The Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, and the real reason we’re having this debate


So, we’re suspended.

Or not.

Plenty of commentary has already been written about what the primates did, what impact it could have, and what’s in store for the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. (This is probably one of the more helpful summaries I’ve read, BTW.)

Some have questioned the primates’ selective application of punitive measures—penalizing Episcopalians for their decision to bless same-sex marriages, while neglecting to penalize Anglican church leaders who have promoted state-sanctioned persecution of gays in countries like Uganda—contravening Jesus’ command to love your neighbor. (I’m pretty sure he DIDN’T say, “Unless they’re gay, ’cause gross.”)

But let’s not retread those paths. That ground has been well covered already. Let’s talk about the real reason we’re having this debate. Sometimes it gets obscured in all the bluster, finger-pointing, and Twitter wars.

In his address to fellow primates—moments before the vote was cast—Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry cut to the heart of things:

Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.

That’s why we’re having this debate. Whatever side you may be on, that’s why this conversation is so important. That’s why some of us feel called to open our arms—and our church doors—to those of other orientations and gender identities.

The question we’re all wrestling with is this: What does it mean to be Jesus to the LGBTQ community? 

It’s not about trying to appease culture.

It’s not about craving public approval.

It’s not about being afraid to take a stand that might be divisive or unpopular. (Have you seen what’s happened to attendance figures since the Episcopal Church began moving in this direction?)

Whenever a church or denomination takes an affirming stance, the response is always the same.

Their motives are questioned.

Someone accuses them of “cultural capitulation.”

They’re labeled “cowards.”

No, really.

The possibility they might have other motives for rethinking long-held convictions isn’t even considered.

And to be fair, at times proponents of the affirming view have opened themselves to this line of criticism—for example, when they frame the debate as a matter of being “on the right side of history.”

History be damned. This is about being on the right side of people.

For Christians, this is about being on the side of Jesus—or rather, being on the same side of people that he is on.

Presiding Bishop Curry’s statement calls us back to the real reason for having this debate. He understands what some on both sides have missed.

Curry went on to say: 

While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.

We may disagree with one another on sexuality. Some will celebrate same-sex marriage, while others see it as an unacceptable compromise. But let’s never forget why we’re having this debate.

It’s not about accommodating cultural whims. It’s not about being afraid to take a stand. It’s not about pleasing the crowd or making the church seem more relevant or palatable. (Again, see the Episcopal Church’s attendance figures.)

This is not about cultural capitulation. It’s about asking, “What does it really mean to love my neighbor?”

The real question for us to wrestle with is whether this might be the 21st-century church’s “Gentile moment,” a moment when God does something new and extraordinary and unexpected in our midst—like he did two thousand years ago when, to everyone’s surprise, he declared “unclean” Gentiles to be “clean,” without requiring them to renounce their Gentile identity first. (It was this last bit that came as a particular shock to first-century Jewish believers.)

The question to ask is not, “Where is the culture moving?”

The question to ask is, “Where is God moving”?

We may not all agree on the answer. Indeed, it can be dangerous to even ask this question. People I know have been lost friends for asking it. They’ve lost jobs. They’ve been estranged from their families. None more so than members of the LGBTQ community.

But whether or not you draw the same conclusions that many in the Episcopal Church (and other Christian traditions) have, please don’t misunderstand what has prompted this line of inquiry.

To say that it’s capitulation or cowardice is to presume authority to judge someone else’s motives—to judge others in precisely the way Jesus forbade.

Worst of all, to write it off as cultural capitulation is to miss the bigger question:

Where is God moving in this?

Image: Lift Every Voice: Freedom Ride 2015

26 thoughts on “The Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, and the real reason we’re having this debate

  1. The point is Ben if the Church adopts a position contrary to God’s revealed truth (i.e. the Scriptures) then it wouldn’t be very loving at all to tell your neighbor that their personal pursuit for sexual fulfillment and intimacy is something God celebrates and affirms.

