Saturday, August 21, 2004

Claiming Rights & losing the Way? Anglicans in North America, 1950-2004.

Some suggestions for thought.

In western society everyone, it seems, is aware of their rights and is glad to hear of more rights to which they are entitled. It is not exaggerating to claim that human rights is the context in which morality now in the modern West is usually and often established. And there is a growing part of the administration of justice in the courts, which is also based on declarations and statements of human rights.

In society, activist groups keep on advancing new claims and claimants for such rights and even extend them to non-human animals. It seems there is no end in sight for this kind of advancement.

Likewise, in the churches, activist societies and organizations keep on advancing new claims and claimants for such rights and they usually do so in “God-language” or in “the language of Zion”, often suggesting some biblical verse or custom as a kind of basis of, or justification for, the innovation. It seems also that there is no end in sight for this kind of development and for the innovations it brings.

In fact since the 1950s, after the adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948, “rights talk” in society and churches has multiplied exceedingly. If we are to be precise we have to distinguish natural rights (see the American Constitution), from civil rights (remember Dr Martin Luther King) and human rights (with which we in 2004 are most concerned). Human rights relate to what belongs to the human being as possessing a definite and clear dignity (given to the same by God or by nature or by both). And it all depends how you view that dignity as to what you believe are legitimate human rights.

The present Pope is a leading example of a Christian leader who has taken over the language of human rights but, importantly, married it to a view of human dignity, based upon the Scriptures and the Catholic tradition (and to a view of personhood based on philosophy). It is his Christian view of dignity which causes him both to defend the poor & homeless, the persecuted and the despised and, at the same time, oppose abortion, gay sex and partnerships, women’s ordination, euthanasia, artificial birth control and other things. (Of course many people strong disagree with the Pope when he does not grant the rights of women to control their own bodies, of homosexual persons to “gay sex” and of individual persons to choose the time of their death. Their view of human dignity is obviously very different from his.)

The traditional Christian, who is prepared to make use of the language and basic philosophy of human rights in his vocation to serve the Lord and love his neighbor in 2004, has to be ever watchful that he has (a) a biblically-based and orthodox view of the human person and human dignity; (b) a sure understanding of human duty and responsibility to the righteous, holy Lord, in terms of his commandments and laws – that is, a knowledge of the will of God for human beings as individuals and in relation to each other; and (c) a knowledge of God’s will for his Church, the Household of God & the Body of Christ. To hold to such principles he will probably need to be a member of a conservative, orthodox, church!

In his thinking, present talk of human rights will usually serve the possibility of opening his eyes to possibilities of the extension of human dignity and worth that have been neglected, hidden, and even refused by the church in the past. Human rights talk will serve to help him on occasion to see either that which is there already within the treasure of biblical wisdom to be developed, or is actually required by the principles within that treasure. However, in this exercise, which may seem like walking on a tight-rope, the danger that he faces is of being pulled into extreme conservativism or into losing hold of basic biblical principles and thereby compromising the law of the Lord. The application of rights based on human dignity and in accord with the will of God has to be done in the context of watchfulness, prayer and fasting.


Although there were other important factors [psychological, social, economic etc.] involved (as there must be within the complexity of modern western society) we can see clearly the power of the human rights movement in changing the doctrine and practice of the churches since World War II. It is, however, one thing to see the power of human rights talk and another to evaluate whether, from a conservative Christian standpoint, concessions were made to it by the churches in some of their decisions and this has meant, in practice, a negation of the will of God by the same churches.

Here are a few examples to consider:

1. Virtually all Christians, liberal and conservative, agree that the application of civil and human rights to ethnic minorities in American society was the right way to go, and was according to the will of God, who has created all people in his image and after his likeness, in order to live to his glory. (Of course, not all the applications of these rights commend universal approval, but the principle does.)

