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Love Thy Neighbor

My friend Charlie quotes from an Episcopal priest friend of his:

“Only a church as warm as the Episcopal church would be willing to welcome Henry the Eighth.”

That Henry the Eighth. The larger-than-life-sized reason for the creation of the Church of England in 1534. Henry wanted a divorce from his childhood sweetheart, Catherine of Aragon, so he could marry the pregnant Anne Boleyn (the first of the two wives he would later execute for adultery).

When Rome wouldn’t grant an annulment, Henry instigated a formal break from the Roman church, creating the Church of England, from which the Episcopal Church in America stems.

“So what I don’t understand,” Charlie said, “Is why a church started by an ax murderer can’t welcome people of all sexual orientations?”

I didn’t have an answer.

After all, my denomination was founded by Martin Luther, a man who, despite his brilliance and charisma, also authored terrible anti-Semitic writings.

But lately the Episcopalians are getting more press than the Lutherans—and it’s no wonder.

First, back in June, they took the historic step of nominating the Rev. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. The Rev. Robinson is gay, lives with his partner of many years, and has two grown daughters.

In August, a national conference confirmed his nomination and also approved a resolution supporting the rights of local faith communities to develop ceremonies for blessing same-sex unions.

Those of us struggling for the full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in the life of the church cheered these decisions. We saw them as bold affirmations of the basic Jewish and Christian mandate to love one another as one loves oneself.

But then, just last week the Episcopal Diocese of Albany made the Times Union front-page news: Diocese defies church’s decision: Episcopal clergy, lay delegates first in Northeast to denounce acceptance of gay bishop, same-sex marriages.

My eyes fixed on the phrase: “first in Northeast to denounce acceptance . . .”

It took me a while to read the whole story.

In short, it covered a special convention attended by more than 200 delegates who voted to “dissociate” from the election of the Rev. Robinson, as well the issue of same-sex blessings.

I wasn’t sure why this “first” for the Diocese of Albany upset me so much.

Those of us committed to gay rights—both civil and spiritual—are not naive. We were not surprised by the vocal and angry opposition to Gene Robinson’s nomination. We are not surprised when people cite out-of-context biblical passages to try to prove that homosexuality is wrong.

And this response isn’t only in the Episcopal church. Lots of denominations have outspoken and organized groups who think the church is on its way to hell in a hand basket over these same sexuality issues.

I have colleagues within my own denomination who oppose the decision made by the congregation I serve to become intentionally welcoming to people of all sexual orientations.

Somehow, though, the Diocese of Albany’s “first” made me as sad as it did angry.

Maybe because I know gay Episcopalians who will feel further disenfranchised by this diocese.

Maybe because I know gay Lutherans who have not been able to enter ordained ministry or have their unions blessed because, for right now anyway, our denomination doesn’t sanction either—though there are clergy who bless same-sex marriages.

Maybe because I know the congregation I serve has been enriched by the leadership and creativity of its gay members.

But I was most saddened, I think, because the Diocese of Albany is my diocese.

No, I’m not Episcopalian. Not affected professionally by any statements that may issue forth from the offices of the diocese.

But I am affected personally. I live within the geographic boundaries of this diocese. Its clergy are my colleagues. I’ve preached in its pulpits—including the diocesan cathedral. And while I know that the diocese is not speaking for all of its members in “denouncing” acceptance, I feel a chilling sorrow at such theological distance between people who share common ground.

Who can blame Jeffrey Hallenbeck for writing in the Times Union’s letters section:

“. . . note that the frontline homophobes are almost always clergy, the same people who preach love and compassion out of the other sides of their mouths.

“I, for one, am glad to say goodbye to organized religion . . . I only hope that the lesbian and gay members of the local Episcopal diocese, and for that matter, any other homophobic denomination . . . will leave their church because there is nothing more pitiful than returning to a place where you truly are not welcome, week after week after week.”

I want to say, Jeffrey, we’re not all homophobes. Jeffrey, there are places where you are more than welcome just for being who you are. I want to say, if all organized religion were like that, I wouldn’t be making my living this way.

But, like Jeffrey Hallenbeck, I’m tired of the sanctimonious second-guessing of those who would restrict God’s love to human-designated categories of people.

And I know that denunciations such as the one coming out of the Diocese of Albany hurt far more than gay and lesbian people.

Because that’s not the voice that speaks for all, or even for most, Christians. That’s not the heart of Christian teaching.

There are vast numbers of Christians who see nothing of Christ’s love in exclusionism. There are vast numbers of Christians who see nothing of Christ’s mercy in using the Bible as a weapon wielding judgment.

Vast numbers of Christians believe that the Holy Spirit—a divine breeze that blows among us still—gathers all people into a community of mutual respect whose purpose is to live out the love of God—and not the stingy strictures of the human heart.

The only reason I do what I do for a living is to make as public, as visible, and as real as I can a love that I believe is radically unconditional and radically unfathomable.

The Albany Diocese has made me feel lonely for other voices raised to honor that unconditional and unfathomable love. I’m lonely. And silence is collusion.

 

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org.


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