August 30, 2009
For the past few years, the question of rights for practicing homosexuals has caused division and acrimony within the Episcopal Church, resulting in a schism. Now the same thing is happening in another mainstream Protestant denomination: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which has about 4.8 million members. At a convention in Minneapolis, it was decided to allow gay people who are in "'life-long, monogamous' relationships to serve as clergy and professional lay leaders in the church." Delegates voted in favor of that resolution, 559-451, which is not exactly a broad consensus. See the Washington Post, which mentions that the Presbyterian and Methodist churches have recently become embroiled in this controversy.
In response, two other Lutheran denominations (more conservative) sharply criticized this decision as contrary to the Word of God: the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (2.4 million members) and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (390,000 members). The News Leader carried the AP story, which can be found at lacrossetribune.com.
Earlier this summer, the Episcopal Church U.S.A. decided to allow bishops to bless same-sex unions, taking another step toward schism. See Washington Post. For some reason, Episcopal leaders seem deaf to pleas and warnings from other churches in the global Anglican Communion, and are determined to go their own way if the other churches don't agree with their more liberal stance on this issue. It is a huge tragedy.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given their similar (liberal) stance on this and other issues, the the Episcopal Church and ELCA formed an ecumenical partnership, including recognition of each other's sacraments -- sharing the Holy Eucharist, etc.
As I have indicated in the past, there are few things that I loathe as much as politicians who try to win votes by pandering to people's fears of alien cultures or unorthodox lifestyles. That's why I was rather skeptical of the "marriage amendment" in Virginia; see October 2006. (That measure did in fact pass.) On that count, I am clearly out of step with prevailing sentiment in the Republican Party these days.
As for the theological issue underlying the debate over homosexuality, it's still a very close call for me. In the Episcopal Church, the basic criteria by which morality is judged are "scripture, tradition, reason," of which the first two clearly weigh against the idea of "gay rights," while the third tends to favor it. Sincere, committed people of faith have no choice but to move forward in a difficult dialogue, listening to people on the other side with open hearts and minds. In any case, this much is clear to me: Religious organizations are under no obligation to adapt to changing social mores, and indeed, those that do so eventually tend to fall by the wayside.
By the way, I usually put gay rights in quotations because I don't think "gays" have distinct rights, any more than any minority group does. We are a society of free individuals (not groups) in which we all enjoy equal protection under the law. That does not mean we are all entitled to the same privileges, however. Marriage is not a "right," it is an ancient social institution rooted in biology and tradition. Trying to define it or redefine it via legislation is likely to backfire.
As the identity of the Episcopal church undergoes turmoil in the midst of the ongoing "cultural war," the question of whether those of us who belong to that denomination can rightly be considered "Anglican" keeps popping up. For more on that, see The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, which has a strong Anglican leaning.