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A TRAGIC NECESSITY: Why the Realignment Must Happen (Part One)

A Tragic Necessity

Why the Realignment of Anglicanism is Sadly Necessary

Part 1: Politically Correct or Theologically Correct?
Why It’s an Either/Or

by the Rev. David A. Handy, Ph.D.

Years ago the great church historian Jaroslav Pelikan made the famous comment that the Protestant Reformation was “a tragic necessity.” Protestants, he noted, who take the necessity of the Reformation for granted, tend to underestimate what a terrible tragedy it was. On the other hand, Pelikan said, Catholics, who take the tragedy of the Reformation for granted, often fail to appreciate just how necessary it was.

In a similar way, I suggest that the dramatic realignment of Anglicanism that is now underway is likewise “a tragic necessity.” With so much at stake and emotions running so high, it’s easy for all of us to lose sight of both aspects of our complex situation, its sad necessity as well as the more obvious tragedy of it all. My conversations since General Convention with clergy and laity alike suggest that many people are having trouble seeing why we can’t just “agree to disagree agreeably.” This is true not only of those on the liberal side, or the muddled majority in the middle, but also of many conservatives who strongly disapprove of homosexual behavior yet wonder whether it is worth dividing the church over it.

I submit that, alas, the division has already taken place. Though we had been drifting along with our culture in this direction for decades, we made a fateful decision in August in Minneapolis to give official approval to the idea that homosexual behavior is not sinful. Now that Gene Robinson’s consecration has taken place in New Hampshire, the practical fallout is just starting to become evident. Some twenty of the Primates of the Global South have fiercely denounced this momentous act for what it is, a scandalous betrayal of biblical faith and a perversion of Anglican doctrine and discipline.

The leaders of the American Anglican Council insist that we are not leaving the Episcopal Church. We are staying behind. It is the majority of the Episcopal Church which has departed from the Anglican Communion. It is the revisionists who have hijacked the Episcopal Church and recklessly taken it into heresy and schism.

I argue that the acceptance that General Convention gave to homosexual practice may be politically correct, but it will never be theologically or morally correct. My thesis in this five-part series is simply this: the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture and Tradition must not be set aside and overturned on the basis of dubious and conflicting evidence from reason and experience. Yet that is exactly what the Episcopal Church has done. In our haste to be “inclusive” and “prophetic,” sure that the tides of history were running our way, we arrogantly refused to wait. Despite the repeated warnings and earnest pleas from the Primates as recently as May, and an appeal for patience from the sympathetic Archbishop of Canterbury just before the Convention, we heedlessly plunged ahead. Over a cliff. We have drifted with our relativistic culture, right over a waterfall. Now we must pay the price: the breakup of the Anglican Communion as it crashes into the rocks below. Soon we will all be forced to choose sides, whether we like it or not. Drastic realignment, with all the deep and bitter estrangement it brings, has tragically become not only inevitable, but proper and necessary. Here’s why.

First and foremost, the realignment of Anglicanism is indeed necessary because the main issue at stake really and truly is the supremacy of biblical authority within Anglicanism. Despite liberal claims to the contrary, this is not merely a dispute over hermeneutics. That is, the debate is not simply over the proper interpretation of the few biblical passages dealing with homosexual behavior and a quarrel over their contested relevance today. More on this crucial point will come in Parts 2 and 3. Rather, the conflict genuinely is over whether or not the Scriptures are to be the decisive factor in settling this long and wearisome dispute.

Which will carry the day in the end, the Bible or modern experience? And to echo the great proponent of virtue ethics, Alasdair MacIntyre: whose experience? whose science? Whose experience is to count most, that of (unrepentant) gays and lesbians, or the contrary experience of “ex-gays,” of whom there are now verifiably hundreds, if not thousands. Why do we pay more attention to the experience of V. Gene Robinson and Louie Crew than to that of Alan Medinger and Fr. Mario Bergner? I wish I could make the latter’s dramatic testimony, Setting Love in Order, required reading before people presume to pontificate on whether or not a homosexual orientation can be changed.

