Prophetic, but no one was listening

17 December 2008

Anyone could foresee thelatest Episcopalian exodusin the US, says Harriet Baber

It Is official: four dioceses, and a number of parishes, representing 100,000 former members of the 2.3 million-strong Episcopal Church in the United States are leaving to start their own denomination. And the Episcopal Church is suing to keep its church property.

It is hard to see why: the Episcopal Church, which has been in decline for decades, has many high-maintenance buildings it cannot fill. It is unlikely that it will be able to build congregations that can maintain the buildings they hope seceders will vacate — although perhaps selling off the properties will generate funds to cover the costs of litigation.

In the US, the media have spun the Episcopal church-fight as a moment in “Culture Wars” that began when the clergy and laity of New Hampshire innocently voted to elect an openly gay man, Canon Gene Robinson, as their bishop in 2003.

In fact, Episcopalian clergy had been working behind the scenes for more than a decade before Bishop Robinson’s consecration to revise the Church’s teachings on human sexuality. Throughout the 1990s, the Episcopal Church, dominated by a liberal majority, worked to win hearts and minds. It promoted parish “dialogues on human sexuality”, at which churchgoers, under the supervision of trained facilitators, worked through church-produced training materials, engaged in the therapeutic ventilation of feelings, and were introduced to real homosexuals.

In 1994, it brought the House of Bishops’ Issues in Human Sexuality to the Church’s governing body, the General Convention. The document debunked a number of misconceptions about homosexuality, and urged members of the Church to rethink their views about human sexuality in the light of “modern science”, as represented by Freud’s theories and the Kinsey reports of 1948 and 1953.

By 2003, the hope was that the ordination of Bishop Robinson would be the grand, public event that pushed through the agenda liberal clergy had been promoting for so long. Instead, people got angry. And the people who got angry were not all, as liberal clergy and the media portrayed them, prudes, religious bigots, and reactionaries frothing with homophobia. Churchgoers were legitimately outraged by the arrogance and power-politics of liberal clergy who imagined that they could manipulate and bully them into submission.

Why, one wonders, did liberal clergy mount a campaign for the official recognition of same-sex relationships, instead of letting the prohibition on homosexual activity sink into oblivion, as with the ban on heterosexual cohabitation, or requirements for the churching of women?

I suppose they imagined that they were articulating a prophetic witness to the Church and world, but failed to notice that no one was listening. No one was edified or impressed: not churchgoers who regarded the Episcopal Church’s prophetic witness on sexuality as an irritation — if they noticed it at all; nor the cultured despisers, who saw it as a mildly ridiculous curiosity. So the Episcopal Church is fighting an expensive legal battle to ensure that parishes and dioceses that do not knuckle under will not get away unscathed. It is doing this to keep church buildings with depleted or non-existent congregations, and to proclaim a message to which no one is listening.

Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, USA.

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