The Anglican Communion has nearly eighty-five million members spread around the globe. Until the mid-twentieth century, these were concentrated among the Anglo-American immigrant churches associated with the British Empire. But by the 1960s, this concentration began a dramatic shift towards Africa and, more recently, Southeast Asia. Derived from the steady and sacrificial work of missionaries in the century before, and then the even more remarkable work of indigenous evangelization and church-building, Anglican membership exploded in places like Nigeria, East Africa, and Singapore (which is a leader in missionary work in Asia today). Such demographic change brings with it inevitable cultural confrontations within the Communion.
But theological differences are even more decisive. Of the four Christian commitments that David Bebbington famously identified with Evangelicalism—biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism—all but the last seem to have disappeared from Western Anglicanism. But the first three are the heartbeat of the rest of the Communion.
Recent struggles over sexuality are but expressions of this deeper theological imbalance, where Scripture, divine sacrifice, and transformed discipleship are at stake. The moral significance of all this, however, is just coming into view, as the Anglican Communion has almost reached its existential crossroads. After thirteen years of turmoil, I’d give it another two for the verdict. One set of opposing choices member churches have before them—same-sex marriage or support for the punitive imprisonment of gays—demonstrates how the extremes have now brazenly unveiled themselves. The coming year will lay the groundwork for how these choices are made. Given the extreme directions in which things have moved, some Anglicans like me are uncertain what future for faithful witness remains. It is there, I am sure, but what will it be? Perhaps other Christians can help us here; certainly they can provide warnings.
I have long thought that the conflict over gay Christians within the Church could, and should, be resolved in a non-juridical way—that is, in the messy pastoral accommodations wherein principle and prudence, as well as humility, could find some non-legislative mode of response that might withhold definitive judgments of change in a time of cultural turmoil and, frankly, uncertainty. We simply don’t know enough about what we call “sexual orientation”—nor are we likely to for a very long time—to embrace completely novel understandings of the ultimate purposes of love and sex on the one hand, or to discount without pause the questions about it that both historical study and social testimony have raised on the other.
But such a non-juridical approach, seemingly tailor-made for Anglican discussion, has not been pursued. And so today, various Anglican churches in the West are on the brink of formally embracing same-sex “marriage” as something compatible with the Christian faith and the social good. Meanwhile, others in the West stand idly by the reactive animosities of their co-religionists in Africa and elsewhere toward homosexuals, as if the memories of pink triangles mean nothing. These choices represent not just a tension but a formal break in doctrinal and moral integrity on all sides.
The arguments have been made and no doubt will continue to be made. But my judgment is this: Anyone who, by this time, cannot admit that marriage between a man and a woman holds a privileged status in Scripture, in human history, and in the moral order of natural forms is deluded—whether culpably or not is beside the point. Furthermore, the privileged status of heterosexual marriage, precisely because it literally carries with it both the generation of humankind and of the people of Israel from whom the Christ is descended, is part of what some have termed “core doctrine.” The subversion of such doctrine constitutes a subversion of the faith of the Christian Church. To affirm same-sex partnerships as “marriage” under any circumstances is tantamount to such subversion.
This is not a matter of simple semantic change—“foggy” once meant “bloated,” but now it means “misty.” Nor is it a matter of semantic extension: “Car” once referred to horse-drawn carriages, and now it refers to motorized vehicles. Rather, the novel claim is that there is something divinely instituted called “marriage,” to which both opposite-sex and same-sex partnerships and couplings refer. And this makes no sense. Once the Church affirms “marriage” as something that is not defined at its base in terms of male–female generative union, the creative purposes of God to be found in the world’s history and in the history of Israel’s election and redemptive mission are hidden, perhaps even contradicted. Scripture is set aside, the shape of human history is rejected, and the dignity of God’s natural and miraculous creation is denied—the Bible, divine sacrifice, transformed personhood, are all put at risk. This is not a good.
But same-sex “marriage” isn’t the only thing out there incompatible with such Gospel goods. Core doctrine is bound to “core witness,” something that stretches out in many directions, including how one treats other people—something the Church has had to confront in terms of its failures far too often. So, for instance, in Uganda and Nigeria legislation has now been passed mandating long-term imprisonment for persons who engage in consensual same-sex behaviors or who gather with same-sex allies. This is not a new response, since many nations have similar laws on their books. But this legislation and its enactment have been explicitly condemned by most Christian churches, and although such condemnation is quite new in history, it follows the acknowledged shame that churches have had to confess in the face of their own complicities in the persecution and even the murder of homosexuals over the centuries.
