Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Bishop Gene Robinson and the future of the church

I've just finished the book Going to Heaven: The Life and Election of Bishop Gene Robinson by Elizabeth Adams, published Sept. 1, 2006. Though, on occasion, it seems it goes into a bit too much detail it all serves to show how much of a non-event his rise to bishop was to New Hampshire and such a big event to the rest of the world. He had already served as bishop's assistant for over 15 years and his faith and manner of working was already well known throughout the state. Reading it has been a needed antidote to the Right's nonsense, even when the book itself documents how the Right is using Robinson to split the church. Here are some thoughts from the book.

Robinson was asked what it was like to be at the center of something that caused so much pain, confusion, and anger. He responded that Jesus did the same and that it was the churchy types, the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were angry. But the same statements that angered them sounded like good news to those on the margins. Bishops on the Right are angry with Robinson, but his new position is wonderful news to the gays who feel pushed away by the church.

The bible is the primary guide to faith, over experience, tradition, and reason. It is the description of God's love affair with humans. It needs to be weighed against historical understanding and then discussed in a community because it is so easy to make the bible say what we want it to say. This discernment is necessary but not easy. The bible must be taken seriously, but not literally. Easy to say the bible is literally true or not true at all. But each verse must be seen in the context of the whole. You can't raise one verse in importance. Saying one verse is no longer important doesn't bring the whole thing crashing down.

If the bible needs that much discussion and interpretation how do you know how to live your life? Never mind that we are notoriously bad at actually following the bible's directions. In terms of a particular verse, you don't know how to live. The certainty comes in knowing that heaven is there for you. Like the prodigal son, before we have a chance to tell God, "I'm sorry," he'll have the ring on our finger and have ordered up a party. Salvation doesn't depend on getting each verse interpreted correctly. So we read the bible to understand what God is saying to us, and we as a community might disagree on that.

Since we are going to heaven we can take risks, we can think extravagantly about what the church should be. But the church rarely takes risks. It should be about so much more than survival. Churches want to emulate Christ but don't seem to want to get their hands dirty.

As for his opponents, Robinson says they don't seem happy. The Good News hasn't made them joyful. But he needs to satisfy God and his own heart and conscience, not his opponents. Is he a spiritual leader or deceived by the devil? Look at his work, the people he ministers to.

The Anglican Communion worldwide says that homosexuality will divide the church. This one thing is more important than creeds millennia old? Than a baptismal covenant? Than the Trinity? This one thing trumps all that and more? We can still commune together even while we wrestle with the issues. African bishops are increasingly saying that, no they can't commune while they disagree and the only acceptable way to resolve it is to do it their way.

Reasons why homosexuality is a hot-button issue: It (and women's ordination) mark the end of patriarchy. It is painful for straight white males to give up power. The worldwide church sees Americans as cheeky upstarts partly because of many other things America is doing (Iraq) and the general low regard for America. Society and culture have changed so much and so quickly (and in a secular direction) that there is a hunger by some people for something that doesn't change, that can't change, and a literalist interpretation of the bible is one thing that can remain absolute (at least in the eyes of today's literalists).

African bishops are the most vocal against gays. A good deal of that is the culture they are in. Africa hasn't had its Stonewall moment yet. The culture still considers homosexuality taboo. The Christian church is always looking over its shoulder at Islam, which also bans gays. They can't be seen as espousing Western values.

Up through about 1960 Episcopalians (and many other denominations) had no trouble living with a broad range of views, from conservative to progressive, within one church community. This was at a time, however, when Christianity was the dominant religion in America and was pretty much the big background presence in all public life. Two Supreme Court rulings changed that: banning prayer in public schools and Roe v. Wade. Having lost it's grip the Right could no longer be tolerant of any ideas but its own. Takeover is the goal and schism (or threat of it) is one way to increase their influence. The efforts have been slow, but relentless. I, of course, see it in the United Methodist Church where, next April at General Conference, for the first time membership standards will be debated (and the only reason to have standards at all is to exclude certain people).

How do we know if a change to doctrine is valid? Does it increase understanding of God? Liberate our spirit to be more in the image of Christ? Make us more compassionate, just, living, and free? If so, it is of God.

When faced with another issue of inclusion the church uses the same rhetoric and same delaying tactics. Robinson and New Hampshire stirred the hornets because they didn't delay. For every step forward someone does it and the church (and society) figures out it is okay. We can't wait for everyone to believe it is okay before doing it. The real issue isn't theology, but power. We form groups of people like ourselves and want them to remain that way with control in the hands of the insiders. And we'll do some nasty things to maintain that exclusion and control.

Robinson took part in a debate on the topic of gay clergy, talking about how God had worked in his life. As he spoke the audience hung on every word. The next debater talked about how rules need to be maintained and the proper way of doing things was to change the rules. The audience turned him off. Religion must dialogue with its own culture. The church is dying because it is in thrall with the past. For example, many people, including men, don't want to be a part of a church that degrades women. The church makes itself irrelevant.

Some people think religion is about rules and if it weren't for the rules the human spirit, a wild and snarling animal, could not control its passions and would pounce the moment you turned your eye. Civilization would crumble. This rulebook comes with promises attached -- follow the rules and you get the prize. It's a white-knuckle ride, always fearful that you'll mess it up just before the finish line. This rulebook has the added benefit of putting the brakes on change and defining who is "in" and who is "out." But it alienates the religion from society and science. It tends not to attract converts, in spite of the primary task being the Great Commission -- go and make converts.

Others think religion is about "Look at the gifts God gives us!" If we accept God's love we learn to love ourselves and those around us. It releases creative energy, it breaks the bonds of slavery, sets captives free, restores sight to the blind. It is about Hope. It deals with ambiguities and uncertainty, a guide to the current life as well as the next one. This religion supports the spirituality of people turned off by religion. It supports attempts to eliminate the barriers between people, racism, homophobia, environmental degradation, social injustice. The primary task is the Great Commandment -- love one another. I believe in this church.

The book is worth the read.

Since the book was published, the issue of homosexuality has indeed begun to divide the church. Many individual Episcopal churches have withdrawn from the American structure and have associated themselves with Anglican bishops in Africa or South America. And a week ago, the San Joaquin Diocese in central California, all of the churches in that region, voted to leave the Episcopal Church USA. A commentator theorizes this is the first visible sign of the Second Reformation that began with the Stonewall Riots, a small act similar to Martin Luther nailing his list to the church door. It will split denominations as completely as the Reformation split the Catholic Church. He notes that in all other issues -- slavery, divorce, diet, women's issues -- no church now relies strictly on the bible for its understanding. It has allowed the influence of culture. The only issue still under sola scriptura, in which the only source of truth is the bible, is homosexuality.

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