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Winds of Schism

In today’s ecumenical climate, it is not considered good form for Catholics to offer critical comments or to dwell on conflicts within other Christian communions with which the Catholic Church remains officially “in dialogue.” Even so, it has been difficult to ignore the crisis within the Anglican church ignited by the ordination last November of Canon V. Gene Robinson as the new Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson is an avowed homosexual living openly in a relationship with another man.

In some ways, the whole affair has been handled with what we might term typical Anglican restraint. Prompted by widespread protests throughout the worldwide Anglican communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the spiritual head of the Anglican communion, convened in London in October 2003, a meeting of the primates of the thirty-eight Anglican provinces that count more than 70 million adherents. (According to Religion News Service [www.pcusa.org/pcnews/03469.htm], there are 2.3 million members in the U.S. Episcopal church). This London meeting was a response not only to the impending American episcopal ordination but also to the situation in the diocese of New Westminster in Canada, which had authorized a public rite of blessing for those in same-sex relationships earlier in the year.

Although the primates attending the London meeting issued a statement expressing “deep regret” over the impending American action and warning that “the future of the communion itself [would] be put in jeopardy,” they acknowledged that they had no power or authority as heads of the various Anglican provinces to impose ecclesiastical discipline upon a single province acting unilaterally. Nor, unlike the bishop of Rome, does the archbishop of Canterbury enjoy any “primacy of jurisdiction” over the churches that make up his communion. So the London meeting resorted to the classic bureaucratic solution of asking a commission to study the question further and report back.

Following Bishop Robinson’s ordination on November 2, about half of the Anglican primates who had attended the London meeting publicly denounced the American action, in some cases with strong words (“The devil has entered our Church!” declared Archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi of Kenya). Though they made clear that they did not recognize the validity of the ordination, most stopped short of declaring that their provinces had broken communion with the U.S. Episcopal church.

Instead, they found themselves in a state of “impaired communion,” in Anglican parlance, with Episcopalians in America. There was not, in other words, any actual schism as yet. In what might be described as a typical Anglican “compromise,” those provinces such as Uganda that did break off all formal relations with the U.S. Episcopal church pointedly did not break off relations with the Anglican communion itself—which nevertheless is still allowing to remain within its ranks a province that has publicly and proudly proceeded to act against Scripture and traditional teaching.

In the United States itself, the reverberations were considerable. Various Episcopal dioceses themselves deplored the ordination, which was carried out in strict accordance with current U.S. Episcopal church rules. A number of individual parishes threatened to withdraw from communion with the Episcopal Church U.S.A. Some of them declined to accept any longer the authority of any bishop who had approved the ordination.

Some parishes began withholding their accustomed financial contributions to their dioceses. There were also several clergy resignations as well as a number of clergy dismissals. Some individual communicants on both sides of the question changed or abandoned their local churches. Others—only a very few so far, it seems—announced their intention of “crossing the Tiber” to the Catholic Church. 

One group of conservative Episcopalians petitioned the archbishop of Canterbury to authorize a separate province for them in North America—an action that would be unprecedented, since it would create a double ecclesiastical structure on the same territory.

What became clear as a result of all the turmoil was that, even if there was not as yet any formal schism, various processes had been set in motion that could easily result in such. If we have ever happened to wonder how the churches and ecclesial communities issuing from the Protestant Reformation managed to divide and divide again into the tens of thousands of denominations that exist today, we may perhaps soon be witnessing firsthand a case of how such divisions come about—where ecclesiastical entities possess no institutional means with the authority to decide disputed questions when conflicts arise.

From a Catholic point of view, it does not seem that there can be any question about where the rights and wrongs reside in this particular case. The main questions bedeviling the Anglican communion are whether homosexual actions or a homosexual lifestyle could ever be licit for a Christian, and, if not, whether someone engaged in such condemned conduct could ever be a proper subject for ordination.

The obvious answer to the first question, of course, is that both Scripture and the unanimous testimony of Christianity up to the present day have condemned homosexual acts as immoral. The answer to the second question is that those who claim exemption from God’s law and persist in immoral homosexual actions are not fit subjects for ordination. Homosexuality is a disorder, and homosexual acts are gravely sinful (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2357).

But what happens when some Christians come along and, in all sincerity, assert that homosexuality is not a disorder, and that homosexual acts are not sinful, but rather are alternative but legitimate expressions of “love” for another person? This is a position that has become accepted in our culture at large, of course. Sadly, it has also been more or less accepted (or at any rate tolerated) by many Christians and Christian denominations as well, some of which have countenanced homosexual ordinations or have offered public blessings for same-sex unions, at least on the local level. 