    Indeed God is seeking to move His Church towards greater expressions of compassion and understanding towards the gay community. Modeling Christ towards others does necessitate celebrating and affirming as “holy” actions which the Scriptures forbid. To the degree one ignores Scripture in order to affirm the actions of another is to the degree they are capitulating to a world under deception. By affirming gay marriage you have placed personal pursuit of natural desire to love and be loved above God’s revealed word.

    Our Christian gay brothers and sisters who have chosen not to pursue certain desires that seem natural to them ought to be extolled more in the Church. However your position increasingly seems to call into question why they should “deny themselves” for the sake of Christ. The love of Christ does indeed reach out to us all, but the same Christ who died in love for all of us broken sinners also declared that unless we deny ourselves and pick up our cross we are not worthy to follow Him. To only share the former with our friends, family and co-workers is to do a huge disservice to them, and it is the the anti-thesis of true, Calvary love. Truth without love is useless but love without truth is foolishness.


    1. StriderMTB, thanks for engaging. What I would argue (following Daniel Kirk, whose post I linked to above) is that the church HAS adopted a position contrary to God’s revealed word before. (Note: I say “word” and not “Word” because I believe the final Word from God is not a book but a person, Jesus.)

      The church did so when they welcomed Gentiles into the faith. There was plenty of scriptural basis for Gentiles being drawn to God—but no basis for believing they could do so without circumcision, the Sabbath, and other Jewish customs. The idea that they could draw near to God without ceasing to be Gentile was unthinkable prior to Peter’s vision.

      As it happens, I think the scriptural case for excluding gays and lesbians is far less a slam dunk than you imagine. But more to the point, I believe we should consider the possibility that this may be our “Gentile moment.”

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Ben the problem with what you are saying is on the one hand you want to say Jesus is the final word on matters of love, marriage and sex and not the Scriptures (which you rather flippantly dismiss as “a book”) and yet on the other hand the revelation we have of Jesus–the final word–is revealed to us through the Scriptures. The reason we can conclude rightly that Gentiles ought to be included in the faith is because the N.T. demands it! You want to play off the N.T. with the O.T. as if that is somehow equivalent to playing of the N.T. with our modern sensibilities of sexual orientation and fairness. In short you don’t see the N.T. as authoritative on matters where you feel our modern society has surpassed a Scriptural N.T. ethic. For anyone to think their moral considerations trump N.T. prohibitions is arrogance and self-centeredness masquerading as spiritual enlightenment.

        Now you question that the Scriptural case against same-sex behavior (note that I did not say orientation) is not so strong. Let’s just go down that rabbit trail for a minute. Let’s say–just for the sake of argument–that you became convinced that a Scriptural case against gay marriage was grammatically and historically air-tight. Would that change your opinion at all? Or would you simply conclude that the N.T. got it wrong and the Church should move past their moral reservations and affirm gay marriage?


    2. Hi StriderMTB:
      I’d encourage you to look into the history of translation before viewing this as such an open & closed case; the language of the passages which is en vogue to translate as meaning ‘same-sex attraction’ or ‘homosexuality’ is based on a political translation under King James, during a time when England was repressive towards LGBT folks.

      Many experts in translation point out that the actual words used have meanings closer to ‘male prostitute’ or even refer to men who keep young boys as sexual slaves. It’s hard to read those passages, in the original context they were written in, and see any parallel to a loving couple in a faithful marriage. The two seem completely separated.

      I think a strong argument has been made by linguists and English historians that the political act is not the opening of the Gospel to faithful people who are attracted to others of the same sex, but rather the re-imagination of Bible passages as referring to modern LGBT relationships, and not to specific sexual relationships that were predatory and based on abuses of authority.


      1. I’ve looked into the argument Streever and found them very dubious–as do the far majority of textual scholars. Your “experts” are in the minority opinion. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean it is wrong–I’m just pointing it out as a way of clarification. But it really doesn’t matter much if you think the N.T. should not be considered authoritative on these delicate subjects.

