God, Sex, Soap, Other gods, Agnostics and the Fall of the Church
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 6/01/94.
It’s hard to discuss what the Bible says about sex without mentioning marriage.
Nevertheless, the Episcopal House of Bishops is studying eight guidelines for sexual morality that call for lifelong relationships between “mature adults” without making a single reference to marriages between husbands and wives. This latest modernized sex creed also embraces same-sex unions.
The guidelines wrap up the fourth draft of a text that is as ambitious and convoluted as its title, “Continuing the Dialogue: A Pastoral Teaching of the House of Bishops to the Church as it Considers Issues of Human Sexuality.” The document will be revised again before it is aired at the Episcopal Church’s 71st General Convention, which will meet Aug. 24-Sept. 2 in Indianapolis.
The sixth guideline proclaims: “We believe sexual relationships reach their fullest potential as healthy relationships and minimize their capacity for ill when in the context of chaste, faithful, and committed lifelong union between mature adults. We believe that this is as true for homosexual as for heterosexual relationships and that such relationships need and should receive the pastoral care of the Church.”
The complete 42-page text has not been officially released, but many of its critics and defenders are circulating detailed commentaries that dissect the early drafts. It is impossible to keep church debates behind closed doors in the age of photocopy and fax machines, not to mention electronic mail.
A number of bishops confirmed that, in a March meeting, moderate and conservative critics were promised that two changes would be included in the fourth draft.
First, the committee preparing the document was asked to include an affirmation of traditional church teachings on sex and marriage. Second, the committee was to add language explaining that affirming “pastoral care” did not include rites celebrating same- sex unions or the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians. Neither change was made in the eight guidelines, which claim to establish “guiding principles for our actions as a Church.”
The complete text includes many kinds of information, ranging from church history to blunt statistics on changing sex practices in modern America. Other issues raised by the guidelines include:
* While avoiding any mention of “sin,” the guidelines teach that sexual behavior is unacceptable if it is “adulterous, promiscuous, abusive, or exploitative” or “involves children or others incapable of informed, mutual consent.” Most of the text’s crucial terms, such as “promiscuous,” are not defined and premarital sex and fornication are not condemned.
* Sexuality is described solely in terms of personal fulfillment. The guidelines are silent on themes that for centuries have been important in church teachings, such as procreation and celibacy. Even in the text’s main body, marriage appears as a mere option among other forms of “sexual union” and relationships.
* By demoting current teachings to introductory remarks, the eight guidelines appear to set new legal standards for church life. Also, they do not contain a conscience clause for dissenting bishops and clergy. This raises many questions, including this one: could a traditional bishop be sued for firing a priest who announces a “lifelong union” with a same-sex partner?
* The guidelines teach that there are “a variety of approaches to sexual ethics in the Bible” and the full document includes clashing interpretations — one conservative, one liberal — of biblical texts on sex. “Discontinuities” between scripture and the lives of modern church members must be “opportunities for communication, not excommunication,” according to the guidelines.
“Our whole church is struggling to honor our Anglican understanding that sometimes the most faithful course is to live in the tension of ambiguity, contradiction,” said Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning, in an April address focusing on this era of change and conflict in his church.
This heritage of not rushing to resolution is serving Episcopal leaders well, he added. Still, it does not help that “some within our household of faith — perfectly well-intentioned — are ready to offer easy answers and simplistic solutions to complex problems, as if `the faith once delivered (to the saints)’ had been delivered like so much milk to the door.”
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 6/29/94.
There’s an old saying about bad news that goes like this: If you throw a rock into a pack of dogs, the one that yelps is the one that got hit.
The Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop proved this point with a recent letter attacking those who aired out a top-secret paper on sex that is being prepared for his House of Bishops.
Many copies of the fourth draft of the text, and commentaries on it, circulated among Episcopal insiders for weeks and eventually drew media attention. Instead of knocking reporters, Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning lashed out at Episcopalians United, a conservative group that has begun distributing the document.
“I find this action utterly reprehensible and unworthy behavior for those who declare themselves to be part of our household of faith. … They assume they hold the truth on all of the difficult issues before us, based on their unambiguous interpretation of scripture, which they categorize as `orthodox,’ ” said Browning.
This controversial document is as complex as its title, “Continuing the Dialogue: A Pastoral Teaching of the House of Bishops to the Church as it Considers Issues of Human Sexuality.” It contains both liberal and conservative views on the Bible, as well as pages of reports on sex trends in America.
The fourth draft ends with eight “guiding principles for our actions as a church” that affirm lifelong unions between “mature adults,” but fail to mention the sacrament of marriage. The sixth guideline proclaims: “We believe sexual relationships reach their fullest potential … in the context of chaste, faithful, and committed lifelong union between mature adults. We believe that this is as true for homosexual as for heterosexual relationships and that such relationships need and should receive the pastoral care of the Church.”
A new draft is “significantly different,” said Browning. “I regret that the debate … provoked by the Episcopalians United action will be about a document that is no longer relevant.”
Speculation about the fifth draft will only intensify as activists on both sides prepare for their church’s 71st General Convention, set for Aug. 24-Sept. 2 in Indianapolis. However, a press release that accompanied Browning’s letter raised at least one question about recent events behind closed doors.
In early March, the House of Bishops met in North Carolina to review the third draft. Later, a number of bishops confirmed that moderate and conservative critics were assured that two changes would be made. First, the committee drafting the document was asked to affirm traditional church teachings on sex and marriage. Second, the committee was asked to state that “pastoral care” did not include rites celebrating same-sex unions or the ordination of non- celibate gays and lesbians.
But the fourth draft, in April, did not include either of these changes. Many bishops were furious and began to question the secret proceedings. Now, the official Episcopal News Service is reporting that one reason the fourth draft is moot is because the fifth draft contains “significant changes … made in response to comments by bishops at their March meeting in North Carolina.”
