Skip to main content

Sex, Episcopalians, Anglicans, and For Christ's Sake Can't We All Just Get Along?

I want to offer some thoughts about the recent controversy that has The Episcopal Church[1] and the Anglican Communion back in the news: the fact that Primates (chief bishops of various provinces/national or regional churches) of the Anglican Communion, gathered in Canterbury, England last week released a report that seeks to place temporary sanctions on The Episcopal Church, mostly because of our stance on gay marriage.

I encourage you to read the report yourself in context, but on the (not certain) assumption the Primates have the authority to do what they did, and their action takes effect, The Episcopal Church will been barred, for a period of three years, from full participation in certain Anglican ecumenical and interfaith bodies, “and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion,” it can’t take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

At first, I wasn’t going to say or write anything about this recent controversy, because so much has been written by so many others. (See, for example, here for words from our own Presiding Bishop, and here for some perspective from Andrew McGowan, the Dean and President of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, and here for a Religion News Service article or here for an article from Episcopal News Service.)

Plus, I make it a point NOT to weigh in on the “hot button issues” of the day and I try not to chase headlines in my preaching. As the theologian and preacher Karl Barth wrote, “all honor to relevance, but pastors should be good marksmen who lift their guns beyond the hills of relevance.” It’s the chief pastor/Rector’s/preacher’s job, I believe, to put controversies of the day in context -- in their wider cultural and historical context, but especially in their scriptural and theological context. It's a real, but rare value: reducing the breathless hysteria of getting caught up in “Today’s Great Controversy.”

But when I sense that I have a fresh perspective to add, one that may help people put a controversy in context, I'll weigh in.

And so -- with my apology in advance for not having the time to write something shorter -- here goes:

Let’s not be squeamish: the real issue for those opposing The Episcopal Church’s agreeing, in 2003, to the Diocese of New Hampshire’s election of The Rev. Gene Robinson as their bishop, and the real issue for those opposing the Episcopal Church’s current support of gay marriage, is not a clergy person's or a gay couple’s unalterable characteristics (their orientation) but whether or not gays and lesbians choose to act upon that orientation – their behavior.

What I find fascinating about this whole debate is that no one -- not even the most “conservative” or “traditionalist” Christians among the breakaway Anglican leadership -- argues that gay people, per se, should be prohibited from receiving the sacraments of the church. It may happen, but I've never heard of anyone's seriously and publicly objecting to someone's being baptized or receiving Eucharist/Holy Communion or being confirmed or making one's private confession or receiving unction/anointing with oil at times they are sick or dying (I'm leaving out Holy Matrimony here deliberately -- we'll get to that in a minute) just because that person's sexual orientation was gay or lesbian instead of straight. And the same goes for those being ordained as Deacons or Priests (and then, when properly called, being elected and consecrated as Bishops). Nearly everyone (in the Anglican Communion at least) agrees that these spiritual markers in our faith journeys (except Holy Matrimony) are available to any otherwise qualified celibate gay person.

In other words, near as I can tell, no one, when pressed, objects to gay people, per se, being priests or Bishops (and arguably, there have been gay priests and Bishops as long as there have been priests and Bishops)  -- as long as those gay priests aren't “practicing” gays. (And -- in the case of the breakaway Anglicans in the United States as well as Anglicans in most parts of the Anglican Communion -- if those non-practicing gay priests feel called to be Bishops, they also better be male, for it's a sad fact that while The Episcopal Church and The Anglican Churches in The Church of England (UK and Ireland) and in Australia, Canada, Cuba, India, New Zealand, Swaziland, and South Africa no longer prohibit women from being elected as Bishops, the other branches of the Anglican Communion still do.)

So the objection to Gene Robinson as a Bishop was not that he was gay, it was that he was openly gay. That he didn't feel called to the (admirable) life of a celibate person, or the (understandable, but tragically sad) life of a closeted gay person, but instead, he felt called to live life as an unapologetically openly gay person; that he had the temerity to come out of the closet; that he didn't see anything wrong, immoral, unfaithful, unorthodox, or un-Christian with being a gay man who “practiced”  being gay.

Thus the concern that conservatives express (as in this statement by GAFCON) is NOT over The Episcopal Church’s permitting the “ordination of homosexuals,” but our permitting the ordination of those in “active homosexual relationships.”

Thus the prohibition on ordination in ACNA's Constitution and Canons is NOT on “homosexual persons” but rather on those “who engage in homosexual behavior.” (Had ACNA been inclined to prohibit gays, by definition, from ordination, they would have said so: that same Constitution and Canons document explicitly prohibits women, by definition, from becoming bishops in that Church.)