        I will ask you the same hypothetical I asked Ben. IF you became convinced that the Scriptures do in fact condemn all forms of homosexual behavior–and the case was grammatically, historically and lexically sound–would that knowledge change your opinion? Or would you simply conclude that the N.T. got it wrong and it is time for the Church to get it right?


      2. I’ve looked into the arguments Streever and found them very dubious–as do the far majority of N.T. scholars. Your “experts” are in the minority opinion. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean it is wrong–I’m just pointing it out as a way of clarification. But it really doesn’t matter much if you think the N.T. should not be considered authoritative on these delicate subjects.

        I will ask you the same hypothetical I asked Ben. IF you became convinced that the Scriptures do in fact condemn all forms of homosexual behavior–and the case was grammatically, historically and lexically sound–would that knowledge change your opinion? Or would you simply conclude that the N.T. got it wrong and it is time for the Church to get it right?


      3. I don’t believe Scripture has many absolute maxims, so I have a hard time entertaining your hypothetical.

        Why would Scripture have a hard line against a consensual and loving relationship between two individuals who have the same gender?

        The major sins which Scripture clearly prohibits have obvious practical applications. I’m not sure that there is a practical or logical argument which supports a blanket ban on loving, consensual, open relationships between committed people.


      4. It is not my placy nor your place to ask “Why would the Scripture prohibit such and such…” The point is if it does than we have to submit to whether we fully understand it or not. It seems increasingly clear that you, Ben and others on this thread believe that EVEN IF Scriptures prohibited all forms of same-sex BEHAVIOR it would not change your mind. You would simply assume Scripture got it wrong and it is incumbent upon enlightened individuals such as yourself to update the Church community to a more progressive and contemporary understanding of love.

        Now I would say many churches…probably the majority… need to repent of an apathetic (if not spiteful) spirit against the LGBT community. The church is supposed to be a hospital of healing for sinners not a hilton for saints. That said the “progressive” churches need to repent of a spirit of lawlessness which affirms and celebrates sinful practice in the name of “tolerance” and “love.”


  2. Strider wrote, “By affirming gay marriage you have placed personal pursuit of natural desire to love and be loved above God’s revealed word.” This is the best argument against gay marriage I have heard. We should never put any desire above God’s will.

    Still, I wonder if God counts gay marriage as a sin. He has allowed divorce and bigamy. Perhaps sex and marriage aren’t the big, holy cows we think they are. God has actually said, “I hate divorce,” yet millions of Christians have gotten divorced without much ado. Most of them ignore that divorce must only be for adultery. Adultery is the biggie. Adultery is betrayal. If two women say they will love only each other forever, you can’t call that adultery.

    My mind always goes back to the old guys in the Bible who had lots of wives. God did nothing about it. I’m sure he didn’t approve of it; it wasn’t the best thing for the families; yet he allowed it and called these men, “righteous.” I think God is a lot less picky than we are. He seems to accept us in our messy lives as long as we are turned towards him.

    The greatest offence to God is in not helping the poor and needy and shedding innocent blood. God speaks of that continually in the Old and New Testament. However, helping the poor is not a condition of church fellowship. In my opinion, our churches strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. The least we could do is leave gay people and the churches that marry them alone.


    1. Hi BelleUnruh, I agree with you that we should never put any desire above God’s will. I would also suggest (as I have above) that’s not what those who are questioning the traditional view are doing. If it were, there are a whole lot of other desires we’d be trying to rationalize.

      I’m intrigued by your observation about God’s attitude toward sex and marriage in the Bible (particularly in the OT). I had a similar realization at some point in my theological journey. Considering that God affirmed someone like David was “a man after his own heart,” then even if you stop short of affirming same-sex marriage, it seems hard to imagine that God is nearly as worked up about it as we are.

      Thanks for sharing!


  3. Love it!

    “For Christians, this is about being on the side of Jesus—or rather, being on the same side of people that he is on.”

