We scratch where it itches and even the most casual observer of the Episcopal Church knows that homosexuality is where we itch. As a Deputy to the 1997 General Convention of the Episcopal Church held in Philadelphia, I got more than a passing view. The legislative committee responsible for a wide range of social concerns shut down all other issues until the final days of the Convention. We had to deal with all the minutiae of the Episcopal Church’s struggle with homosexuality before we could consider things like partial-birth abortion or school choice. The outgoing Presiding Bishop, Edmond Browning, delivered a parting speech that gave particular attention, in a litany of fashionable causes, to gay liberation. The new Presiding Bishop, Frank T. Griswold III, was hailed as a moderate solely because he seems unwilling to destroy the denomination tomorrow in order to ensure the blessing of same-sex unions.
The sheer dominance of the homosexual issue at the Convention forced me think through some fragmented ideas I have had for a long while. How is it that the gay agenda has become the defining feature of the Episcopal Church? The key to any clarity on this issue is the fact that the Episcopal Church is dominated by upper-middle-class concerns. We are the crowd which, even if we do not read the New Yorker, know people who do. We are the people who, even if we did not go to an Ivy League university, would be thrilled if our children do. Sexual liberation is most definitely high on the list of upper-middle-class concerns. The well-educated, well-off segment of American society has exploited the collapse of sexual taboos in a prudent way. College students enjoy a very safe environment for sexual exploration. Unwanted pregnancies are either avoided through intelligent use of birth control or terminated with abortions. Men tend not to be violent toward women or shamelessly exploitive. As a result, upper-middle-class people seem able to enjoy a relative sexual freedom that is consistent with eventually marrying and having (by contemporary standards) stable families.
Because of this prevailing experience, advocates of further liberation are not threatening. The gay lobby, while unappealing in some of its excesses, is fundamentally congenial to the sensibilities of upper-middle-class Americans. The typical Episcopalian is not very likely to be enthusiastic about the homosexual agenda. Some urban parishes have made gay liberation part of their social justice platform, but this is really rather rare. But that is not the point. The experience of many bourgeois Americans is that it was okay to sleep with your girlfriends or boyfriends—it didn’t destroy their lives. So, they reason, the old taboos really were unnecessarily strict, just as gay advocates claim. “Hey,” says the average Episcopalian, “if we can neglect the Scriptures on matters of fornication, adultery, and divorce, then why not homosexuality?”
Off to the General Convention goes the so-called “moderate” who simply assumes that the gay agenda is part of a largely sensible cultural adjustment of sexual mores. That moderate might vote against specific initiatives because they could “harm the church.” After all, one must be careful not to frighten the horses. But as the hermetic world of lawyers and doctors and academics and social workers and other professionals becomes more and more tolerant of homosexuality, the “moderate” finds less and less to worry about. We can change church practice to accommodate homosexuality, moderates think, without disturbing the typical Episcopalian. “I don’t know anybody who would really object to this,” they reason. So we drift with upper-middle-class culture.
None of this has much to do with the shrill demands for “inclusion” and all the empty rhetoric about how we need to change in order to be a church for all people. The theme of “liberation” makes our fixation on homosexuality seem like a continuation of the Social Gospel tradition. But the gay agenda in the Episcopal Church is primarily about upper-middle-class professionals securing recognition and affirmation. For us, homosexuality is not about the evils of “heterocentric culture”; it’s about the sexual freedoms of our kind of people. We are blind to the realities of American sexual degradation. We see everything in terms of the indulgent but sensible world of the well-educated and well-intentioned.
In our little world, homosexuality seems like just another modest revision of traditional Christian moral strictness. But I think our class identity is magnified to its current point of crisis by geography. Official ecclesiastical documents have referred to certain “regional differences” in the debate over homosexuality. This is often accompanied by insinuations that southern and rural areas are (you guessed it) bigoted in contrast to progressive East and West Coast areas. The explanation of the difference may be specious, but the differences are real. Certain dioceses have a zeal for the gay agenda, and if we are to grasp the centrality of homosexuality in the Episcopal Church, then we need to understand this zeal.
