The Episcopal Church: Eternal or "Eternally Out of Date?"

Mackubin T. Owens, The Rev. Jonathan Ostman

August 1, 2003

When the leaders of the Episcopal Church recently took the unprecedented steps of elevating a practicing homosexual to the church’s House of Bishops and providing for the blessing of “same-sex unions,” observers speculated that the decisions might cause a schism within the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a part. In fact, a schism has been apparent for some time. The episode in Minneapolis merely confirms that the schismatics hold the power within the Episcopal Church of the United States.

The existing division in the Church pits traditionalists who adhere to the moral law founded on the three bedrock principles of Anglican doctrine: Scripture, tradition, and reason against these schismatics who seek to replace these principles with a new gospel, one heavily influenced by secular categories such as “inclusion” and “affirmation.” As Katherine Kersten observed in the Wall Street Journal of 8 August, the message of this new gospel is that “Jesus came to make us feel good about ourselves.” But Ms. Kersten doesn’t go far enough. The elevation of the Rev. V. Eugene Robinson to the episcopate indicates that the schismatics who now hold power in the Episcopal Church have embraced the sin of idolatry.

In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul warns Christians about the dangers of succumbing to the temptations of secular culture, especially idolatry. Today’s idolatry does not involve the worship of pagan gods, as in St. Paul’s time, but self-worship, a form of narcissism that leads us to create God in our own image. This is a “safe” God, who demands nothing from us and who would approve the 1960s message that “if it feels good, do it.” This is a “non –judgmental” God, tailor-made for a people who really do not believe in sin. The schismatics’ God is one who says that “anything goes,” especially in the area of human sexuality.

This new gospel of idolatry wreaks havoc on the three cornerstones of Anglican doctrine. The schismatics are clever enough to recognize that Scripture cannot be abandoned outright. There are plenty of scriptural passages that are open to interpretation, but the ones that prohibit adultery, fornication, and homosexual acts are pretty clear, so what to do? As Ms. Kersten writes, the schismatics’ solution is to subject Scripture to reinterpretation by means of techniques imported from America’s postmodern universities. In the words of a pro-same-sex-union theologian, Scripture is “the chief authority when imaginatively construed in a certain interpretive trajectory.” To paraphrase the title of a recent movie starring Billy Crystal and Robert DeNiro, “Deconstruct that,” if you can.

The schismatics’ new gospel of idolatry does to Anglican tradition what it does to Scripture. Christians have always treated marriage as the sacrament that sanctifies the union of one man and one woman into “one flesh.” The schismatics now claim that anything that a narcissist subjectively can proclaim to be a “manifestation of God’s love” can be called a sacrament.

Consider the extraordinary statement by Mr. Robinson to the delegates at Minneapolis:

“I believe that God gave us the gift of sexuality so that we might express with our bodies the love that’s in our hearts. I just need to tell you that I experience that with my partner. In the time that we have, I can’t go into all the theology around it, but what I can tell you is that in my relationship with my partner, I am able to express the deep love that’s in my heart, and in his unfailing and unquestioning love of me, I experience just a little bit of the kind of never-ending, never-failing love that God has for me. So it’s sacramental for me.”

This is the schismatics’ credo in a nutshell.

As the columnist Mark Steyn noted, Mr. Robinson’s statement seems to equate homosexual sex not with the Sacrament of marriage, but with the “two Sacraments ordained of Christ”: Baptism and Communion, “through which one experiences God’s good will toward us” and “by which He doth work invisibly in us.” Thus does the schismatics’ new gospel of idolatry render “if it feels good, do it” into a Sacrament.

Finally, the schismatics’ new gospel of idolatry elevates “feelings” over thought and reason. If the Church can raise to the office of bishop a man who abandoned his wife and daughters for a homosexual relationship, no matter how “committed,” what becomes of the Church’s doctrine on marriage and sexuality? Indeed, if, as Mr. Robinson seems to suggest in the passage above, a Sacrament is “whatever turns you on,” why exclude from the episcopate those who are “turned on” by incest and polygamy?

Two points must be made. First, the issue here is not homosexuality per se or the character of V. Gene Robinson. We are all sinners and Scripture enjoins us to seek God’s forgiveness. But forgiveness requires a quid pro quo on our part. We all remember the passage from the Gospel according to St. John, which relates the story of an adulteress brought before Jesus. He is reminded that the law prescribes death by stoning as the punishment for adultery. Our Lord says “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” This seems to support the idea of a safe God, willing to forgive us without requiring any thing of us in return. But then he says to the woman, “Go now, and sin no more.”

Second, those opposed to the Episcopal Church’s blessing of same-sex unions and the elevation of a practicing homosexual to the episcopate are not “gay bashers” who wish to deny homosexuals their civil rights. Homosexuals are and should be entitled to all of the civil rights that heterosexuals possess. Many, although not all, who oppose the actions of the Church in Minneapolis nonetheless support the extension of certain benefits, e.g. heath insurance for partners and dependents and equality of legal rights when it comes to the disposition of property, to homosexual couples.

But the extension of such legal protections and benefits is a secular matter. The sanctioning of same-sex relations by the Church and elevation of a individual practicing homosexual, no matter how sterling his character, to the House of Bishops, is a matter affecting the very integrity of the Church. Christianity is not a label, but a way of life, based on certain beliefs and principles. Not everyone has to adhere to the three cornerstones of Anglican doctrine, but presumably Anglicans do.

Those schismatics who persist in calling themselves Anglicans but who claim that the Church must adapt to changes in social mores are reminiscent of a character made famous in the 1970s by the comedian, Flip Wilson: the fast-talking pastor of “the Church of What’s Happenin’ Now.” On the contrary, the schismatics need to be reminded of the observation by C.S. Lewis that “All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”

Mackubin Thomas Owens is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center, a National Review Online contributing editor, and a professor at the Naval War College in Newport, RI.

Fr. Ostman is Rector of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Newport, RI.