Why is it that more Episcopalians don’t know that we have actually produced some of the great heroes in the ex-gay movement? Why does the experience of Leanne Payne and Alan Medinger not count when they have successfully ministered healing to so many struggling with unwanted same-sex attractions? Leanne’s books, including The Broken Image (1981) and Crisis in Masculinity (1985), have been around a long time and sold tens of thousands of copies in the conservative Protestant world, yet remain almost unknown among her fellow Prayerbook Christians. Medinger is the founder of Regeneration, one of the earliest and most influential ex-gay ministries in the country (first in Baltimore, now expanded to DC). So why do we not give credence to their testimony? Could it be that the dominant worldview among Episcopalians rules out the plausibility of such miraculous things? Liberals love to talk about the need to listen to the marginalized. But the truly marginalized ones today are ex-gays.

Furthermore, contrary to what is so widely supposed, the scientific evidence in support of the popular notion that some people are “born gay” is actually quite weak. And time is not on the progressive’s side, as they vainly imagine. The tide among scientific researchers now seems to be running against them. For example, the famous identical twin studies done by Michael Bailey in the early 1990s seemed to show that there was a significant genetic link to homosexuality. But his small data base (110 male identical twins where at least one was gay) was compromised by the fact that he solicited volunteers for his study from gay publications, distorting the results. His later and far more reliable work using a random sample (almost 5000 Australian twins) not only failed to replicate his earlier results, it largely invalidated them, as he himself now admits.

In other words, the liberal or revisionist position is based on a very shaky foundation. The scientific evidence is far from proving that homosexuality is merely a natural trait for a certain minority of people. And while the experience of gay men and lesbians is indeed important, we must also pay careful attention to the conflicting testimony of the growing number of men and women who have experienced such profound healing that not only their behavior, but also their gender identity and sometimes their very orientation itself has been transformed.

I contend that what we are witnessing today is an inevitable clash between two contradictory and mutually exclusive worldviews. It is a “clash of orthodoxies,” to use the apt phrase of Robert George (a renowned professor of jurisprudence at Princeton and committed Catholic). The obvious orthodoxy is of course the traditional Christian worldview, a time-tested orthodoxy rooted in divine revelation as enshrined in Holy Scripture and upheld by millions of believers throughout the ages. This familiar orthodoxy, so disdained by the “cultured despisers” within and without the Church, is locked in fierce and unavoidable conflict with its modern/postmodern rival, which I will call here simply “Liberalism.” I mean this in John Henry Newman’s sense, liberalism as an ism, as an ideology (and thus I do not by any means intend a blanket condemnation of all liberal tendencies). Liberalism in this sense rejects all dogmatisms, except its own. This seemingly sophisticated worldview that exalts tolerance as the greatest of virtues and condemns intolerance as the worst of vices is actually highly intolerant of the truth claims of orthodox Christianity. That is why today, as in Jeremiah’s day (see Jer. 6 & 8), though many are urging “peace, peace,” there is no peace. Nor can there be.

Part 2: What will be dominant: Scripture or Experience?

In Part I: Politically Correct or Theologically Correct? Why It’s an Either/Or, I recalled the famous line of church historian Jaroslav Pelikan that the Protestant Reformation was a “tragic necessity.” I suggested that the painful and costly realignment now underway in Anglicanism was likewise both deeply tragic and utterly necessary. My contention is that the bitter disputes we are now witnessing are the inevitable consequence of the fact that what is happening is nothing less than a clash of two opposing and mutually exclusive orthodoxies, which I call for convenience, Christianity and Liberalism (to borrow the title of Machen’s famous book from the 1920s).

In the first installment I advanced the claim that in the end this battle really is about the place of the Bible in the life of the Church. Although many would agree with the Presiding Bishop that the debate is not so much about the authority of the Bible as about its proper interpretation, I will now try to indicate why this claim is bogus. I do not, of course, deny that there are many who sincerely believe that this dispute is actually about hermeneutics. Many world-class scholars, such as Victor Furnish and Robin Scroggs, have made this claim for years. My point is simply that they are wrong, disastrously and demonstrably wrong.

To put it sharply, liberal interpretations that assert that the clear and consistent condemnations of homosexual behavior in Scripture simply don’t apply to our modern situation are so deeply flawed and misleading that they amount to mere rationalization and wishful thinking. In other words, the liberal case is so weak that it amounts to little more than a house of cards. It doesn’t take a big bad wolf to huff and puff and blow this fragile house down. All it takes is the courage to think outside the box and defy the skeptical prejudices and relativistic values of the dominant culture in the secularized Northern world. That is why the issue really is about the Bible’s authority in the life of the Church. The crisis we face in the post-Christendom West is finding a way to recover the primacy and supremacy of biblical authority when it comes to sexual morality.

