Liberating the Anglican understanding of sexuality

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
9 Dec 2009

On 5 December 2009, Canon Mary Douglas Glasspool was elected as one of the Anglican suffragan (assistant) bishops in Los Angeles, along with Canon Diane Jardine Bruce. Both were outstanding candidates and in Maryland, Glasspool has already been undertaking some of the responsibilities often assigned to bishops, demonstrating that she has the spiritual, liturgical, pastoral and organisational gifts needed to help lead a diocese of great diversity.

However, her election is controversial, because she is a woman, but even more because she is openly lesbian and has been in a committed relationship since 1988. The Episcopal Church, which includes Los Angeles, is one of the provinces in the Anglican Communion. The previous month Eva Brunne, also a partnered lesbian, was consecrated Bishop of Stockholm. The Church of Sweden is Lutheran but in communion with the Church of England.

For some, this is a welcome development. They believe that those electing a bishop should seek the help of the Holy Spirit in choosing the candidate best suited to serve in that area, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability, and that the church should strive to embody God’s welcoming love which breaks down barriers and turns strangers into friends.

Others disapprove, but do not regard this as a church-dividing matter, recognising that Christians may remain in fellowship yet hold different beliefs on matters such as divorce and homosexuality. There are some people who disapprove, not because they believe same-sex relationships are wrong, but because they fear that such a move will be divisive at present and that there are other priorities. And there are Christians who are outraged, believing that choosing a lesbian as bishop goes against the Bible and church tradition.

According to Canon Kendall Harmon of South Carolina, a leading 'conservative', the election “represents an intransigent embrace of a pattern of life Christians throughout history and the world have rejected as against biblical teaching," Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, would like Episcopal Church leaders to refuse to endorse Glasspool’s election, warning that choosing her “raises very serious questions” for the province’s “place in the Anglican Communion”, and claiming that “The bishops of the Communion have collectively acknowledged that a period of gracious restraint in respect of actions which are contrary to the mind of the Communion is necessary if our bonds of mutual affection are to hold.”

Yet, insofar as it is possible to know the “mind” of a diverse Communion in which there is no centralised authority, the Episcopal Church leadership has made far more effort to follow this than the leaders of certain other provinces which have not been threatened with exclusion. And the notion that being a partnered lesbian goes against the Bible’s teaching is even more dubious.

The “mind of the Communion” and same-sex relationships

A Lambeth Conference is held every ten years or so to bring together Anglican bishops from different parts of the world to discuss issues of common concern. An Anglican Consultative Council, with representatives from different provinces, also meets every few years. Both pass resolutions, which are not binding but reflect mainstream opinion on various matters.

Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference is much quoted by those opposed to consecrating LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people and blessing same-sex relationships. This rejected “homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture” and could not “advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions”.

Yet the same resolution also recognised that “there are among us persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation… We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ”. Anglican leaders in Nigeria and Uganda have shown their contempt for any such “gracious restraint” and for the “Affirmation and Adoption of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (Resolution 1.1 the same year).

Senior clergy there have promoted fear and hatred, helping to make the case for making the law even more repressive. However there has been no threat by the Archbishop of Canterbury that their place in the Anglican Communion might be affected.

Indeed the Episcopal Church’s openness to lesbian bishops is the result of a long process of reflection and study in keeping with the advice of numerous Anglican gatherings and the principles of international canon law.

The “duty of thinking and learning” is a theme that has come up repeatedly at international gatherings. The church should learn from the work of scientists, calling upon “Christian people both to learn reverently from every new disclosure of truth, and at the same time to bear witness to the biblical message of a God and Saviour apart from whom no gift can be rightly used”, and should welcome “the increasing extent of human knowledge” and the “searching enquiries of the theologians”. In 1978 the Lambeth Conference called for “deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research”, “pastoral concern for those who are homosexual” and “dialogue with them”.

As understanding of human sexuality grew, and more theologians made the case for full inclusion, many in the Episcopal Church came to believe that being a woman or gay should not result in being treated as a “second-class citizen”, let alone an outsider.

