Wednesday, December 16, 2009

COMMENTARY: They will know we are Episcopalians by our gay bishops


(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, His Web site is


Rev. David Justin Lynch said...

Of course, I am a male alto, so for me the analogy fails and in fact reinforces a stereotype. The ideal alto section in a church choir has both men and women, for the same reasons the ordained ministry should as well.

RonF said...

I sing tenor myself. And I have sung more than once with a female singing the same part. But it escapes me why there should be any preference towards having mixed genders - or not - in either the alto or tenor ranges. If you can sing the part, then God bless you and sing it. If you can't, then sing what you can. But I'd like an explanation as to why having mixed genders sing the parts is preferable, and why it should have anything to do with mixed gender ordination.


David's expressing an opinion. (Note to David: Always a good thing to rely on "I" statements.)

He's also on record as being a big fan of incense.

RonF said...

A big fan of incense, eh? Well, we have that in common at least.

Except for Easter Morning 2006. Full church, a little paid help in the choir, everybody in full swing. Charlie censes the altar, turns around, and takes the step down to walk down the aisle to cense the (for once) full pews.

Swing being the operative word here. Charlie didn't quite pull the chain up high enough. The bottom of the thurible clips the top of the step, the chain link that the thurible was attached to broke and with a loud clang the thurible broke and scattered a handful of live coals across the floor in front of the nave.

Charlie retires to the sanctuary with the remains of the thurible. Meanwhile the coals are merrily burning their way into the asphalt tile floor. I'm in the front row of the choir nearest to the scene, plus I'm the Boy Scout. So I grab some extra bulletins and while the priest - who doesn't miss a beat, bless him - starts chanting I'm on the floor on my knees scooping up all the live coals and juggling them back and forth between handfuls of bulletins so they won't burn through them, getting up while wearing my choir robe and without using my hands and then ducking into the sanctuary. Just as I get in there a couple of the larger coals burn through and drop to the floor, fortunately missing my robe. So I dump the rest in the sink and then find some thing to scoop THEM up and dump them in the sink.

And then make a dignified, straight-faced and unhurried walk like I do this all the time from the sanctuary, across the front of the nave and back to my seat, just in time to start singing.

The burn holes are still in the floor. I stop and contemplate them occasionally.

I love incense, but it does have it's hazards....

RonF said...

Charlie didn't do all that because he needs a magnifying glass and glasses to read the Hymnal, never mind clean up a fire.

Yes, I understand David was offering an opinion. Given the comparison he made I was curious as to what the basis for it is.

RonF said...

To the point of the post - 'twas ever thus. The press focuses on what sells, not what informs - they have to stay in business. Controversy sells. Good news doesn't.