Some small honesty on this score would be helpful. Yet in conservative strongholds of Anglicanism, little has been said—a silence shared by other Christians—about the new legislation. The churches have remained eerily silent in its face. Most recently, needled by a strong letter of disapproval from the two archbishops of England, the Anglican archbishop of Uganda shot back that his church, after all, was against the death penalty for gays, so what was all the fuss about?
Quietly protecting the fundamental thrust of anti-gay legislation is a habit that is in part driven by the entrenched opposition of many conservative Anglicans to liberal Anglican policies on sexuality within the Church. It is all part of the understandable pushback against often astoundingly arrogant theological and even political meddling on the part of westerners. Still, it is a position hardly worth the desperate moral price. That today Anglican churches anywhere can align themselves, tacitly or otherwise, with policies reeking of the sins of the past, and justify this by the need to resist the radical slide into gay marriage and the rest, is but testimony to the pathetic extremes to which the current conflict has given rise. In any case, there is no witness to the Gospel here, something the main players seem to miss; just the opposite. Strung up on a strand of other immoral silences and connivances, it gives off a stench.
There is nothing new here: Such a dynamic of spiraling oppositions has long bedeviled political and ecclesial struggles, and the “devil” part is, alas, too real. When disagreement turns to enmity, the result is almost always moral blindness on all sides. History is distorted, collectivities are demeaned, theological reasoning ignored, and political conspiracies peddled. The president of the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies, the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings—oblivious, it seems, to the global reach of the new American value system of commodified desire—made a few headlines recently by blaming African “homophobia” on the Bible first, and second, on nineteenth-century imperialist and bigoted missionaries who taught the poor Africans a “literal” and “fundamentalist” reading of Scripture. There you have it: a complete picture of cultures, politics, survivals, conversions, prayers, engagements, discernments. And now, she says, “right-wing” zealots like Howard Ahmanson have “bankrolled homophobia” among these benighted souls, even while good anti-imperialist progressives like herself are thankfully out there seeking to “teach new ways of interpreting the Bible and understanding sexuality.”
But this supercilious razing of historical and theological fact, fueled by deliberate distortion, is aimed at demonizing the foe. Late last year, someone uploaded on the internet a horrendous picture of a young African man burning on the ground, surrounded by onlookers. The photo was titled “Gay man burned alive by anti-gay mob in Uganda for all to see.” The picture went viral, on Facebook and elsewhere, and the thousands of comments that followed were filled with expressions of often violent venom towards Ugandans, Christians, and Chick-fil-A: “Would watch the entire mob be slaughtered with an honest-to-god smile on my face. People who do this shit have no right to live.”
Except that it turned out the picture had absolutely nothing to do with “anti-gay mobs,” nor with Uganda, and actually depicted the vigilante treatment of an alleged criminal, caught in a Kenyan slum. It was nifty propaganda, eagerly lapped up. On the other hand, photos of the slaughter of Nigerian Christians by local Islamists garner no comment from the Episcopal Church. Hold your tongue, in case you give comfort to the foe.
Meanwhile, over on one of the conservative Anglican websites associated with the “Confessing Anglican” movement known as Gafcon, Vladimir Putin is approvingly noted for his claim that America is now the real “godless nation,” and Russia a bastion of solid Christian faith—due, it seems, to the countries’ contrasting policies on homosexuality. There are some church and state concerns over the Putin–Kirill axis, expressed by a few conservative Anglicans, but, they hint, it still might be an experiment worth trying. And Ukrainian Christians?
As for the Eastern Congo, and its millions of dead, raped, and mistreated: No criticisms there, let alone careful reflection. That’s largely because conservative North American Anglicans dare not rustle their relationship with the state-aligned Rwandan Anglican Church and its long-standing fight against American Episcopalian apostates. One remembers the judicious comment by one Rwandan bishop that what is happening in the Episcopal Church is tantamount to a “spiritual genocide.” From this vantage point, the years-long decimation of the Congolese and Rwandan refugee population by Rwandan government-sponsored “rebels” remains something of a sad political mystery, in which the profound, even frightening misjudgments of churches have no place. My enemies’ enemies are my friends, no?
