Division in the church

Posted: Jul 31, 2003 12:00 AM

SAN DIEGO--In the voice of the Rt. Rev. Gethin B. Hughes, Episcopal bishop of San Diego, there lingers a trace of Wales, where he grew up in the same small town as Rowan Williams, current archbishop of Canterbury. Williams, titular head of the 79 million members of the Anglican Communion worldwide, must be worrying about some turbulent American priests now in Minneapolis at the Episcopal Church's triennial convention.

Hughes and 23 other bishops have urged the convention not to do what it probably will do -- approve the election by New Hampshire Episcopalians of a male bishop who is in a 13-year relationship with another man, and approve a rite for blessing same-sex unions. Hughes' point is not that either action would certainly be wrong, but that both would be premature because there is not sufficiently settled theology about such things.

Given media proclivities, Hughes and kindred spirits in Minneapolis will be portrayed as provocateurs. But Hughes is urging only prudence in response to impatient ``progressives'' who always are pushing to keep church practices congruent with whatever the secular culture considers advanced thinking.

In a recent Canadian provocation, a Vancouver bishop approved churches performing same-sex unions. But, then, that bishop airily declares, ``We have no reason to suppose that any one religion is truer than the others'' -- an interesting idea from an ordained minister of a religion supposedly based on revelation.

Archbishop Williams approves of same-sex unions but understands the role of prudence in the conservation of institutions. He recently met for six hours with a gay man selected to be an English bishop. Then the man declined selection.

``Progressive'' Episcopal clergy, and their counterparts in Canada and Britain, are increasingly preoccupied with politics and have become a marginalized faction within Anglicanism. This was dramatized in 1998 at the most recent Lambeth conference, a once-a-decade convocation of Anglican bishops. American bishops had their sexual liberalism emphatically rejected by the bishops from where the Anglican Communion is flourishing--Africa, Asia and Latin America.

``Part of the angst of the Anglican Communion,'' Hughes says, ``is that the U.S. bishops came home and ignored'' the Lambeth declaration that homosexual behavior is ``contrary to Scripture.'' ``Scripture'' means much more than the Bible's scattered disapproving references to homosexuality. Those references reflect the social norms of certain groups in Palestine two millennia ago. Rather, says Hughes, ``scripture'' is shorthand for a rounded theological reflection about sexuality, personhood and the complementarity of men and women. Such reflections begin with Genesis: ``Male and female created he them.''

The Episcopal church does not hold, and Hughes does not believe, that ``it is morally wrong to be homosexual.'' Furthermore, ``There are single gay clergy all over our church and they serve with distinction.'' ``It is not,'' he says, ``a question of whether one can be gay and a Christian.'' The question is ``what is appropriate sexual activity for Christians.''

``Maybe,'' he says, ``God is leading us to a new understanding that is more compassionate. I am open to that.'' But there is, he insists, ``a sort of hubris'' in those who will not bide their time while the church reflects. ``I am tired of people asking 'What is your opinion?''' What matters is theology, not opinion.

Concerning ``the right ordering of human sexual behavior,'' the Theology Committee of the Church's House of Bishops writes tentatively: ``Persons of all sexual orientations are created in the image of God, and they are full members of the human family.'' And many thoughtful Episcopalians wonder ``whether some forms of homosexual activity might be open to God's blessing in ways the Church has not previously recognized.''

Tentativeness is not for the real provocateurs, the progressives who believe, above all, in progress. Their faith is in the tendency of things to get better, and therefore in the probability that the newest ideas are best.

Hughes worries that some Episcopalians' progressivism is what C.S. Lewis called ``chronological snobbery'' -- the belief, Hughes says, that ``our time is the brightest time.'' Hughes, whose cathedral is 15 miles from the Mexican border, also thinks that chronological snobbery is sometimes compounded with geographic condescension -- the complacent certainty that ``our part of the world is better.'' That is a provocative mentality at a moment when the typical member of the Anglican Communion is a 40-year-old African woman living on $10 a month.

Her bishop, and the bishops of most Anglicans, could be provoked to disassociation from the small splinter of Northern Hemisphere clergy who want to force the entire Communion to accommodate their agenda for social change.

George Will's e-mail address is georgewill(at symbol)washpost.com