I maintain that the vast majority of bishops got it right at Lambeth in 1998 when they flatly declared homosexual behavior to be “incompatible with Holy Scripture.” More importantly, I firmly believe that St. Paul got it right when he took it for granted that gay sex was “contrary to nature” (Romans 1:26-27). There is increasing agreement among biblical scholars that Presbyterian seminary professor Robert Gagnon, the leading defender of the traditional Christian stance, is persuasive in his conservative exegetical conclusions. What remains fiercely disputed is his application of them. Gagnon’s massive study, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Abingdon, 2001) argues convincingly that the Bible’s negative views about same-sex behavior are “absolute, pervasive, and strong.” The question is whether or not the Bible is right.

I repeat here my chief thesis: the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture and Tradition must not be set aside and overturned on the basis of dubious and conflicting evidence from reason and experience. A historical review of how these various authorities have vied with each other for dominance over the last few centuries helps to put our present controversies in proper perspective.

Granted, we Anglicans have never accepted the Protestant principle of “sola scriptura,” that is, taking the Bible as the sole authority for settling church disputes. As is well known, we have (at least since the time of Richard Hooker in the 1590s) generally held that Scripture, Tradition, and Reason were our basic authorities. Sometimes we have spoken of this as a three-legged stool, or to use a biblical image, that these three formed a three-fold cord that is not easily broken (Eccles. 4:13). But contrary to what many suppose and teach nowadays, the classic Anglican position has always been unmistakably clear on the fact that these three are not on the same level. Rather, Holy Scripture, as “the Word of God” has always been held to be the supreme and primary authority, with Tradition and Reason (or as Hooker would say, Reason and Tradition) as secondary authorities that help to settle disputes as to the proper interpretation and application of the Bible (e.g., Articles 6, 19, 20, and 34 of The 39 Articles).

Not so well known is the fact that John Wesley added Experience to the classic triad of authorities in the mid-1700s, forming what Methodists love to call “the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” Many Anglicans, including myself, are sympathetic to this clarification and enrichment. In any case, from a historical standpoint, the last half millennium of church history can be helpfully seen (very broadly) as a series of struggles over which of these various authorities will be dominant.

As we all know, at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century the great struggle was to restore the primacy and supremacy of biblical authority after it had been subordinated, for all practical purposes, to that of church tradition. Later, during the Enlightenment or so-called Age of Reason, beginning around the time of our own American Revolution (and the rise of modern science), the great rival to the Bible’s authority became Reason. Today the battleground has shifted once again. Now the chief challenge to the authority of the Bible comes from Experience.

In our day, in the wealthy Northern world, especially among academics and the well-educated, “postmodernism” is rapidly supplanting “modernism” (i.e., Enlightenment rationalism). This sea change in the culture has brought a new and dangerously appealing foe of orthodox Christianity to the fore. Now the great threat to the supreme authority of the Bible comes not from Reason and science (whose limits are increasingly recognized) but from Experience. The cynical rejection of all universal, objective norms so typical of postmodernism has led to the embracing of the notion that experience is self-validating. In such an age, all appeals to some presumed universal moral standard are held to be an unwarranted imposition of mere moral preferences on others. The only absolute in our day is that there are no absolutes. The most popular biblical text has become “Judge not, lest you be judged,” instead of John 3:16.

Modern attempts to evade the fact that the Bible’s view of homosexual behavior is unremittingly negative are increasingly admitted by many liberal scholars to be just that, evasions of the facts. Thus Walter Wink, Bernadette Brooten, and Dan Via, for example, all readily admit that the biblical strictures against gay sex can’t be explained away. Instead, they frankly admit that we must squarely face the fact that the biblical writers (including St. Paul) would condemn all homosexual behavior, whether between consenting adults in a “committed relationship” or not, and regardless of the fact that gay men and women don’t choose their sexual orientation. But, these liberal scholars would hasten to add, the biblical writers were simply wrong. Today we know better. How? Because of the experience of gay men and lesbians who claim to have known God’s grace and blessing in the midst of and through their “committed” relationships.

