Newspapers are carrying lead stories on the inchoate schism between the Episcopalians and the rest of the Anglican Communion. The news tick is that the Anglicans (headed by the archbishop of Canterbury) have informed the Episcopal Church in the United States that it has to stop allowing certain practices by next September or else disaffiliate.
That can be made to sound like a threat from one branch of the YMCA to another branch, to stop scoring field goals the way they've been doing, or play with another league.
The tendency is to depreciate arguments, even battles, in which we are not directly concerned. But it is important, also, to examine the perspectives of those who quarrel. There was a lot of this quarreling among Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists 150 years ago over the issue of slavery. And having decided to free blacks, the next thing you knew, the churches proceeded to free women. There goes the neighborhood?
Well, yes, in a way. But the installation in New Hampshire of a homosexual bishop who advocates the ordination of homosexual men and women as clergy is taken by the men in charge of the Anglican Communion as different from the kind of egalitarianism that abolished slavery and extended civil rights to women.
These, we all tend to agree, were simply belated acknowledgments of basic Christian penetrations into the nature of the community of God. Yet the theologians who hold the line on the matter of homosexuality may feel a social battering on the order of what Southern theologians in the 19th century were subjected to when they defended slavery.
The capacity of this breach to divide is real and is tenacious. The adamance of it is caught in the fact that the Church of Uganda cut relations with the diocese of New Hampshire following the consecration of the gay bishop.
The New York Times records the pained reactions of bloggers on both sides of the gay question. "The conservatives call their liberal colleagues 'Episcopagans,' apostates and revisionists, and refer to themselves as the 'guardians of the faith.' Liberal bloggers hurl epithets like 'ChristiaNazis' and 'Neo-con Anglicans."
Such language reminds outsiders that the quarrel is partly procedural -- who has the right to stipulate rules of admission?
But it is not only procedural, and that is why this issue is so threatening to so many in the Anglican Communion. "Last week," The New York Times reports, "Sarah Hey, a blogger in South Carolina who is popular with conservatives, wrote of a schism: 'Permanent. Enduring. Wide. I can't wait.' In her next post, she added: 'And Broad. And Deep. And Bitter. And Expensive. And public."
It is simply wrong automatically to relegate Ms. Hey to the shrill and uncaring ranks of homophobes. Those who seek to understand what is going on have to acknowledge that acts of discrimination are not always explained by raw prejudice. The deeply felt Christian proposition that the natural union is heterosexual, and that conventions should reflect this, cannot be dismissed as easily as by asserting that unions between members of the same sex ought to be equivalent in the law, let alone in religious orders.
Religion is not entirely a matter of what is natural. The Christian religion begins by affirming some unnatural propositions, among them the divinity of Christ. But it is to be expected that some men and women, driven by conscience and fidelity, should resist, day by day, the attenuation of the faith. There are churchmen who believe that to bring in new, secular crucibles in which to reshape religion does no strategic service, and ends by diluting creedal authority.