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Column on Anglican angst

August 2, 2009

image_8615912My column on the theological struggle happening in the Anglican Communion. Ugh. Not so sure how I feel about this one. Kinda wished I had just written about my conversation with the Lebanese Presby (Yasser Hannush of Dallas, a very interesting man who’s dating an old and dear friend). I thought I wanted to say something about the Episcopal Church’s resolution on ordination of gays, but I feel like I wound up saying nothing. Oh well.

Next column should be more interesting. I’m meeting with Rabbi Kerry Baker tomorrow to talk about his new venture Everybody Needs a Rabbi.

In the meantime, here’s the full text of the Aug. 1 column:

Episcopalians’ plight: change vs. communion

By Eileen Flynn
Saturday, August 01, 2009

It was, oddly enough, a conversation with a Lebanese Presbyterian that prompted me to reflect on the theological struggles within the Anglican Church.

This man who was recently visiting from Dallas told amusing stories of life as a Middle Easterner in Texas, one of which involved well-meaning ladies at his church who like to take him by the arm and say, “Young man, when did you invite Jesus into your life?”

They assumed he was a convert even though he comes from the cradle of Christianity and his father is a minister. He says sometimes he feels like telling them, “Listen, my people were practicing Christianity when your people were painting their faces blue and running through the forest.”

We laughed. But it was a sober reminder of how we in the United States can lose our historical perspective. We can forget where our beliefs and traditions came from. And sometimes we fail to recognize our place in the world at large.

Which got us talking about the tensions within the Anglican communion. The leaders of the Episcopal Church – the American branch of Anglicans – recently passed a resolution that opens the door to the ordination of openly gay people in committed relationships.

Some leaders say this isn’t a radical change, but it’s enough to inflame hostilities with Anglicans in countries such as Nigeria and Uganda who regard homosexual relationships as sinful and who have asked their American brethren to refrain from ordaining noncelibate gays after the controversial election of a gay bishop in New Hampshire in 2003.

My new acquaintance, a self-described traditional Christian who has issues with the ordination of women (never mind gays and lesbians), shook his head. From his perspective, the Episcopal Church is out of touch with the majority and has failed to recognize its place in the world.

I would argue that Episcopalians, who number around 2 million in a worldwide church of 80 million, are acutely aware of their place on the global Christian stage.

As Pennsylvania State University history and religious scholar Philip Jenkins has illuminated in his book “The Next Christendom,” the heart of Christianity lies in the global south: Africa, Asia and Latin America. One only needs to look at the rapid growth of Christianity in Africa in the past century to realize where the future of the church lies.

In a 2002 Atlantic Monthly article, Jenkins wrote that “Nigeria already has more practicing Anglicans than any other country, far more than Britain itself, and Uganda is not far behind. By mid-century the global total of Anglicans could approach 150 million, of whom only a small minority will be white Europeans or North Americans.”

Episcopalians know this. Whatever their views on sexuality, they speak passionately about the importance of preserving relations and avoiding a major schism.

The question then becomes how to balance the desire to remain in communion with the desire to be fully inclusive of gay and lesbian members.

The Rt. Rev. Andy Doyle , bishop of the Diocese of Texas, voted against the resolution that would offer ordination to noncelibate homosexuals because he respected the wishes of the worldwide church. He wrote on an Episcopal blog: “The idea of a global communion meant a lot to me as a child and it is deeply a part of my spiritual journey and my own spiritual values ? The idea of a global communion is the very reason I will forever remain both an Episcopalian and an Anglican.”

This scriptural call to be one in the body of Christ can’t be taken lightly, nor can the realization that the Western church isn’t calling the shots anymore.

But what if people of faith look at their Bible, look at the culture and then use faith and reason to determine whether it’s morally wrong to prevent openly gay and lesbian believers from answering a divine call to ministry – even if such a decision threatens to fracture the church?

Episcopal leaders have made difficult choices before – the ordination of women for instance – and felt the fissures not only abroad but in the United States.

For the Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio, the vote on the gay ordination resolution was “an honest reflection of who we are as a church and where we are.”

The impact on the global communion remains to be seen. But it’s clear that these Christians are making choices with a clear view of their place in the world at large.

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