THE Bishop of South Carolina, the Rt Revd Mark Lawrence, is currently under investigation by the disciplinary board of the national Church on charges of having “abandoned” the Episcopal Church (News, 14 October). He is charged with a variety of omissions and commissions, including failure to take legal action against a parish in his diocese which had realigned itself.
The Episcopal Church has designated $22 million to finance legal actions against congregations and dioceses that want to leave the Church because of disagreement with its policy in support of the ordination of sexually active homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions. In addition to invoking its legal right to appropriate the property of departing congregations, the Church has declared that departing congregations who wish to buy their property must disaffiliate from any group that professes to be Anglican.
The Presiding Bishop, Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori, has stated that she would rather have these properties become Baptist churches or saloons. So, four years ago, when a congregation in New York State announced its intention to leave the Episcopal Church, the local diocese refused the congregation’s offer to buy the property, which it later sold to a Muslim group for one third of the amount that the congregation had offered.
Some moral questions are no-brainers: slavery is wrong; genocide is wrong; the gratuitous infliction of pain is wrong. But there are many moral issues about which reasonable, informed people of good will may disagree — including questions of sexual ethics.
Unlike advocates of slavery or ethnic cleansing, conservatives who hold that sex outside heterosexual marriage is immoral are not bigots or persecutors of an oppressed minority: they are just (so I believe) wrong-headed. The Episcopal Church, however, has portrayed them as moral monsters, and will give no quarter to congregations or dioceses that reject its current doctrines concerning sexual conduct.
Sixty years ago, homosexuality was stigmatised, and, in most places, homosexual activity was illegal — but times have changed. In the United States, virtually no one supports the “anti-sodomy” laws that, in the past, were on the books in most states; and a solid majority favours the legalisation of same-sex unions.
The Church’s crusade against conservative dissenters is pointless, wasteful, and self-destructive. And, although Dr Jefferts Schori has defended her actions as necessary to protect the Church’s assets, it is hard to understand what material benefits the Church’s programme could reasonably achieve. If the Episcopal Church retains the properties of departing congregations, it will be stuck with church buildings that the few (if any) remaining loyalists cannot afford to maintain. In the best-case scenario, it may be able to offset the cost of litigation by selling them for use as mosques or saloons.
The Episcopal Church has plunged into a maelstrom of institutional turmoil and litigation, alienating some of its most committed constituents. Representing less than one per cent of the American population, it has not affected the attitudes of the general public, or benefited gay men and women, who are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. And it has not impressed the secular élite, who are as contemptuous of the Episcopal Church, for all its political correctness, as they are of all Christian groups, whose members they regard as superstitious ignoramuses.
Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, USA.