I HAD a pastoral letter from our Bishop in the summer, folded into the diocesan newspaper. After some observations about the feast of the Transfiguration, and the good time he and some other bishops had had at a conference in Spain, he added, almost as an afterthought, that he was suing three parishes, which had broken with the Episcopal Church over church property.
I doubt that many people read the Bishop’s letter — or, if they started reading, got to the news of the proposed litigation, or, if they read about the impending lawsuits, cared. The dispute about the ordination of openly gay bishops and blessing of same-sex unions had no import for their lives or their congregations.
What were these priests playing at when they set out to issue a new official “teaching” on sexual ethics? By the beginning of the new millennium, the sexual taboos they deplored had fallen without their help: divorce was no longer stigmatised; cohabitation was a normal phase of the life cycle; and the majority of Americans, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project’s survey in 2003, believed that “Homosexuality should be accepted.”
To whom did these priests intend to address their “teaching”, and why did they assume anyone would take them seriously? These liberal clergy imagined they were exercising “prophetic leadership” — that is, they set out to pick a fight.
This battle plan was scripted during the Civil Rights Movement, half a century earlier, when clerics of the Episcopal Church joined with members of black Churches in the South to break the back of Jim Crow. The Civil Rights Movement, one of the few moments in history where Good triumphed decisively over unambiguous Evil, became the model for all social improvement in the United States. Every group of people who suffered any disadvantage became a “community”, along the lines of the “African-American community”. By the late 20th century, gays were the community du jour, and the Episcopal Church sallied forth to fight a new Civil Rights Movement on their behalf — like an ageing actress replaying her ingénue role.
Liberal clerics would work to win hearts and minds until victory was in sight, and then, by brave acts of civil disobedience, push the side over the top. As winners, they would be magnanimous: there would be hugs, healing, and reconciliation. A few benighted homophobes would, inevitably, skulk away, but they would soon die off. So the diplomacy, politicking, and negotiation continued, until the grand act of civil disobedience, the ordination of the Rt Revd Gene Robinson, which was to force the hand of the Church.
In their blind arrogance, imagining themselves intellectuals and moral heroes, liberal clerics overplayed their hand. They did not understand that they had no credibility and little power. By the end of the 20th century, educated upper-middle-class Americans, traditionally the Episcopal Church’s constituency, were as secular as their European counterparts, and the fastest-growing “religious group” in the US was the unchurched.
Few took priests seriously, and their campaign for gay rights made them look silly — fighting for the right of same-sex couples to have their relationships blessed, when few heterosexual couples regarded marriage as a matter of importance, and even fewer wanted church weddings.
Whatever happens regarding the status of the Episcopal Church within the Anglican Communion will have no impact on most Episcopalians, who have little interest in church affairs beyond their own parishes, and are not terribly concerned about the Church’s official views about sexuality or anything else.
The Episcopal Church has wasted time, energy, and money on meetings and reports, politicking, arm-twisting, and propagandising, and is now involved in a most unedifying squabble about real estate. The only minor cause for optimism is that, so far, most Episcopalians have not noticed.
Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, USA.