Centre & Margins: Anglican/ Episcopalian Distortions on Gay Bishops, Gay Marriage

Over the past week there have been some notable postings and responses at Bilgrimage about the margins and the centre in the church, and on attempts to control public discourse from the right. This is a powerful theme, which can stand a great deal of further analysis, and on which I have been reflecting a lot ever since.  For now, though, I just want to point out how this same pattern of misappropriating and misrepresenting decisions and history in the church has played out in the Anglican/Episcopalian Communion in much the same way.

Ever since Gene Robinson’s consecration as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, and the Episcopal Church’s decision this year to suspend the moratorium on further consecrations of gay bishops, we have become accustomed to howls of outrage (on the “right” ) and regretful cluckings (from the “centre”) about how the US Episcopalians have thrown the Anglican communion into crisis by their actions, in ignoring earlier decisions of the church and so forcing schism.  This meme has become so commonplace, it has become widely accepted without question.  There is however, one important difficulty with this story, as popularly reported:  it just isn’t true.  Gene Robinson was not the first openly gay bishop.  The departure from earlier decisions came not from the Episcopalians, but from those  opposed to the recognition of same sex partnerships.

The “first” Anglican/Episcopalian Bishops

Two weeks ago, I posted without  comment a short news item from Cape Town, South Africa, appearing on the site Religious Intelligence:

A second South African diocese will take up the question of pastoral care for gays and lesbians when the False Bay synod meets from Sept 23-26. Carved out of the eastern half of the Diocese of Cape Town in 2005, the Diocese of False Bay will debate a resolution akin to last month’s Cape Town request for an official church policy on gay marriage in light of the country’s gender-neutral marriage laws.

This to me was welcome and not surprising:  South Africa was the first country in the world to include freedom from discrimination on grounds of orientation, SA Anglicans have always been in the forefront of liberalism in the South African struggle, and Cape Town   has always been both the most liberal city and also the gay capital of the country.  (It’s also my favourite city, and rapidly becoming an international gay destination. Visit it. ) But what caught my interest and held my attention was a throw away line near the end:

In 1996 the US pressure group Integrity identified Bishop Castle as one of three “out” gay bishops in the Anglican Communion.

One of three? Seven years before the consecration of Bishop Robinson? This intrigued me, and so I tried to find out more, but was unsuccessful in my searches.  This morning I tried a second time, with greater perseverance, and have traced both an original report from 1996 and corroboration from additional sources.  Gene Robinson may well have been the first openly gay man to be consecrated, but he was certainly not the first openly gay bishop.

I found the following statement by Louie Crewe, the founder of the Episcopalian LGBT group Integrity, here:

Q. “How many gay bishops are there?

A. There is only one out-of-the-closet gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, the Rt. Rev. Otis Charles. Charles, 69, was Bishop of Utah
(1971-86) and Dean & President of the Episcopal Divinity School (1985-93). There are two other out-gay Anglican bishops, the Rt. Rev.
Derek Rawcliffe, retired Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway in the Episcopal Church of Scotland, and the Rt. Rev. Merwyn Castle,
Suffragan Bishop of Cape Town in the Church of the Province of South Africa.”

(The context was interesting:  it concerned background around charges of “heresy” levelled against a Bishop Walter Righter, for ordaining openly gay clergy.  The charges were dismissed, as the ecclesiastical court fund there were no grounds in church law not to ordain such clergy.)

Bishop Otis, Rawcliffe and Castle

Bishop Otis, Bishop of Utah, sponsored the first resolution in support of gay clergy as far back as 1972. Much later, in 1993, he became the first to publicly acknowledge his orientation:

“While the 1970 General Convention did not again address homosexuality, it was addressed at a special meeting of the house of Bishops, in October of 1972.  The Bishop of Utah, the Rt Rev Otis Charles, submitted a resolution dealing with Holy Orders and the homosexual. This is the first recorded reference by the bishops to homosexuality as an ordination issue, though it had certainly been discussed informally before.  (Bishop Charles in 1993 became the first Anglican Bishop to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality.)

(From Geoffrey Siker,  Homosexuality and Religion: An Encyclopedia , p. 108. )

Bishop Rawcliffe came out as gay on television in 1995. Subsequently however, it seems he was dismissed as assistant Bishop of Ripon- supposedly  for blessing same sex couples:

The Church of England’s civil war over homosexuality escalated yesterday when the Bishop of Ripon, the Rt Rev David Young, said he had dismissed one of his assistant bishops for blessing gay couples.
The Rt Rev Derek Rawcliffe is the only practising bishop in the Church of England to have admitted being homosexual, which he did on television in March 1995. Since then Dr Young has not asked him to perform any confirmations, the chief occupation of assistant bishops. This week he sacked him altogether after learning he had recently blessed a gay couple in a ceremony at a hotel.

(See the full report in the Independent)

For Bishop Merwyn Castle, I found less authoritative evidence, but as the claims of the other two have been substantiated, I accept also Crewe’s claim here, supported by the “Religious Liberal” Blogger in October 2003:

“The Church of England Newspaper reports that a number of conservative Primates will ask Dr Rowan Williams not to hold the next gathering of Anglican bishops in Cape Town. Why? Well there is the support Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of South Africa has given to the US church over the furor surrounding Gene Robinson. But there is something else going on as well.

