Commentary: Pay attention to what's happening in Episcopal Church
8/12/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.
head-and-shoulders photograph of the Rev. Leicester Longden is
available. Another viewpoint on this issue is provided in UMNS #402.
A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Leicester Longden*
Some observers think a major shift in social attitudes is
overtaking the United States. This summer has seen a series of events
marking new advances for the recognition - and even endorsement - of
A short list of these events includes:
the legalization of same-sex marriages in Canada; the decriminalizing
of sodomy by the Supreme Court; the announcement of new
anti-discrimination rules for same-sex workers at Wal-Mart; the
launching of several boundary-stretching television shows like "Queer
Eye for the Straight Guy"; and now the election of an openly homosexual
The bishops of the Episcopal Church USA decided, by a
vote of 62-43, to confirm the election of the Rev. Gene Robinson, thus
separating their church of 2.3 million members from the consensus of the
Anglican Communion of nearly 80 million members in 164 countries.
the cultural pressures in the United States, the decision of the
Episcopal Church looks more like trend following than trend setting.
These bishops imply a subtle cultural imperialism when they call the
rest of the world's Christians old fashioned and out of date.
newsmagazine, The Week (Aug. 15), reports that Bishop Robinson and his
supporters claim his election will attract more people to the church.
Robinson told an interviewer that "the child (the Episcopal Church USA)
can sometimes teach the parent (the Church of England)." And then in
supreme self-confidence, he said his opponents will "come to know they
are wrong in this life or the next one."
How shall United
Methodists respond to this event? After all, the Anglican Communion is
the mother of Methodism. The Anglican Communion - the home of John and
Charles Wesley, and the womb of Methodism - is now torn and divided. If
she is in deep distress, how shall we give an answer to our Episcopalian
brothers and sisters?
Of course, this is not the first time we
have been called upon to respond to calls for the revision of the
church's moral teachings on sexuality. As Bishop Lindsey Davis puts it
in Staying the Course: Supporting the Church's Position on Homosexuality
During 30 years of debate, our church has â€¦
not affirmed homosexual lifestyles as consistent with the holiness of
life expressed in Scripture. We have by majorities of 75 to 80 percent
chosen to maintain the orthodox Christian stance. We have affirmed that
homosexual persons are welcomed in our churches, where we all together
examine our lifestyles, thoughts, and motives by the light of the gospel
of Jesus Christ. The United Methodist Church's position is
compassionate yet firm.
Nevertheless, I believe that our first
response to the action of our sister church should be to mourn and
grieve. Its American bishops have decided to depart from the teaching
and practice of not only Anglicanism but the apostolic and consensual
teaching that the church has maintained for two millennia. This is a
cause for our fervent prayer. As the worldwide leaders of Anglicanism
gather in October at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, let
United Methodists fast and pray for them.
Our next response
should be to look to our own house. The actions of the liberal Episcopal
bishops will embolden the bishops and pastors in United Methodism who
are eager to follow in their footsteps. There are movements and
organizations within our church that have long been at work to bring
about the very same result. So we need to ask our bishops: "Is this
where you are leading us?"
People in United Methodist pews can
take heart in remembering the General Conference of 2000. Petition after
petition was presented demanding that our church remove the
disciplinary boundaries regarding sexual behaviors. Yet our laity and
clergy reaffirmed by decisive majorities the church's commitment to
"fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness." However, the
direction of the Episcopal Church is a call for United Methodists to pay
First, we must pay attention to the real hurt and
pain that many homosexual people experience. Our firmness in adhering to
Christian teaching must be accompanied by an equally passionate
practice of ministering with and to homosexuals. In spite of the
cultural assaults that attach the label of "hate speech" to biblical
affirmations of human sexuality, we must not abandon hurting people by
retreating to a safe haven of "correct" teaching. A robust theological
defense of our church's position on homosexuality must be accompanied by
dynamic ministries that welcome homosexual people into the transforming
power of the gospel in the midst of congregations.
must pay attention to the ways in which, like our sister church, our
hold on the church's teaching may be bartered or squandered away. The
Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church stand in a paradoxical
relationship to each other in this regard.
On the one hand, the
Episcopalians have been unable to prevent their bishops and pastors from
dismissing classic church teaching on sexuality. There seem to be few
safeguards to prevent bishops from ordaining openly homosexual priests.
On the other hand, United Methodists have constitutionally established
doctrinal standards. That is, we have made it clear that we have
corporate commitments as a church, not merely individual commitments on
the issues of the day. And these ecclesiological commitments have
"chargeable offenses" attached to them.
What makes this
comparison interesting, and even paradoxical, is that the Episcopalians
experience a regular stream of converts from more evangelical
denominations, while United Methodists have at least a dozen renewal
movements dedicated to convincing evangelicals and adherents of classic
Christian teaching not to leave the denomination.
denominations, many key leaders have accommodated Christian teaching to
cultural pressures. Yet Episcopalians continually attract people seeking
- especially through the liturgy - a sense of connectedness and
continuity with the church through the ages; while United Methodists
have to convince people that their traditions of "think and let think"
do not exclude solid doctrinal commitments.
What explains this
difference? Episcopal theologian Russell R. Reno makes the case in his
book, In The Ruins of The Church (Brazos Press, 2002), that converts are
attracted to a powerful ethos in the Anglican tradition of "loyalty to
received tradition." Reno makes a passionate argument that changes in
the doctrine and discipline of the church "must be established by our
collective commitment to uphold the faith and teaching of the apostles."
Yet he has to acknowledge that Episcopalians must now live in the
"ruins" of this ethos.
That is why United Methodists must pay
attention. We are often reluctant to hold our leaders and teachers
accountable to the doctrine and discipline that we have corporately
agreed upon. Our inherited ethos of "think and let think," received from
Wesley, now seems more influenced by cultural themes of tolerance than
Wesley's Anglican commitment to the "root of Christianity."
we pray for the whole Anglican communion, and especially for our
Episcopal sisters and brothers, remembering that our histories are
intertwined, we must pay attention to the ways in which we, too, could
end up in the ruins of a tradition.
# # #
United Methodist, is the associate professor of evangelism and
discipleship at the University of Dubuque (Iowa) Theological Seminary.
He also is a board member of the Confessing Movement and a member of the
Confessing Theologians Commission.
Commentaries provided by
United Methodist News Service do not necessarily represent the opinions
or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church. For an overview of
the United Methodist Church's stands on homosexuality, go to
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