by Hunter Baker
The Rev. Gene Robinson's recent consecration as the first non-celibate gay bishop of the Episcopal Church has been welcomed by some theologians and church officials as a milestone in what they believe is the second major reformation of Christianity. For these people, Martin Luther is important in Christian history not because of his theology of justification but for having stood up against a repressive hierarchy in the name of liberty of conscience. In their minds, the modern Christian faithful are boldly moving forward with that inheritance of freedom is striking down prohibitions against abortion, divorce, and female leadership of the church body. If orthodox Christians have sometimes been accused of confusing their faith with conservatism, this modern group has gone even further in their enthusiasm for melding spirituality with certain conclusions of the Enlightenment mind.
If the Episcopal Church did not have such a strong corporate identity, a significant portion of the parishes would have broken off from the main body last fall and taken their buildings, land, funds, and members with them. That is essentially what happened in the decentralized Southern Baptist denominations when conservatives won control during the 1980s and began issuing doctrinal statements about the sanctity of life, the graceful submission of wives to husbands, and the inerrancy of the Scriptures. Liberals, composing perhaps 10 to 15 percent of that denomination, simply formed their own organizations and dropped out. But because Episcopalians are centralized, the conservative dissenters don't have the choice of simply leaving, at least not without abandoning their church buildings (some built with the labor of members) and other assets as an unearned boon to their liberal brethren. It seems likely that no American court would presume to say which camp is being more faithful to the ideals of the church. Thus, the dissenting group is now trying to figure out how to organize a church within a church and give the least aid and comfort to the current Episcopal governing structures as they can.
Discontent Due South
This particular conflict reaches far beyond the Episcopal Church in the United States. Analogous conflicts have erupted in other "mainstream" American denominations, and the impact of the split in the Episcopal Church has already been felt in the Anglican Communion worldwide. Although the Archbishop of Canterbury opposed the consecration of Bishop Robinson and stood by previous pronouncements that homosexual practices are "inconsistent with Scripture," the Diocese of New Hampshire went ahead with their plans. It is doubtful, moreover, that the Church of England would have held the line without the insistent outrage of the large and growing Anglican Church in Africa.
The African faithful have repeatedly condemned the action of the American church and have been approached by conservative Episcopalians in the United States who would like to connect their churches to African leadership. Annoyed by the essentially prophetic attitude of the orthodox African bishops, some U.S. supporters of the Robinson consecration have suggested that the Africans are acting less from their own true convictions than they are simply parroting what their former colonial masters taught them. Africans counter that they view contemporary liberals' attempts to "enlighten" them as a form of neo-colonialism that seeks to undermine their most sincere beliefs.
Diane Knippers, president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, has pointed out that Anglicans in Africa have another reason to be profoundly disturbed about the consecration of Gene Robinson. Their nations are host to Christian and Muslim populations living together in active community. Nigeria, for example, is split virtually 50-50 between Christians and Muslims and has had prime ministers from both faiths gain power in alternate fashion. The Anglicans there are wondering how their brothers and sisters in America could have done this to them. They look like heretics to their fellow Christians and become a walking object lesson to the Muslims in their midst who are glad they didn't buy the same now-suspect package of adjustable faith. The Muslims also infer a larger truth in the situation: Western Christians have no respect for their own traditions and holy writings. Surely, they cannot be expected to have any understanding of a proud religion like Islam. While the Robinson consecration was being debated, news stories did not discuss the potential geopolitical implications of the move, which in retrospect was clearly a failure of American journalistic imagination.
Latt� for Communion
Revealed religion, of course, lays claim to absolute truth and speaks to the common crises of every human life. Perhaps that is why cutting-edge liberal reformers of religion have met with such limited success in terms of absolute numbers of adherents. For example, it is now accepted as a given that conservative churches have been growing in membership during the past several decades, while the mainline Protestant churches, which essentially adopted the Euro-American agenda of modern liberalism, have declined substantially in membership if not in wealth.
That last bit is not surprising. Adam Smith remarked upon the different religious proclivities of the wealthy and their less well-heeled fellow supplicants two centuries ago. He saw that the clergy to the "people of fashion" tended to endorse a more flexible doctrine, whereas the ministers to the poor pounded out a hard-hitting, demanding gospel. Smith explained the discrepancy not as a difference of intelligence between the two groups, but rather as a matter of resources. The wealthy had enough money and connections to survive their many vices, but the average working man could utterly ruin himself and his family within a few particularly destructive days. For that reason, the pastors serving the working population preached the potent doctrines upon which the welfare of their parishioners depended. That same dynamic is still in place in Christian churches around the world. The wretched of the earth are not exactly beating down doors to hear messages relating to a Christianity of aesthetics. They seek something real, true, and holy to help them in their struggles.