It would be interesting to know why the criticisms expressed in the March meeting were missing in the April draft. Now they may surface in the June draft. Maybe the semi-public debates in recent weeks served as a wake-up call for the church establishment. Maybe not. Only the folks behind the closed doors know for sure.
Secrecy waves a red flag. The most recent newsletter from the Religious Newswriters Association included this comment about the group’s annual “Into the Darkness” award, given to those who put their faith in locked doors and secret documents.
“One organization appears to be off to a good start in claiming the award this year: the House of Bishops of the U.S. Episcopal Church. … Some can argue that bishops are right to `perfect’ their letter and to iron out their differences before releasing it to the public. Critics can argue, however, that the bishops’ methodology effectively keeps their church’s members from joining the discussion.”
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 8/17/94.
It’s hypocritical for the church to preach that sex is appropriate only in marriage, while denying its blessing to homosexual unions, according to the final draft of a pastoral teaching by the nation’s Episcopal bishops.
“Gays and lesbians who are openly coupled bear the burden of their visibility, acting as lightning rods,” it says. “This has put the Church in the position of advocating committed, long-term, monogamous relationships (i.e. marriage) and, in fact, seeing them as the only legitimate context for sexual expression — but exclusively for heterosexuals.” This hurts gays and lesbians because, “the experience of steadfast love can be for homosexual persons an experience of God.”
The status of “Continuing the Dialogue: A Pastoral Teaching of the House of Bishops to the Church as the Church Considers Issues of Human Sexuality” will be among the first issues discussed at the Episcopal Church’s 71st General Convention, which meets Aug. 24- Sept. 2 in Indianapolis.
The 68-page text acknowledges that Christianity has always taught that fornication is sin. But it also embraces the views of critics who say it’s unrealistic to expect modern Christians to live by ancient law.
This is treacherous turf, but the drafting committee has tried to avoid precise, jarring phrases that might make news. One numbing passage in the “Pre- and Postmarital Sexuality, Cohabitation, and Extramarital Sex” section notes that, given today’s masses of “single and cohabitating persons, … the need to postpone marriage for education and economic reasons, and birth control that works when properly used, many think it exceedingly optimistic of the Church to expect its young adults to refrain from sexual activity. Many also see it as unrealistic to expect all older single persons, divorced persons, and widowed persons to refrain from sex. … And given the current fragility of marital relationships and high divorce rates, some argue that it is undesirable for the Church to pressure people into hasty marriages and remarriages in order for them to feel comfortable about being involved in responsible, intimate sexual relationships. Others continue to follow the teaching that under no circumstances may Church people be sexually active except within Holy Matrimony.”
This verbiage is inspired by opinion polls and the sexual revolution, say traditionalists. Thus, bishops in the Southwest are circulating a one-page defense of “absolute faithfulness in marriage and sexual abstinence apart from marriage. Marriage is a union of husband and wife, one man and one woman created in God’s image. We affirm … that marriage is lifelong in intention, sacred in character, and a reflection on the human level of the love … between Christ and the Church.” At mid-week, 90 bishops had endorsed this alternative document.
“Continuing the Dialogue” does concede the power of the biblical images: “Perhaps the most significant passage for our discussion is when Jesus addresses the fundamental meaning of sexuality by appealing to Genesis 1 and 2: `But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” `For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ (Mark 10:6-8)”
Nevertheless, many Episcopalians — including some bishops — want to expand marriage to include homosexual unions. Others warn that redefining marriage will cause schism.
The bottom line: The new document does not repudiate traditional doctrines on marriage, but does next to nothing to defend them. It offers no open call for same-sex marriages, but provides ammunition for those who use such rites. It poses no threat to the bishops who, diocese by diocese, are already revamping doctrine.
Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning has, in what some call an unprecedented letter, urged the bishops to approve the final draft with little or no debate. Clarity is impossible, at this time, and questions will only make headlines, he warned.
“Approval by the church of homosexual unions … is the issue around which we do not have consensus and thus do not seem prepared to offer a firm and unequivocal standard. Unfortunately, this issue creates the most public controversy, and receives the most media attention, some of it quite sensationalized and unhelpful.”
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 9/07/94.
Across America, two very different groups of Episcopalians are giving thanks for the work of Bishop John Shelby Spong.
The bishop of Newark, N.J., has for years received praise from bishops, priests and laity who want to revise centuries of Christian teachings about the Bible, sex and marriage. But now he is being cheered, in private, by some traditionalists. Either way, Spong has once again jumped into the spotlight.
During the church’s recent General Convention in Indianapolis, a coalition of conservatives and centrists in the House of Bishops passed a statement affirming that the “normative context of sexual intimacy is lifelong heterosexual, monogamous marriage.” Spong hit back by proclaiming that he will continue to openly ordain noncelibate gays and lesbians and bless their unions.
“My basic creed is that the image of God is in every person. I think the church is a come-as-you-are party,” Spong told the Episcopal News Service, the voice of the church’s New York City hierarchy. “All I really want to do is make sure that the people of the church know that there are a lot of people who share my convictions. I’m not a lone ranger.”
Some traditionalists glowed as Spong challenged others to sign his manifesto seeking sweeping doctrinal changes. Many of Spong’s foes prefer his candor to the covert tactics of other revisionists.
As in other church sex fights, years of bitter debate among Episcopalians have caused waves of documents full of theological fog. For many establishment bishops, the goal has been to blur any changes at altars in an attempt to lessen a backlash in pews and offering plates.
However, 18 Southwestern bishops recently circulated a crisp, one-page statement that rattled their church. Bishops from Province VII said, in part, that Christian sexual morality centers on the “discipline of self-control called chastity, which means absolute faithfulness in marriage and sexual abstinence apart from marriage. Marriage is a union of husband and wife, one man and one woman created in God’s image. We affirm the teaching of scripture and tradition that marriage is lifelong in intention, sacred in character, and a reflection on the human level of the love relationship between … Christ and the Church.”
