This last week with the consecration of Gene Robinson in New Hampshire, the Anglican Communion has been confronted with a decisive moment in its history.
Let us be clear what the issue is, and what its consequences are before we respond.
The issue is not homosexuality or even sexuality. The issue is of repentance and acceptance.
Sin does not disqualify Christians from service. The Apostle Paul shared in murder and the persecution of Christ. All Christians have and do sin. If sin disqualified us from service none of us could serve and no service could be done.
The Christian way of dealing with sin is repentance. Our Lord Jesus Christ has paid the penalty for all our sin. He is our advocate with the Father in heaven. He will plead our case on the basis of his sacrifice for us. We must confess our sins, turn away from them and seek God’s forgiveness.
Certain sins, even when repented of and forgiven, may disqualify us from particular ministries. We are fully members of the church and of Christ but no longer able to serve in certain ways.
Sometimes it is a matter of not placing the weak in positions of temptation or of making sure that things are not only right but also seen to be right. So, it would be unwise to appoint a problem gambler who had been convicted of extortion as church treasurer – even if he has repented and repaid all his debts.
As the Elders need to lead the church by teaching and example their qualifications are listed in 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1. Family life is one area where their life must be in order. The Elder is to be “…above reproach, the husband of one wife…” (literally: a man of one woman). This monogamous view of marriage disqualifies from public ministry some men even though their previous many marriages have been repented of and forgiven.
However, any sin, whatever it may be, disqualifies people from ministry if the person continues in defiant unrepentance. The thief, the liar, the adulterer or the glutton cannot be representing Christ if he is not seeking to amend his ways. Without repentance he is not part of Christ at all but is still in his sins, facing God’s wrath.
What does it mean when a church formally recognises such an unrepentant person as not only a member of the body of Christ but a leader in the church? Either the church no longer requires repentance of sin or it no longer recognises their behaviour as sinful.
So what happened in New Hampshire? A man who has left his wife, and is now living in an openly sexual relationship, not with another woman but with a man, has been appointed by the Episcopal Church of the United States of America as the bishop of New Hampshire.
This is not the consecration of a homosexual man. This is not the consecration of a sinner. Those things have happened before and will happen again, without dividing the church. Indeed, we cannot consecrate any man without consecrating a sinner.
Last week’s action in New Hampshire was knowingly and intentionally consecrating a man who has failed to fulfil his obligations to his wife and is now unrepentantly practicing homosexuality. As such it is an intentional challenge to the expressed views of the world-wide church on the proper expression of our sexuality, on the nature of family life and on the acceptance or rejection of homosexual behaviour.
The last Lambeth conference made it perfectly clear that this was unacceptable behaviour. Protests about this consecration have ranged from China to Chile and from Nigeria to New Zealand. Nearly all traditions of Christianity: Calvinists, Catholics and Charismatics are opposed to this behaviour. However, the challengers have proceeded.
When the Pharisees tried to justify their sexual unfaithfulness and to trick Jesus with subtle distinctions and clever arguments about the law, Jesus said
“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” So committed was Jesus to life-long monogamy that he said, “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” This firm line of Jesus astonished his disciples who replied, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:4-6,9-10).
There is little doubt that Jesus was reflecting what the Old Testament clearly taught that God created us heterosexually for monogamous marriage, and that our sinful natures were not to be expressed in ways that contradicted the manner or purpose of our creation.
This is further demonstrated in the writings of Jesus’ apostles. The Spirit of Jesus inspired his apostle to write: “an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife…”. It is unimaginable that the restrictions here were only against those who left their wife and married another woman.
The Spirit of Christ was not saying that you could be appointed as an overseer if you left your wife and then joined yourself in a one flesh relationship with another man. Indeed only two chapters earlier he had described the sexually immoral and “men who practice homosexuality” as being amongst the “lawless and disobedient, …ungodly sinners, …unholy and profane” whose actions are “contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God…” ( 1 Timothy 1:9-11).
The risen Christ warns us not to be deceived, for it is so easy for our sinful hearts to deceive us. On several occasions he warned us not to be deceived by the sinfulness that denies us inheritance of the Kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:21; Ephesians 5:5-6). His blood pays sufficiently for all these sins but if we are unrepentant then there is no hope for us but face the wrath of God.
One form of unacceptable behaviour is to “practice homosexuality” (1 Corinthians 6:9). It is important to notice that it is only one unacceptable form of behaviour amongst many and is not singled out as worse than any other. The reason that it is highlighted today is because it is the only one that people are advocating. If there were a group promoting adulterers or drunkards as suitable candidates to be consecrated as bishops, then we would be discussing adultery and drunkardness. Furthermore, notice that the Corinthians had practiced all these sins (“and such were some of you” 6:11). This was their previous unrepentant life not their present practice, and by the gospel they had been washed sanctified and justified.
