No Ordinary Epistle

The letter looked innocent enough, sitting there in my mailbox. A simple white envelope, with the return address of my Episcopal parish stamped in the upper left corner, in incomplete ink. Probably a reminder that they wanted my annual pledge, I thought. Maybe I should donate a new stamp pad. Looks like they need one.

But this, it turns out, was no ordinary epistle. “It is with deep emotions and concerns that we address you, our fellow parishioners, at this time of extremely unsettling news regarding the controversial decision by our national church to confirm the Reverend V. Gene Robinson, a gay man openly living in a homosexual relationship, as Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire …”

“As your Vestry, we do not agree with this decision … ”

And on it went.

I was surprised, to say the least. In the approximately three years I had attended services at the Episcopal Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in suburban Atlanta (admittedly, not as often as I should), I never had any indication this parish was opposed to the full inclusion of gay men and lesbians into the life of the church. Nothing I heard from the pulpit in all that time even remotely touched on the subject.

But then again, as a lifelong Episcopalian, I have never heard a sermon on the subject of the evils of homosexuality, or the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church, in any parish. Any time. Anywhere.

Opponents of the Robinson consecration, who have taken to calling themselves orthodox Anglicans (and isn’t that an oxymoron?), would probably argue that the Episcopal Church finds itself in this fix because too few priests have been willing to hurl enough good old-fashioned fire and brimstone from their pulpits. The church has been led astray because members have not been properly led, so to speak.

But maybe, just maybe, I’ve never ever heard a denunciation of gays and lesbians from the pulpit because it is such a tangential issue to the life and mission of the church that the priests (including the apparently conservative priests at St. Peter and St. Paul) didn’t see fit to mention it.

And this — this — is the stuff of schism? In an Anglican tradition where religious practices and theological outlook are all over the map, this is what we come to blows over?

Orthodox Anglicans accuse today’s Episcopal Church of being too influenced by the liberal secular views of contemporary society. But when they threaten to break up the church over an issue thatís a non-issue about 99 percent of the time, itís fair to ask if they aren’t being unduly influenced by the homophobic tendencies of that same society — if their aversion to fully including gays and lesbians in the life of the church isn’t as much cultural as it is biblical.

What is clear (and this is why they’re talking schism) is that the Episcopal Church isn’t going back. The consensus within the church supporting inclusion is clear and broad, witnessed by the fact that Robinson’s nomination was endorsed by dioceses in such hotbeds of cultural radicalism as Utah, Wyoming and Tennessee.

Working prayerfully under the influence of the Holy Spirit, two-thirds of the clergy and lay leaders of the church took the fateful step of saying no office in our church should be denied to faithful Christians because of their sexual identity. Those who would reject that decision as apostasy might want to stop for a moment — just a moment — to consider whether the Holy Spirit might be trying to tell them something. The Lord does work in mysterious ways.

As for me, I sent a letter back to St. Peter and St. Paul, in a similarly simple white envelope, informing them that, from now on, I planned attend a parish whose views are somewhat less, well, antediluvian.

“Fully including gay and lesbian people in the life of the church is not an abrogation of the Gospel — it is a fulfillment of the Gospel,” I wrote.

I haven’t heard from them since.