A Canterbury Tale

It was with great joy that religious members of the progressive movement received, late last month, news of the election of Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori to the top leadership position in the U.S. Episcopal Church. For one, the fact of the bishop's gender heralded an important first for Episcopalians, whose rites and rituals cling closely to those of the Roman Catholic Church. Furthermore, the inclusive position taken by Jefferts Schori with regard to the full participation of gays and lesbians in the church sent a powerful message to Christian churches around the globe.

That message was received without amusement by the top man in the Church of England, the Episcopalians' parent church.

As head of the church founded by King Henry the VIII, the Archbishop of Canterbury presides, as well, over the Anglican Communion, the worldwide body of Anglican and Episcopal churches affiliated with the Church of England. Archbishop Rowan Williams' reaction to the election of Jefferts Schori was swift and momentous: he put forward a proposal for the schism of his own church, one that would eliminate gay-affirming churches from full membership in the Anglican Communion. If enacted, Williams' divisive plan will have a profound impact not only on the philosophy and evolving theology of his church, but also on the fortunes of individual congregations throughout the United States. Be prepared, for example, for an eruption of lawsuits over church property, as congregations opt in and out of the Communion.

In truth, the rending of the Episcopal Church is a shoe that has been promising to drop for some time among what are known as the mainline Protestant churches, all of which are engaged in pitched battles over the role of gay parishioners in Christian life. In the last two years, the Presbyterian, United Methodist, and Lutheran churches have all engaged in public wrangles over the issues of commitment ceremonies for gays and lesbians and the fitness for church office of those who are not heterosexual. Those struggles are far from over.

Within the Episcopal Church, the election of Bishop V. Gene Robinson, a gay man who lives with his partner, to preside over the Diocese of New Hampshire prompted more than half of the church's 38 provinces to break with the its U.S. governing body, depriving the latter of financial support. Schismatic bodies have formed in all of the other mainline denominations as well. Even in the very liberal United Church of Christ (UCC) -- which affirmed the participation of gays and lesbians back in the 1970s -- controversies still erupt in individual congregations over commitment ceremonies. And Ron Buford, the gay man who oversaw the UCC's revolutionary membership campaign (which included gay-affirming TV ads) recently left the church's payroll for reasons yet unexplained.

However tempting it may be to think of these controversies as the mere internecine struggles of individual churches, to do so would be to ignore their significance for the progressive movement as a whole. Ever since the rise of the religious right, liberals have longed for a religious counterpart on the left. But that notion was always dubious, and the recent turmoil within the Episcopal Church should put it to rest for good. Without the wholehearted participation of the mainline Protestant churches, there can be no religious left remotely comparable to the Christian right in Protestant-dominated America. And churches in the throes of schism hardly have the wherewithal to marshal their resources in the service of battles in the secular political arena.

Though, on the surface, my pronouncement may seem disheartening, I must confess to finding a measure of liberation in letting go of the hope for a forceful new religious left. Over the last 20 years, I have witnessed attempts by well-meaning liberal clerics to construct various bodies and alliances in the hopes of creating a parallel movement to that of the religious right. Organizations have come together and drifted apart, leaving a trail of frustration in their wake. The fervent hope for the creation of a vigorous, cohesive religious left has amounted to a vigil for Godot -- the one who never arrives. And now I am grateful he never did.

In seeking to create a counterpart to the religious right, we tried to force our values through a narrow hole. In essence, we bought into the religious authoritarianism of the right, inferring that moral authority proceeds only from religion. In this, we have sold ourselves short.

Liberal values represent the essence of the world's great religions. At the root of all of the great faiths are fundamental beliefs in compassion, justice, love, and charity. We have the right -- dare I say the duty? -- to express ourselves as moral agents without the imprimatur of ecclesiastical authority.

Spoken the right way, arguments for the embodiment of these values in our civic life can ring with the divine provenance granted to them by believers. And indeed, religious activists -- especially our ministers, priests, rabbis, and imams -- are vital to our movement. But to expect them alone to create a moral counterforce to the destructive fear mongering of the right is not only unrealistic, it's an expectation rooted in abdication of our own role as moral agents.

Thousands of years ago, the great Chinese philosopher Lao Tse is said to have told his followers: “Religious robes are no more holy than work clothes.” Now, let's get to work.

Adele M. Stan is the author of the weblog, AddieStan.com, and the book, Debating Sexual Correctness.

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