Gay bishop in line with Anglican tradition

Church: The denomination has survived by embracing secular values.

November 30, 2003|By Llewellyn King | Llewellyn King,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

By reading the great journals of opinion, it is hard not to believe that the Anglican Communion, known in the United States as the Episcopal Church and in Britain as the Church of England, is in tatters. The Nigerian Church, we are advised, is set to break away, as might Episcopal congregations in Pennsylvania and Texas.

The cause of the controversy is the consecration of an openly gay Episcopal bishop, Gene Robinson, in New Hampshire. Conservative commentators, such as George Will, have argued that if the church does not hold to biblical writ and doctrinal law, it will implode.

Well, they must be talking about some other church. The church has been in violation of doctrinal law since Henry VIII created it in 1534, for his own dishonorable purposes.

Over the centuries, the Anglican faith has, more than any other organized Christian religion, become a house of many mansions. In its quiet way, it has also been revolutionary. In the 19th century, it consecrated its first black bishop in America. It broke with apostolic doctrine by ordaining women in the 1970s.

Nowhere is the church more convoluted, tolerant and endearing than in England. The queen, in theory, appoints the bishops, even though the job falls to the prime minister. The gulf between the High Church and the Low Church is vast and unbridged. The High Church is very close to Catholicism in liturgy; the Low Church is more akin to Protestant churches.

And the High Church does not regard itself as Protestant but, dating back to Henry VIII's rule, as a reformed Catholic church, which is reflected in the catechism.

Outside Britain, most Anglicans are described, and accept the definition, as Protestants. Traditionally, doctrine has varied within bounds in accordance with the preferred liturgy.

The surprise about the bishopric in New Hampshire is that it has taken so long, for the Anglican Communion has survived by embracing secular values. It was in the forefront of the fight against slavery and the great social issues that have transformed the world in the past 200 years. Its leaders might have been establishment figures; at the pastoral level the flock is progressive and outreaching.

The Anglican Church traveled on the wings of imperialism and was divided about the enterprise. Its establishment wing lauded British expansion around the globe, while its missionaries and priests often led the opposition in their far-flung parishes. Dichotomy has never been a problem for the church that has valued its social role as much as its spiritual one.

By this mechanism the Anglican faith spread to Nigeria, and it is ironic that the Nigerian Church should now be held up as offering a purer doctrine than the church in America.

In opposing Bishop Robinson, the Nigerian Communion is affirming not scripture but the homophobic social values of Africa. There was something ludicrous about seeing Anglicans gathered in London worrying more about the values of the church in that troubled country than about its worldwide tradition of accommodating the needs and realities of secular life.

There are not many Episcopalians in America, and they have been mostly on the high end of the social order - as they say, the good and the great. Eleven presidents and an impressive number of high officeholders have been Episcopalians. In the United States, more than anywhere else including Britain, the church has been elitist.

In ordaining women and now in consecrating a gay bishop, the church is reaching out, not turning inward. The church has survived because of its sensible and reasonable approach to the social storms of the time.

There is something very comforting about the Anglican Church; unthreatening, forgiving and questing. The idea of "the twice found" sums up the best of the church.

Almost alone, it allows and accepts the concept that its members will have crises of faith, as have its bishops and priests, but they will come back to the church. Come back to this ramshackle, caring bridge between the elites of the faith and the common, secular Christian.

Over time, those with deep religious faith, such as Cardinal Newman through Malcolm Muggeridge, have left Anglicanism for the more absolute doctrines of Catholicism or the greater evangelical zeal of the newer Christian churches.

Yet Anglicanism, illegitimately conceived, has kept the lights on in its many mansions.

Llewellyn King is chairman and CEO of King Publishing Co., publisher of White House Weekly and Energy Daily.

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