Friday, September 21, 2007

Sex & Bishops

As I write on St Matthew’s Day 2007 The Episcopal Church House of Bishops meets in New Orleans, with the Archbishop of Canterbury as a primary guest.

I submit that this meeting—and indeed the writing of The Windsor Report with the frenzied activity it generated—would never have taken place had not TEC (then PECUSA)not changed dramatically its canon law on marriage in 1973.

The General Convention of PECUSA in 1973 set aside (a) the long tradition of canon law on matrimony, going back through the 1604 Canons of the Church of England to the medieval Church, and (b) the liturgical expression of Holy Matrimony—as seen most obviously in the Service of Holy Matrimony in The Book of Common Prayer of 1662. Instead it made marriage in church into a pastoral matter to be settled locally by pastoral care.

Then the General Conventions of 1976 & 1979 approved a marriage service in the new Prayer Book of TEC (which totally replaced The Book of Common Prayer of 1789/1892/1928) which allowed in subtle ways the entry of (a) the divorce culture—remarriage in church now easy; (b) the artificial birth control mindset, 1960 being the beginning of the availability of “the Pill”; and (c) the purpose of marriage not necessarily including for healthy people the duty and privilege of procreation. It highlighted mutuality and self-fulfillment in relationship.

What the General Convention also did in the period from 1973 to 1979 was, without everyone realizing it, to set in place the basis for the blessing, even “marriage” of same-sex persons, through the reducing of marriage to whatever the participants felt was right for them, with procreation as an option not a divine calling. And resolutions on behalf of homosexual rights came at every Convention from 1979 onwards.

So the membership of TEC has had since the 1970s a very high percentage of divorced and remarried persons; and serial monogamy is common both amongst laity and clergy. Indeed it is all so common that it is virtually taken for granted. A major revolution in sexual morality and practice occurred in TEC beginning in the 1960s and now most members hardly know it occurred for it is the context of their lives.

Thus it was nothing strange a decade ago for ten so-called “orthodox bishops” led by Bishop Stanton of Dallas to bring to trial an assistant bishop of Newark, for ordaining an active homosexual man; and, at the same time, not even bothering at all that this bishop was thrice married with all three wives alive and well (I sat next to the third of them at the trial in Wilmington DE.) In real church law this bishop ought to have been deposed for his adultery before being charged as he was!

So what we have on September 21 in the packed House of Bishops of TEC in New Orleans is not a mixture of “revisionists, “ “moderates” and “orthodox” as is suggested by conservative Episcopal leaders. In fact, what we have is a spectrum of “revisionists” from the radical to the conservative, but all revisionists. For all of these bishops exercise their episcopates within the Canon Law of TEC and with the 1979 Prayer Book of TEC, but using them in varying degrees of revisionism (that is revision of traditional Anglican canon law and Christian morality). At one end, the liberal progressives, working within human rights provisions and psychological insights, press for full acceptance of the blessing of same-sex (faithful, covenanted) couples in the church; and at the other end, this is opposed and sexual relations are said to be allowed only between married couples (which means in serial monogamy for many). But from left to right and right to left there is agreement to (a) the new post-1960s form of marriage and (b) the rejection of holy matrimony as set forth in traditional canon law, liturgy and reading of sacred Scripture.

One of the amazing things about the support of the Primates of the so-called Global South for conservatives within TEC, and conservatives recently seceded from TEC, who also use the 1979 prayer book, is that effectively a blind eye is turned to this very serious aberration in terms of holy matrimony. It seems that the opposition to sodomy and same-sex relations of any kind is so intense in the Global South that they are ready to overlook the blessing of serial monogamy which is accepted and practiced by the conservatives they support—as long, that is, as the conservatives profess the Lordship of Christ and are committed to ”the Great Commission” to evangelize and plant churches (which they do and are to their credit).

The world waits to see whether the presence in the Theological Statement of Common Cause (accepted by the conservative Episcopalians in The Anglican Communion Network) of the Formularies of 1662 will lead to a rejection of what presently is called “Christian Marriage” and an acceptance of what 1662 calls “Holy Matrimony”—that is to the acceptance of what was effectively rejected by PECUSA/TEC in 1973!

Many of us hope so! And with God all things such as this are surely possible.

One further matter: what do we make of the doctrine and practice of the Continuing Anglican Churches, which were formed after 1977, and which have forms of Episcopal canon law pre-dating that of 1973. On paper they reject the marriage of divorced persons in church and they are opposed to serial monogamy—as was PECUSA before 1973. But, in their churches there are percentage-wise as many divorced and remarried persons as in TEC. That is, their membership reflects the culture. How so? By the claim of their bishops to have (the Pope’s) power to annul marriages if they are judged not to have met certain criteria—e.g. not blessed by a priest or not passing psychological tests. Thus a high proportion of bishops and clergy, not to mention laity, are, in civil law, divorced and remarried; but in their canon law are only married the once. For example, the Archbishop of what is called “The Traditional Anglican Communion” has been married twice but his first marriage was annulled by some of his fellow bishops and so he is in their law married once only. In fact if all the twice married clergy in the Continuing Churches stood down, there would be a major gap in the provision of ordained ministry!

Perhaps the divorce culture and the hedonistic view of sexuality are so endemic in American life and culture that the Churches cannot hold back the tide and to have any members at all must submit to these cultural realities at least in minimal expressions!

Again, to believe this is to reject the power of the Gospel to transform persons and relations between persons. Surely, over time through true renewal holy matrimony can be recovered!

St Matthew’s Day 2007 Dr Peter Toon.

1 comment:

DomWalk said...

Perhaps the divorce culture and the hedonistic view of sexuality are so endemic in American life and culture that the Churches cannot hold back the tide and to have any members at all must submit to these cultural realities at least in minimal expressions!

There are 40 million Baptists in the USA, virtually all of whose convetions hold to traditional definitions of sex and marriage. So do the vast majority of the booming Pentecostal-Charismatic denominations.

Rather, the opposite is the case for the declining to oblivion mainline churches: being at the forefront of social and moral progressivism has made them less relevant, and less interesting for membership.

For the EC, I'd go back at least to Lambeth 1930 for the acceptance of birth control, and to BCP 1928 for the subtle but important reordering of the objectives of marriage. Both of these successfull attempts to split marriage and sex from procreation were probably part of the same agenda, pushed probably by the same group within the EC.