Just so today. The Episcopal churches in America that have approved the Robinson consecration are essentially ministering to Smith's "people of fashion." They are the sort of people one reads about in David Brooks's Bobos in Paradise or Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class, the kind of Americans who would describe themselves as "spiritual, but not religious," who prefer urban digs to suburban life, view tolerance as the one indispensable virtue, and couldn't find their way to Wal-Mart without the aid of a tractor beam. For the modern, liberal congregant, the church is an archaic institution that they are in the process of slowly changing rather than having it change them. The process of sanctification--meaning purification from sin--seems to be mysteriously absent from the modernist Christian mind. For example, when Episcopal bishop Steven Charleston appeared on The O'Reilly Factor to defend the Robinson consecration, he insisted that Jesus would have been the greatest ally of disenfranchised gays and lesbians and that his greatest focus was on teaching people to "judge not." Mr. O'Reilly, no bishop or theologian he, reminded the professional churchman that Christ's consistent message to outcast sinners was "go and sin no more."
In the new millennium, the woman at the well, the cheating tax collector, and the woman caught in adultery do not experience being fully known and moved to righteousness by Bishop Chaleston's conception of Jesus. Instead, they encounter a "savior" who tells them that they essentially have no flaws from which they require saving--other than that of intolerance toward sin. In other words, they are okay without any help from God.
Which of these two Christs is more loving is the central question that divides the Christian church today. One side portrays a Christ who is less a savior than the coolest, gentlest guy who ever lived. The other remembers a Jesus bruised for their iniquity and flogged for their sins, the Jesus of Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ. For them, it is not so simple a thing to declare, by majority vote or otherwise, that an offense against God is no longer to be so considered. On the O'Reilly Factor program mentioned earlier, Episcopal priest Donald Armstrong provided the counterpoint to Bishop Charleston's "You're okay--I'm okay" message when he claimed that Christianity is facing something new, a "secular orthodoxy that jumps right from creation to redemption as a faith of affirmation rather than repentance, and it doesn't lead to new life. It doesn't lead to dying to yourself and being born again."
New American Religion
One man on Reverend Armstrong's side might disagree with part of his statement. Whereas Armstrong sees a new secular orthodoxy locked in battle with the Christian church, Leander Harding, rector of St. John's Church in Stamford,Connecticut, sees the main conflict today as being with the church itself. Harding thinks that America's real religion of today is about discovering one's "true and original self" and that the liberal church's embrace of homosexuality is essentially a manifestation of a Gnostic dynamic, whereby one gains access to higher-level spirituality by discovering the divinity within oneself. Harding argues that "the purpose of the religious community [the adherents of this neo-Gnostic point of view] is to facilitate the quest [of self-discovery] and validate the results." In Harding's view, the person who "comes out" as an admitted homosexual escapes "levels of personal, familial, and social oppression that hinder and constrain the true self." To those (like the powerbrokers of the Episcopal Church) who hold the view Harding describes, Bishop Gene Robinson has proved himself to be a worthy practitioner of the American religion and should be regarded as a "fit person to inspire and lead others on their spiritual journey which is to end in a discovery of the true self." According to Harding, viewing Robinson through this lens "explains some of the fanaticism of his defenders, explains why so many bishops of the Episcopal Church including the presiding bishop would be willing to take such institutional risks." Harding argues that some U.S. churches' acceptance of homosexuality is not merely a trendy cause for them but in fact a central element of their new reason for being.
Here is a paradigm of salvation that echoes deeply in the American soul and promises to restore a sense of purpose to a mainline church which has lost confidence in the story of salvation told by the orthodox tradition of the church. Inclusion becomes the fundamental value for the church because it allows the church to have a real purpose of validating that people have indeed found their true identity, and thus found God. Gay people become icons of hope. To celebrate gays in the life of the church--not merely accept but affirm and celebrate--is to celebrate the church as a truly spiritual community with real spiritual power which can facilitate and validate the salvation of souls.
These last words from Harding are the most important for those who would attempt to measure the true impact of the Robinson consecration in America. The mainline denominations, having fully absorbed Darwin and the skeptical nineteenth-century German "higher criticism" of the Bible, have lacked any confidence in the supernatural reality of Christianity for some time now. For them, the faith provided some ethical guidelines, but really it was largely aesthetic in nature. The church offered a suitably grand or sober setting for important events in their lives, such as naming children, getting married, and burying loved ones. But now, with the gay rights movement having achieved critical mass in elite social circles, the mainline churches are in a position to reacquire meaning--by being the first Christians to liberate gay men and women from centuries of ignorance-driven repression. This action, of course, will cost them their more orthodox members, who have hung on out of respect for long family tradition or appreciation of a certain type of liturgy, but in return they will gain a purpose and energy to sustain them--at least for a while.
