Facing the Specter of Schism

The “moment of truth” is fast approaching for the ECUSA (the Episcopal Church in the USA), and this summer Columbus, Ohio, will have an opportunity to become as theologically significant as Nicaea or Chalcedon for American Anglicanism. One of the most bitter and divisive controversies of the last century may very well be put to rest with the embracing of an inclusive theological stance that stands unequivocally for justice and equality in Christ for the GLBT worshipping community. However, some centrists in the hierarchy of the ECUSA seem to believe that liberal theological apologists in our church should tone things down. To aggressively engage in heated controversy over doctrinal and moral issues is somehow seen by some as negatively divisive, and something to be avoided at all costs. Instead, they prefer to “kiss and make nice” and indefinitely prolong this dance of disagreement by endlessly proposing further studies and waiting periods before finally tackling the inevitable.

This seems to be the essence of the most recent resolution passed by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia in late January, 2006, where we are being implored to “continue listening to one another” in our contentious controversy regarding full GLBT acceptance (including same-sex blessings and the continuing ordination of gay and lesbian candidates) in the ECUSA. Such efforts are like trying to smooth out the ripples in a pond after a stone has been thrown into its center. We are simply expending too much energy trying to keep factions in a feigned appearance of unity when in reality we have what divorce courts so often hear as the underlying cause of most relational demises–irreconcilable differences.

What seems to be forgotten in this pressing desire to placate Canterbury’s Windsor Report and the homophobic, African ecclesiastical contingency, is that the “unity” of the Church at the expense of justice for the GLBT faithful is a compromise which will temporarily apply a cosmetic veneer of congenial cooperation but can only weaken the internal integrity of the message and mission of this church.

I am writing this missive to promulgate what may be perceived by many in our ranks as a scandalous and divisive proposition: That the time for conversation and compromise is over; we have had over thirty years of discussions, dialogue, debate, conflicting biblical exegesis (as well as eisegesis), and ecclesiastical haggling over whether those within the GLBT community warrant total acceptance and inclusion as full-fledged members of the Episcopal Church with all concomitant privileges of membership in the Community of Christ, including the right to fully participate in all its sacramental rites of passage, including marriage and/or same-sex blessings. There is nothing more to be said that has not already been said or studied. It is time for “Yea” or “Nay.” We are being confronted with the command which echoes down the centuries from the legendary challenge of Elijah: “Choose you this day!” The Episcopal Church has a choice set before it: To fully incorporate gays and lesbians at every level of its common life with full sacramental and liturgical equality of access to its rites and ceremonies, or to grant only a limited toleration of their presence, carefully circumscribed by a curtailment of access to matrimonial rites and privileges in order to satisfy the demands of the self-proclaimed defenders of “orthodoxy.”

The ultimate irony regarding anti-gay, Anglican contingents who tout their doctrinal orthodoxy is that they are actually heretical. They have substituted an idolatrous regard for scripture as statically inerrant for a balanced view of the biblical documents as time-caught records of human striving for divine insight which should only be interpreted in the light of reason, and by the dynamic of living tradition which enables us to apply its guidelines with a sense of cultural relevance and spiritual continuity. Scripture, Reason, and Tradition: These triple pillars of Anglican theology have unfortunately been trumped by what I call the Nigerian Heresy (in honor of its most vocal and belligerent spokesperson) emanating from that infamous cabal of Third World primates who have suddenly discovered Sola Scriptura to be their theological stance of choice, even as they vociferously proclaim an adherence to apostolic Catholicity.

It is interesting to note that in the early Church, Paul’s most adversarial opponents loudly proclaimed themselves as defenders of orthodoxy–in their case, Mosaicorthodoxy, complete with its rules, regulations, and strictures dictating social and moral propriety. But it is important to bear in mind that these opponents of Paul were not Jews by faith; they were Hebrew Christians with another point of view who considered Paul to be both a religious subversive and an antinomian heretic for his gospel of inclusion and his proclamation of the superseding of Mosaic Law with a lifestyle of grace and acceptance.

Things have not changed much in 2000 years. Conservative Anglican blowhards who never miss an opportunity to demonize the GLBT community, portray our Christianity as a posturing of Satan in the sanctuary, a subversion of social, moral, and “family” values. We are seen, like Paul, as antinomian heretics intent on minimizing the relevancy of scripture and destroying the good witness of the Church, and conservative Episcopalians in the USA are now threatening schism as a result of our strides towards full acceptance in the denomination.

So what should be our reaction? More conversations? Not! More dialogue? Not!More tabling of resolutions at the General Convention aimed at bringing gays and lesbians full inclusion at every level in the common life of the People of God? Not!Do I seem harsh? Do I seem uncharitable? Do I seem assertively intolerant? I am, absolutely! And what justification could I possibly use for such a stance? The example set by the apostle Paul.

The epistles of Paul reveal that he didn’t think much of the Episcopal approach of compromise and endless conversing when it came to what he considered the essentials of his gospel of inclusiveness and grace. He went so far as to say that if even an angel were to appear contradicting his message, it was to be considered accursed (Galatians 1:8-9). Nor did he hesitate to call his opponents the most uncivil of names: dogs, mutilators, enemies of the Cross, false apostles, and sons of Satan, to name a few (Philippians 3:2; 2 Corinthians 11:12-15). Keep in mind that these objects of Paul’s vitriol were not Jesus-rejecting Jews or God-ignorant pagans; they were fellow Christians. They were Hebrew Christians, to be sure, who held to very Judaic forms of “traditional family/social values.” Yet he did not hesitate to strike out viciously against those who would insist he compromise his gospel of full acceptance for the Gentiles and his liberation theology of freedom from the Law.