We have seen this kind of thing in the past. Efrain Rios Montt, head of a military junta in Guatemala in the early 1980s, was in the news last year when he was convicted of crimes against humanity (since overturned for procedural reasons, and the trial to be restarted). Montt is widely believed to have directed the murder and relocation of thousands of Mayan peasants, as well as the killing of political opponents. As a “born-again” Pentecostal, however, Montt had the open support of a range of American Evangelical leaders, from Pat Robertson to Youth With A Mission’s Loren Cunningham, not to mention American administration officials. In the volatile world of Latin American and Cold War politics of that era, the stakes seemed high. “Whose side are you on?” was not just a leftist slogan.
There is, of course, the case of Haiti not long afterward, where decades of Church connivance with corrupt rulers, despite a tentative period of change, came to a head in 1991 when, almost alone in the world, the Vatican chose to recognize the brutal military regime that toppled newly elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Why the recognition? The fiasco that would become Aristide’s later political rule was obviously still in the future. Rather, it was antipathy to the scent of Marxism that drove Catholic officials, almost blindly, into the arms of a regime that was subsequently responsible for several thousand murders and disappearances. This ineradicable antipathy would lose the Church popular support for years to come.
This kind of choice, not just for the lesser evil but for turning evil into a positive good, was at work in those wild graspings at alliances that gave rise to the soiled accusations of “fellow-traveling” on the left and right of the twentieth century’s great conflicts. Did Pete Seeger ever formally denounce Stalin? He should have, of course. And what of Ezra Pound and his idol, Mussolini? Pound at least, so they said, was criminally insane. As he must have been. Delusions all around.
It is difficult to hold the center in these kinds of whirlwinds, because in fact there are deep values at stake that, once stirred up, can drag us along into places about which, at some earlier time and perhaps in some fresher air, we would surely have said, “I cannot go there.” Pound and the Nazi Heidegger had good enough reason, perhaps, to be concerned for the fate of a world economy and culture already moving in the direction of technological alienation and avaricious corporate elitism. And did not others, like Jacques Ellul, discern, in a parallel way, something similar? Yet Ellul slogged along in the hard work of municipal politics and, quietly, in the Resistance. Seeger, for his part, was hardly foolish to feel some kind of duty to the real and often depleting struggles of working people and migrant laborers, as did Toyohiko Kagawa in Japan. But Kagawa’s peculiar Christian faith made him an opponent of both communism and militarism.
These considerations are hardly historical parlor games. Nor is the Anglican spectacle a sideshow. The question of “gay marriage,” as we already know, carries with it a raft of political-ecclesial challenges, precisely because it is not just one moral action among others, however important, like legalized gambling or marijuana. It involves basic relations between the Church and civil society, because it is about the very nature of human sociality.
Hence, the places where we already see the issue playing out are ones that touch on how we order life’s long-term formative structures: Does the Church still have any contribution to make to the civil order of married life (should we marry people for the commonwealth, and should the commonwealth recognize our marriages)? Will Christians be allowed to offer public witness to their commitments, allowed to have these commitments shape their work and behavior (wedding cakes and the rest being but a small part of it)? Will Christian—and, more widely, religious—practice be deemed beneficial to the commonwealth in ways that garner favorable taxation?
Will Christians be able, given their beliefs, to engage in public education and formation, from kindergarten to university? And can Christians speak openly about their beliefs without being considered a social menace and subject to civil sanction? These questions obviously touch on a web of life that goes beyond just the category of “gay marriage,” as we have seen in the areas of health insurance, adoption, and more. And in the face of such issues, political coalitions of criticism and resistance will be tempting to Christians certainly, and viewed as necessary by some. They will also be fraught with the gravest danger.
So where are we? The American Episcopal Church is likely to affirm same-sex marriage in some fashion at its General Convention in the coming year, having simply ignored its own theological commissions’ warnings to slow down. It has marched ahead with planning for new liturgies, and individual bishops have already authorized them. The Anglican Church of Canada seems on its way to do the same when its General Synod meets in 2016. Having agreed to address a change in its marriage canon, it has appointed a “study” commission that reportedly contains not a single traditional voice—hardly a sign of prudence. Only a few bishops in both churches seem visibly concerned.
Meanwhile, the Church of England is now going full tilt into the slippery slope, and the ultimate outcome is unlikely to be any different than in North America, especially given the Church of England’s intrinsic inability to distinguish itself from its surrounding civil culture. The recently published Pilling Report, coming out of a House of Bishops commission on sexuality and identified by the surname of its chairman, aimed at some kind of balance. It suggested pastoral accommodations to same-sex couples without quite going all the way to “marriage.” But its arguments, as many on both sides have recognized, are confused, and now play into the hands of extremists from opposite perspectives who are convinced they have been thrown under the bus.
