Thursday, July 16, 2009

When Us Doesn't Mean Us: The Archbishop of Canterbury on the Place of Gays in the Episcopal Church

In a recent NY Times article about the meeting of the Episcopal Church USA now underway in Anaheim, Laurie Goodstein quotes the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, cautioning the Episcopal church not to make decisions that will further fragment the Anglican communion.

According to Goodstein, Williams stated in a preliminary address to the ECUSA conference, “Along with many in the communion, I hope and pray that there won’t be decisions in the coming days that will push us further apart.” Goodstein reads this statement as a caution against decisions by the ECUSA to move ahead to integrate gay and lesbian persons fully into the life of the church.

And, in fact, on Tuesday the ECUSA voted to affirm that “any ordained ministry” is open to gay and lesbian church members. This ends a moratorium on the ordination of openly gay bishops following the ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson several years ago—a moratorium to which the ECUSA agreed in response to pleas from some sectors of the Anglican communion to avoid making decisions that might lead to splits in the communion.

I’m intrigued by Rowan Williams’s statement. In particular, I wonder what he means by “us,” when he says, “I hope and pray that there won’t be decisions in the coming days that will push us further apart.”

The “us” in that sentence can hardly mean gay and lesbian persons, can it, since the decision to exclude openly gay persons from ordination is a decision that pushes gay people away—away from their other brothers and sisters in Christ, away from the church, away from the experience of faith and life in the Christian community.

Decisions to exclude gay persons from ordination simply because they are gay are decisions that single out and isolate those who happen to be made gay by God, as if their humanity is not equal to that of the rest of “us.” Such decisions create a kind of reservation, a gated and policed community, within the church on which those deemed inferior are expected to live peaceably, while they recognize that their exclusion is merited, merely because their humanity is less than that of the humanity of “us.”

Rowan Williams’s statement, “I hope and pray that there won’t be decisions in the coming days that will push us further apart” seems designed to keep the special reservations for gays alive in the Anglican communion. Essentially, the Archbishop of Canterbury is implying by this statement that gays aren’t “us.” Gays are less than us, less than the rest of us who make the decisions on behalf of the defective, subhuman gays who deserve compassion. But not all the rights accorded to “us.”

I like Rowan Williams. I admire him. He’s a good theologian. He’s a thoughtful man and an inspiring writer.

I haven’t found him inspiring as a church leader, however. I don’t find those who ask others to accept second-class status merely because of who they happen to be—who they've been made by God to be—especially inspiring. I don’t find those who refuse to do the right thing when the right thing has a price tag, but remains the right thing to do, particularly inspiring.

I find it hard to listen with enthusiasm to religious or political leaders who tell me that gay persons should be treated with full human dignity, but who then propose compromises designed to place gay people in reservations designed for the subhuman while the question of how to respect gay humanity is discussed and further discussed by everyone but those being dehumanized. My heart and mind don’t expand when I hear religious and political leaders talk about the need for everyone’s rights to be protected, but who do not then put their rhetoric into action—who, in fact, issue warnings about what might happen if we move too quickly to overturn the injustice with which some citizens live, simply because of who God has made them to be.

I find it appalling when church leaders imply that only heterosexual people are fully “us,” and that gay and lesbian people should be expected just to sit by in silence on our reservation, while those who are the real “us” in the Christian community, mostly heterosexual males, make decisions that radically affect our lives but give us no voice in the deliberations that radically affect us.

I wonder how anyone imagines that his humanity is more than that of others, and then willingly assumes a position of religious authority in any Christian church. I wonder how one imagines that he can dehumanize others, reduce others to silence, expect others to be content with crumbs from the table and with continuing injustice, without dehumanizing himself.

Above all, I wonder how anyone thinks we can talk about church—talk effectively, convincingly, and honestly—and exclude others in this insulting, dehumanizing way. Creating special reservations for the subhuman, for those who are not quite “us,” is the antithesis of church—as the presiding bishop of the ECUSA, Katherine Jefferts Schori, reminded those gathered at Anaheim in a powerful opening statement that offers a very different vision of church than the one implied in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s caution about decisions that might divide “us.”

Church either invites everyone into the circle of “us,” or it forfeits the right to call itself church—just as democracy either invites everyone to the table of human rights or it fails to be democracy. It’s time for the game-playing that asks gay and lesbian human beings to accept subhuman status in both church and society to stop, before the institutions that mean so much to many of us damage themselves irreparably through their continuing betrayal of core human values in their ongoing dehumanization of gay and lesbian human beings.