By the end of the Indianapolis convention, 106 bishops had signed the “Province VII Affirmation.” Meanwhile, 52 bishops signed Spong’s statement, which was just as blunt.
Spong and his allies said traditionalists were creating an atmosphere in which “those living in non-traditional relationships might no longer expect to find a place in the Body of Christ.” They also urged the church not to enforce doctrinal standards on issues such as the blessing of homosexual unions and the ordination of noncelibate gays and lesbians.
“We believe that some of us are created heterosexual and some of us are created homosexual,” said this smaller group of bishops. “We believe that both homosexuality and heterosexuality are morally neutral, that both can be lived out with beauty, honor, holiness and integrity.”
The bottom line: Spong’s clarity, paired with Province VII’s strong words, may blow away the fog. Activists on both sides quickly began studying the 100 or so names of the stealth bishops who have not signed either document.
As any devotee of America’s ecclesiastical sex wars knows, the Bible may teach one thing in Newark and something else in Dallas. San Francisco may clash with San Joaquin. Now, the pressure will grow for candor in Episcopal offices in cities such as Atlanta, Denver, Richmond, Va., Knoxville, Tenn., and elsewhere.
Before General Convention, Spong said it was time for honesty.
“I see no truth at the heart of this church for which it is willing to die,” he wrote, in his diocesan newspaper. “Rather, I hear threats that if such and such occurs, this group or that group will leave. … Unity seems to have been enshrined as the highest value of church life and in the service of that value … issues are suppressed.”
And many, many people said, “Amen.”
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 2/08/95.
Hand in hand, a man and a woman face each other in a rite defined by centuries of Christian tradition.
Before God, each vows to take the other as husband or wife, “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death.”
At least, that’s the way the marriage ceremony reads in the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
Here’s the corresponding passage in a gender-neutral “Rite for Commitment to Life Together” created by a powerful coalition of Episcopal leaders. Hand in hand, a man and a woman, or two men, or two women, say to each other: “I … take you … to have and to hold from this day forward, to love and to cherish as my companion, lover, and friend. Amen.”
The first shots have been fired in the next battle over the modernization of rites used at altars across the nation.
Truth is, some Episcopalians still mourn the death of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. Now, church leaders are laying the groundwork for a new prayer book — as early as 2006. Right now, debates over the rite stuff are being held far from the pews. Last summer, the church’s 71st General Convention directed its Standing Liturgical Commission to go ahead and prepare a “rationale and a pastorally sensitive plan” for prayer book revision. The same commission is preparing a 1997 report on same-sex unions.
Anyone who thinks these issues will not become intertwined knows nothing about Protestant politics in the 1990s.
Thus, the national Association of Diocesan Liturgy and Music Commissions has already circulated its gender-neutral rite. This will surprise many Episcopalians, since last summer’s General Convention specifically said that no such liturgy should be created until that step was approved by another convention.
Don’t worry about it, says the introduction to the new liturgy, because this test-flight rite wasn’t prepared by a body that is officially tied to the national hierarchy. Also, it notes that the Book of Common Prayer says local bishops can approve the creation of rites “when no service or prayer has been provided in the Book.” The ritual, and educational materials defending it, was prepared by many nationally known Episcopal leaders, including influential seminary professors and three bishops.
The “Rite for Commitment to Life Together” openly claims the status of a marriage ceremony, as in this opening passage: “The celebration of a life together is a time for good wishes, feasting and joy. Jesus shared such an occasion in Cana of Galilee where … Jesus gave a sign of new beginnings by turning water into wine. The bond between two people shows us the mystery of the union between God and God’s people.”
While avoiding many scriptures used in traditional marriage rituals, this rite does include sweeping references to unity and love, such as these words in Romans: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection.” Some biblical figures — such as King David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi — are cited as participants in same-sex covenants.
The bottom line: This is a first draft of images and doctrines that many in the Episcopal establishment want to see included, in some way, in a new Book of Common Prayer.
It’s time for the church to face reality, say the creators of the new liturgy, because the “institution of heterosexual marriage is in crisis” and homosexuals yearn for God’s blessing on their relationships. Besides, this train has already left the station.
“Commitments on the part of lesbians and gay men have been celebrated in Episcopal churches in every diocese of the church,” says the rite’s introduction. “Some … have been approved by the diocese, some have been celebrated with the tacit approval of the diocesan bishop, many with the bishop enunciating a `don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, and others done surreptitiously.”
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 3/15/95.
America’s sexual revolution is a sign that God is alive and wants the Episcopal Church to risk changing centuries of teachings on sex, according to the church’s embattled leader.
“Like our society, like all of the churches, this church … continues to experience, deep and agonizing tension around questions concerning … our natures as sexual beings,” Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning told his House of Bishops, in an emotional speech behind closed doors in Kanuga, N.C. “Our confusion is not a mark of faithlessness. It means that we have been learning some things over all our history as created beings, and, over the last years the learning curve has gotten very high. God is not dead.”
Confusion is natural as members of a pluralistic church learn to “enter each other’s truths,” said Browning. Meanwhile, some insist that the Bible has spoken clearly on issues of sex and marriage. “If everyone believed this, our troubles would be over. But everyone does not believe this,” he said.
Thus, struggle is unavoidable. However, Browning said the church must not split — because schism is worse than heresy.
A text of Browning’s March 3 remarks, which quickly circulated via electronic mail, indicates he will not retreat from his progressive agenda. The timing was crucial, following recent news events so tumultuous they even drew sobering coverage from the New York Times and other Eastern establishment media. Here’s what has happened, so far.
* After the Jan. 14 suicide of former Massachusetts Bishop David Johnson, church officials said he had had a number of affairs during his ministry, including some involving “sexual exploitation” of women. The key: Did others in the Episcopal hierarchy know about his affairs, as far back as his 1985 consecration as a bishop?