That is why we have no difficulty in accepting repentant people whatever their sin. We know that there but for the grace of God go I. We know that the blood of Jesus washes all sin clean.
But it is also why we cannot quietly acquiesce to the notion that repentance is not required. We are warned not to be deceived about these things specifically. We are told the way to deal with them is by repentance and forgiveness. We know many who have turned back to Christ and now live a life of abstinence in obedience to him. They are doing the right thing that the gospel requires of them. But they are being undermined by those who now want to teach that such action is not sinful but quite acceptable for a disciple of Jesus.
So what do we do about this consecration?
At one level life goes on much the same as it did before. New Hampshire is on the other side of the world. What we do in our own church is not affected much by what people do in other churches. The decentralisation of power and organization of the Anglican Communion means that nobody’s decisions rule over people other than themselves.
If we were in North America then we would have to decide whether to continue to support the Episcopal Church of USA, as they have formally welcomed and approved of this consecration.
Yet even on the other side of the world it does affect us. We are already under question and criticism in our community and media. We are made to look as if we have a fixation about homosexuality when this is not the issue we would raise or are particularly interested in.
Long term of course this action is designed to change the face of Christianity and of Anglicanism. To accept one divorced and unrepentantly actively homosexual bishop means that we can no longer say that this behaviour is unacceptable. We will in the future find people pushing this agenda not only on the Australian church but also on our own diocese and our own church. It is only a matter of time – it is already on the national church’s agenda in general synod.
Change happens not with ideas, but with actions. The idea of the acceptability of this behaviour or any behaviour can be discussed in church without threatening the fabric of the communion. But once the idea is given flesh and blood, then unless it is something universally acceptable it inevitably leads to division. Unless people protest at the time the action makes the new idea acceptable and enforceable everywhere. However, unless the protest is also expressed in flesh and blood, it will have no effect in turning aside the novelty.
So, what is the action that can register an adequate protest to this recent consecration? People tried every constitutional and political protest before the event in order to dissuade them from action. Now therefore the protests inevitably are more drastic and disruptive. In order to stand where we have previously been standing for two thousand years, we will have to take deliberative and painful actions.
The first and obvious action is not to recognise Gene Robinson as a bishop. Not to welcome into our diocese not to acknowledge him as being part of the same communion.
But that is not addressing the issue. For it is not the man Gene Robinson that is the attack on our Communion, it is ECUSA’s acceptance of the unrepentant sinner that is the attack on our Communion. It is not Gene Robinson that is unacceptable to us but all those who have joined in consecrating him or defending the propriety of consecrating him.
At this point politics and double talk enter in. For many parts of the world who wish to support this consecration are now talking of bad timing and how the new bishop would be better not visiting their country at the moment but better to stay within his own diocese till the dust settles. All this can be interpreted as not supporting the New Hampshire action. But of course, it is supporting it to the hilt.
For what the advocates of this new Christianity are wanting is acceptance. It is therefore critical for them to maintain the unity of the Anglican community. They are not fundamentally committed to this unity (otherwise they would never have consecrated Gene Robinson), but they need the Communion to stay united now to prove that this consecration is acceptable.
So they are desperately making as conservative spin doctor noises as possible to allay the fears and anxieties that the consecration has created, and assure people that it is not on the agenda here in Australia or in Britain, and that they would not at this time be encouraging Gene Robinson so much as to even visit let alone expect recognition.
However, each province and each diocese will come under threat over the next few years to accept this behaviour as right and Christian. And each will come under pressure to accept the unrepentant practitioners of sin as suitable ministers of the gospel
The action that we now slowly will be driven to is the non-acceptance of all those who refuse to reject this consecration.
But what does this non-acceptance mean?
Anglicans have been good at practising this for centuries. It is the creation of a communion within the communion We have created a number of “no-go-zones” – Churches with whom we fellowship and churches with whom we do not fellowship.
The media does not understand this kind of splitting and talks as if there will be a constitutional and legal split. But we do not need that.
We just will not exchange pulpits with certain ministers. We will not support their missionaries. We will not accept their ministers as ministers in our diocese and they will not accept us in theirs (although at the moment they want us desperately in order to give them credibility and to demonstrate unity).
Some will go to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s tea party, others like the Church of England in South Africa do not get invited. It will be interesting to see who gets invited next time, for if the bishop of New Hampshire is invited then the Archbishop of Canterbury is joining in the sin of accepting what the Bible rejects and fellowshipping with him would be no different to accepting unrepentant sinfulness.
There are now some more churches that evangelicals will not attend when travelling. Instead, we will attend another denomination. There are now some more areas without a church with which we can fellowship and so we may now plant some new ones.
We have reduced the Anglican communion one more step to being a religious real estate company. An organization of no fixed views who leases real estate for religious uses to whomever can gain control of the local branch.