I was present in Minneapolis as an AAC volunteer and I was often struck by how those who spoke for the liberal/revisionist view in public hearings or floor debates appealed mostly to the experience of gay men and lesbians as if that settled the matter. There was little attempt to cite scientific studies to support the notion that a homosexual orientation is innate. There was little attempt to counter the conservative claims that the Bible ruled out same sex intimacy. Instead, they relied on the telling of heart-felt stories, with justified confidence that those stories would not be subjected to critical analysis.

My problem with so many liberals is not that they are such critical thinkers when it comes to interpreting the Bible, but that they are such uncritical interpreters of modern experience. I wish they’d be more consistently critical. Why do we accept without question the validity of the personal witness of gay men and lesbians about their experience that God has blessed their relationships? It seems that many simply take it for granted that such experiences are self-authenticating. As such they neither need validation (according to the progressives) nor are they subject to critique by critical reason and scientific testing. Much less are such experiential claims subject to scrutiny in their eyes because of the clear and consistent condemnation of homosexual behavior in Scripture and the moral consensus of the Church for 2,000 years.

This illustrates how far apart and mutually contradictory are the Christian and Liberal worldviews. The revisionists believe God is “doing a new thing” by throwing open the door to gay people in our day as the Lord flung wide open the door to the Gentiles in the first century. How do they know this? By experience. But the New Testament writers urge us to test such claims. Thus Paul says, “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:20-21). And 1 John admonishes, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). The problem is not the revisionists are too skeptical and critical; the problem is that they aren’t critical enough.

Part 3: Which Unity Shall We Preserve? Unity with the Church of All Ages or Unity with Our Decadent Western Culture?

In the first two parts I’ve tried to lay the groundwork for my claim that the realignment of Anglicanism now underway is indeed “a tragic necessity” (as Pelikan said about the Reformation). All of us in the Anglican tradition are now faced with a series of momentous choices. In the first part I argued that we must choose whether we will seek to be politically correct or theologically correct. In this case we can’t have it both ways, for unlike the preceding controversy over women’s ordination, there is absolutely no biblical support for the liberal position. In the second part I contended that the key issue is whether we will choose to give Scripture or modern experience the decisive role in settling this dispute. I further argued that we must choose whose experience will count most in this debate, the dubious claim of gay men and lesbians to have experienced God’s blessing in their relationships or the contrary evidence from the growing number of ex-gays that God has healed them and set them free.

In this third installment, I highlight a third fateful choice that we must all make. That choice is not so much between truth and unity, as some suppose, but rather we are all going to have to choose which unity matters most to us. Will we choose to preserve our unity with the majority of the Episcopal Church and its institutional structures, or will we choose instead to preserve our unity with the majority of the Anglican Communion around the world? Once again, there is no possibility of a “both/and” solution here, as the Global South Primates have made abundantly clear. In biblical terms, “Choose you this day whom you will serve, the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Communion?” All I can say is, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Anglican Communion.”

One reason why this choice is so difficult for us is because we aren’t used to having to make such wrenching choices. Up until now, for us in the United States, to be Episcopal was to be automatically Anglican, and vice versa. Alas, those days are over.

In a similar way, I contend that the real issue we must all face is which unity we are going to value most. Will we seek to maintain our unity with the Church of all times and places or opt to preserve our unity with the decadent, permissive culture in which we live? We can’t have it both ways. Neither our fellow Christians around the world nor the aggressive secularists in our midst are going to allow us to delude ourselves into thinking we can serve two masters. The aggressive attempt to eliminate open displays of Christian commitment from the public square in America leaves little doubt about this. Whether it’s removing the Ten Commandments from public places, or simply eliminating them from the public school curriculum, there is no doubt which way our culture is heading. Western civilization is in a moral free fall. And the moral relativism that reigns among the academic and media elites is powerless to stop our slide into ever greater moral degradation. The liberal revisionists imagine that they are being “prophetic.” But they are merely endorsing the direction the culture is already going (with the hedonistic Boomer generation leading the way). If you want to be truly progressive and countercultural, take to heart the delightful maxim of G. K. Chesterton almost a century ago, “Break the conventions—keep the Commandments!”

The powers that be in North America now show a growing anti-Christian bias. In the post-Christendom West/North, the process of secularization has moved beyond the separation of church and state; we are witnessing the divorce of Christianity and culture. We can’t escape the fact that ours is a “culture of disbelief” (in the apt phrase of Stephen Carter). But we can choose how to respond to that stern challenge. We can simply give in and become complicit in this cultural flight from the rigors of Christian faith and morality, or we can choose to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3).

