In 1992, I was a student in the UK, and I well remember the heated discussion leading up to the vote that allowed for the ordination of women as priests in the Church of England. My favorite slogan was “A woman’s place is in the house… of bishops.” To me, as an outsider, it seemed a no-brainer: Women were already presiding over services, including the Eucharist (a priest would pre-bless the elements) and this was a formality, or was it? I was quite young and had no idea of the vote’s significance, but I got an inkling when I watched the emotions unleashed upon its vote. I distinctly remember a woman priest celebrating mass for the first time in a gloriously colorful robe, I think it was red with sunbeams, and had been made for the occasion. And a few months later, I watched the ordination of the first woman priest, a friend’s friend, in Kenya, in full length, with tears in my eyes.
This week, the Church of England, that only recently had voted on a new head, voted against the ordination of woman bishops. Again, people wept, some rejoiced, others were outraged. I do not envy the new bishop who will have to juggle not only this vote (he welcomes the ordination of women), but also the opposition to openly gay priests (this he rejects). These are not the same issues, nor are they necessarily related, but both focus on groups marginalized within a community that insists on being, at its core, egalitarian and loving.
Many Protestant Churches are embroiled in similar struggles, as is quite clear here in the Episcopalian Church of South Carolina where the current bishop has been officially put on notice, so to speak, and where Episcopalians are undergoing a crash course in canon law (if that’s what it’s called in Episcopalianese). All this, while the Episcopalian Church has published a first guide for blessing same-sex relationships.
I just finished reading Bernadette Barton’s Pray the Gay Away, a book that looks at “The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays”, as the subtitle explains. This was a book that I’d picked up as my “fluff book” (that is, non-work related) at the yearly conference of the American Association for Religion, the AAR, that ended on Tuesday and that held my attention for the entire eight hours it took me to get back home. Reading the harrowing stories of gays and lesbians who suffered terribly and were ostracized, usually in the name of religion, by their churches and often families, I wondered how Churches dare continue to focus on these identity issues that are so hurtful to so many: to the people themselves, but also their families, friends, and the community as a whole. I do not wish to diminish the issues, but the relentless rhetoric that seems inherent in this ongoing exclusion is reinforcing prejudice and alienating believers or people in general and seems detrimental to the central message of any religious community (“love the sinner, hate the sin” doesn’t quite work). When I read about exorcisms, or the anti-gay or anti-women rhetoric, this behavior, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, seems slightly self-destructive on the side of the Church. But perhaps the conservative leadership is catapulting itself into oblivion, as recent polls indicate. I have a feeling that gays and lesbians will achieve full marriage equality within a decade or two throughout the US. Within the more conservative Churches, this might take a little longer, but it will come. Ditto the ordination of women bishops in the Church of England. This is a temporary setback (I hope).
A more nuanced discussion of the complex discussions and processes within the Anglican Church can be found here.