The Right to Divide

With the installation of Gene Robinson, the newly elected and openly gay Episcopal Bishop, the Episcopalians continue to do what mainstream churches seem to do best: divide their congregations. It is difficult to find a large protestant denomination, save the Southern Baptists, that is not near schism over the role of openly gay members in the church.

The Presbyterians, the Methodists and the Lutherans are examples of other large denominations that are spending time and offerings repeatedly debating such issues as gay ordination and the appropriateness of sexual reorientation counseling ministries.

The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (PCUSA) is a good case in point. Churches in this venerable Christian denomination have been asked repeatedly over the last 20 years to reconsider the moral and relationship standards of those seeking ordination to serve. In lay terms, gay activists continue to try to convince the governing boards to allow openly gay ministers to be ordained. The churches keep voting it down, citing biblical evidence, but the activists keep putting it to a vote. Their political acumen could get a congress person elected. Conventions of the faithful are filled not with discussion of the newest and best ways to further the gospel but with discussions of how to garner the youth vote, what sound bites to give to the media concerning the cause of gay ordination and what do psychologists think of homosexuality. The denomination is losing members and seems paralyzed by the issue.

There are little denominations of churches within the denomination. The More Light Presbyterian Churches are the gay affirming group of churches in the PCUSA and there is an active campaign to get church boards to affiliate with the More Lights. An odd label to be sure, it signifies to those involved that they believe they have “more light” on the homosexual issue than do their unenlightened brethren.

Is all of this a good thing? Are these developments the signs of a healthy Christianity coming to grips with cultural change? It is hard to make the case for this charitable view. Attendance and membership within these denominations are shrinking, at least in the U.S.

For the Episcopalians, the only growth is in the third world where the African church is exploding with growth and zeal. However, the church in the developing world is telling the American church that this issue divides the church. In the case of Bishop Robinson, African congregations threatened to split from the mainline church with his election. It remains to be seen whether this will happen. However, when the growing edge of any organization makes such a threat, the leadership should pause to reflect that perhaps all is not well. So what is the value for gay activists to push denominations to the point of split?

I think I know. Following his confirmation, Robinson said he was “proud to be in a church which works to be a safe place for all of God’s children.”

However, as noted above, all of God’s children don’t feel so safe anymore, to the point of deciding to leave the church.

So if division is the result of a move that makes some feel welcome and not others, then what is the real objective?

I think it is more political than ecclesiastical.

Listen to one gay activist’s comments following the vote. According to news reports, the Rev. Susan Russell said, “this is an example to the country, to the culture and to other denominations that diversity is something to be celebrated and that the entire family of God is enriched by individuals who commit themselves to each other.”

Oh? I thought the vote was about the person best equipped to serve as Bishop.

Apparently, this victory was sought by some at least for purposes other than advancing the gospel. The political advantages of checking off one more victory for people identifying as gay and lesbian must outweigh the potential damage caused to the greater church body. But then, the Rev. Russell is executive director of Claiming the Blessing, an Episcopal group lobbying the church to bless same-sex unions. I suppose if the church splits it won’t effect the score card and who knows maybe gay marital blessings will come when all of those conservatives leave.

It wouldn’t be the first time that people used the church for political ends. In this case, the church seems to be advancing the political cause of gay rights groups seeking to impact the culture, one ordination at a time. Certainly, one right is being secured by these tactics: the right to divide.