The Anglican predicament

Posted: Oct 14, 2003 12:00 AM

As Anglican primates put their miters together in London this week, press accounts advertise the Episcopal Church's gay-bishop ruckus as the cause of the Anglican Communion's now-notorious family feud.

Which is similar to blaming a 50-inch waistline on that last wedge of chocolate cake.

This ruckus has been coming on for a long time. The Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire's election of a gay bishop, and his subsequent confirmation by the church's General Convention, was the back-breaking straw for a camel panting under the massive weight of new affronts to old doctrines and convictions.

The primates, leaders of 38 Anglican provinces, convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury, confront a situation shaped by two oddly opposite commodities: 1) tolerance and 2) tyranny. Let me take them up in that order.

Anglican tolerance should be fabled everywhere, inasmuch as Anglicans never quit talking of it and of how openness, diversity, ambiguity and such are at the heart of how Anglicans do theology. (Anglicans don't study theology; they "do" it.) With a certain kind of Anglican, anything goes -- except, perhaps, orthodox Christianity. If you're Anglican, you're expected to claim the right to theological speculation, whether or not you run afoul of the creeds and the Scriptures.

A truly tolerant Anglican views Scripture the way most Supreme Court justices view the Constitution -- as an accordion: pull it out, push it in, play whatever tune turns you on. A few years back, Bishop John Spong decided that, on account of the Christian faith's being outdated, he would revise it for us. Just what we needed: a new gospel of John.

The love of broad-mindedness led Episcopalians, in the '60s, to tone down yucky matters like sin. Whereas the Book of Common Prayer once compelled acknowledgment of "our manifold sins and wickedness," a new, with-it version pruned away the more garish language (e.g., "the burden of (our sins) is intolerable").

As one theologian, Kendall Harmon, noted at last week's Dallas convocation of traditional and conservative Anglicans, "We have gone from 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God' to clients in the palm of a satisfied therapist."

The rise of feminism prompted the church to discard the all-male priesthood (which the Roman Catholics and Orthodox retain) as a hindrance to workplace equality. From female priests to gay priests was in some sense a logical progression, the social criteria for the job having come to outrank the theological ones.

Similarly, in a sex-infatuated age, Anglicans de-emphasized marriage as the solemn, lifelong union of one man and one woman. Small wonder a priest who abandoned his wife and children to embrace his inner gayness should have been seen, at least in New Hampshire, as a worthy successor to the apostles.

How much tolerance, nonetheless, can one church stand? Once they had swept the field, the tolerant -- who, overwhelmingly, are theological liberals -- made known that objections to the new order weren't to be entertained, got that, pal? Liberal bishops, apostles of inclusion, diversity and ambiguity, get downright unambiguous as to the duty of non-liberal communicants to get with the program.

General Convention, in 1997, ordered all Episcopal dioceses to start ordaining women -- including those that (with rightly immense respect for women) view the practice as theologically impossible. The Diocese of Washington for a while ruled out heterosexual males as candidates for vacant rectorships. Pennsylvania's bishop, having proclaimed the Church's right to rewrite the Bible if it wants, has been struggling unsuccessfully to depose a rector who argues, among other things, that no such right exists.

Not pretty. But, then, tyranny never is -- especially, perhaps, the tyranny of the "tolerant." What the primates this week are supposed to fix may prove unfixable. An early parting of the ways between tyrants and subjects seems the gentlest and likeliest outcome -- if you expect a tyrant to submit to a gentle outcome.

Who ever called us Episcopalians dull, I'd like to know.