* On Jan. 27, 10 bishops requested a church trial of former Iowa Bishop Walter Righter, because of his 1990 ordination of a noncelibate homosexual. Righter’s action came 12 days after the presiding bishop reluctantly affirmed the church’s “stated and authoritative” teachings against the ordination of those sexually active outside of marriage.
Action against Righter came just before the expiration of a 5- year statute of limitations. Legal presentments are soon expected against four others who have defied these same church teachings since then — the bishops of Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, Newark and Michigan. Meanwhile, 71 bishops have signed Newark Bishop John Spong’s “Statement of Koinonia,” pledging to ordain gay clergy and bless gay unions. The key: Will expensive legal fights fuel schism?
* The church has begun a potentially explosive effort to revise the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, as soon as 2006. Forging ahead, Spong has created his own diocesan prayer book revision task force. Also, the national Association of Diocesan Liturgy and Music Commissions has circulated a gender-neutral “Rite for Commitment to Life Together” that can be used to bless same-sex unions. The key: Will a unisex prayer book cut it in the pews?
* Finally, Browning on Feb. 15 aired evidence that one of his aides, former national treasurer Ellen Cooke, had misused thousands of dollars in church funds. This took place while declining donations, in part due to sexuality disputes, forced a one-third cut in staff at the New York City headquarters. The key: What did the presiding bishop know and when did he know it?
Browning focused on the Righter case during his House of Bishops sermon. While insisting that he did not doubt the sincerity of those defending the church’s teachings, he said he would vote against holding a trial. A legal debate might bring a renewed sense of accountability to the church, but the cost would be too high, said the presiding bishop.
“It is an enormous cost, as yet unmeasured, in dollars, in energy, and in good will and patience on the part of faithful persons around the church who want to be about the business of ministering to children at risk, of feeding the hungry, of finding homes for the homeless, of being the hands and feet of the cosmic Christ on earth.”
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 5/10/95.
Imagine the uproar if, before the O.J. Simpson trial, Judge Lance Ito told potential jury members he thought it was unjust to even bring charges against the defendant.
What if the judge tried to twist arms and scuttle the trial? What if he arranged for Simpson, and sympathetic defense witnesses, to give impassioned pre-trial speeches to the jurors? What if the judge’s allies gave the defendant a standing ovation?
Preposterous. Insane. This would raise obvious questions about the judge’s fitness to continue on the bench, noted Bishop John- David Schofield of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin (Calif).
“The judge could well expect to find himself the object of a trial,” he wrote, in his diocesan newspaper.
Truth is, this conservative bishop’s nightmare vision wasn’t about the Simpson trial. No, his words were aimed at Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning, who in his final years of office is being pummeled with accusations of incompetence and conflict of interest. Each scandal fuels the wrath of those calling for reform.
Browning is being accused of sins of omission and commission.
His hand-picked treasurer, Ellen Cooke, has been accused of embezzling $2.2 million over five years in what is believed to be America’s worst-ever mainline church scandal. At first, Browning hedged on whether he would press charges. Critics cried that perhaps Cooke knew too much, noting that Browning repeatedly shielded her work from staff and outside scrutiny throughout her tenure. This week, Browning said federal agencies are probing Cooke’s finances.
Meanwhile, some wonder how much church officials knew about the sexual affairs of a powerful bishop who committed suicide in January. Prominent Episcopalians are experimenting with unisex marriage rites and the worship of other gods. Browning’s new evangelism director preaches that belief in Jesus is optional. And so forth and so on.
Then there is the case that inspired Schofield’s parable about Judge Ito. The presiding bishop has undercut recent efforts to try a bishop who ordained a non-celibate homosexual. In a March House of Bishops meeting, Browning let the accused attack the claims of the 10 bishops who signed the legal presentment against him — even though the bishops who will judge the case were in the room. Others who oppose holding a trial were given time to speak. After a protest, a conservative was allowed to reply.
The presiding bishop made his views clear. A public trial is not “the way to go deeper into the truths of one another,” he said, after stressing that Episcopalians cannot agree on what the Bible teaches about marriage and sex. “When it is my turn to vote, I cannot, and will not consent to this presentment.”
At some point, more Episcopalians may begin to wonder why so much money and power resides in an ecclesiastical bureaucracy in New York City, said the parish priest whose calls to restructure the church have pestered the powers that be.
“You can’t point the finger at one person, in this case the presiding bishop, and blame them for all of the actions of one of their aides, in this case Ellen Cooke,” said the Rev. J. Stephen Freeman of Oak Ridge, Tenn. “But it is fair to look at the actions of these kinds of powerful people and then see the flaws in the structures in which they work. … All of our recent controversies are rooted in issues of accountability.”
Last summer, the Episcopal House of Deputies called for a sweeping study of the strengths and weaknesses of the national church. But this resolution — which grew out of Freeman’s work — stalled in the House of Bishops, in large part due to the opposition of Browning, Cooke and others on the national staff.
“The church was never meant to be a kind of top-down federal bureaucracy, where problems are solved by national programs,” said Freeman. “This approach has proven to be wasteful and prone to scandal. … Meanwhile, local churches baptize people, teach people, clothe people, marry people and bury people. Local churches continue to have to get the job done, often in spite of what the national church is doing.”
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 8/30/95.
And now we return once again to the continuing story of “All Canterbury’s Children.”
(Musical cue: a dramatic swirl of notes on a cathedral organ.)
When we last visited the Episcopalians — the American cousins of the Anglicans — their leaders were being rocked by headlines about sex, money and theology.
Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning’s right hand, treasurer Ellen Cooke, stood accused of embezzling $2.2 million. Massachusetts Bishop David Johnson committed suicide — followed by reports of affairs in which he exploited women. New details filtered out about how Browning helped Navajoland Bishop Steven Plummer quickly, and secretly, return to work after abusing a teen-age boy. And so forth and so on.
