By TOM EHRICH
(RNS) When I heard that the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles had elected a lesbian as assistant bishop, my reaction was, "Here we go again."
I knew the anti-gay lobby would kick into overdrive with dire warnings about violating "biblical principles" and offending the Anglican Communion. I knew partisans on the other side would celebrate her election as an epic victory.
The warnings are nonsense, of course, and not at all supported by the entirety of biblical ethics. Nor do casual observers understand that the Anglican Communion is a tired and artificial construct of the post-colonial era, not a form of divinity. The celebrations over an ordination decision, meanwhile, sound tinny in an era of recession and expanding warfare.
My reaction was weariness: once again, my church would be known for nothing more enlightening than sexuality. It's better than our former reputation as "the country club at prayer," but it's no closer to the truth.
Yes, we have gay bishops, gay clergy, and gay lay members. So do other denominations, even the most conservative. So do other fields of endeavor, from banking to bridge building, from cutting hair to cutting federal budgets.
I just wish we were known for something more than sex.
Things like the hospitals we founded, for example, or the schools and colleges, the homeless shelters and food banks, and support groups for the wounded. I wish more people saw the missionary work we do among Native Americans, the ball fields we build for needy children, the teams that follow storms and do unsung ministry, from patching roofs to patching lives.
I wish more people stood in a typical Episcopal narthex on Sunday and watched the lonely be loved, the stranger be welcomed, the child be heard, and young and old find common ground -- the "radical inclusion" that is so necessary in our divided, intolerant and ideology-driven society.
The same could be said of any denomination. Progressive and conservative alike, our churches are more than mere social venues for debates about sex. A few diehards will always fulminate about homosexuality, but most Christians have more serious work to do.
Even now, singers of every skill level are holding extra rehearsals for heralding the Messiah. Children are learning their lines for Christmas pageants. Clergy are preparing their Christmas sermons. Food donations and cash-for-food donations are flooding into churches. Pastoral teams make sure that shut-ins get a visit and tend to the seasonally distressed. Evangelism teams are preparing for the many strangers who will drop into churches for reasons they don't understand but that God does.
Small groups gather in homes. Support groups hug saints and sinners caught in human suffering. Millions of Christians, home alone, drop to their knees in prayer, worry about the state of our broken world, write an extra check, make an extra phone call, shed an extra tear.
Some attend a performance of Handel's "Messiah." They hear alto and soprano give voice to the ancient promise, "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd." Will anyone ask if the two women are lovers? No, they will hear angels and feel within themselves a hunger that starts deep in the soul and draws them inexorably to God.
The sexuality of a bishop-elect is as nothing compared to this holy work. The controversy over it is a tragic diversion of the human spirit. Let's remember who we are and what work we are called to do.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus," and the founder of the Church Wellness Project, www.churchwellness.com. His Web site is www.morningwalkmedia.com.)