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Tests of Faith: First Openly Gay Bishop

August 6, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: The Episcopal Church isn’t the only one struggling with how to deal with homosexuality in its ranks and its sacraments. Last week, Pope John Paul II issued a directive urging Roman Catholics everywhere to oppose same-sex unions, saying: “Marriage is holy while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law.” Among mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S., united Methodist Church leaders in 2000 banned the ordination of homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions. Presbyterian Church leaders voted in 2000 to bar clergy from conducting same-sex union ceremonies. But in 2001, they voted to lift a ban on ordaining gays.

This June, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution urging its 42,000 churches to oppose same-sex unions. It also launched an initiative to reach out to gays with the message that Christianity can save them. And the Evangelical Lutheran Church has a task force now studying whether to ordain gays or bless same-sex unions. Its report is due in 2005.

Joining me now to explore all this are: Harvey Cox, professor of divinity at Harvard University. He is also an ordained minister in the American Baptist Church. Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington think tank. He’s an Episcopalian. James Hudnut-Beumler is dean of the divinity school at Vanderbilt University. He’s an ordained Presbyterian minister. And Edward Wheeler is a Baptist minister and president of the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.

Welcome to you all.

Professor Cox, beginning with you. Why has this issue of how to cope with homosexuality come front and center in so many churches at roughly the same period of time?

HARVEY COX: Well, I think part of it is because it’s an issue which can no longer be overlooked or ignored, and the churches are struggling with it in their own way depending on what the organizational polity of that church is or other factors. I think that it’s… the move that the Episcopal Church has made just these last few days will clear the way now to move beyond this controversy, which has really paralyzed the churches a lot and allow them to move on to more important issues, issues of dealing with war and racism and hunger and famine, and to put this behind. I think it’s a good move, and I think it’s an important symbol for the other churches who are wrangling over this issue as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael Cromartie, what do you think is driving this because it’s not just churches that are thought of as more liberal or progressive but also conservative churches like the Baptists who have still had to take votes, had to deal with it. Why?

MICHAEL CROMARTIE: About 40 years the world council of churches had a motto which was the world sets the agenda for the Church. I think that was a mistaken motto. Here’s a situation where the world is dealing with this question apart from the Church in so many, so many ways. And now I think we see in various denominations both Catholic and Protestant people with this orientation saying I want to be a part of the church. Most of these churches say you can definitely be a part of these churches. The issue we’re talking about today is not whether you can be a member of it but be a bishop in a denomination like the Episcopal Church. That’s what’s the controversy.

MARGARET WARNER: Has that been a movement just from being accepted as an openly gay member to now the issue is can you be ordained or will the church give the blessing of the same sex union?

MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Now, that is exactly the issue. The issue is here: What are the requirements to be a bishop? And as it says in the New Testament, one of the requirements is that the man be married to a single woman. We have a situation here where people are not upset about orientation. They’re concerned about behavior. In this situation, we have the behavior of a newly ordained bishop that’s in question.

MARGARET WARNER: Dean Hudnut-Beumler, do you agree with this, that really society is driving these churches? In other words that the churches, whether they’re conservative or more liberal or wherever they fit on the cultural spectrum, to some degree all have to respond to the culture at large?

JAMES HUDNUT-BEUMLER: Well, I think they do but I think it’s also true that churches sometimes give the values… give the best values to a culture and then the culture throws them back at the Church. Churches are very conservative institutions, but possess radical ideas. I had a colleague at a southern seminary once that told me segregationists taught me the bible and the bible taught me that segregation was wrong.

So what we have going on here is a back-and-forth between the Christian churches and the culture that surrounds them, and the churches that want to live faithfully in the present are going to have a struggle whenever the present culture changes. And the present culture has changed in a way that pushes the question of who can lead the church back upon the churches.

MARGARET WARNER: Rev. Wheeler, how do you see this debate that we’re seeing played out and what’s driving it?

EDWARD WHEELER: Well, I think the church itself is not immune from the culture. To speak of the Church as not even being a part of the culture I think is misrepresentation of the Church. The Church is in the world but not of the world. But in order to be in the world, you have to be able to know what the world is talking about. The issue of gay and lesbianism has been on the agenda for a long time. It is coming more to the forefront. And I think what the church has to begin to do is to not deal with this issue from a sociological or anthropological point of view but to begin to look again at scripture, to wrestle with scripture, and to also begin to wrestle with its theological understanding.

One of the concerns I have is that I think the moderates and liberals have often allowed the bible to be put aside and used only by the fundamentalists or the conservatives, and we turn away from the bible as if it doesn’t speak to the situation. And this is where I think theological education, for example, has a major contribution to make where theologians and biblical scholars ought to be looking again at what scripture says in light of its own context but also in light of the context in which we live now.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Cox, let’s talk about this question of scripture because this came up a lot at the convention. Pick up on what Rev. Wheeler said. Do you think we’re seeing a tension between people who have different readings of scripture or is there a tension between people who think scripture is a fixed document with fixed truths versus those who think, as I think Bishop Robinson sounded as if he believed, that we have an evolving understanding of what scripture or the bible or God’s word really means.

HARVEY COX: Well, yeah, I think all Christians realize that we have an evolving understanding of what scripture says. We study it in different situations. We study it in different eras. I think it’s important to point out that the people who pick out particular verses from the bible to refute gay and lesbian participation in the Church, for example, are being very, very selective in the very same chapter, for example, in the Old Testament where homosexuality is condemned, eating ham is also condemned, and lending money at interest. But we’ve learned how to live with those prohibitions. Even in recent years people have quoted St. Paul saying that women should be silent in the churches. That was used a lot when the whole women’s order nation battle was with us. We’ve moved ahead. We now have women priests in the Episcopal Church. We have women bishops. A split was threatened but no real split came.