So let’s be honest: in the gay ordination and gay marriage controversies, including this one, what is at stake is whether there is anything wrong with the sexual activity of gays and lesbians.

You see where the “conservative” stance would lead us?

It would lead us into bedrooms. It would lead us into church authorities defining who our “active,” verses our “inactive” gays are -- all based on the premise, rejected by The Episcopal Church and others, that there is something sinful or inherently wrong with that “activity.” The Episcopal Church rejected that premise in favor of an expansive scriptural interpretation and theology, a scriptural and theological interpretation that both gave grounds for and led to our full inclusion of gays and lesbians in all aspects of church life.

Breakaway Anglicans, worldwide Anglicans, and other parts of Christ's Body the Church are of course free to set any of their own policies they choose, and most of the time it's little to none of our business, as Episcopalians. But when it comes to asking (and then presumably following up on) which members of our church are “practicing” or “not-practicing” what we believe is their God-given sexuality, well, that's just not a direction The Episcopal Church is going to go. 

And here's why: The Episcopal Church, along with other advocates of gay marriage claim the important thing about marriage equality is, from a secular perspective, “equal dignity in the eyes of the law” and that what matters about marriage from a theological and social-construct perspective is that “it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family…that two people become something greater than once they were.” (That, in addition to the scriptural/theological rationales above.) Opponents of gay marriage say all these factors of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family are necessary, but not sufficient: the sex in question, if it is to comport to “the” teaching of Holy Scripture, they say, must be between a man and a woman in a lifelong union, and any expression of sex outside what they claim is “the” biblical norm (which, is has to be said, is really "a" biblical norm) is just that – outside the biblical norm -- and cannot in good conscious be blessed.

My point is this:

If I'm right -- that what is at stake in these issues is the matter of the morality or lack thereof of sexual behavior, not sexual orientation -- then in wrestling with the issue of sexual behavior, gay or straight, a common saying, often attributed to St. Augustine, should set the tone:

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

What that saying forces us to do is acknowledge that there are two kinds of matters facing the church: essential matters, and non-essential matters.

I do think that in certain “essentials” of the Christian faith -- those things God has revealed and the church universal has received -- there should be unity. What are those essentials? Well, we can start with the Apostles Creed, confessing faith in God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinitarian formula is the basis for our baptismal covenant, and a foundation of our faith.

We can then move to the Nicene Creed, which emphasizes to a greater degree the redemptive work of Jesus Christ: that “for us and for our salvation,” Jesus became incarnate, suffered death, rose again, ascended into heaven, and will come again in judgment of the living and the dead.

The universal church quickly adds to this list another essential: our belief that Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation. Episcopalians and other Anglicans, as well as Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and other churches would want to add the sacraments of baptism and Holy Eucharist, but even here -- even with something as basic as baptism and Eucharist -- the debate would be engaged as to “by whom, how often, and in what form,” and there we’d be in the realm of “important but non-essential” matters.

Is sexual behavior and marriage/the sacramental rite of Holy Matrimony an “essential” of the faith or a “non-essential”? That itself is a matter on which Christians of good faith can disagree. (And over the years, I've heard people from both sides argue as if it is an essential element of the faith.) 

I'm not sure it is, but to say that sexual activity is a “non-essential” matter is NOT the same thing as saying it is “non-important matter.” Clearly, what kinds of sexual behavior are good, holy, and life-giving, or bad, sinful, and exploitative is a legitimate and important matter for the church to discuss, and to give direction and guidance upon. Important matters such as these deserve the church’s prayers, attention, and serious debate.

But “important matters” are not the same thing as essentials, and precisely for that reason, we ought to be able to continue to agree to disagree about them, without unraveling the church.

What does have the potential for unraveling the church, however, is the way we go about disagreeing with one another.

That's why the third aspect of that saying is, “in all things charity.” 

The most famous passage on “charity” (love) is of course the thirteenth chapter of 1st Corinthians.

Remember that there is not much about modern culture that could not have been said of Corinth. Much of I Corinthians is explicit, stern instruction and direction, challenging the church’s litigiousness, complacency, irreverence and pride. Paul minces no words.

But then Paul says, if we are the most eloquent people in the world – if we have all prophetic powers and knowledge, and all faith -- but do not have charity (love), we will sound to the rest of the world like “noisy gongs or clanging cymbals” – the screech of fingernails on a blackboard. 

The love of which Paul speaks – the charity we are to have in all things -- is, in Eugene Peterson's paraphrase, slow to lose patience, looks for ways of being constructive, does not try to impress, does not gloat, is not irritable or touchy, and does not keep score. 


In essentials, unity. 

