Thursday, December 4, 2003

Gene Robinson, the new Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, is by all accounts a decent, kind and friendly man, just the sort of good neighbor we all want. So you have to wonder why he’s willing to wreck his church.

Church fights are usually the province of more robust denominations. The Baptists come quickly to mind. There’s a maxim among Baptists that fights that split congregations, usually over something as historic as whether to change the hymnal or to put a new roof on the Sunday school building, are like 3 a.m. spats between alley cats: All they amount to are more Baptists and more cats.

Nevertheless, the prim and proper Episcopalians, “the Country Club at prayer,” the denomination that has contributed more presidents than any other, are getting pretty good at this divine warfare, and it’s not about hymn books or a new roof for the Sunday school. Several foreign affiliates of the Church of England, which traces its lineage all the way back to Henry VIII, have broken off fellowship with the Episcopal Church of the United States. Orthodox denominations, including the Russian, Armenian, Syrian, Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches, have suspended ties, and only this week the Vatican broke off participation in ecumenical conversations with the Episcopalians.

The Catholics regard homosexuality as “intrinsically evil,” and since the Episcopalians now regard a homosexual priest who lives openly with a doxy as fit to be a bishop, the Vatican’s representatives no longer want to have anything to do with the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission.

Ordinarily, the fine points of theology and the doctrinal arguments of priests, preachers and rabbis, which to the laymen can sound like learned discussions of how many split peas can rest on an orange peel, are beyond the ken of politicians. But the dispute roiling the Episcopal Church has already spilled over into the controversy over homosexual “marriage” and the recriminations, which will bear on public policy, have only just begun. (The quotation marks around “marriage” are necessary because whatever a union between a man and a man or a woman and a woman may be, it is not marriage as societies across the world have known it for thousands of years.)

Instead of talking about “unity,” the Episcopalians and the Catholics agreed to “reflect jointly” on the implications of the consecration of Bishop Robinson. Such “joint reflection” has all the promise of that famous Democratic Party unity meeting where all the participants show up with brass knuckles, or a Baptist congregation meeting to consider whether to retain an embattled pastor, ending with the pastor winning a ringing vote of confidence by a margin of 143 to 142.

The continued joint reflection of the Episcopalians and Catholics is possible only because the Rev. Frank Griswold, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, agreed to take a hike. Bishop Griswold is toxic because he presided over the consecration of Gene Robinson. The Rev. Alex Brunett, the Catholic archbishop of Seattle who was the presiding Roman prelate at the interfaith sessions, says the consecration of a homosexual bishop makes ecumenical relations with the Episcopalians “very difficult” and the only reason the talks can continue is because the pope told them to keep at it.

“But we must acknowledge that this is a serious problem,” the archbishop said. “If we’ve agreed on moral values and moral statements that are not being observed, that is a problem for our ongoing dialogue and we need to deal with that issue.”

This is tough stuff, for one church to accuse another of bad faith and immorality, all the more remarkable in a wider culture where morality is infinitely “adjustable” and “non-negotiable” belief is something to be frequently negotiated. This breaks the heart of the millions of Episcopalians devoted to their faith and the great commission that Christ gave to his church, to preach His Gospel to the world. “The Episcopal Church has thumbed its nose at the Catholic Church and caused a major ecumenical crisis,” says the Rev. David Moyer of Dallas, speaking for Episcopal traditionalists. “Even Moscow has thrown us out.”

So how could a kind, decent and friendly fellow like Gene Robinson provoke such a scandal? The bishop himself was plagued by doubt on the eve of his consecration, telling a television interviewer that he was only “pretty sure” that he was within “the will of God.” The answer seems to be that the homosexual agenda trumps all. The implications for the larger society, ranging far beyond the stained glass, are considerable.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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