2. But when we get to the right to divorce and especially to no-fault divorce, followed by the right to re-marry and even to engage in serial monogamy, there is not the same basic consensus as there is for racial equality. Most churches, including the Roman Church (through the massive use of “annulments” in the USA) have come to terms with the divorce culture and made it possible for second marriages to take place in church and be blessed by the church. And this right has been extended to clergy, even bishops, in the Episcopal and Lutheran and Methodist Churches, where in 2004 a large percentage of clergy are divorced and remarried. However, it has not been so extended in the Orthodox Churches and in (virtually all of) the Southern Baptist Church, where biblical teaching and/or ancient canon law take precedence over human rights, so that divorced and remarried clergy are extremely rare. Further, the Roman Church and some Anglicans still hold to the indissolubility of a marriage properly contracted and blessed.

3. Moving on to the ordination of women, we find that the Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church insist that a right to equality with a man does not apply for the dignity of women does not require that they have the right to be priests; and, further, the will of God clearly states that they cannot and must not be priests. At the same time, the claimed human rights of women to be equal with men and to do what they do (where that is humanly possible) was a major factor (when tied to several biblical themes and to new ways of interpreting the Bible) in the liberal churches (Episcopal, Lutheran & Methodist) in causing majority votes to go in favor of this innovation. And once recognized as clergy, the rights of women not to use language, supposedly created by men for use by men, led to changes in ways of addressing, and speaking of, God in the churches (= inclusive language). This led on to new types of liturgies, versions of the Bible, rules for debate in synods and so on.

4. Turning to the blessing of those in “gay commitments” [partnerships, relationships] we find that human rights talk (skillfully employed by advocates of the LesBiGay lobby] has had a major influence in changing basic mindsets and thus bring majority approval in the liberal Churches. The sexual “orientation” of human being has been made an essential aspect of their dignity of human persons and thus the rights of “homosexual” persons have been placed on the same level as the rights of “heterosexual” persons. Thus calls for the blessing of “gay couples” and the right to ordination by a “gay” person in a “committed relationship” has been approved by church synods. [It needs to be added that the full pressure for rights for “gay” persons had to follow chronologically, for it to have succeeded, the gaining of rights by ethnic minorities to civil rights, of heterosexual persons to the rights of divorce and remarriage and by women of rights to equal access to all church offices.]

* * *

Where a Church such as the Episcopal, Lutheran or Methodist, has been clearly influenced over the last fifty years by the civil and human rights movement and where it has made innovations in worship, doctrine, ministry and discipline on the basis of the view of human dignity within that rights movement, it is perhaps impossible for it to go into reverse gear and to undo what it has done in any particular.

The human rights movement had to be kept in check from the very beginning (as it appears to have been by the Vatican [if not American Roman Catholicism] and to a lesser degree by the Orthodox Churches) in order for there to be any possibility of it being controlled in 2004 and on into the 21st century.

As things stand in 2004, both the liberals and the conservatives in the ECUSA or the Anglican Church of Canada appear to be so tied into the human rights agenda that to be set free from it, or for them to control it rather than it them, seems impossible.

For the evangelicals & charismatics in Anglicanism, for example, though few of them realize it, the human rights talk has actually entered into some of the content of the new versions of the Bible that they support and it has invaded their language of prayer and sacred song that they use. It is the air we breathe and it has become part of their way of thinking and their piety even as they seek to deny its applicability to the claims of “gay” persons.

Thus, merely denying the rights of “gay” persons without thoroughly recognizing the major part that rights talk has had and continues to have on molding “evangelical culture” in North America is not to be taking the present crisis in Anglicanism very seriously. Of course, it is human rights that comes in a package that also has other contents – aspects of psychotherapy, of management theory, of commitment to simplicity, accessibility and relevance in worship, teaching and evangelization, and so on.

Leaving the ECUSA or the Anglican Church of Canada to become a new entity will not change who concerned Anglicans are for they will take into their new organization that which they actually have become. They need to change their mindset and dress before moving anywhere!

Kyrie eleison.

The Rev’d Dr. Peter Toon August 21, 2004

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