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Commentary: Pay attention to what's happening in Episcopal Church

8/12/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

A 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 homosexual relationships.

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 bishop.

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.

Given 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 These bishops imply a subtle cultural imperialism when they call the rest of the world's Christians old fashioned and out of date.

One 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 (Abingdon, 2003):

During 30 years of debate, our church has … 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 attention.

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.

Second, we 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.

In both 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."

As 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.

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*Longden, a 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 online.

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