    What this reminds me of is an exercise I’ve used. I often invite long-time Christians to locate themselves in stories of Jesus and ask whether they are the crowds or the disciples. Usually, it is pretty split. This surprised me: that half the people in my church felt they were on the receiving end of ministry and the other were helping Jesus do ministry. Surprising, but not too surprising. I then led a vestry retreat for another congregation and did a similar exercise. They all, every last one, thought they were the crowd.

    I think you’ve nailed the issue. And I’m wondering now if so many of our conflict come from this confusion of purpose and relationship and even the role of Jesus in our common life. That many of us think our job is to protect the church from secularism or a “false gospel” but don’t actually think we have anything to do with making Jesus known.


  4. Wonderful discussion. I actually had just posted to a group of my denomination the very same thoughts about the radical nature of what Paul did when he declared an outward sign such as circumcision having no affect on God’s inward love of all and our acceptance by God not on these outward works but on and by faith. We may lament the rift/suspension/alienation that this has caused in the Anglican Communion, as it also did with in the Lutheran World Federation, but just behold what God has done with that group called Gentiles two thousand years ago. As the Fence Sitter Peter said: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people, once you had not received mercy (pity), now you have received mercy.”


  5. What Bishop Curry said was and is about 15 years or more too late. Like it or not the reality is the argument for inclusion of gay folke in every aspect of the Church’s life was NOT framed in the context of the Gospel over the decades leading up to this Canterbury Chinwag. No “movement” Jesus or otherwise argued before your General Conventions what many of us in the gay faith community had insisted on for years that inclusion was demanded by the very Nature of the Incarnation itself. There were no voices of the “bishops’ house” saying it was the Gospel of Jesus the Incarnate Son of God and not social trends that called the church to be open to a new Pentecost because that would have sounded far to “evangelical” far too “orthodox” and far too embarrassing for any fashionably intellectual Episcopal bishop! In fact quite the contrary those who argued the most for inclusion, including your previous PB generally viewed that approach as an “ideology” that was inherently exclusive rather than a foundational theology that required inclusion. Little wonder why conservatives did not hear anything about the open arms of Jesus which is not a symbol but the Reason for this change. What conservatives heard and hear is the symbol with no substance to justify The Reason. If the Episcopal Church had affirmed the authority of Scripture under the stewardship of the Holy Spirit given by Jesus himself to his Church as the justification for the blessing of committed and loving same gender relationships the chinwag at Canterbury may have a far different tone and result.


  6. Andrew I would like to ask you the same hypothetical question I asked Ben and Streever above. You use the phrase “the authority of Scripture” as being the justification to affirm same-sex marriage. But you qualify “authority of Scripture” as being “under the stewardship of the Holy Spirit given by Jesus Himself to the Church.” Now that sounds nice Andrew–but I am hearing a lot of great words without a reference point. It sounds to me as if you are saying the authority of Scripture is determined by the Holy Spirit which is given to the Church which is interpreted by the Church–which is qualified as….a gay-faith community. That is to say the N.T. and whatever prohibitions it might contain ought to be subject to the interpretations of your gay-faith community. Now let’s just leave aside the fact that other communities of faith would strongly disagree with your interpretations and cut right to the chase.

    Let’s just say for sake of argument that it was an open and shut case (without question) that the N.T. prohibits all forms of same-sex behavior. Would that cause you to reconsider affirming gay marriage, or would you conclude that the N.T. got it wrong and the Church today needs to be a corrective to the N.T. just as the N.T. was a corrective to the O.T.?


    1. Speaking for myself, I’d probably turn that question around: given that Christians, overwhelmingly, disobey the clear injunctions of Christ in at least 2 areas (support for armed violence, and support for lending money at interest: the militaries and economic systems around which the modern world is organized, w/ Christian consent), what is it about THIS one (stipulated allegation per above!) “open and shut case (without question)” that is different???