Which brings us to today’s episode, entitled “All My Trials, Lord: Soon Be Over?” This troubled family is veering closer to a series of trials, or possible trials, that may splinter one of America’s most prominent churches.
Trial 1: More than 25 percent of the church’s 297 bishops had approved a trial of retired Bishop Walter Righter, who has been accused of violating his ordination vows by ordaining a noncelibate gay man. Browning has clearly stated his views, calling efforts to force a trial “evil abroad in the world.” Talks about when and where to hold the trial will almost certainly begin Sept. 22-29, when the House of Bishops meets in Portland.
In Righter’s defense, leaders of the church’s gay caucus, Integrity, released a statement saying they know of “at least 117 persons who were known to be sexual active gay men or lesbians by their diocesan bishops at the time of their ordination. … Over 35 bishops have performed such ordinations.”
Trial 2: Will there be more trials? Browning has unilaterally shelved a request for proceedings against Philadelphia Bishop Allen Bartlett, Jr., made by more than 100 communicants in Bartlett’s own diocese. One traditionalist, Eau Claire (Wisc.) Bishop William Wantland, has warned Browning to expect more presentments.
Trial 3: Integrity leaders also have suggested that the 10 bishops who began the Righter proceedings should be excommunicated, during a media-friendly rite of anathema. These bishops, argues Voice of Integrity magazine, “have not loved their homosexual neighbors as they love themselves. … The Anathema Service will include prayers for the conversion of these bishops to a loving Christianity.”
Trial 4: Key members of the Episcopal Women’s Caucus have hinted that they may bring charges against the Episcopal Synod of America bishops who refuse to ordain women or to accept female priests and bishops ordained elsewhere. This issue may surface in Portland, as well.
Trial 5: The status of legal proceedings against Cooke remains unknown. Church spokesman James Solheim said federal officials are “being very tight-lipped” about their investigation and church leaders have declined to speculate about whether they will press charges. Meanwhile, critics continue to call for the New York City- based hierarchy to air out the church’s books.
Trial 6: Finally, many continue to try to weaken Browning, who insists he will not quit. This past weekend, the Episcopal Synod — citing only the Cooke case — said it “decries the failure of the Presiding Bishop to accept his responsibility, and his refusal to resign his office, the only honorable thing to do.”
And out in cyberspace, six parish rectors have collected their electronic mail about church events and produced a 12,000-word “Catalog of Concerns.” This 41-page document, including footnotes, ranges from Cooke’s finances to details of rites praising Cali, Quani, Ra, Ausar and various other deities. It was mailed this week to every bishop and many other church leaders.
It does not, however, call for Browning’s resignation.
“The problems we face are much larger than one man,” said the Rev. Timothy Smith of Christ Church in Mobile, Ala., a 173-year-old parish. “We are talking about changing the whole direction of this church. … There isn’t one easy solution for this mess.”
Stay tuned for future episodes, as this pluralistic family debates the status of marriage, the creeds, the Bible and even the identity of God.
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 2/28/96.
One easy way to create fog is to bring together clashing fronts of lawyers and theologians.
The soup got thick this week in Wilmington, Del., site of the heresy trial of Bishop Walter Righter, who stands accused of violating his vows by ordaining a noncelibate gay man.
While homosexual issues took center stage, this complex trial pivots on another question: Does the Episcopal Church have a doctrine that says sex outside of marriage is sin? Today, this question leads directly to another: Will the Episcopal Church change its rites to allow same-sex marriages?
A verdict is probably weeks away. A conviction is almost unthinkable since at least four of the nine bishops on the court have performed or openly endorsed ordinations such as the one Righter performed.
The church establishment, led by Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning, backs the gay cause and Righter recently added evidence of this fact. At the time he performed the controversial 1990 ordination of Barry Stopfel, Righter already was retired and assisting Newark Bishop John “Jack” Spong, the Episcopal left’s clearest voice. Why did Righter perform the rite?
“Jack and the presiding bishop agreed it was better for Jack not to ordain Barry … because (Spong) was a lightning rod for controversy, and I was kind of a safe person from Iowa,” Righter told Religion News Service.
Stopfel’s ordination came 12 days after the House of Bishops affirmed a statement on sexuality by Browning and his Council of Advice. This said, in part: “We reaffirm the traditional teaching of the church on marriage, marital fidelity and sexual chastity as the standard of Christian sexual morality. Candidates for ordination are expected to conform to this standard.”
Timing is everything. Righter claims the presiding bishop offered strategic advice to those planning to defy his own Council of Advice. A church spokesman said Browning has neither confirmed nor denied the accuracy of Righter’s statement.
Meanwhile, leaders of Integrity, the church’s gay-rights caucus, say between 10 and 40 percent of Episcopal clergy are gay, lesbian or bisexual and that 42 or more bishops have ordained noncelibate homosexuals.
The bishops who filed the presentment against Righter knew the odds were against them, said Bishop James Stanton of Dallas. “But we had to do something to let people know that some of us were not going to let centuries of Christian doctrine be thrown out without opposition,” he said.
A parish priest took a similar step on Feb. 24 to test the status of doctrine out in the heartland. Five years ago, Father J. Stephen Freeman of Oak Ridge, Tenn., wrote an essay entitled “Ecclesial Perestroika” that sparked national debate about reform. This time, he proposed a simple canon law that said: “All clergy … in the Diocese of East Tennessee shall maintain a standard of faithful sexual conduct, abstaining from all sexual relations outside the bonds of holy matrimony.”
Many accused Freeman of having a hidden agenda because he focused on sex outside of marriage, instead of homosexuality.
“My intent could not have been clearer,” Freeman said. “Everyone knows that homosexuality is a big issue, but that’s not the only issue. … Marriage is the real issue.”
