How might Episcopalians make sense of the church's fractious debates about sex? It's a question engaged by Episcopalians across the theological spectrum.
Bishop-elect Gene Robinson, who's at the center of the polemical storm, addressed it briefly on Thursday night during a conversation with General Convention deputies at the Episcopal Church of the Gethsemane.
"AIDS in China and India is going to make AIDS in Africa look like a cakewalk, and we're sitting around talking about sexual orientation," he said. "I think God must be very disappointed in us."
Leaders of Claiming the Blessing quote pilot Chuck Yeager's observation that the turbulence in his jet was greatest in the moments just before he broke the sound barrier.
Conservative Episcopalians might agree with Robinson—but for entirely different reasons—that God must be disappointed in his church.
Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, however, encourages his fellow conservatives to keep their eyes on God's larger purposes and his sovereignty. "The deep truth has to do with the rhythm of the Magnificat," he said, with its promises of God casting down the mighty and raising up the lowly. "The church saying that every day at sundown is a very great irony, but also a very great truth."
Duncan sees in the Magnificat an image of what God may be doing on a global scale: casting down the mighty institutions of the West and raising up the embattled and often despised Christians of the Southern Hemisphere.
"Part of the problem in the Episcopal Church is that we believe God has appointed us to lead the rest of the church," Duncan said. "I know that God lifts up the lowly and he casts down the mighty. I'm very fearful about that, because this church has thought of itself as mighty."
Peter Moore, dean of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, sounded a similar note on Saturday night during Trinity's General Convention dinner.
"In North America the typical Anglican is older, white, well-educated, lives in a safe environment, is comfortably off, is an Anglophone, and is liberal," he said. "The typical global Anglican is young, nonwhite, undereducated, lives in a hostile environment, is poor, is not an Anglophone, and is evangelical.
"When Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom, says 'Christians are facing a shrinking population in the liberal West and a growing majority of the tradition Rest,' I know what he means. I've seen it in my lifetime," Moore said. "He likens our time to the 16th-century Reformation. There is a Reformation going on in the mainline churches of the West, if you can call it a Reformation. It is anti-hierarchical, individualistic, anti-traditional, ostensibly rational, and in tune with the deepest streams of modernity. In those senses, it is like the 16th-century Reformation.
"But at the same time there is a Counter-Reformation going on in the Global South. It is hierarchical, communal, conservative, ostensibly mystical, and out of synch with modernity. The one is experiencing dramatic church decline, the other equally dramatic church growth," Moore said.
Duncan sympathizes with Episcopalians who question whether they can remain in communion with a church if it changes historic teaching on sexual morality. "I think this tradition has been a reliable way to be a Christian. One thing we're distressed about is that it will cease to be reliable," he said. "It's worth fighting for, but it's not worth losing your soul."
If conservative Episcopalians are feeling weary, Duncan says, "maybe they ought to go on a mission trip and see what mainstream Anglicanism looks like."
Otherwise, they can rest in the knowledge that God is in control, however chaotic things become. "He is sovereign. Who could have predicted the evangelical revival or the Anglo-Catholic revival? They came out of unlikely places," Duncan said. "We would prefer to complain about how bad things are, and about things we don't have control over, rather than doing what we can do. Is there anything stopping us from clothing the naked or feeding the hungry? Absolutely not."
Douglas LeBlanc is an Associate Editor of Christianity Today.
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Other LeBlanc dispatches appearing on our site today include:
Gene Robinson Takes Questions in a Church called Gethsemane | Speaks on reparative therapy, potential schism, and whether he really "left" his wife for his male lover.
Deputies Slice into the Gordian Knot | The Episcopal Church's House of Deputies approve Gene Robinson as New Hampshire Bishop. The House of Bishops will vote today.
Praise the Lord and Pass the Condoms | Southern Hemisphere primates warned that approving Gene Robinson would place the church outside most of the world's 72 million Anglicans. "You'll get over it," responded about 60 percent of the House of Deputies.
See LeBlanc's earlier dispatches from the General Convention:
Gene and Me | My history with the openly gay man elected bishop of Rochester
Integrity Doles Out God's Not-So Inclusive Love | The Integrity Eucharist has become a triennial sort of mass pity party.
Gay Rites Would Not Bless Ecumenism | Could also impair Anglican work overseas.
More coverage of the General Convention is available from the ECUSA website, which has streaming video. Conservative and orthodox perspectives are available from Classical Anglican Net News, the American Anglican Council's A Place to Stand, and David Virtue's Virtuosity.