A House Divided
It was the beginning of a triumph – or the beginning of a tragedy, depending on who was speaking. No Episcopalians denied, though, that the summer of 1997 would bring tremendous changes to the denomination that forms the American contribution to the worldwide Anglican Communion. Around the world, the events in the Episcopal Church during July 1997 would spark debate in other Anglican churches around the world. The focus of the debate was on homosexuality, a subject that was causing increasing divisions between conservative and liberal Anglicans. For Anglicans living in the United States, the Episcopal Church appeared at the beginning of July 1997 to be on the brink of something tremendous. But whether the Episcopal Church was headed toward destruction or toward a realization of its greatest promise was another matter for argument between conservatives and liberals.
Two American Anglicans would watch the events of July 1997 and be stunned by what happened. Two Anglicans would watch with concern a year later as the events of July 1997 were eclipsed and nearly overturned by the events of July and August 1998. Both Anglicans were in a position to be greatly concerned about what was happening. Both knew that Anglican attitudes toward homosexuality would shape the lives of people like themselves. Both believed that the decisions of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion could result in more heartbreak and tragedy in the lives of same-gender-attracted people, or else the decisions could bring those same people to spiritual fulfillment and the peace of God.
One of the Anglicans was a leader in the gay ministry Integrity. The other was the leader of the ex-gay ministry Regeneration.
Everybody was much nicer to each other than anyone had expected, participants agreed. It was only natural that the people participating in the Philadelphia debates might lose their temper and start making disparaging remarks about the opposition. Instead, said the participants of the Episcopal Church's General Convention, the bishops were really behaving themselves quite well.
The bishops made up one house of the Episcopal Church's national legislative body; clergy and lay representatives made up the other half. All the participants were crammed into a convention center, sheltered from the Philadelphia heat during a ten-day period toward the end of July. People's tempers were perhaps a bit hot, but that was hardly surprising, considering what was at stake.
On the floor of the colorful exhibit area, the Rev. Michael W. Hopkins of St. George's Church, Glenn Dale, Maryland, made a hurried visit to the Integrity booth. As national director of communications for Integrity, a North American organization for gay Anglicans and their friends, he was spending much of his time in the press room, but he had also given testimony before the committee that was considering whether the Episcopal Church should develop rites for the blessing of same-sex unions. Father Hopkins had offered testimony in favor of such blessings. So had his domestic partner, John Clinton Bradley, who was director of communications for the Washington chapter of Integrity.
The first vote took place in the legislative house for laity and clergy. Yes, no, yes, no . . . In the end, the bishops' house never voted on the matter; the resolution was defeated by one vote each in the lay and clergy divisions.
Father Hopkins, fielding questions from the press, expressed his astonishment. "We really do feel good about the blessing vote," he told The Washington Blade. "We couldn't even get this on the floor three years ago; for it to almost pass is astounding."
From the point of view of gay Episcopalians, the unbelievable appeared to be happening: after years of struggle, gay Episcopalians were finally being given a chance to tell their stories, to open the eyes of the church to what was happening in their lives.
Other Anglicans were also astounded by what had happened. At the other end of the exhibit area was a cluster of booths representing the conservative Anglicans, most of whom opposed homosexuality. In this area, there was talk of what would happen next. The true Anglicans, they said, were being pushed out of their own church; their voices were no longer being heard.
Alan P. Medinger agreed. For him, the question had special poignancy; this was the church that had saved his marriage and helped him to escape from homosexuality twenty-three years before. As "the most visible former homosexual in the Episcopal Church," in his own words, Mr. Medinger was the director of Regeneration in Baltimore, one of over a hundred nondenominational ministries in the United States that aim to help homosexuals remain chaste. If God wills it, Regeneration says, the men and women who join the program can also lose their homosexual desires and return to their God-given heterosexuality. "Ex-gay" is the colloquial term for men like Mr. Medinger, and he believed that their hard struggle would receive support from the Christian Church only if the church confirmed traditional teachings that homosexuality is a sin. And now it appeared that the Episcopal Church was on the verge of turning its back on such people.
Like many other conservatives, Mr. Medinger believed that the Episcopal Church had shut its ears to the testimony of those who opposed homosexuality. Slowly the thought was forming itself in Mr. Medinger's mind: he would have to leave the Episcopal Church. His heartache wasn't just over the issue of homosexuality – he was also gravely disturbed by the Episcopal Church's attitude toward such matters as abortion, inclusive language, and the uniqueness of Christ. And more and more, he believed, conservative voices were being silenced.
"The Episcopal Church never intended for there to be a dialogue," he remarked six months later. "At the last General Convention, it was so clear if you were there. We have de facto ordination of practicing homosexuals, and the blessing of same-sex unions is occurring everywhere in the church. I could have fought the homosexual issue for another fifteen years. It was the broader things that were the problem. . . . The Episcopal Church has just fallen into total disorder; everyone does what is right in their own eyes. Any bishop now can renounce the absolute fundamentals of the faith."