Freeman lost — 117 to 60. The victors said the law was redundant. The canon’s defeat “does not mean we do not uphold a standard, which we do have in our ordination vows and in the discipline of the church,” said Bishop Robert Tharp, who recently was hailed as one of America’s bravest bishops by Integrity’s founder.
It’s an ecclesiastical Catch-22. Righter’s supporters say it’s acceptable to ordain noncelibate homosexuals because the national church lacks a canon law that clearly establishes enforceable doctrine. Then strategists in this camp argue against the passage of canon laws on marriage and sex, saying they are redundant.
This raises yet another question: Is “Episcopal doctrine” an oxymoron? As Episcopal Divinity School Dean William Rankin wrote recently, “Heresy implies orthodoxy, and we have no such thing in the Episcopal Church.”
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 5/15/96.
The data sheet for would-be bishops asked for the usual facts — driver’s license number, Social Security code, college degrees.
But by page two, it was clear that this is the 1990s.
“Have you ever been convicted of … (a) Sexual abuse of a minor, (b) Incest, (c) Kidnapping, (d) Arson, (e) Murder, manslaughter or assault, (f) Sexual assault, (g) Sexual exploitation of a minor, (h) Contributing to the delinquency of a minor, (i) Commercial sexual exploitation of a minor, (j) Felony or misdemeanor distribution of marijuana, or dangerous or narcotic drugs, (k) Burglary or robbery, (l) A dangerous crime against children as defined in (the state code), (m) Child abuse, (n) Sexual conduct with a minor, (o) Molestation of a child, (p) Domestic violence. If so, give full details.”
Fill in the blanks.
Obviously, the Episcopal priests who completed this form — which I received during an early 1990s election out West — had other chances to answer theological questions and share their ecclesiastical dreams. Often, however, an era’s truly crucial questions can be found between the lines of humbler documents.
So the questions continued: “Is there anything in your behavior or background that, if known, might cause concern or distress? … Do you think that any member of your family, your present or former congregation, … or the family of any youths with whom you may have had contact would believe that you ought to have given different answers to any of the foregoing questions?”
The bottom line: If church leaders can’t reach consensus, then lawyers step in. When doctrine disappears, someone has to legislate morality. If theologians cannot define “marriage” and “fidelity,” then lawyers get to define “harassment” and “abuse.”
Recently, someone sent me a data form from the East — with the nominee’s name blacked out. In addition to probing questions, it contained definitions, such as: “Sexual harassment is the use of sexual words, gestures, touch or innuendo in an inappropriate manner beyond the bounds of normal social expectations.” Or, “Sexual exploitation includes, but is not limited to, the development of or the attempt to develop a sexual relationship between a pastor and a person being ministered to, and exists even if the other is a willing partner or gives tacit consent.”
Churches have always struggled to control shepherds who prey on their flocks. Most traditional churches have strict policies that defend biblical sexual ethics verse by verse. The key, in these culturally conservative churches, isn’t knowing what the Bible teaches, but getting some all-powerful men to obey it.
Meanwhile, some progressive churches have had trouble honoring their updated credos and pledges not to hide abusive men. After the 1995 suicide of Massachusetts Bishop David Johnson, Episcopal officials admitted he had a number of affairs during his ministry, including some involving “sexual exploitation” of women. The big question: How long had his allies in the national hierarchy know about these affairs?
No one attempts to defend harassment and abuse. However, winds of change keep erasing boundaries and creating new questions. For example: If it’s wrong for a married bishop to have an affair with a parishioner, is it acceptable for that bishop to have an affair with someone outside the flock?
Maybe, or maybe not. A classic statement of how far many are willing to bend was made by influential ethicist James Nelson of the United Church of Christ, a former consultant to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He argues that definitions of “marriage” and “fidelity” must evolve.
“Fidelity is the enduring commitment to the spouse’s well- being and growth. It is commitment to the primacy of the marital relationship over any other,” wrote Nelson. “Compatible with marital fidelity and supportive of it can be certain secondary relationships of some emotional and sensual depth, possibly including genital intercourse.”
This kind of thinking certainly opens doors that were kept locked during the ages when church leaders tried to follow a strict, but clear, law — sex outside of marriage is sin. But times have changed and, today, lawyers have to guard the keys.
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 10/30/96.
Penthouse isn’t known for its religion coverage.
Still, the Episcopal Church establishment went into damage- control mode this week as the soft-porn magazine’s latest issue hit news stands, featuring news of an alleged clergy sex ring in the Diocese of Long Island. It’s the latest twist in the convoluted story of the Episcopalians and their evolving teachings on sex.
The expose centers on the testimony of Wasticlinio Barros and Jairo Pereira, two Brazilian males in their mid-20s. They say they were brought to America and pressed into joining sexual orgies led by the Rev. William Lloyd Andries at the altar of St. Gabriel’s Parish in Brooklyn.
Barros and Pereira provided credit card receipts and other records as evidence of their travels and affairs with Andries. Eventually Pereira was baptized and then united with Andries in a same-sex union rite. Yes, Penthouse has photographs of both the ceremony and the sexual romp that followed. In one X-rated scene, Andries appears to be wearing liturgical garb.
There’s much more to this story of sex, money, cocaine and the “boys from Brazil,” writes former Washington Post gossip reporter Rudy Maxa. “They were playthings for priests whose commitment to the Scriptures had long ago been replaced by a pursuit of pleasure that would have fit nicely in Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Actually, this suggests that Penthouse has a more conservative view of the Bible than can currently be defended under Episcopal law. In May, an Episcopal court ruled that the church has no law or “core doctrine” that forbids the ordination a those sexually active outside of marriage. Right now, local bishops call the shots.