The notion that homosexual acts and lifestyles are acceptable has gained favor even among some Catholics—such as the publisher of the National Catholic Reporter, for example (and probably not a few of the readers of that journal). In the Catholic Church, though, a position so radically at variance with the teaching of the magisterium has no chance of either acceptance or toleration.

It is not surprising that some meetings planned in connection with the official, ongoing Anglican-Roman Catholic ecumenical dialogue have already been canceled or changed as a result of the ordination of Bishop Robinson. Some of the Orthodox churches have broken off ecumenical dialogue with the Anglicans. Pope John Paul II notably warned Archbishop Williams that “new and serious difficulties have arisen on the path to unity. . . . We must reaffirm our obligation to listen attentively and honestly to the voice of Christ as it comes to us through the Gospel and the Church’s apostolic Tradition.”

This is evidently not what has been taking place within the Anglican communion. As recently as 1998, the supposedly authoritative Anglican Lambeth Conference officially rejected homosexual acts and a homosexual lifestyle and characterized them as “incompatible with Scripture.” Now the question arises of whether these things will now be tolerated within Anglican ranks—in spite of the fact that they so directly and radically contradict Scripture and traditional teaching—or whether they will eventually lead to an open schism precipitated by those who cannot accept such a revision of Scripture and Church teaching.

What strikes the outsider is how confidently the revisionists have proceeded to carry out their agenda. Pleas from more traditional Anglicans to hold back so as not to shatter Church unity seem to have fallen on deaf ears. The U.S. Episcopal church’s presiding bishop, Frank Griswold, in a breathtaking reinterpretation of Scripture, dismissed the whole moral question involved by saying that the Bible does not condemn homosexual acts. “Discreet acts of homosexuality” condemned in the Bible, he explained, were so condemned because they were acts of lust instead of the “love, forgiveness, and grace” that supposedly characterize such acts in today’s committed same-sex relationships. “Homosexuality, as we understand it as an orientation, is not mentioned in the Bible,” he insisted.

With this modern idea that a supposed natural sexual “orientation” now trumps the former near-universal moral condemnation of homosexual behavior, we might have thought that at least the clear moral condemnation of homosexual acts contained in Scripture would have deterred any professing Christians from agreeing. Unfortunately, this did not prove to be true, as can be seen in the case of those Christian denominations that have accepted or tolerated the ordination of openly homosexual clergy, along with the blessing of same-sex marriages. Bishop Griswold’s novel reinterpretation of Scripture, it would seem, is shared by at least some of those who profess to be guided by Scripture.

The new Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, the eye of this entire storm, was even more candid than Bishop Griswold in explaining how Scripture can be reinterpreted in order to accommodate what today’s decadent culture now approves. In a press interview immediately prior to his ordination, Bishop Robinson expressed great confidence that his ordination would end up being tolerated within the Anglican communion. He expressed regret that some might leave as a consequence of it, but implied that they were mostly just diehards unwilling to keep up with the times. He gave the example of how remarriage after divorce came to be tolerated in spite of the scriptural injunction against it.

“We take Scripture seriously but not literally,” he explained. “Scripture says to be remarried after divorce is adultery, but in this country we put tradition together with our own experience of formerly married persons who have found a second marriage to be a blessing. . . .We went against Scripture and two thousand years of tradition by relaxing those rules and allowing remarriage.”

Bishop Robinson is correct in stating what Scripture says about remarriage after divorce and in noting how this prohibition—which issued from the lips of Christ himself—has been reinterpreted by some modern Christians to suit their perceived preference or convenience. If Scripture can be reinterpreted where its clear prohibition of remarriage after divorce is concerned, why not also in its equally plain condemnation of homosexual acts?

Bishop Robinson also cited the case of female ordination: While women have been ordained within the Anglican communion since the 1970s, ordained women are not, in fact, accepted in all of the Anglican provinces. Only seven provinces accept female bishops, for example. Thus, in Robinson’s view, he can function as a sexually active homosexual bishop in those provinces that do accept him, such as the Episcopal Church U.S.A.

This, instead of an open schism, appears to be what the promoters and perpetrators of this most dis-edifying of recent developments in the Anglican communion are actually counting on: namely, that when all the furor dies down, the Episcopal church will simply end up tolerating and accommodating the fait accompli of an openly homosexual bishop. Time will tell.

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