By September, Mr. Medinger had made his decision; he and his wife would leave the Episcopal Church and join the Charismatic Episcopal Church, a small denomination that was increasingly attracting disenchanted Episcopalians. "I am a leader in ex-gay ministry, and as the most prominent ex-gay minister in the Episcopal Church, I believe I was called to stand beside and support those who were called to battle for the renewal of the Church," he said in a letter to the people in his ministry. "This has been a great honor and privilege. I have surely gotten to know some of the finest Christians one could ever meet. But, the battle over homosexuality in the Episcopal Church is finished, and therefore my specific job of support has come to an end."
For Mr. Medinger, this decision was a relief. "These battles are a great distraction," he reflected later. "They keep great Christian leaders from doing their work." Now Mr. Medinger could devote time to his own work, helping the men and women who sought assistance from Regeneration.
Concerning Regeneration's staff, he said, "We're just going to keep doing the work that we've been doing – providing support for those who want to leave homosexuality."
During the past year, homosexuality has been a topic that has threatened to split several American denominations. In the United Methodist Church, the failure of a church court to censure a minister who had blessed the union of two women brought cries of anger and support. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been wearied by a lengthy debate over how strictly the sexual lives of its ecclesiastical officers should be regulated. But perhaps no denomination has felt under greater threat than the Episcopal Church.
Already damaged by bitter debates over women's ordination and the 1979 revision of the church's prayer book, members of the church have not even been able to agree on whether the denomination is facing a life-threatening crisis or simply another stumbling block on the hard journey that all religious institutions must face. There has been no question, though, that some Anglicans, like Mr. Medinger, are prepared to leave the church over this issue. Immediately following the General Convention, the Episcopal Synod of America, a conservative group, began making plans to form a separate Anglican province; similar plans have been made by a conservative group within the Episcopal Church's mother denomination, the Church of England.
By last year, many conservative Anglicans felt as though their backs were now against the wall; this resulted in a spate of conservative statements throughout the national churches of the Anglican Communion, denouncing as sinful any attempts to legitimize homosexual behavior.
Proponents of homosexuality reacted with equal anger. Charging that such statements were signs of prejudice, Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark, New Jersey, circulated a statement in November 1997 expressing his concern that the upcoming Lambeth Conference of the bishops of the Anglican Communion would be hijacked by the conservatives. The result was an acrimonious series of letters between Bishop Spong, conservative Bishop Peter John Lee of South Africa, and Archbishop George Carey, the spiritual head of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion.
By May, however, an uneasy truce had been made; Bishop Spong and Bishop Lee, under Archbishop Carey's encouragement, issued a joint statement urging that no decision be made by the Lambeth Conference about homosexuality in areas where Anglicans disagree. "In our Communion we have already heard threats to excommunicate from one side and invitations to leave from the other and we have seen evidence that this debate can erupt in hurtful or contemptuous words and even into physically violent behavior," the bishops said.
They added: "We suggest that the 1998 Lambeth Conference should take no vote that would imply that one side has won or the other side has lost this debate. The church is, in our opinion, too divided and the divisions are so deep that victory for either side would be narrow and those who felt defeated would not take the defeat passively. Neither would such a decision do justice to the need which the undecided have for further time and space to allow them to arrive at a clearer view. The result would be that the body of Christ would be wounded and our common ministry and witness weakened."
The bishops' suggestion was not accepted.
Procedure, procedure. Who would have thought that the great Anglican debate over the morality of homosexuality would be settled in the end, less through dialogue and theology, than through parliamentary procedure?
That, at least, was the view of Father Hopkins, now president-elect of Integrity, who had arrived in England in order to help provide gay Christian witness during the Lambeth Conference. Already procedure had proved a stumbling-block for his group. Originally, the subcommittee that was studying human sexuality had arranged for gay Christians to tell their stories. For Integrity members, this was an essential part of the dialogue, an opportunity to show the human face behind the doctrinal disputes.
Trouble had arisen, though; conservatives had pointed out that, while gay Christians had been invited to speak to the subcommittee, ex-gay Christians had not. The chairman of the subcommittee eventually settled the matter in an evenhanded fashion: no same-gender-attracted people would give testimony as to their experiences.
The result was that both gays and ex-gays were excluded from the committee that was determining how the Anglican Communion should guide them. Frustrated, both the gays and the ex-gays had arranged for separate presentations to take place in which bishops could come and listen to their stories. The results, Father Hopkins said two days after the conference ended, were that both groups ended up "singing to the choir."