The diocese of Cape Town had a gay suffragan bishop, the Rt Rev Merwyn Castle. The Dean of Cape Town, the Very Rev Rowan Smith, is an also a leading gay churchmen and is scheduled to be one of the keynote speakers at this month’s “Halfway to Lambeth” conference sponsored by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement at the University of Manchester.

This ecclesiastical blackmail attempt rather anticipates the current attempts at blackmail by those who are now threatening to leave the Anglican communion because of the American churches stepping out of line. It was to prevent this threatened mass exodus that Archbishop Rowan Williams proposed his underwhelming “two track “solution.

The looming split.

In response to Williams, Savitri Hensman has written an impressive analysis at Ekklesia:


Rowan Williams has recently proposed major changes in the way the Anglican Communion is organised. Because of growing willingness in the Episcopal Church (TEC) to recognise the status and ministry of lesbian and gay people, and the global disagreement on this issue, he is putting forward a “two-track” approach. Provinces such as TEC in North America would not be able to carry out certain functions such as representing the Anglican Communion in ecumenical circles, while those which signed up to a Covenant would have a more central position. This research paper describes the background, examines the evidence on which the Archbishop’s main points are based, discusses their implications, and corrects some mistaken assumptions about history and practice. Inter alia it tackles a number of key theological issues. It suggests that a two-level Communion would be practically and spiritually harmful and suggests a different approach, less focused on institutional structures, that could be more effective in addressing divisions and ultimately enabling Anglicans to move towards a deeper unity.”

The “background” referred to in the abstract, shows clearly how in the run-up to Robinson’s ordination, the evangelical wing, now so agitated about the US failure to follow church decisions, themselves completely ignored the important decisions at earlier Lambeth conferences: decisions to listen to lesbian and gay church members:

This research paper describes the background, examines the evidence on which the Archbishop’s main points are based and discusses the implications. It is suggested that some of his claims about the nature of change in the church are historically incorrect, and that TEC has made greater efforts to abide by decisions made at international Anglican gatherings, and the overall ethos of the Communion, than many provinces which might sign up to the Covenant. Important aspects of the Anglican heritage have been rejected in recent years by some of TEC’s most vigorous critics, at a cost to the vulnerable in society and church mission and ministry.

On the need for consensus:

On Williams’ argument that the church cannot move forward on doctrinal issues without broad consensus, she finds that this is historically and Scripturally incorrect.

Yet, from the outset, church leaders have moved forward on controversial matters without getting universal consent. Peter baptised members of a Gentile household without the approval of the rest of the church, upsetting many, and explained his reasons afterwards, according to the Acts of the apostles. [12] In the letter to the Galatians, Paul showed little of the expected deference to the church hierarchy – “those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)” – and described his willingness to challenge them in defence of inclusion for Gentiles. [13] The development of the Creeds often involved fierce debate and, though greater kindness and humility could often have been shown in the course of doctrinal development, it is unlikely that much could have been achieved by altogether shying away from controversy. Often it has taken many years of testing things out in practice before they have either gained general acceptance or been abandoned.

The founding of Anglicanism – with authority vested in a national church rather than the Vatican, a liturgy in the language of the common people and likewise the Bible made freely available to them in their own tongue – was, of course, a huge offence against the “authority of the Church Catholic” (in particular the Roman Catholic hierarchy).

Other controversial changes introduced without full consensus were the acceptance of contraception in the 1930’s, the first black Anglican bishop in 1864, and women priests.

Key decisions on human rights and homosexuality

But the important part of the paper for me, was her historical survey of key decisions taken by the church over many decades on respect for human rights, and on respect for difference – e.g. in 1948, 1973 and 1979.  From 1988, this included discussion on human rights for “those of homosexual orientation”.  In 1998, the Lambeth conference again urged compliance with human rights

“by the nations in which our various member Churches are located, and all others over whom we may exercise influence.”

The same conference ruled against the ordination of gay clergy or legitimising same sex unions, but it also

made a commitment to “listen to the experience of homosexual persons” and called on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation, and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals.

Noting that

Prayer, study and discussion on issues of human sexuality in various denominations has led to greater acceptance of LGBT people, including those who are partnered, and many of the churches in Europe with which the Church of England is in full communion already offer blessings to same-sex couples.

the author observes that while the US Episcopal church has clearly followed the injunction to embark on a listening process, its harshest critics clearly have not.

Instead of “condemning irrational fear” and urging respect for civil rights in their countries, many of these  critics are themselves fomenting that fear, and urging civil persecution, not protection.

Sound familiar?


One Response to “Centre & Margins: Anglican/ Episcopalian Distortions on Gay Bishops, Gay Marriage”

  1. sacredfisher » Homosexuality and the Bible: Bishop Gene Robinson Says:

    […] Gay Bishops: Anglican/ Episcopalian Distortions […]

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