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A House Divided?

Less than a month after the Episcopal Church voted to end its commitment to a moratorium on the election of openly homosexual priests as bishops, one of the largest and most liberal diocese of the Church has nominated two openly homosexual clergy to election as bishop. The stage is now set for the Episcopal Church to break with the larger Anglican Communion and thus fully to normalize homosexuality within their church.

The diocese of Los Angeles announced Sunday the nomination of six priests as candidates for two openings as auxiliary bishop.  Two openly homosexual clergy are on the list, a man and a woman. The Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, Bishop of Los Angeles, affirmed “each and every one of these candidates,” noting his pleasure in “the wide diversity they offer this diocese.”

Acting just prior to the Diocese of Los Angeles, the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota also announced candidates for election as bishop. The three candidates include the Rev. Bonnie Perry, pastor of All Saints Episcopal Church in Chicago, Illinois. According to the Chicago Tribune, Rev. Perry has been in a committed homosexual relationship with another female Episcopal priest for 22 years.

All this adds up to a context of extreme volatility. The Episcopal Church now threatens to turn the Anglican Communion into absolute turmoil. Given the circumstances, the Anglican Communion will have no choice but to act. Conservatives, led by archbishops from the “Global South,” have long warned the communion that they and their churches will not accommodate themselves to the normalization of homosexual behavior and relationships. As they rightly recognize, such an accommodation is nothing less than a denial of scriptural authority and an act of defiance against the clear teachings of the Bible.

Amazingly, the titular head of the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has responded to the action of the Episcopal Church by suggesting the possibility of a “two-track model” of Anglican relatedness that would recognize “two styles of being Anglican.”

In other words, Archbishop Rowan Williams would attempt to avoid a division within his communion of churches by adopting a strategy that creates “a twofold ecclesial reality.” In his words:

“There is at least the possibility of a twofold ecclesial reality in view in the middle distance: that is, a ‘covenanted’ Anglican global body, fully sharing certain aspects of a vision of how the Church should be and behave, able to take part as a body in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue; and, related to this body, but in less formal ways with fewer formal expectations, there may be associated local churches in various kinds of mutual partnership and solidarity with one another and with ‘covenanted’ provinces.”

Note carefully what this proposal represents. Dr. William’s strategy would produce a communion of churches that includes, on the one hand, a majority of churches that are firm in understanding the sinfulness of all homosexual behavior and, on the other hand, a minority of churches that are firm in believing that homosexuality is not only not a sin, but that it is also morally insignificant. According to Dr. Williams plan, these two groups of churches would continue to exist in some sort of formal communion. As he sees it, this would avoid “apocalyptic terms of schism and excommunication.”

Without doubt, churches and denominations can remain healthy even as they experience disagreement over any number of non-fundamental issues. Nevertheless, when an issue as fundamental as the sinfulness of homosexuality becomes the fulcrum of division, no church or denomination can maintain a divided mind. Given the Bible’s clear statements regarding homosexuality, those who honor the authority of Scripture must see a division on this question as a test of their church’s commitment to the Scriptures as the Word of God.

While in this case it is the Episcopal Church that provides the object lesson, similar issues and questions of ecclesial integrity can and will arise within every church and denomination. In this light, these recent developments in the Episcopal Church demand the careful attention of every committed Christian.

Anglicanism has historically taken pride in the commitment to a rather diverse set of traditions — a project often styled as “comprehensiveness.” The Anglican tradition has included both high and low church styles of church life and worship and a diversity of theological traditions ranging from evangelicalism to theological liberalism to Anglo Catholicism. To date, no issue has tested the commitment to comprehensiveness as the question of homosexuality now does.

Rowan Williams’s proposal for a “two-track” Anglican Communion is a theological disaster. Beyond this, it is almost certainly unworkable. The reason for this is simple — both sides in this controversy see the question of homosexuality as both unavoidable and fundamental. Both sides see the question as far too important to remain unsettled. Neither side can accept the permanent disagreement of the other.

At the very least, Anglicans would do well to remember the anguished logic of Abraham Lincoln. In his 1858 speech accepting the Republican nomination for the Illinois race for U.S. Senate, Lincoln addressed the nation’s agitation over the issue of slavery:

In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest this further spread and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is on a course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates shall press it forward, until it shall become alike lawful in all of the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.

Citing the words of Jesus, Lincoln reminded his audience that a house cannot survive a division over a question of such fundamental importance as slavery. As Lincoln rightly understood, the real threat of division was not political, but moral. Addressing this reality in his first inaugural address, Lincoln said: “One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.”

The current anguish of the Anglican Communion must serve as a tragic wake-up call for every church and denomination that would claim an allegiance to Scripture. No church can accept the coexistence of an affirmation of biblical authority and a denial of the same. A house divided over the issue of biblical authority will surely fall.