Why the Anglican-Episcopal clash may spell a theological revision

(RNS) What’s next for the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion?

The widening chasm was on full display recently as a meeting of Anglican primates voted to suspend the LGBT-affirming Episcopal Church in the United States from participating in decisions about doctrine or polity for three years.

Though no surprise to church watchers, the decision was jarring for Episcopalians who take pride in their denomination’s inclusive stance on sexual minorities.

News reports on the censure invariably quoted Episcopalians dismayed and disappointed that the worldwide Anglican Communion does not share their enthusiasm for LGBT inclusion in the church

Episcopalians, from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry down to everyday priests and lay people, remain resolutely confident that they are on the right side of history.

But the Episcopal Church has to understand that affirming a marginalized minority group against an overwhelmingly traditionalist consensus means that, at least for the foreseeable future, its connection to global ecumenical Christianity will be strained.

Of course, if the tide of Christian history turns toward affirmation of same-sex marriage, then the American branch of Anglicanism will be cheered for centuries as a prophetic witness against hate and baseless prejudice.

But if the ecumenical Christian consensus continues to understand marriage as the union of a man and a woman, then the primates’ action will be seen as the first formal step toward an inevitable schism.

The censure raises vital questions about how much disagreement can be tolerated; whether divergent teachings on marriage and sexuality constitute minor differences of interpretation or major theological revisions; and how majorities will punish dissenting minorities.

What does the potential Episcopal-Anglican split mean for the evolution of Christian teaching on sexuality?

It means that interdenominational Protestant and ecumenical Christian cooperation could be ever more determined by views on sexuality rather than on historic commitments to specific doctrines or practices.

For centuries, the Book of Common Prayer has ordered the worship and prayers of Anglicans across a vast empire and then among independent national churches.

The Anglican Communion can abide differences in language, culture and style. But, for now at least, different understandings of the nature of marriage are a bridge too far.

The Episcopal Church had already affirmed gay people and accepted gay clergy, but last summer it approved a liturgy for same-sex marriage.

Christianity has long taught that marriage is the lifelong, exclusive union of a man and a woman, ordered to procreation, and that sexual relations are properly reserved for such unions. It will not quickly or easily change its teaching.

There is a tension between the prominence of maleness and femaleness in Christianity’s creation myths and the Apostle Paul’s teaching that “there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28).

But a religion that imagines itself to be the Bride of Christ and envisions the eschatological future as a “marriage supper” (Revelation 19:9) seems especially unlikely to accommodate the idea that marriage is a genderless institution.

Still, even if global Christianity does not soon (or ever) adopt the Episcopal Church’s affirmation of LGBT equality, the Episcopal Church’s and other liberal Protestant denominations’ affirmations have put pressure on conservatives to challenge church support for discriminatory public policies, including criminalization of homosexuality.

In the same communique that censured the Episcopal Church, Anglican primates “reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people.”

Advocates for LGBT affirmation speak of the right side of history, while traditionalists often prefer to think of themselves on “the right side of eternity.” But whether Christian history stretches to eternity, one thing is sure: It is long, and change is often measured in centuries.

The Episcopal-Anglican tension illustrates, above all, that doctrines involving the nature and purpose of marriage are not items of secondary concern. They are foundational to how Christians understand human relationships and their relationship to the divine.

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