It was Henry VIII of England, entitled "Defender of the Faith" by Pope Leo X for his treatise against Luther, who led the Church of England out of the Church of Rome. At issue was the pope's authority to deny Henry a divorce from Catherine of Aragon.
Now, the worldwide Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church of the United States appear about to split again.
In New Hampshire this weekend, Episcopalians elected as bishop an open homosexual, though the choice of Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson must be approved by the national General Convention in Minneapolis in July. "I plan to be a good bishop, not a gay bishop," Rev. Robinson told the clergy and laity who elected him. In truth, he plans to be both.
Yet, it is impossible to see how the Episcopal Church can endorse Robinson's election and remain true to the tenets of its faith. As late as 1998, the bishops of the Anglican Communion approved a resolution calling homosexual sex "incompatible with Scripture."
Nor is Robinson simply a cleric with a homosexual orientation. In 1986, he divorced his wife, the mother of his two daughters, to take up with his male lover. He describes the divorce thus.
My wife and I, wrote Rev. Robinson, "returned to church, where our marriage had begun, and in the context of the Eucharist, released each other from our wedding vows, asked each other's forgiveness, cried a lot, pledged ourselves to the joint raising of our children, and shared the body and blood of Christ." Shorn of Mrs. Robinson, Rev. Robinson moved in with Mark Andrew, a state employee.
The issue the Episcopal Church must confront is this: Can a man be consecrated as bishop who is living in defiance of what the Anglican Communion teaches is the Word of God? Is Rev. Robinson living a moral life with his partner, or a sinful and scandalous one?
If Rev. Robinson becomes Bishop Robinson, the Episcopal Church will be telling the world that Scripture is wrong about homosexual sex and has been wrong for 2,000 years. Or it will be saying that morality changes and the Bible must be reinterpreted in light of the times, which is a pretty good definition of moral relativism.
The positions seem irreconcilable. Either Rev. Robinson is a moral man leading a good life with his lover, or he is openly living in shameful sin, in which case it would be a sacrilege to consecrate him bishop. Which is it?
The Episcopal Church has already split over the issue of women priests, and some of its priests and laity have left and gone over to the Catholic Church. But the issue of homosexual sex and gay marriages could permanently disunite the Anglican Communion.
Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola, head of 17 million Anglicans in 80 dioceses, has already "broken communion" -- i.e., declared schismatic and excommunicated -- Canadian Bishop Michael Ingham, who leads the Anglican diocese of Westminster, B.C. What was Bishop Ingham's offense? In some parishes of his diocese, he authorized clergy to bless homosexual unions.
It will be interesting to see how Archbishop Akinola and Anglican traditionalists react if Rev. Canon Robinson becomes Bishop Robinson of New Hampshire, with Mark Andrew as his lover and housemate in the chancery.
The pope and the Catholic Church have held to tradition on women priests and gay sex, but even here there is rising dissent.
When Cardinal Archbishop Arinze of Nigeria spoke to a thousand graduates of Georgetown University last month, he ignited a walkout by calling homosexuality a mockery of the family:
"In many parts of the world," said the Cardinal, "the family is under siege. It is opposed by an anti-life mentality as is seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia. It is scorned and banalized by pornography and fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions, and cut in two by divorce."
That powerful restatement of traditional Catholic teaching jolted the Georgetown audience. Theology Professor Teresa Sanders walked off the stage. After Cardinal Arinze departed, a letter was signed by 70 faculty members, protesting his comments.
On hearing his declaration that Catholic morality and doctrine are "non-negotiable," Fr. Ed Ingebretsen, S.J., an English teacher, sent an apology to his e-mail list for the Cardinal's "insensitive remarks."
Anglican or Catholic, these Nigerian prelates, who live in a land where Christians are martyred for their faith, are exhibiting a moral courage in our immoral age that these white wimps in white collars in the Western world would do well to emulate.