      Per my bank account (among other things), I am a sinner for which I will have to plead (before the Throne of God) for the mercy of Christ. Living my sexual orientation per the ethics of the Episcopal Church, is one of the few areas of my life for which (thank Christ) I am not so convicted…


      1. So when can we expect you to give your money away?
        Thought so. About the same time Mainline protestants become over 1% non-White, in other words.


      2. No need to turn the question around. Better to just answer it. Identifying the sins, hypocrisy and shortcomings of others in their walk of faith does nothing to absolve you or me of the sins we refuse to repent of. Lending money to your brother with interest is contrary to the scriptures…as is killing our perceived enemies…as is looking at porn…as is greed and gossip…AND as is pursuing one’s same-sex desires contrary to the scriptures.

        The mandate Christ laid out for us was not, “If it feels natural go for it” but “deny yourself and follow me.” I know something about this. I will be 40 this year and I am still a virgin. I have a very strong sexual attraction and desire for women and I live in an Asian context where I could fulfill that desire every night if I chose to. Do I desire it? Yes! Is the urge natural? Yes! Does the desire justify the fulfillment? No. I put these passions to death daily for the sake of Christ.

        Christianity is not a “thing” or a “belief.” It is first and foremost a Person. We are married to Christ and all other desires must bow before that first love. As a Church we have completely lost touch with the starting place of the Christian life, which is as Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, “When Christ calls a man he calls him to come and die.” Shalom to you.


  7. Strider, upstream you say, “The reason we can conclude rightly that Gentiles ought to be included in the faith is because the N.T. demands it!” This was in reference to Ben’s claim that God was doing something new (contrary to Scripture) when the early church chose to include Gentiles without first requiring them to become Jews. True the N.T. demands it, but remember the early church didn’t have a N.T. when it reinterpreted what God wanted. Today the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is rethinking old understandings, and not just in matters of human sexuality. I suspect it took generations before the “Jewish Christians” essentially died out, and the Pauline Christians became the unquestioned norm. Perhaps we’ll live long enough to see which way this controversary comes out… but perhaps not.


    1. You are making my point. You and Ben and others are essentially asserting your contemporary feelings on an ethical matter can trump the N.T. Scriptures THE SAME WAY the N.T. authors reinterpreted the O.T. under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. You assume too high a place for yourself my friend.


  8. I think it is sad leaders of any church have a list of beliefs people must follow to join their church. I think it is sad we think we should deny gay people inclusion in our churches. I think it is sad the churches of our day are legalistic and seem to think we must follow all the rules and laws to be saved. I think we should welcome people with open arms – whoever they are.

    I know Paul had rules on how Elders and Deacons should be; and that is fine, they are the leaders. But why can’t we just admit we are all stumbling through this life trying to know God and live like him. I was sleeping with a boyfriend while I went to church, yet I know God was with me and loving me through this period of my life.

    I’ve sinned often and in many different ways after becoming a Christian, yet God doesn’t up and leave me every time I do something. Besides which, Gays, like my sister, don’t believe it is a sin to be in a committed relationship or marriage with each other and neither do I. If anyone one earth is a believer in God, it is my sister. Why do we choose this “sin” to exclude people, yet allow every other kind of sin to go on in the church: pride, intolerance, lust for things, hatred, not caring or helping the poor.

    I think heterosexual males had homosexual sins because it is the one sin they are not guilty of. They have no desire for sex with another man and think it is yucky, so they pick that thing to make themselves feel good about themselves.


  9. The ruling handed down in Acts 15 tracked the logic of Leviticus itself. It did not upset it. The laws regulating Gentile life in Christ are exactly those which regulated the ‘sojourner in the midst of Israel.’ So the new Gentiles brought near in Christ were judged to be. Markus Bockmuehl, Richard Bauckham, and I have all written on this, Bauckham’s essay is a model in technical NT exegesis.

    Using Gentile inclusion indiscriminately is precisely what the early church was concerned NOT to do.


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