Sex, Politics and Religion: Week 4 of Whatever Happened to the Church?

We all know it’s not polite to talk about sex, politics or religion, but that’s exactly what this conversation is about. People often want church to be separate from politics, because they want church to be a haven from the rough and tumble and partisanship that they associate with politics. I think it’s more helpful to think about politics as the way a diverse community makes decisions. If everyone agrees, then you’re either living in a dictatorship where no-one is thinking, or you’re deluded. So there have to be processes for decision-making and action in the group. As soon as you have decisions to make and actions to take, there are exchanges of power. I will lend my power to yours if you will lend yours to me for something else. Or let us put our power together because we are agreed on the right course of action.

The Anglican Communion is made up of 38 churches – some national, like the Church of England or the Church of Nigeria, others international like The Episcopal Church. For almost a hundred years it had been a gentleman’s club where everyone pretty much though and worshiped the same way, and if they didn’t (like during the Civil War in the States) it was politely ignored.

That changed with the ordination of women.

Could the Communion survive when it was no longer possible for clergy to serve interchangeably? Some people believed that women were not the right “matter” for ordination and so regardless of who laid hands on them they were not and could not be priests any more than a turnip can become a carrot. Once Barbara Harris was ordained bishop in 1989, there was no guarantee that a priest was properly ordained because he or she might have been ordained by a woman, or by someone who had themselves been ordained by a woman, thus invalidating the whole thing. So you could no longer trust that a man who called himself a priest had been truly ordained.

When the Evangelical-Catholic alliance in The Episcopal Church found that they didn’t have the power to stop the church becoming gradually more and more progressive – continuing to ordain women and gays and persisting in trusting continuous revelation – they looked overseas for others in the Anglican Communion with whom they could create alliances. They didn’t have to look far, because they were all ready good friends with others, especially those who identified as evangelical.

Due to the work of John Stott, a leading English evangelical, there was a ready-made evangelical network throughout the Communion. Even before the 1998 Lambeth Conference, this alliance was trying to get the Episcopal Church thrown out of the Communion. After they successfully got a resolution passed at Lambeth which said that homosexual acts were “incompatible with Scripture” they put more and more pressure on The Episcopal Church to comply with what they called the “standard of teaching.”

The ordination of openly gay Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 and the decision of the diocese of New Westminster in Canada to start officially blessing same-sex relationships led to outrage and uproar. The anti-gay alliance had discovered that in a community which depends on relationships and has few formal channels, the ones who shout loudest have the power. Power comes from organized money or organized people. They had both. And they used their money wisely to amplify the noise made by the organized people.

About the same time, the Institute on Religion and Democracy were in the middle of a campaign to destabilize the liberal mainstream churches and to return them to conservative control, because they believed that the churches were getting in the way of their right-wing agenda. The United Methodist Church proved more susceptible to this attack which is why they are still to this day defrocking Methodist clergy for blessing same-gender unions and marriages. (Mark Richardson who was the Methodist minister here in Los Osos and is now in Santa Maria has an interesting reflection on this.)

The decision to call in reinforcements from (mainly) African and Asia to fight the growing trend towards full LGBT inclusion in the Episcopal Church has had long term implications. It has tied the Anglican Church in those countries into an anti-gay moral panic which has broken out, fuelled by homophobic American evangelical leaders. Having been encouraged to take their own power and stand up against the hegemony of the American church, Anglican leaders are firmly in the anti-gay camp, even when it goes beyond the bounds of the very Lambeth resolution they declared to be the “standard of teaching.”

An excellent recent article on the American anti-gay influence overseas (including in Russia) can be found here. And the president of the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies has just published a statement here.

Questions for conversation: Is it still impolite to discuss sex, religion and politics? What does it do to our ability to act if we comply with this idea?

When should Christians be involved in politics, and when should we leave well alone?

How can we take action when we disagree without falling into the kind of machinations and gossip that are generally termed “church politics”?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>