The Episcopal Church USA needs a new bishop for its very liberal diocese of Newark, NJ. At the top of its list of four finalists being considered is Canon Michael Barlowe, an openly gay man in a committed relationship. Now, that’s nothing new for the first diocese to ordain an openly gay priest, but the announcement of this nomination carries special relevance: It comes just one day after Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams announced a proposal to impose a reduced status for pro-gay churches — including the US church — within the Anglican Communion, which makes the Newark nom the newest salvo in the worldwide denomination’s War on Gays.
In 2003, the US church set off a firestorm of outrage around the world when it elected an openly gay man with a committed life partner as Bishop of New Hampshire. Traditionalist churches and Anglican leaders issued statement after statement expressing shock and anger and warning that the Communion could shatter beneath the weight of the ongoing dispute between pro-gay and anti-gay churches unless liberal churches in North America didn’t stopped ordaining gays and blessing same-sex unions. In the US, several right-wing California congregations switched their affiliation from ECUSA to Uganda’s Anglican branch, which started a still-ongoing debate over who has rights to the churches’ assets and property. Meanwhile, other conservative parishes talked of forming their own denomination.
The controversy’s flames burned higher as months passed: Church leaders (aka primates) convened for meeting after meeting to vent their frustrations and to scold the liberals. A liberal California church announced that two gay candidates were in the running for a bishop’s job; the position ultimately went to a heterosexual, but fundamentalist feathers were ruffled all the same.
Recently, Anglican primates demanded an apology from ECUSA and a moratorium on future controversial ordinations. The American church refused an outright ban, but its beleaguered leaders offered a compromise by urging its members to use restraint (some might say “sellout”; the UK’s Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement calls ECUSA’s offer of “restraint” a “retrograde step” and says the US church has been coerced into “pander[ing] to the evil that persists in many Christian hearts against us.”) As the plan suggested by the archbishop of Canterbury, the denomination’s figurehead, makes plain, restraint was not enough.
The Rev. Sandye Wilson, a Diocese of Newark committee spokesperson, told the New Jersey Star-Ledger that Barlowe’s nomination came about though “prayerful process, not a political one.” Still, the timing of the Diocese of Newark’s announcement sends a direct message to waffling, controversy-weary US leaders and to the Communion: In its mission of doing God’s work and addressing social-justice issues, it will not exclude candidates it deems worthy of consideration because of their sexual orientations. If Canon Michael Barlowe wins the Sept. 23 diocesan election, it could be the death knell for the Anglican Communion as we know it.
That’s the message US right-wing Episcopalians received. In a prepared statement, the American Anglican Council blasted the move: “Barlowe’s nomination illustrates clearly that those in the Episcopal Church USA committed to the revisionist agenda with regard to sexuality are willing to sacrifice membership in the Anglican Communion.
“We are shocked that just one week after the close of General Convention … the Diocese of Newark has sent a clear and defiant message nationally and internationally that there will be no turning back.”
Now comes word that four conservative Episcopal dioceses want to sever their connections with ECUSA. Separate but similar announcements from the dioceses of San Joaquin, CA; Pittsburgh; South Carolina; and Fort Worth, Texas, make plain that the archbishop of Canterbury’s two-tier membership proposal doesn’t allow enough separation between them and liberals.
From the San Francisco Chronicle:
The archbishop’s proposal will play out dramatically in California, which includes churches at both ends of the ideological spectrum: San Francisco clergy have been blessing gay unions for 27 years, while the Diocese of San Joaquin still refuses to ordain women.
California “shows the extremes in the church,” said the Rev. Ann Coburn, outreach director for the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, an Episcopal seminary.
The faith has no centralized power — the archbishop of Canterbury cannot dictate policy as the pope does in the Roman Catholic Church — and gives relatively broad independence to member churches, which are linked mainly by their common ancestry in the Church of England and generally follow its practices.
So Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ proposal for tiered membership based on agreement with a covenant — even one that addresses gay and lesbian clergy and same-sex unions among parishioners — was an unusual break from tradition. …
The breakaway diocese are desperate to escape the Episcopal Church of the United States, said Cynthia Brust, a spokeswoman for the American Anglican Council, a network of dioceses, churches and parishioners disillusioned by the decisions of the Episcopal Church.
“This is a situation — a crisis — that’s deteriorating so quickly, we have such a strong sense of urgency for this action,” Brust said. “The archbishop’s letter sets the stage for that action.”
No doubt the Newark nomination raises the curtain. Sydney, Australia’s leading conservative Anglican leader, Archbishop Peter Jensen says the show is under way and that, already, Rowan Williams’ proposal has foretold how the story will end.
In a radio interview with journalist Sabra Lane on ABC Australia’s “AM,” Jensen notes two points the archbishop of Canterbury’s letter:
PETER JENSEN: One is the sad recognition that we’ve reached a breakdown of relationships, and two, as he pushes ahead and tries to find unity beyond this, he has really put forward the idea of a sort of two-tiered Anglican Church, which is a recognition of that separation.
SABRA LANE: He says the Church could be divided into constituent provinces and associated churches.
SL: Do you think that could work?
PJ: No, I don’t really. I’m sorry to say so, because we’re all concerned to preserve unity, but I think the problem is, you’re dealing with such a huge church in so many different national contexts, that it’s hard to see people buying into what he is proposing, which is a sort of covenant for that constituent element. He wants us to get together around the idea of a covenant, and we’ve learnt to value our national autonomy so much that it’s hard to see us buying into that as a group.
SL: More bluntly, he says it’s a bit like a marriage gone bad.
PJ: I’ve likened it to a marital breakdown, and just as they are messy and painful and difficult, so this is. And I trust that there will be a great deal of maturity shown and a willingness to continue to love each other and to work together as far as we can.
No sane person likes divorce, but most of us realize that however painful and messy ending a bad marriage or relationship or communion can be, sometimes it is the only healthy solution. That certainly seems to be the case for the Anglican Communion. I pray that this apparently inevitable dissolution is handled with as much grace, love and respect as is possible.
Dr. Williams addresses that matter himself in his letter: “It is imperative to give the strongest support to the defence of homosexual people against violence, bigotry and legal disadvantage, and to appreciate the role played in the life of the Church by people of homosexual orientation.”
Schism or not, that’s wise, loving advice. Let’s pray all Anglicans and Episcopalians hold that message in their hearts and make it reality in their lives as children of the Creator and citizens of this planet. Wouldn’t hurt for the rest of us, either.