditional Episcopal Church, Timonium, Md., a parish of the Anglican Church in America.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday August 8, 2003.
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