This raises questions more shocking than the Penthouse expose. If Barros has no proof he was given drugs, and if those involved in these complicated sexual relationships were consenting adults, and if church money wasn’t used, and if Episcopal “core doctrines” don’t forbid sex outside of marriage or define “marriage,” then what did Andries do that was wrong? Was he merely guilty of trusting someone with a camera? Are charges pending?
Nevertheless, Long Island Bishop Orris Walker, Jr., quickly announced that Andries had resigned from the priesthood and that Penthouse’s charges would be investigated. A church official told Newsday that Andries had “denied many” of the allegations.
Other questions remain. Barros said he first met Andries in Buenos Aires, where the priest was traveling with another priest, the Rev. Harold Williams. Later, Barros flew to New York to begin what he thought was a job as a translator in Andries’ multicultural parish. It was Williams, he noted, who picked him up at the airport and drove him to stay with Andries.
This is a provocative detail, since Williams directs the U.S. church’s ministries with children. Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning was shown the Penthouse article on Oct. 24 and immediately placed Williams on administrative leave, even though Barros specifically said he didn’t know if Williams was involved with the sex ring. Apparently, Barros and Pereira did provide other names, including that of the priest who performed the marriage rite. But Penthouse didn’t name those who hung up when called for interviews.
Another crucial question: How much did the bishop know? Maxa writes that while Walker denied “personal involvement with any of the boys from Brazil” he did say that he had “seen them around.” As for the wedding, Walker said it “would be dishonest to say that I don’t know that there are those services going on.”
Walker told Penthouse that he didn’t investigate earlier reports about Andries, in part because so many rumors circulate in the church. Episcopalians, stressed the bishop, are in the midst of heated debates about sexuality.
That’s a fact. The debate will only heat up as events rush towards July’s General Convention in Philadelphia.
“In the absence of canonical action by the whole church, these kinds of issues have been left to the local church. … Obviously, we’re going to try again in Philadelphia,” said Episcopal spokesman Jim Solheim, referring to efforts to pass laws clarifying church teachings. “Right now, the sleaze factor is so heavy. This kind of incident isn’t going to make things any easier for us.”
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 2/26/96.
Clergy quickly learn this law: Most worshippers want to sit in a familiar pew, open a familiar book and hear the familiar words of a familiar service.
Words such as: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Or this: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible: And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God. …”
Empires and churches have been torn asunder by minute changes in these kinds of texts, because changing people’s prayers changes their faith. The faithful get up in arms when asked to change what they say while on their knees.
So Marge Christie wasn’t surprised to find anger in the evaluation forms collected after the Episcopal Diocese of Newark began testing a bold new Mass. Even members of one of Christendom’s trendiest flocks have linguistic lines they find hard to cross. Nevertheless, seeds planted in places such as Newark have a way of bearing fruit nationwide.
“Our desire goal was to cause people to stop and think about the words they use in worship and THAT we certainly accomplished,” said Christie, co-chair on the Task Force on Prayer Book Revision. “I hate this particular phrase, but we pushed the envelope.” The most obvious changes centered on references to God as “Father” or “Lord,” words that many consider rooted in patriarchal power structures. This led to changes in texts that even Easter worshippers can say with their eyes closed. Thus, the new Lord’s Prayer left the title the same, but began with: “O God in heaven, Mother and Father of us all, hallowed be your name.”
Participants rejected this language by a ratio of 4-to-1 or more, said Christie. Thus, the second draft offered a safer substitute: “O God in heaven, holy is your name.” The “Affirmation of Faith” — which replaced the Nicene Creed — used similar imagery: “We believe in God, Source of all life, of sun and moon, of water and earth, of male and female. …”
The bottom line: drafters of the new rite edited and revised centuries of Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican tradition, said the academic dean of the most evangelical Episcopal seminary.
“They can say they’ve left in a form of the Trinity, but it’s somebody else’s Trinity. It’s a depersonalized Trinity that has nothing to do with Christianity’s Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” said Father Stephen Noll of the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa. “You can’t just choose some other words and plug them in. … You end up with something that has some of the form of Christian liturgy, but its substance is actually Unitarian or some sort of Christianized pantheism.”
Another fundamental change was the weakening or omitting of references to repentance and the doctrine that Jesus was crucified to atone for mankind’s sins. Too much of the language in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer had assumed the “pattern of asking or begging for God’s forgiveness,” said Father Wade Renn, the other task force co-chair, in a diocesan newspaper interview.
Future prayer books, he said, may need to include CD-ROM discs containing alternative rites reflecting many styles of worship and theological viewpoints. There is, noted Renn, a “feminist vernacular, traditional vernacular, gay and lesbian vernacular, Anglo-Catholic vernacular, low-church vernacular and so on.”
The Newark rites have, for now, been shelved and a report sent to national liturgists who are considering requests for a 2006 prayer book. Some insiders believe this would be premature and say that next July’s General Convention should merely sanction more trial rites — a kind of theological “local option” resolution.
“Maybe it can’t be 2006. Maybe it has to be 2012,” said Christie. “But these kinds of changes are coming and they need to be made at the national level. … The key is that we have to get to work on this right now. No one thinks this will be easy.”
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 5/28/97.
WASHINGTON — James Kelley doesn’t believe in God – Father, Son or Holy Spirit.
Kelley doesn’t believe in the virgin birth, the resurrection or any of the miracles the Bible says happened in between. Kelley doesn’t believe in heaven or hell. He isn’t a Christian. He isn’t even a theist. But Kelley is an Episcopalian and proud of it and he thinks that more skeptics should sign up — just as they are.
“I pay my pledge. I’ve taught Sunday school and been on the vestry,” said the former Justice Department lawyer, who is now a full-time writer. “This is my church. I belong here.”
It’s been 14 years since Kelley and other members of his confirmation class faced the bishop of Washington, D.C., and took their vows. In his new book, “Skeptic in the House of God,” Kelley recalls many details of that scene – but not how he answered the pivotal question: “Do you renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?” He was supposed to respond: “I do, and with God’s grace I will follow him as my Savior and Lord.”