Overall, Father Hopkins was finding the conference to be a frustrating experience. "The process was very unuser-friendly," he said afterwards. "It was all closed – there was very little access to the process or to information." Most frustrating of all, he said, was the attitude of some of the Third World bishops. "It was very clear that a lot of African and Asian bishops were there having never talked about the issue at all, and having nothing but an extremely negative impression of what homosexuality was, much less how it might be 'practiced,' so obviously any exposure to the real-life thing would have been helpful. I think it was unfortunate that the chair of the subcommittee scheduled only one side; it would have been better if he had scheduled both sides. Then we would have had a chance to tell our stories."
The conservatives, on their side, were expressing frustration at what they considered to be First World arrogance, particularly in the form of statements by Bishop Spong, who angered the African bishops by comparing them to Christians who justified slavery during the nineteenth century. All in all, the atmosphere at Lambeth was very different from the atmosphere at General Convention the previous year. There was talk of shouting matches between bishops.
Certainly the reports issued by conservatives and liberals about Lambeth showed the hostility held by the two sides in the homosexuality debate. Father Hopkins, writing of conservative presentations on homosexuality, said, "One unified theme: they will present people who are nice. Don't be fooled. There are nice prostitutes and nice thieves. And they will quote Scripture and say they love the Bible and the Lord, but Satan can do all these things as well."
Conservative reports were equally biting. "The orthodox and the revisionists really don't worship the same Jesus," Mr. Medinger said flatly in a Summer 1998 article for The Christian Challenge, a conservative Anglican magazine.
The report issued by the subcommittee showed that how deeply the divisions lay.
"We have prayed, studied and discussed these issues, and we are unable to reach a common mind on the scriptural, theological, historical, and scientific questions which are raised," the subcommittee said in their report that accompanied the statement. "There is much that we do not understand. We request the Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council to establish a means of monitoring work done in the Communion on these issues and to share statements and resources among us."
The subcommittee published a short resolution representing its areas of consensus, as drafted by its chairman:
a) In view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between one man and one woman in lifelong union, and believes that celibacy is right for those who are not called to marriage; nevertheless,
b) Calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to others irrespective of heir sexual orientation and to condemn homophobia, violence within marriage and any trivialisation and commercialisation of sex.
c) Requests the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates and the ACC to establish a means of monitoring the work done on the subject of human sexuality in the Communion and to share statements and resources among us.
Within twenty-four hours, though, changes were being made to the resolution by the subcommittee, and by the time that the resolution had been voted upon by the entire conference, it was significantly different from the original draft. (The italics mark amendments made on the floor.)
a. commends to the Church the subsection report on human sexuality;
b. in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage;
c. recognises that there are among us persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation. Many of these are members of the Church and are seeking the pastoral care, moral direction of the Church, and God's transforming power for the living of their lives and the ordering of relationships. We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ;
d. while rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture, calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals, violence within marriage and any trivialisation and commercialisation of sex;
e. cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions;
f. requests the Primates and the ACC to establish a means of monitoring the work done on the subject of human sexuality in the Communion and to share statements and resources among us;
g. notes the significance of the Kuala Lumpur Statement on Human Sexuality [a conservative statement] and the concerns expressed in resolutions IV.26, V.1, V.10, V.23 and V.35 on the authority of Scripture in matters of marriage and sexuality and asks the Primates and the ACC to include them in their monitoring process.
"The conference took all of ten minutes to debate whether homosexuality is in accordance with Scripture," Father Hopkins said afterwards with a sigh. "Basically, the resolution ended up being out of sync with the report, which had been prepared by the subcommittee that had spent two weeks dealing with this issue. That clause about the scriptures is enormously painful to people like me. . . .
"There were a lot of moderate to liberal folks who were really offended by the process and by the horrific remarks by folks on the floor about gay and lesbian people, and there were African bishops who were offended by what they saw as too much backseat driving from their American colleagues. It was clear to everyone at the conference that the Bible was the big issue, and that issue was certainly wasn't settled at all; it was only exacerbated. . . .
"One thing was perfectly clear at the end of the conference, and that was that the last word had not been spoken."
THE WOUNDED BODY
"A theological Waterloo" is how The Christian Challenge triumphantly described Lambeth in its September/October issue. "A long-awaited vindication . . . Liberalism not only lost, but suffered a surprisingly shattering defeat."
Father Hopkins has a somewhat different view of the resolution's effect. "The next General Convention is likely to continue advancement," he said. "The conservatives, of course, are likely to say that advancement is going to have to stop; I don't sense any of the progressive bishops saying that. In fact, I think the resolution may have back-fired; people are more energized. Some conservatives thought that the effect of the resolution would be to pull more moderates over to their side, and I don't see that happening."
