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Appointment of gay bishop causes anxiety

Bishop Penny Jamieson


 From where I am,  in Edinburgh for a few weeks,  I have been wondering whether the dispute over the decision of the diocese of New Hampshire to ordain a homosexual priest,  who has a partner,  as a bishop in the Anglican Church in the United States has attracted much attention at home in New Zealand.

My information and my explorations on the Internet suggest it has not made the headlines at home with any frequency.   However,  here,  it has been quite fascinating to see the enormous media coverage the issue has been given.

Of course,  the most immediate interest is the high likelihood there will be a serious break in the Anglican Communion  -  that is,  the worldwide federation of Anglican Churches  -  which derives from the Church of England and attributes a primacy of honour,  but not of authority,  to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The issue is that some churches are willing to tolerate this ordination and others are not.   Even given that it is reasonably unlikely any church other than that in the United States will ordain a gay man as a bishop in the foreseeable future,  the anxiety levels are remarkably high.

The Anglican Communion is already a very mixed bag of viewpoints on a variety of issues.   When,  in 1990,  I was ordained Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Dunedin,  there was huge concern this ordination would split the communion.   This has not happened.   However,  there are those who describe the current position as one of  "impaired communion",  as there are dioceses which do not recognise me or any other of the 12 women bishops in the Communion as "valid".   This failure of recognition has had no impact so far on the way this diocese or the church in New Zealand does its business.

Sitting quietly in the north of the United Kingdom,  which,  in the past,  has placed me in the eye of the storm,  the place where the Bishop of New Hampshire,  Gene Robinson,  is now,  I am astonished and delighted the question of the status of women as priests and bishops in the Communion has not been raised again.   This is a welcome sign of maturity over the issue.

What was important,  when each of the women bishops was ordained,  was that each of them was regarded as "valid" in her own diocese and by the governing body of her own national church.   Ironically,  this is the position Bishop Robinson,  who was ordained yesterday,  is in.   What is different is that he is deemed by some to be unsuitable because of the choice of lifestyle he has made.

Whether or not this is a choice is a moot point,  for scientific and social evidence varies enormously.   The driver seems to be that homosexuality is specifically spoken of in a few ferocious Old Testament and Pauline passages.   But so are other behaviours,  most notoriously and clearly the practice of divorce.  There is a curious selectivity in this area:  other areas of the Communion with rigid divorce laws have not threatened to break from the US over divorce,  yet some US bishops,  including some who are opposed to Bishop Robinson's ordination,  have been divorced,  a few more than once.

The underlying issue is how the Christian venture communicates in fast-changing times.   It has been an open question since New Testament times:  there are enough differences of practice suggested in the New Testament to make this clear.   And change of practices since have been frequent.

To provide a tiny example:  I was thinking of this matter last week when I attended a meeting of the Synod of the Episcopalian  (Anglican)  Diocese of Edinburgh.   It was held in a large auditorium-style Presbyterian church just over the road from St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral.   The seating arrangement was several rows in a large half circle.   The Bishop of Edinburgh and his staff sat behind the table facing the half circle,  and,  towering above them,  was a high pulpit.   Now,  pulpits of this size are a clear mark of a church in the tradition of the Reformation.   But they are built no longer,  and many preachers in churches with such pulpits choose not to use them.   Times have changed.

In this post-modern world of diversity,  cultural forces are working powerfully to move the church away from earlier attitudes of denial or prohibition in relation to homosexual behaviour.   The tragedy of the current dispute is that we tend,  like others,  to quarrel most vigorously over issues that,  perhaps a little mysteriously,  assume the status of markers,  "lines in the sand",  that must not be crossed.   The casual observer could easily be forgiven for thinking the major concern of Christians is the policing of the sexual behaviour of others.   It is not.

Our prior and prime delight is in the infinite and mysterious love of God for all people.   This love is endlessly attractive,  and the depth of the tradition that lives on in the Christian Church informs and shapes our grasp of this love.   And I think we should perhaps admit the truth in this area is something we can never know for sure:  our understanding of God's will cannot but be partial,  this side of the grave.

It is clear many folk in Britain have a deep respect for the willingness of Dr Rowan Williams,  the Archbishop of Canterbury,  to keep connection,  if not communion,  while we live with this question in the openness of faith.   But he has a difficult job.

There has been a huge cacophony of religious comment here both over this question and also about the celebrations of the Pope's 25th anniversary.   Every shade of opinion and viewpoint has found air.   But,  as a somewhat embarrassed Anglican,  I was interested to read Magnus Linklater's comment in The Times (15/10/03):  "It is easy to mock the vacillation that so often marks the Anglican Church,  but at least it is attempting to grapple with the modern world,  to confront complex issues,  and to strive to resolve them:  to deal honestly with conflicting views,  rather than ignore them.   I prefer its open confession of doubt to the false certainty of an intolerant Church".

My prayer is that the Church will learn more of the depth of what it means to live faithfully together through these messy times.

The Right Rev Dr Penny Jamieson is the Anglican
Bishop of Dunedin.   This article was published in the
Otago Daily Times of November 4, 2003.


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