On gays, Anglicans are riven by four competing approaches
By Richard N. Ostling
In their tense debate about homosexuality, the world's 77 million Anglicans (called Episcopalians in the United States) take four approaches to biblical teaching: dismissal, perplexity, renovation and traditionalism.
Dismissal is the left-fringe attitude personified by Bishop John Shelby Spong, former head of the Newark, N.J., diocese. In "The Sins of Scripture," he says calling the Bible "the Word of God" (a belief he himself affirmed at ordination) is "perhaps the strangest claim ever made" for a document.
Spong finds the Old Testament's homosexual prohibitions ignorant and "morally incompetent" expressions of "popular prejudices." With the New Testament, he disdains Paul's condemnations as "ill-informed" ravings from a zealot who, he hypothesizes, was a "deeply repressed, self-loathing" homosexual.
"The contending positions are mutually exclusive," he concludes, and "there can be no compromise." He dismisses conservative views as "frail, fragile and pitiful."
The other three approaches were displayed at a June hearing before the international Anglican Consultative Council.
Perplexity was the outlook of Anglican Church of Canada representatives.
Their denomination affirmed the "integrity and sanctity" of homosexual relationships and tolerated a diocese's blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples. The Canadians said they are "seeking discernment" but face "deep divisions" and lack consensus.
Renovation was the policy of the U.S. Episcopal Church in its report "To Set Our Hope on Christ," written by seven theologians. It was the denomination's first official rationale for recognition of the unhindered same-sex blessings in its ranks and for toleration of openly gay clergy, including a bishop.
Traditionalists answered that argument with "A True Hearing," a paper by writers from nine nations that the Anglican Mainstream group gave to delegates to explain the stance endorsed in 1998 by 82 percent of the world's Anglican bishops.
The two papers typified debates within many mainline Protestant groups.
The Episcopal Church's report compared full inclusiveness for gays with the New Testament church's opening to Gentiles. It cited Acts 10, where Peter receives a vision allowing non-kosher foods and then commends baptism for Gentile converts; and Acts 15, where a council sets policy toward Gentiles.
The traditionalist paper said that in Acts 15 the church eliminated Jewish strictures on diet and circumcision for Gentiles, "but there was to be continuity in the moral sphere," since the council upheld Jewish sexual morals by warning Gentiles against "unchastity."
The Episcopal report said ancient Jewish prohibitions in Leviticus were part of a "holiness code" written to sustain Israel's distinctiveness and national survival.
It said the code "makes no distinction between ritual and moral regulations," implying the gay ban is as outmoded as, say, rules against blending textiles.
The traditionalists responded that while early Christianity eliminated ritual rules, Jewish teachings against "immoral behavior" remained in force. For instance, the Leviticus passage condemns incest. And New Testament verses endorse Jewish sexual standards.
The key New Testament passage is Romans 1:26-27, where Paul cites both male and female same-sex behavior as departures from God's design.
On that, the Episcopal report said it's legitimate to argue with Paul because he was so "steeped in" Jewish tradition, and to speculate that he might hold different views today considering his enlightened views on Gentiles, women and slaves.
The traditionalists said Paul clearly denounced all same-sex activity, even loving and committed relationships of the sort the Episcopal Church now proposes as the ideal.