By Leander Harding
Bishop Bill Love and the clergy of the Diocese of Albany will meet today (Sep. 6) to discuss our response to the actions of the latest General Convention. The choices seem rather straightforward to me. Either we make our peace with serving in a church that endorses same-sex marriage as part of its normative teaching, and we make an accommodation for those parishes in favor of such rites. Or we leave individually or in some corporate sense, as has been the case with Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Quincy, San Joaquin, and South Carolina.
In the time I have been in the diocese I have never heard the bishop or any of the leading clergy counsel secession. Anything like that would in my view be an institutional disaster. We are a diocese primarily made up of struggling small-town churches. We are part of the Rust Belt, and the economic turnaround has yet to appear in most of our communities. The major regional export is young people. A healthy dose of bitter controversy would be just the thing to sink our little fleet of ships already struggling to stay afloat.
Overall, I think our diocese is strong in faith and spiritual vitality, but institutionally we are fragile and weak. We don’t have many people, we don’t have much money, our missionary context is a combination of dying rural communities and the see city, which ranks as one of the most secular in the country. The theological convictions of the bishop and a majority of the clergy in the diocese are vastly out of sync with the majority of the Episcopal Church in theology, ethos, and style.
The traditionalist perspective in the Episcopal Church — particularly with regard to the meaning of marriage — has been completely defeated within the councils of our church. The continued existence and witness of traditionalists within this church is entirely at the sufferance of those in the theological majority, some of whom look upon us with a mixture of pity and contempt, even as others (notably the House of Bishops) call us “indispensable.” It is no longer possible to have dialogue about the theology of marriage. The dialogue is only about whether those who cannot accept the new teaching will be accommodated. It is likely that future conventions will restrict those circumstances further.
If same-sex marriage is indeed a matter of justice as the majority says, those who oppose it are either intentionally wicked or invincibly ignorant. According to the inherent logic of the new teaching, those who oppose same-sex marriage can be tolerated in the church only on purely prudential grounds because a purge would cause too much chaos. It may not always be so.
Further significant revisions to the faith are also entailed by the new teaching on matrimony. If same-sex marriages are indeed to be equal in every way to heterosexual marriages, then all reference to the creation of humanity as male and female will have to be excised from the teaching and liturgy of the Episcopal Church. It is entirely in keeping with this logic that the traditional preface to the marriage rite has been dropped in the alternative marriage rite adopted at the General Convention. The church cannot be called the bride of Christ without causing offense, and the maleness of Jesus is inherently problematic for the new teaching.
Before coming to the 2018 convention, I had not heard the news that when Jesus returns we do not know how gender will be expressed, if at all, in the glorified humanity that will appear. Apparently, in the new creation cisgender identity will, along with every tear, be wiped away.
The theology and doctrine of the church are like pick-up sticks or, as our Roman Catholic brethren sometimes put it, “a seamless garment.” If you change one doctrine, there are a host of other doctrines that must be changed as well in order to be consistent and coherent. These changes will pose further shocks to the sensibilities and consciences of traditionalists. It is hard and discouraging, and it will only grow harder and more discouraging.
If you are in the theological minority and you perceive that your call is to stay and fulfill your ministry with as much integrity as you can, where is the grace in this moment? The grace is in the defeat and in the powerlessness. We have been forcibly disarmed. Everything that we might use to defend our cause or to advance it has been or is in the process of being taken away.
We sheltered under the authority of bishops faithful to the traditional teaching. That has been taken away. We sheltered under the protection of local canons. They have been mooted. We have defended our position with careful arguments based on Scripture, tradition, and reason. They are beside the point. They are branded as hate speech and discounted before a word is uttered and, in any event, we have talked ourselves out.
There comes a moment in the combat of the armored knight when the combatant is completely exhausted from the effort of wielding the sword. Even though the weapon is still perfectly good, it is practically useless because the knight is too weary to lift the sword. Though he has not surrendered, he has been practically disarmed by the sustained effort of the battle.
This is, I think, the point we have reached, and I believe there is a grace in this moment. The grace is in a profound identification with the Lord in his Passion. In the garden he tells Peter to put away his sword and goes to make his final witness utterly disarmed, at least in the way the world thinks about these things. Finally, he is stripped of everything but his obedient suffering. But on the cross, “he disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them” (Col. 2:15).
The call for many of us now is to be weak, to be powerless, and to identify ourselves with the Lord in his humiliation before the rulers of both the state and this church — and there to find the power of his suffering obedience. There is still room in the Episcopal Church to do this. There is still room to witness faithfully to Jesus in preaching and teaching and holiness of life. Very little is left to us other than the inherent power of the truth and the luminosity of personal holiness.
Perhaps it is a blessing to be forced to be so disarmed, forced to identify with the Lord in his weakness and in his suffering obedience. Perhaps there is an opportunity before us to enter more fully into the power of his weakness and so with him to put ourselves more completely into the hands of his Father.