The GLBT community in the Episcopal Church can no longer afford the luxury of cowering in timidity waiting for yet another General Convention after 2006 to validate them. It is time to stand up and speak. It is time to accept no compromise with the forces that oppose us. This is a “do or die” situation coming up in the summer of 2006. The world will be watching the ECUSA to see if they have the intestinal fortitude to “put their money where their mouth is” and buck the conservative pressures of the contemporary Anglican “party of the circumcision.” Will this American church have the prophetic foresight to risk schism for the implementation of justice for all of its baptized believers? Putting off till tomorrow what can be done today is no longer an option reflecting spiritual wisdom: “Now is the day of salvation,” and the GLBT community within the Episcopal Church should no longer be willing to wait until the proverbial Parousia to receive its full panoply of rights (including appropriate rites) and protections as first-class citizens in the family of God! What the General Convention will be dealing with in Columbus, Ohio, this summer is not a mere peripheral issue, it is a prophetic imperative to gather up the sexually marginalized in the welcoming embrace of the Church in order that what was begun with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) may come to its completion in us as a fulfillment of Isaiah 56:3-8, where those who were previously discriminated against for perceived sexual irregularities were promised a place of full acceptance in the midst of God’s people.

Schism–whether within the Episcopal Church itself, or between the ECUSA and the wider Anglican Communion–is a word that makes most Episcopalians shudder, as if it is a visible sign of the failure of God’s people to solve their problems, or worse yet, from an Episcopalian perspective, an unsightly “airing of dirty laundry.” To which I readily respond: There has never been a time when the Church Universal–despite its talk of unity and one Lord–was not in some kind of schism. From the circumcision controversy of the first century to the Arian Christologies of the third and fourth centuries, and the Great Schism between Rome and Constantinople, (not to mention the splintering effect of the Protestant Reformation), the Church has always been a waiting Bride with blemishes, a virtual sanctified “Sybil” with split personalities, and so it will be till the fullness of time erases the ugliness of its internal dissonance. What we need to realize is that there are times when schism should not be avoided, for as Paul himself said, “There must be schisms among you in order that those who are approved among you [by God] may be made obvious” (1 Corinthians 11:19). Only in contrast with error is the truth allowed to shine for all to see.

Division is not always a dirty word. In times past, it was often encouraged by the frenzied bellowing of a prophet whose words seared a crowd’s complacency, demanding, “Come out from among them and be ye separate!” It was Jesus who frankly declared, “Think not that I am come to send peace upon the earth. I am not come to send peace, but a sword [of division].” He went on to say that his message would cause the break up of family relations and close friendships (Matthew 10:34-36). He further instructed his disciples to “shake off the dust from their feet” as they separated from those who rejected his words.

We further find that the fledgling Church had its share of squabbles. Even Paul and Barnabas found it necessary to part ways because of their strong disagreement over John Mark and whether or not he met the ecclesiastical qualifications to go with them on their missionary journey. Their only solution was division: Paul taking another companion while Barnabas took John Mark, creating two separate missionary ventures instead on the initial one envisioned (Acts 15:36-41), all because of an inability to achieve agreement on issues important to the propagation of the Gospel. What makes us believe that we will necessarily be able to avoid the sticky quagmire of what amounts to a religious divorce between the contemporary combatants in our current controversy about the relationship between sexuality and the Spirit-led life? In cases like this, schism is sometimes the only sensible alternative. Just as Abram and Lot had to agree to separate in order to avoid further conflict between their families and servants (Genesis 13:5-13), so it is at times both the only realistic and peace-producing solution. Yet in this less-than-desirable situation, an essential unity is still preserved, for both contending parties still give allegiance to a common Christ, even if such unity can no longer be expressed in congenial fellowship with one another.

It is also time for the ECUSA to take a good look around at the religious landscape; they will notice that others have already run ahead of them to lift up the prophetic banner of justice for gays, lesbians, and all God’s marginalized children, foremost among them being the United Church of Christ (UCC) which has recently fully embraced the GLBT community and same-sex blessings. Far from being a disaster for the denomination, it has resulted in only a small number of congregational defections, while in the process, a significant number of new applications by churches for affiliation with the UCC have been received, including the Cathedral of Hope, one of the largest GLBT churches in the nation. By contrast, the ECUSA has given us a token gay bishop, but instead of fearlessly pressing on for full participation of gays and lesbians in every aspect of the church’s common life, some are now wringing their hands over whether or not to refrain from ordaining any more GLBT bishops or even allowing official sanction for same-sex blessings for fear of further offending conservative Anglican sensitivities.

Come on, Church! Get a backbone! It is time to stand up and say to those whitewashed, conservative apparitions of self-righteousness still haunting our denomination, “By the way that you call ‘heresy’ worship we the God of our ancestors! (Acts 24:14) Here we stand! We will not back down!” These rigid, religious iconoclasts are attempting to change directions for the good ship Grace, pointing it backwards into the stagnant moorings of religio-social anachronism, rather than allowing it to chart a new course carrying God’s message of hope and acceptance to the marginalized and misunderstood. Put simply, we cannot allow them to commandeer the ship. If they do, we will have no choice but to put out in a lifeboat, and like St. Brendan of old, chart a course of faith into new territories, confident that God goes before us.