In non-essentials, liberty. 

In all things, love.

And, finally: how?  
How do we love one another?

I remember years ago,when this issue was raging, The Rt. Rev. Francis Gray, then Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Virginia, offered eight guidelines for how faithful Episcopalians can remain in communion with each other while disagreeing on potentially divisive issues.

These guidelines are applicable not only for this current worldwide Anglican controversy but for our own, more local Episcopal-Anglican ones. They're even pretty good guidelines for congregations and vestries as we navigate our own local controversies.

Here they are:
  1. Avoid pejorative labels,
  2. Assume the other person wants what is best for the church,
  3. Do not analyze the psychological or spiritual state of others,
  4. Find ways to work together,
  5. Keep to the issues,
  6. Pray,
  7. Stay in contact, 
  8. and most importantly, remember who is in charge: God.[2]
Imagine the impact that would make, if more Christians took those eight guidelines more seriously. 

They would know we are Christians by our love, by our love.

Again, a lengthier essay than normal, but if you've gotten this far, I trust you've found it useful, or at least interesting. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comment fields below: what do you think? 

[1] The Episcopal Church (TEC) is the United States-based member church of the worldwide Anglican Communion. It is a Christian church divided into nine provinces and has dioceses in the United States, Taiwan, Micronesia, the Caribbean, Central and South America, as well as the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe and the Navajoland Area Mission. The current Presiding Bishop (Primate) of the Episcopal Church is the Most Reverend Michael Curry. In 2013, The Episcopal Church had 2,009,084 baptized members, of whom 1,866,758 were in the United States. In 2011, it was the nation's 14th largest denomination.

[2] The Virginia Episcopalian, March/April 2004, p. 8


  1. John,

    A very thoughtful essay.In particular, I am struck by your invocation of Chapter 13 of I Corinthians. If only the Primates of the Anglican Church would be faithful to the teachings of Chapter 13.

    Regards, Al

  2. John,

    I was touched to read your discourse on this subject having been the recipient of your blessing my marriage to Rob back in 2014. You and I had some hard conversations during that time and in the end I could not have asked for someone who better understood all sides of the issue of gay marriage or as I like to call it "Just Marriage" in general. I agree that we need to take all the "noise" surrounding this issue out and look at the intent of the people who are asking for these blessings. For Rob and I as I stated many times to you, it was not a question of was it right in the eyes of the world or others. We needed to have Gods participation in our union. You gave us that. Let the world think what it will, but at the end of the day it is Gods to judge and Gods alone. We are fine with that. It is our responsibility to "trust in the lord with all our hearts and lean not unto our own understanding. In all our ways acknowledge him and he will direct our path."

    Thanks for this thoughtful essay.

    John Pionke


Post a Comment

Comments encouraged. In the interest of responsible dialog, those commenting must sign with their full name. To prove you're a human and not a spam-bot, I've had to include a word verification step...sorry about that.

Popular posts from this blog

If there's a will, there's a way.

For Lent, I was thinking of doing the typical fasts: fast from Facebook and take up reading, fast from petty vices like overindulging in sweets and alcohol and take on moderation, yada yada yada.
But I'm re-thinking that this year.
What I'm fasting from this Lent is discouragement. That means cutting back on what is so often the source of discouragement, which is a tendency to gorge on, or dwell on, bad news.
(Let me be clear: that does not mean giving up news or otherwise burying my head in the sand: it means staying informed while finding ways not to get pulled into a downward spiral of feelings of numbness and helplessness; it means giving up unproductive feelings like hopelessness and resignation and taking on visible behaviors like giving encouragement and taking action.)
It means making visible -- here, on my blog, and even on Facebook -- the good.
Because the problem is -- to paraphrase the community organizer Rich Harwood -- a lot of times we see "good news stories…

Fasting from Discouragement, Making Visible the Good

So for Lent, I was thinking of doing the typical fasts: fast from Facebook and take up reading, fast from petty vices like overindulging in sweets and alcohol and take on moderation, yada yada yada.

But I'm re-thinking that.
Now one of the things I'm thinking about fasting from during Lent is discouragement. That means cutting back on what is so often the source of discouragement, which is a tendency to gorge on, or dwell on, bad news.
That would mean taking on encouragement: to make visible -- even on Facebook -- the good.
Because the problem is -- to paraphrase the community organizer Rich Harwood -- a lot of times we see "good news stories" as being quaint -- they are tossed in at the end of the news as an inspiring story, or put in the style section. But stories of good things happening -- people coming together to do things, is not a touchy-feely, feel-good story, but something affecting real change.
So for starters: I'm inspired by the leadership example of…