It remains to be seen, of course, how long this thrill of breaking down a major taboo and siding with a self-styled group of the downtrodden will last. Once the victory seems final enough--when a few lesbians are consecrated for good measure, and their foes find their way to more agreeable communities of faith--the clock will immediately resume ticking in earnest on the future of liberal Protestantism.
What's a Church For?
There are reasons why men and women have sought out the church through the ages. Christianity addresses itself authoritatively to the most pressing existential questions human beings face. Why are we here? Is there a God? How shall we live? Why is there evil in the world? And perhaps most important, what happens when we die? I suggest that the last is most important because death is the greatest mystery of our existence. We find it exceedingly difficult to believe that we have been created only to cease to exist after a few decades. Yeats captured something of that feeling when he wrote that we are "sick with desire . . . fastened to a dying animal." Though we can sense the flesh succumbing to entropy, our animating spirits rebel and sense that we should continue on. It is to these common crises of humankind that the Christian Church speaks. In the process, Christianity has won the adherence of millions upon millions from virtually "every tongue, tribe, and nation" on the globe.
What the mainline churches lack and will continue to lack despite their current barrier-busting vogue, is the confidence to offer answers to the big questions. The invitation to "discover your true self" will only go so far, and it has such a tenuous connection to traditional Christianity as to be unable to hold actual Christians within its confines.
But despite their ineffectuality, today's envelope-pushing maneuvers by the liberal Protestant churches represent a threat and challenge to more conservative evangelicals, fundamentalists, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians. Every time the mainline churches unleash a new innovation on the faith, the broader culture absorbs the change as something possible for Christianity. Thus, many nonbelievers wonder why the devout are so unwilling to reconcile such obviously good things as abortion, female spiritual leadership, relaxed sexual mores, and easy divorce with the requirements of their churches. While pop culture and the liberal mainline churches egg each other on in a perpetual game of latitudinarian "Can You Top This?", conservative believers have responded by reducing their interdenominational squabbling and begun to link arms in mutual support.
A likely result of this dynamic is that the once inalterably opposed conservatives of Catholic and Protestant persuasions will continue to form alliances. The popularity and influence of First Things magazine among readers representing a wide variety of Christian traditions is one example. So is the Evangelicals and Catholics Togethermovement spawned by the friendship of Richard John Neuhaus and Charles Colson.
This notion of conservative Christian consolidation also finds expression in the wave of changes currently taking place at Baylor University (where I am working on my doctorate). Baylor's administration is working assiduously to bring in scholars from across denominational lines who have shown that they can contribute a vital, Christian perspective to their academic discipline. Some of those scholars are Catholic, something previously unheard of at Baylor. The Catholic philosopher Thomas Hibbs was recently appointed as head of the school's new honors college. Meanwhile, Baylor maintains a running dialogue with the Catholic Notre Dame University, where evangelicals Nathan Hatch and Alvin Planting are respectively the provost and the most prominent member of the philosophy department.
Finally, consider the documentary evidence of cross-fertilization between young Catholics and evangelicals set forth in Colleen Carroll's 2002 book The New Faithful. As Carroll shows in detail, young people from disparate traditions now seem willing to seek out what is missing from their own churches in the sanctuaries of their counterparts. For example, evangelical youth seem to be looking for more traditional liturgy and Catholic-style "smells and bells" while Catholic young people are incorporating more vigorous praise and worship styles and stronger commitments to evangelism.
Acts such as the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson are really less a sign of a new schism in the Christian Church than they are a potent reminder to those who think of themselves as a remnant, that their traditional distinctiveness will be maintained in increasingly stark contrast to the larger culture. In the process and in reaction to the increasing neo-Gnosticism of mainline Protestant churches, a new ecumenism is building momentum. This lowering of denominational fences has been made possible by an acute and rather terrifying awareness of the disintegration of what cultural critic and Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer called "the Christian consensus" in the Western world. As the mainstream American churches increasingly adopt the ideas and mores of the surrounding society and repudiate traditional Christianity, the large remaining body of orthodox Christian faithful see their differences from one another as less and less significant when compared with the vast gulf between them and the rest of society. As a result, the Reformation of the sixteenth century and the Counter-Reformation may only now be finally running their course and leading to the kind of reconciliation that Martin Luther dreamed might happen within his lifetime.