That scriptural admonition (in Greek) is on the seal of Virginia Theological Seminary, which has historically been proud to associate itself with evangelical Christianity (broadly defined). But today, VTS allows gay faculty and students to live with their “partners” on campus. Some will doubtless see this as an example of fearlessly following the truth wherever it may lead, and hail it as a contemporary fulfillment of our Lord’s promise, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). After all, the VTS library bears a justly famous inscription beside its entrance, “Seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will.” My contention in this series, however, is that in this case, “the truth” about homosexuality and the classical Christian position on it are one and the same. In this case at least, the best scholarship (represented by the library with all its tomes) is on the side of orthodoxy.

Today, the fearless ones are those who dare to resist the seemingly unstoppable liberal tide, which will eventually and inevitably ebb. In our time, the truly courageous ones are those priests who choose to uphold the truth that homosexual behavior is inherently sinful, as Paul plainly says, even at great cost to their careers. It will be the lay and ordained leaders of those rare churches that are willing to give up their property rather than compromise on this issue that will be lauded by the generations to come.

I repeat here my central thesis in this series: the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture and Tradition must not be set aside and overturned on the basis of dubious and conflicting evidence from reason and experience. It is grossly unjust to accuse all of us on the orthodox side of being ignorant, or blinded by prejudice against a misunderstood and oppressed sexual minority. Rather, whether we are African or American, ethnic Chinese Anglicans from Southeast Asia or WASPS in Vancouver, many of us are genuinely compelled to take our stand not only by our convictions, but by the state of the evidence. We aren’t governed by our emotions, but by the facts. Ever since the father of Protestant Liberalism, Friedrich Schleiermacher, tried to salvage what he could of Christianity by jettisoning its “outdated” beliefs and practices (in the eyes of its “cultured despisers”), the well-intentioned adherents of ideological Liberalism have sought to accommodate Christianity to the prevailing winds of change among the cultural elite. Thus Schleiermacher infamously relegated the doctrine of the Trinity to the appendix of his controversial summation of systematic theology, The Christian Faith, in 1835. Episcopal bishops James Pike and John Shelby Spong are only the latest and most notorious in the long line of heretics and compromisers who have thus watered down the apostolic faith in futilely trying to retain some measure of loyalty and respect from Christianity’s sophisticated skeptics. It hasn’t worked. The decline of Christianity continues in the wealthy, educated Northern world.

Meanwhile, as is ever more apparent, the orthodox Christian faith goes from strength to strength in the poor Southern hemisphere. As Philip Jenkins (an Episcopalian who teaches at Penn State) has demonstrated so convincingly in his widely-acclaimed book The Next Christendom, the future of Christianity clearly lies in the Global South. There are far more Anglicans (over 5 million) in small Uganda than in the USA and Canada combined. There are far more Anglicans actually in church on Sunday in Nigeria (where there are over 17 million regular worshippers) than in all England (where less than 1 million bother to show up each week).

The liberals imagine that the future will vindicate them. But it is merely wishful thinking. The future of Anglicanism, and of Christianity as a whole, clearly lies with the Global South, as Rome understands very well. To dismiss the vehement opposition to Robinson’s confirmation on the part of virtually the whole Global South as merely reflecting how “backward” and unenlightened these poor countries are is an insult to our brothers and sisters there. They often pay a heavy price for being faithful to Jesus Christ in a hostile environment. We have much to learn from them about what it means to suffer for the sake of the gospel.

The truth is that many of the Global South Primates are highly educated, some more so than Frank Griswold or Michael Peers. Many of those Primates carefully studied the impressive 60 page case for rebuking and disciplining the Episcopal Church produced by the Anglican Communion Institute. Called Claiming our Anglican Identity, this well-researched and cogently argued paper was commissioned for the Primates by three of their own, Drexel Gomez (Province of the West Indies), Peter Akinola (Nigeria), and Gregory Venables (Southern Cone, i.e., of South America). It was written by a team of top scholars, including Professor Christopher Seitz and Philip Turner. The liberal side has yet to produce anything of comparable quality. I doubt they ever will.

The fact is that the Global South is sure to win this war for the soul of Anglicanism. They will win it, not simply because they have the numbers on their side. They will win it because they have the truth on their side. Most importantly, they will win it because they have God himself on their side. So whose side do you want to be on?


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