San Diego Those unfamiliar with the Anglican Communion's range of belief and practice were puzzled in early August when, on the lawn of Kent University in England, Bishop Emmanuel Chukwuma of Nigeria tried to lay hands on the head of the Reverend Richard Kirker of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement to exorcise Reverend Kirker's "demons of homosexuality."
Bishop Chukwuma's encounter with Reverend Kirker took place during the Lambeth Conference, a meeting convened every ten years where bishops from around the world gather to debate and pass nonbinding resolutions. In 1988 liberal clergy from England and North America dominated the conference. This summer conservative bishops from Africa, Asia, and the American South joined forces to pass a resolution that opposed the recognition or blessing of same-sex unions, the ordination of noncelibate gay men and lesbians, and condemned homosexual activity as "incompatible with scripture."
Anglicans with little faith in impromptu exorcisms or homosexuality demons responded immediately. Newark, New Jersey's Bishop Spong castigated the Third World bishops for their "Victorian moralism." Bishop Holloway of Scotland said, in response to the resolution, "I've never felt this depressed and so close to tears in my life." The conservative bishops stood firm. Many regretted only that the resolution hadn't been more strident. Bishop Malik of Lahore, Pakistan, criticized it as "ambiguous, unclear, and impotent."
The local reaction was also mixed. San Diego is regarded as a conservative diocese. Its bishop, Gethin Hughes, refers to himself as a "moderate" but has stated, albeit gently, that there will be no same-sex unions blessed or noncelibate homosexuals ordained while he's in charge. A number of local priests are still not pleased with the ordination of women, and some are active in the "Synod," a national conservative movement considering a clean break with the Episcopal Church.
On August 9, however, the Very Reverend John Chane, dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, delivered a sermon, later expanded and posted on the World Wide Web, which condemned the Lambeth resolution and suggested that the Roman Catholic Church was nurturing the growth of conservatism within the Anglican Communion.
Citing statements made before and during the Lambeth Conference by the Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger, and Cardinal Edward Cassidy regarding the Church's opposition to the ordination of women and homosexual activity, Dean Chane concluded that Rome had timed its remarks to lend support to Anglican conservatives. "It is as if the Vatican is clearly saying," wrote Dean Chane, " 'The Church will condemn what it cannot understand.' "
Dean Chane's unease with the influence the Roman Catholic Church would wield over the Anglican Communion is deep-seated. He came of age as a priest during the late 1960s, the "Question Authority" era, in the Newark, New Jersey, diocese, one of the most liberal, "activist" dioceses in the country. He was formed as a priest at a time when, he says, many Episcopal bishops and priests interpreted the Gospel's mission as, "No more war, no more violence against God's people, regardless of their race, color, class, sex or sexual orientation; no more economic oppression, and most important of all, no more retreating from the basic imperatives of feed the hungry, care for and heal the sick, care for the widows and orphans, love one another as you love yourselves, and love God with all your heart, soul and mind."
The Jesus who preached this Gospel, Dean Chane believes, was and is "a political Jesus, a Jesus of action and opinion, a Jesus who called out to political and religious institutions of the time to engage the lives of their constituents and to reevaluate their institutional vision and their religious mission," and not "a Jesus who retreated from confrontation with the prevailing social, political, and religious opinions and constructs of his day."
Although Dean Chane is aware that "some in the Episcopal Church of the 1990s might dismiss all this as aberrant '60s theology," it's nonetheless a theology that animates his spiritual life. He came to work at St. Paul's Cathedral during Easter 1996, delighted that the local diocese had chosen to keep its center in the city proper. "A lot of the mainline churches bagged out of the city of San Diego to move to the suburbs. The cathedral had made a decision to stay here, and that said an awful lot about the people here. It's a very exciting opportunity."