To be sure, the College of Bishops then met early this year, and insisted that all they would do is have “facilitated conversations” about the whole matter, and that “no change to the Church of England’s teaching on marriage is proposed or envisaged”—something the full House affirmed. This was appropriately cautious, but hardly clarifying, as they continue to suggest the kind of dialogue whose end point has already been given certain form in North America. Movements of reaction and, with them, alliances of reactive complicity are already popping up in Britain, just as in America. Others are in the public stage of formation and strategy—alternative Anglicanisms, bishops from abroad, parallel dioceses, and all the compromised political alliances these involve—ones already well ensconced in Uganda, Nigeria, and Rwanda.
I am not sure what the outcome of this can be. Gay marriage is not a compromise issue. The challenge is how to maintain the integrities of critical and charitable witness in the midst of our immovable commitments. Slippery slopes are real if not on the logical plane, at least on the psychological and moral ones. For certain ways of being committed to things can and do eat away at our hearts and minds. Calibrated associations and disentanglements, then, are probably the only way to avoid all-or-nothing dissents. Just as it will be important, for instance, to support aspects of Amnesty International without embracing, out of moral honesty, some larger shared vision, so too Christians will have to link up with various groups to achieve limited goals, including those of some fellow Christians, but without necessarily locking arms. And they will have to step away from the limited goals of various friends, without at the same time repudiating them wholly.
So dioceses that have the wisdom and courage to resist redefinitions of marriage within national churches that affirm same-sex “marriage” will, at best, have to find formal ways to disassociate themselves from this teaching and practice. And they will have to find ways to retain what connections they can. This is a tricky and inexact way forward, but it remains an effort worth making. For those who choose to sever all ties—as many have already done—will often end up finding themselves steeped in the counsels of churches bound to troubling, even terrible, political complicities.
In all this, my own particular understanding of the Christian’s vocation to a painful “standing beside” erring brethren and enemies will be tested, as it already has been to some smaller extent. The chickens are coming home to roost on all of our clever strategies. The adage of “hating the sin while loving the sinner” has been glibly used to obscure the fact that both aspects of the platitude are in fact complex, difficult, and often self-defeating in the eyes of others.
Many of us had hoped for some larger alliances of Christian witness—Catholics, Evangelicals, Anglicans, and so on—that could sustain the wisdom and courage of the few in the West. But both the long-standing divisions of Christian ecclesial existence, and their now ramified intertwining with often destructive moral and political commitments, make coalitions—let alone truly spiritual communions of testimony and common life—almost unimaginable. It is a historical fact: Coalitions that are self-critical are also short-lived. And while self-critical is one of the things communions are meant to be, just this character constitutes their present elusiveness. But it is worth hoping for and working for.
The pattern of oppositional blindness among Christians themselves predates the twentieth century, from the frantic anger of late eighteenth-century France and its divided Christians, back to the sixteenth century and beyond. One of the great acts of Pius VII (with Napoleon leaning over his shoulder) was, after the French Revolution’s demise, to re-establish the church, with its opposing clergy deliberately forced to get back together. Those who had joined the Revolutionary church, and those who refused to join—the Constitutionals and the Refractory both—were reinstated together, and all bishops of any kind replaced. It was a drastic solution: destroy the dynamic of institutionalized hostility, clear the air.
Maybe the Anglican Communion should do the same: every bishop resign, for someone newer and younger, put things back together, and start again. Can we have more biblicism, crucicentrism, and conversionism, and perhaps ratchet down the activism on all sides? But French Catholicism required a human catastrophe to force such limited sanity, and that is hardly something to pray for. Far better, if events allow it, for Anglicans and Christians more widely in this difficult time to find their level of cooperation more slowly, more cautiously, more critically.
For some, I suppose, the answer to the question of what to do is obvious: Maintain faithfulness by moving to the location of the faithful (e.g., Rome, Free Church integrities, and so on). Given the actual confusions over what is “obvious,” being granted faith to share, and share however widely we are able within the disorder of our churches and cultures, seems like an appropriately coveted blessing. And so we Anglicans are being driven to our knees. And to “show forth” Christ at this crossroads is something for which we meekly ask our neighbors’ prayers, as we will pray for you.
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.