Concern for justice and commitment to human rights was another theme, including, from the 1980s, those of “homosexual orientation”. In the USA and other countries covered by the Episcopal Church, LGBT people at times face persecution and violence. While opposition to such mistreatment does not automatically lead to acceptance of same-sex partnerships as a proper lifestyle for Christian leaders, it does make it harder to depersonalise a particular minority and ignore the realities of their lives.

This concern for justice has also led to greater self-examination. For instance, the Anglican Consultative Council in 1990 called on “every Diocese in our Communion to consider how through its structures it may encourage its members to see that a true Christian spirituality involves a concern for God's justice in the world, particularly in its own community.”

If leaders of other provinces and dioceses throughout the world had acted on these recommendations and still come to the conclusion that partnered lesbians and gays should not be chosen as bishops, the Episcopal Church might understandably have been accused of acting without proper regard for the “mind of the Communion”. In reality, Anglicans in dioceses such as New Hampshire (where a gay priest, Gene Robinson, was consecrated bishop in 2003) and Los Angeles, waited for decades, while it became increasingly apparent that some others had no intention of studying, listening or trying to understand what love and justice might require on this issue.

Glasspool's election was "a liberation", according to Canon Jim Naughton of the Chicago Consultation, a group of Anglican clergy and lay people seeking greater inclusion. "We've been around this issue for 30 years," he pointed out. "It's unreasonable to expect us to refrain from acting on the very prayerful conclusions that we've reached, especially when we think there are issues of justice involved."

Is the choice “unbiblical”?

It has been claimed that Glasspool’s election demonstrates that the Episcopal Church leadership has "chosen to walk in a way which is contrary to scripture", to quote Archbishop Peter Jensen of Sydney.

The notion of homosexual orientation however was probably unknown to the authors of the Bible, and – far from being “contrary to scripture” – sex between women is not even mentioned. There is an ambiguous phrase in Romans 1, but this probably refers to women indulging in “unnatural” sex with men. There are a handful of passages which refer negatively to sex between men, and one or two which are ambiguous.

The widespread belief that the Bible unequivocally condemns lesbian relationships is an example of how easy it is to project human prejudice on to God. In any case, few Anglicans today would accord equal weight to all passages in the Bible or even the New Testament. For instance, if women are indeed forbidden to speak in church (1 Corinthians 14.34), this would indeed rule out appointing a lesbian as a bishop, but few would hold this view. Many however believe that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.28) – and some would argue that, likewise, in Christ the barriers between “gay” and “straight” are broken down.

The theology of sexuality is not straightforward, and the position of sincere “conservatives” deserves respect. However it should be acknowledged that many eminent theologians – Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist and those from other denominations – would now agree that same-sex relationships can offer some people a chance to grow in understanding of, and faithfulness to, God.

Living and proclaiming the good news

It can be argued that debates about full acceptance of LGBT people are a distraction from more important matters, such as combating poverty. But acceptance of the victimisation of minorities, and refusal to address social issues in a way which draws on the insights of social science and which pays attention to the experience of the marginalised themselves, undermine the church’s capacity to encourage greater justice in society.

Indeed, in places such as Los Angeles, discrimination against someone for being LGBT would, in the minds of many people, undermine the church’s credibility, making it harder to share the good news of God’s love for all. It is not just LGBT people but also many heterosexuals who cannot feel at home in a church which is not open and welcoming to all. There are also homophobic people who feel intensely uncomfortable around confident and articulate women and LGBT people but who may gain spiritually through learning to overcome this.

Mary Douglas Glasspool (when her appointment is confirmed and she is consecrated) and Eva Brunne will face challenges as bishops. However if, as many believe, they have been called, God will give them the strength to overcome obstacles and be a source of blessing to those to whom they minister, as well as reflecting the breadth of the divine embrace.

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© Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi has contributed several chapters to the book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008). She has written and reflected widely on the future of Anglicanism and is herself a member of the Church of England.

See also the detailed Ekklesia research essay, 'A better future for the Anglican Communion' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/10247

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