As proof of this, Father Hopkins pointed to the statement signed by 179 bishops, apologizing to gay men and lesbians for the pain they had undergone. "Within the limitations of this Conference, it has not been possible to hear adequately your voices, and we apologize for any sense of rejection that has occurred because of this reality," says A Pastoral Statement to Lesbian and Gay Anglicans from Some Member Bishops of the Lambeth Conference. "This letter is a sign of our commitment to listen to you and reflect with you theologically and spiritually on your lives and ministries. It is our deep concern that you not feel abandoned by your Church and that you know of our continued respect and support."
"It's remarkable when people like Peter Lee sign something like that statement," said Father Hopkins.
Indeed, one of the first results of the conference was the formation of an alliance between the world's gay Anglican organizations. "It's clear that our most important task is to hold the bishops accountable to this listening that they promised," said Father Hopkins.
"The agenda did say that the conversation will continue, and that's certainly a good thing," added Father Hopkins. "I had three very hopeful conversation with very young African bishops who wanted to speak with me privately, and who wanted us to know that not all of them think alike – even though all them are going to vote alike. They wanted us to know that the younger bishops don't have any voice on this yet, and they held hopes out for constructive conversation – they weren't promising wholesale conversion on the issue."
Mr. Medinger also holds out hope for the future, though his hope lies in a different direction. "The Lambeth statement was based on truth and compassion," he said after the conference. "That the statement will be accepted at all by people determined to justify homosexual behavior is another matter. Long range, however, if society and the church will unite in recognizing that homosexual behavior is both destructive and outside of God's will, homosexual people will be helped. All the years I was locked into homosexual behavior, I did not believe it was right. I thank God that this truth – from my parents and the church – stayed with me. I am almost certain that I would be dead today if I had seen my homosexuality as good and pursued it without constraint."
For Mr. Medinger, then, hope exists for same-gender-attracted people if Anglicans accept the Lambeth resolution. For Father Hopkins, hope exists for same-gender attracted people if Anglicans reject the Lambeth resolution. The two men, committed with equal intensity to improving the lives of same-gender-attracted people, exemplify the statement made by Father Hopkins: "We ended up at the end of the conference with a much more divided church."
Mr. Medinger, an Anglican who is no longer an Episcopalian, does not believe that the division will split the Episcopal Church. "I believe that the revisionists have too much control of the [Episcopal Church], and they will not let schism happen," he said. "They control the property and too many believing Episcopalians will not forsake the property to leave the church in an organized way. I foresee orthodox believers continuing to leave the Episcopal Church one-by-one until there are only revisionists left. Then, the Episcopal Church will simply be a mirror of the Unitarian Church – with prettier buildings."
On one matter, though, Mr. Medinger and Father Hopkins are agreed.
"Our Lord spoke of those who see and do not perceive, who hear but do not hear," said Mr. Medinger in his Christian Challenge article. "I don't fully understand this phenomenon, but I have seen it in operation. At a hearing on blessing same-sex unions at [the Episcopal Church's] 1997 General Convention, four of us described how we had come out of homosexuality. We were followed by a bishop who started off his testimony saying that, 'We know that homosexuality cannot be changed . . .'"
In an article sent from Lambeth, Father Hopkins reported feeling similar frustration in the moments following the bishops' vote. "In the moment I was devastated, feeling cut off from my Church, and dishonored. . . . And I felt completely, absolutely unlistened to."
World: Liberal and Conservative Anglican Bishops Offer Proposal on Homosexuality. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. A liberal American bishop and a conservative South African bishop have urged the Anglican Communion not to rush to a decision over the issue of homosexuality. (June 1998)
Rwanda: Anglican Bishops Condemn Homosexuality. Following an acrimonious debate over homosexuality between the Archbishop of Canterbury and an American bishop, Rwanda's Anglican bishops have added their thoughts on the matter. (March 1998)
Washington: Episcopalians Hold Different Views of Church's Future. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. Two weeks after Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold stood in the pulpit of Washington National Cathedral and urged Episcopalians to join in conversation with each other, the Diocese of Washington's annual convention revealed continued differences of opinion between Episcopal progressives and traditionalists over the state of the denomination. (February 1998)
World Feature: Pro-Gay and Ex-Gay – Is There Room for Dialogue? By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. For nearly three decades, the pro-gay and ex-gay ministries have competed for the souls of gay men and women, each movement convinced that the other is tragically mistaken in its views on homosexuality. Now a small number of people on both sides of the issue are striving to find common ground. (December 1997)
U.S. Feature: The Quiet Revolution: How a Heresy Trial Has Rocked the Episcopal Church. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. Last year, an Episcopal bishop was tried for heresy after he ordained a practicing homosexual. Recent events show that Episcopalians continue to be deeply divided over gay issues. (June 1, 1997)
Articles from Regeneration News. By Alan P. Medinger. [Christianity and Homosexuality]
Lambeth News. Includes reports by the Rev. Michael W. Hopkins and documents issued by Anglican bishops during and after the Lambeth debate on homosexuality. [Integrity]
© 1998 Heather Elizabeth