“I honestly don’t remember. … I might have said nothing. I might have just mumbled,” he said. “Then again, I might have said what was proscribed. But if I did that, then I did what I always do. I just translated it – line by line – in my head. I do that all the time with the creed and the prayers. … I just do the agnostic’s translation. But it doesn’t really matter. They let me in.”
Kelley knows that there are legions of Episcopalians who want to see a link between church membership and some basic Christian doctrines. That’s fine. He also knows that there are plenty of bishops, priests and laity who are just as unorthodox as he is. Kelley is an active member of an historic parish – St. Mark’s on Capitol Hill — in a prestigious diocese. He’s safe.
These kinds of clashes are common in the “seven sisters,” of liberal American Protestantism — the American Baptist Churches, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church. Year after year, they make news with their heated debates – usually about sex. Meanwhile, fights over the nature of God, biblical authority, salvation and many other crucial subjects continue behind the scenes.
The crucial question: What provides unity in churches in which members and even clergy are free to reject the basic doctrines of the faith?
Based on his own poll data, Kelley believes that 10 percent or more of the members of his home parish are skeptics. In his confirmation class, the priest wrote out the phrases of the Nicene Creed on newsprint and asked people to vote yea or nay. There were no wrong votes. Kelley said he signed up “expecting it to focus on the theology of the Episcopal Church. Coming from a Catholic background, I assumed there was such a thing.”
Truth is, the sources of this parish’s unity are its identity as an “open” community and its commitment to using specific rites – even if the clergy and worshippers have radically redefined or abandoned the conventional meanings of the words they recite. This has led to an inevitable side effect that could be seen in another recent parish poll. The least satisfied members were the few who hold any traditional Christian beliefs. It is the orthodox who are the heretics.
Kelley said he hopes they choose to stay, but he will understand if they choose to leave. Meanwhile, his years at St. Mark’s have convinced him that pluralistic churches can survive and even thrive in urban areas close to universities, government complexes and other centers of skepticism and progressive lifestyles. They have something to offer.
“We all love the incense, the stained-glass windows, the organ music, the vestments and all of that,” he said. “There will always be people who love that. … It’s drama. It’s aesthetics. It’s the ritual. That’s neat stuff. I don’t want to give all that up, just because I don’t believe in God and all that.”
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 7/16/97.
It’s a long way from Archbishop Moses Tay’s Singapore cathedral to the Philadelphia Convention Center and the Episcopal Church’s latest debates about sin, sacraments and sex.
The soft-spoken Asian primate isn’t planning to make the trip. Nevertheless, his voice is being heard at the 72nd General Convention of Anglicanism’s bitterly divided American flock, which ends July 25. Many Episcopalians want to know: What did Tay say and when did he say it?
The archbishop has declined, via fax, to confirm or deny published reports that, during a March meeting of archbishops in Jerusalem, he proposed that the Episcopal Church be expelled from the Anglican Communion. Meanwhile, the U.S. hierarchy denies the primates discussed excommunication — at least during on-the-record sessions.
What is clear is that most bishops in Asia, Africa and other Southern Hemisphere churches believe trends among America’s 2 million Episcopalians could shatter the Anglican Communion. At least 75 percent of the world’s 70 million Anglicans live in the Third World.
“We are deeply concerned that the setting aside of biblical teaching in such actions as the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions calls into question the authority of the Holy Scriptures. This is totally unacceptable,” wrote 80 bishops from 20 of Anglicanism’s 35 provinces, meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “We need to learn how to seek each other’s counsel … and to reach a common mind, before embarking on radical changes to Church discipline and moral teaching. We live in a global village and … the way we act in one part of the world can radically affect the mission and witness of the Church in another.”
Tay’s province immediately raised the stakes, endorsing the Kuala Lumpur statement and saying it will “be in communion with that part of the Anglican Communion which accepts and endorses the principles aforesaid and not otherwise.”
“One reason Archbishop Tay isn’t talking to the press … is that he believes the southeast Asia resolution says everything that he needs to say,” said Father Bill Atwood of Dallas, a traditionalist who has spent a year crisscrossing the globe visiting traditionalist bishops.
Those final words – “and not otherwise” – signal that Singapore may back efforts to break communion with those who support the Episcopal Church’s de- facto policy of blessing same-sex unions and ordaining those sexually outside of marriage. An Episcopal court already has ruled that Episcopalians have no “core doctrine” on marriage. Bishops and delegates gathered in Philadelphia will consider several other progressive actions linked to sexuality.
However, Third World events have caused a strategic reversal. Right now, the Episcopal establishment is emphasizing unity and quiet change, while the right wants painful clarity, such as a yea-or-nay vote on the Kuala Lumpur statement. Why? A doctrinal earthquake in 1997 would rock 1998′s Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, a once-a-decade conclave in which Third World bishops share the spotlight with richer and more powerful First World bishops. If the Episcopal left is patient, its leaders won’t have to face overseas prelates until 2008. This also will be after the retirement of morally conservative Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey.
In his diocesan newspaper, Philadelphia Bishop Charles Bennison said clear action on same-sex unions might have to wait until 2000. “When this one goes over the top, I want it to go over in such a big way that everyone is swept along with it and it becomes a slam dunk,” he said.
But it will be hard to keep peace in a communion that is stretching to include bishops with clashing views on everything from biblical authority to the acceptability of worshipping other gods at Christian altars. Also, some Episcopal progressives believe they have waited long enough.
“The matter of same-sex relationships and their blessing by the Church is extremely complicated and conflicted,” wrote New Hampshire Bishop Douglas Theuner. “After nearly 2,000 years, there is not consensus in the Church Catholic about the nature and purpose of marriage or about the role of sexuality. … If we were able to act only when the Church Catholic is of a common mind, we would not be able to act at all.”