We learned to live with this as the… as our understanding of the nature of the biblical authority evolves over the years. I think we have to be very attentive to the bible but also to the history of its interpretation as the spirit continues to lead.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE: The question is, Margaret, how attentive do we need to be? I think Bishop Robinson said something very important at that press conference when he said just simply to say that it goes against tradition and the teachings of the church and scripture does not necessarily make it wrong. We worship a living God and that living God leads us into new truths.

Now, the question is, do the norms of scripture and tradition dictate what we say to the world today or does my subjective experience and my feelings toward what my definition of love is dictate what we then take back to the scriptures? And so the debate here really is, what is the bonding authority? Scripture and tradition and our need to wrestle with what the text says, or do we say subjectively I think the text is confused here and I want to say that my feeling and my subjective opinion and my subjective morality is what should dictate how I read scripture? And that’s what’s really at stake here.

MARGARET WARNER: Dean Hudnut-Beumler, weigh in on this question of scripture. I won’t try to paraphrase what our two previous guests just said. But what do you think the tension is here?

JAMES HUDNUT-BEUMLER: Well, the tension is what part of scripture and what is the whole movement of the big story about what God is doing in the world? I think really it comes down in recent years to an awareness, first of all, that gay and lesbian people exist. Forty years ago, gays and lesbians were hidden in the Church to an extent that people could say, I don’t know any; now people in the workplace do. Secular psychologists and medical doctors have said it’s not a pathology; it’s the way people are. Then we ask theologically, well, if God made all of these people this way, what is supposed to… what are we supposed to infer from that act of creation and then how does scripture apply to all of those of us who live in various conditions of human life?

MARGARET WARNER: Are you saying….

JAMES HUDNUT-BEUMLER: And so….

MARGARET WARNER: I’m sorry. Are you saying though that you believe as, I think Rev. Wheeler was saying, that these churches still feel– whatever side you’re on– that the scripture remains very important and that you’re still wrestling with ways to make it compatible with evolving mores? I don’t know if I’m expressing that right.

JAMES HUDNUT-BEUMLER: As a Christian and as a Christian minister, I believe that there is no point in being in this tradition and orienting my life toward God through the teachings of Jesus and life and example and resurrection if I don’t take the narratives seriously. But situations that I have to bring back to the scriptures or bring the scriptures to bear on situations that we didn’t imagine were possible 40 years ago are the fact of contemporary church life in this culture. Just as questions about, could a slave owning bishop be ordained or be confirmed back in the 19th century? The scriptures don’t speak exactly to this with some kind of legal index in the back. They speak to us as stories that we have to apply in the given situation as best and as faithfully as we can.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Rev. Wheeler, where do you think all this is heading now?

EDWARD WHEELER: Well, as a church historian I’m always real nervous about talking about where it’s heading. A Church historian is also much better at looking at where we’ve come from.

MARGARET WARNER: What does history suggest to you?

EDWARD WHEELER: I would hope that Harvey Cox is right. I would hope that there is not a major split within the Anglican Church or the Episcopal Church in America. I would hope that people who have different points of view would wrestle with those ideas from a biblical and theological understanding. I think the dean has made a very good point. Scripture is in a sense the document that keeps us altogether and keeps us sane. To take seriously the narrative that we have is to take seriously the word of God in a real, very real way.

But it’s also true that it has to be taken in context. You have to take new understandings and bring those to the table. One of the statements that Bishop Robinson made that may be able to provide us with a key of the direction we might move in to is when he said God is doing a new thing. Well, those of us who are Christian, who believe in prayer, believe in the movement of the Holy Spirit, believe that God still speaks, have to take those kinds of statements seriously. That’s why I believe that we need to look seriously at scripture. There have been some efforts in last ten to fifteen years by some very capable theologians who have wrestled with the issue of homosexuality and the bible and have looked at the traditional understandings that we’ve had. And they have raised some questions as to whether the traditional understandings that we have garnered and used and held up are really what the bible says at that point. That’s where I think we ought to continue to have the discussion, and my prayer is that the Church will not be divided but that the Church will once again find a way to be real and alive in a world that needs the witness of the Church.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael Cromartie.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Dr. Cox said that at the beginning of our segment that we would be moving on now to new issues. We will not be moving on to new issues. This issue is really going to explode in the Episcopal Church. The Anglican communion of Africa is 18 million strong. It could well be that the conservatives in this country will break with the Episcopal Church in the United States and join the Anglican community of Africa, which is the fastest growing Anglican communion in the world. I just think that the important thing to remember here is the new bishop of New Hampshire has said tradition and scripture may have taught this, but that doesn’t make it wrong. That’s the real issue here is: what are the normative, binding issues that keep Christians in distinction from the world and their sexual ethics.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Cox, a brief final word from you on where this is all heading.

HARVEY COX: I don’t think there’s going to be a split in the Anglican Episcopal Church. Maybe Michael Cromartie and I could make a little bet on this. Anglicans love their church. They will stick with it. They’ll see their way through this. I’m not an Anglican or an Episcopalian but I’m grateful that they’ve shown a way to argue this out, think about it, work on it, pray on it. I hope other denominations will do the same.

MARGARET WARNER: All four of you, thanks so much.