Dean Chane says he respects his bishop's views on homosexuality and feels that the fact he and his bishop can disagree on the issue points to one of the Episcopal Church's greatest strengths, namely its ability to accommodate divergent opinion. Still, Dean Chane is convinced that the Episcopal Church will ultimately have to come to terms with same-sex marriages and gay clergy if it is to survive as a viable religious force in America.
"Young people are leaving us and other mainline churches in droves. They're asking themselves, 'What's the big deal? Why is the church spending so much time battling these issues? It's crazy. Why would we want to be involved in a place that's more interested in preserving orthodoxy than in providing something that bears upon contemporary life?' "
Dean Chane concedes that Anglican liberals are responsible for the recent conservative ascendancy. "Our seminaries," he says, "have produced several generations of Biblical illiterates. We've lost the ability to teach, and, in the past, we prided ourselves on our interpretation of Scripture.
"The question of gay men and women in the church isn't a justice issue. It's an issue that goes to baptism. We are a sacramental church that rests on tradition. Holy baptism is full initiation, and that act and sacrament is indissoluble. Once baptized you have equal access to all sacraments, and there's nothing in canon law that would refute that.
"The ordination of someone who happens to be gay or lesbian should be subject to the same loving scrutiny given to that of a straight person. The question should be, 'Is this person going to be a wholesome example of Christ's church?' Preparing a same-sex couple for holy matrimony should be done with the same kind of care and pastoral support given to straight couples so that the church can affirm and bless their union.
"I really respect my bishop's decisions on these matters, and my sermon on the Lambeth Conference wasn't written to challenge him. We each have our own views. That we happen to differ isn't a problem. In fact, that sort of creative tension is good for the Church. But ultimately, I believe all the Church is going to have to change its views."
Until all the Church changes its views on homosexuality, however, Episcopalians like Jim Langston, a man in his 70s, will have to content themselves with acceptance doled out on a parish-by-parish basis. Seven years ago, after Langston's partner of 22 years died, he started looking for a church to attend. As a life-long "believing Christian," he felt a need for a spiritual home. He tried the Metropolitan Community Church, a gay Protestant denomination, but decided that he "didn't want to be in a ghetto church. I wanted something with more complete diversity."
He began attending St. Paul's Cathedral. In addition to appreciating its liturgy, Langston liked the fact that the cathedral's parishioners were of "all nationalities." He joined St. Paul's and became active in Integrity, a national organization of gay Episcopalians that has a chapter at the cathedral. At first, he says, he wasn't very aware of the political struggles within the Anglican Communion. He felt "totally accepted" at St. Paul's. Rumblings about the Lambeth Conference, about the growing clout of conservative bishops, caught Langston's attention. He followed the Conference closely, kept tabs on its proceedings via reports posted daily on the World Wide Web. Although he wasn't pleased with the resolution on homosexuality ("I didn't expect it to be quite as strident as it turned out to be"), Langston takes a long and generous view on the status of gay men and lesbians within the Anglican Communion.
"It's very important to understand that many of the Third World bishops who voted in favor of the resolution come from parts of the world where they are persecuted as a religious minority and have to struggle for their survival every day of their lives. Bishops from fundamentalist Muslim nations, for example, could not be expected to adopt a tolerant attitude toward homosexuality. Their tolerance would be used as ammunition against them back home. A bishop from Sudan was quoted as saying, 'We know nothing of homosexuality in Sudan.' These bishops had to adopt a fairly strong, prejudiced attitude, otherwise they would have had to disassociate themselves from the Conference. The same, however, can't be said for the conservative American bishops who were egging them on.
"The Third World bishops also have other concerns -- concerns that should involve everyone in the Church. Third World debt is an enormous problem. In many of these countries, servicing the interest alone is sucking up all their resources. The Church could play an important role in somehow arranging debt forgiveness from the international community. Human sexuality is just one part of what the Conference addressed. There were other important issues. In the past, bishops were afraid even to mention the word 'homosexuality.' No one wanted to talk about it. The fact that it was even mentioned and openly discussed is a positive step."