Those of us outside of the Northeast are likely to miss one important institutional reality in the Episcopal Church: as a historically prominent denomination, we have a huge inventory of glorious (and endowed) church buildings in urban areas. For example, in Philadelphia there are at least six Episcopal Churches within walking distance of City Hall. Since the race riots of the 1960s and the tremendous decline of the quality of life in urban areas in the last three decades, nearly all families who could afford to leave urban areas for suburban enclaves have done so. The city cores of places like Philadelphia contain a vast population of poor and near-poor, with inner-city enclaves of single professionals (and some elderly folks who have hung on from the old glory days) in gentrified neighborhoods. The typical constituency of a prosperous Episcopal parish—upper-middle-class families—are largely absent. Young single professionals typically move to the suburbs after they marry and have children. How can the urban parishes with their Tiffany windows and silver chalices be anything more than ecclesiastical museums?
Of course, a downtown church could try to draw its members from the far larger population of poor or near-poor urban residents, but we have ample historical evidence that our church fails in that regard. So, if you are a pastor who wants to breathe life into a nearly empty endowed parish, then you must recruit from the long-term downtown constituency or find a way to draw committed folks in from the suburbs. A great deal of fashionable liberalism is designed to give a parish a “special mission” that will motivate suburban residents to travel into the city.
Much of the gay agenda is driven by a similar imperative of church survival. Professional gays and lesbians are far more likely to be long-term urban residents, and as a result, however statistically small in the larger scheme of urban life, they are a significant pool of potential members for a downtown Episcopal church. As a result, then, some of the largest East Coast dioceses have a number of parishes that combine a “social justice” ministry with acceptance of gay membership in order to tap both sources of upper-middle-class membership. In this way, a rector might transform a sixty member congregation devoted to ancestor worship (“Mrs. Chittendon’s grandfather was a devoted vestry man”) into a two hundred member parish with some vitality and energy. And in effecting such a transformation, a priest and a bishop could well feel that the Holy Spirit is at work breathing life into a seemingly hopelessly diminished set of urban churches.
Next thing you know, these folks are at General Convention telling you that Holy Spirit is leading the church into a new way of “being the church,” and you are doing your best to remind them that the Holy Spirit leads us into the depths of Scripture, not beyond it. That’s been my story. It took me a while to figure out that all this loose talk about the Holy Spirit is not just mendacious. Supporters of the gay agenda really are responding to “successes” in urban parishes. The problem is that they are unable to see how their distortion of Christianity into a pastorally sensitive response to upper-middle-class American preoccupations, a distortion long ago recognized by critics of the Episcopal Church, so dramatically limits our range of potential members. In the past, we were the Republican Party at prayer; now we are the ACLU at prayer. Our class identity has not changed. If anything, the sensibilities that animate the ACLU are even more exclusively upper middle class than the old haute bourgeois mores of an earlier time.
The growing success of the gay agenda in the Episcopal Church practically guarantees that we will become even more rigidly and exclusively class-defined. Homosexuality is not limited to the professional classes, but our stunning complacency about the power and perversion of human sexual impulses is, I think, unique to those who have the good fortune to be socialized into the benevolent repressions of well-off suburban life. We think we can tuck new sexual freedoms into the traditional patterns of career and civic responsibility. We are confident that the culture of Volvo station wagons and the country day schools can absorb the novelty of homosexuality. And maybe we are right. After all, upper-middle-class culture survived the collapse of taboos against divorce. To be sure, lots of folks were maimed en route, but the children still went off to Yale when the time came.
So I left the General Convention with a double dismay: one familiar and the other new. I came to the General Convention knowing how far gone we are. After all, just last year we tried a bishop for heresy and the court decided that the Episcopal Church is committed to a Gospel so vague and spectral that false teaching is impossible. The only heresy is to say that there is such a thing as heresy. But the full force of the gay agenda nevertheless surprised me. And by that I do not mean the postmodern clichés about heterosexism and the fantasies of unlimited erotic self-expression. No, the surprise was the sheer ordinariness of it all. Our complacent acceptance was so relentlessly class-bound. In the past, I kidded myself that our class identity as a denomination was the result of historical circumstances and institutional inertia. Now I am forced to recognize that we are drawing inward upon ourselves as a matter of policy. I found myself despairing: will anybody not coddled with the highest advantages and privileges of our society be attracted to a denomination that preaches sexual freedom with such blissful naiveté?
R. R. Reno is Associate Professor of Theology at Creighton University.