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This page last updated 18 August 2003
Anglicans Online last updated 17 September 2017

an essay for Anglicans Online

Why This Issue?
The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon

The Reverend Hanns Englehardt voiced a minority opinion in a note to me, his bishop, shortly before General Convention. He wrote to say that homosexuality was a minor issue compared to two other matters before Convention: communing the unbaptized and direct ordination to the priesthood (without prior ordination to the diaconate), which are, he believes, far more significant departures from the church’s tradition. Fr Englehardt is the vicar of St Columban’s Mission in Karlsruhe, Germany. A former Supreme Court Justice of the Federal Republic of Germany, he is also one of the few German natives ordained priest in the Episcopal Church. He is someone to listen to seriously.

The House of Bishops rejected direct ordination and referred the increasingly popular if completely illicit practice of communing the unbaptized to the theology committee, both votes by substantial margins. These actions were hardly noted. But a majority of bishops and deputies consented to the election of the Rev. Canon Gene Robinson and then disapproved the development of same-sex blessings. This was, to believe the media, the shot heard ‘round the world. To paraphrase Fr Englehardt, why do we take this so seriously and hardly reflect about deep questions of sacraments?
It seems that in general, the presence of gay and lesbian people elicits all kinds of profound emotions. The meaning of this growing presence has become a symbol whose importance is far greater than the numbers of gay folks. According to US census figures, only 1 percent of American households declare themselves to be same-sex. Presumably this would include siblings who have chosen to live together as well. Why all the Angst? Why the Stürm und Drang?

This question can hardly be treated in several volumes, never mind a slender Anglicans Online column. But there is space to make a suggestion about one of the reasons. It has to do with something we rarely think about, namely, the extraordinary changes that the First World has experienced, especially America, over the past one hundred and fifty years, a mere splinter of the great beam of time in which Homo sapiens has existed.

It is safe to say that with some exceptions, Thomas Hobbes’ characterization of our ancestors’ lives as “nasty, brutish, and short” is accurate. In general, people lived to around the age of 35, one out of two children died before they could reach puberty, women frequently died in childbirth, and the energies of the particular human community were perforce wholly focused on survival. Survival in the short term meant finding enough food, water and shelter every day. The long-term survival of the community required a high birth rate. Men, being more expendable than women for this purpose, did the fighting over scarce resources with other communities.

Just as we do today, human societies codified their preoccupations with conception, birth and death into practices of marriage, one of the few universal cultural artifacts of every human community. Because we are human, we undergird these practices with theology.

Until quite recently in history, marriage was absolutely necessary to the community’s survival. People were less individuals than members of a family, a clan, a tribe. No one thought to question the theology that undergirded their society, and certainly to do so was quite naturally considered to be treasonous. Pregnancy happened willy-nilly, and in general until the seventeenth century was believed to be the result of the semen (“seed” in Latin) quickening in the fertile “soil” of the uterus.

In societies where bare subsistence is the general preoccupation of the community, there is high pressure to procreate early and often. In these societies, what gay and lesbian people there might be will hardly ever come to personal expression—certainly not in a marriage-like relationship. To opt out of the community’s project of survival is to invite death, not because of homophobia (a rare psychiatric condition) but because there is no room for dissent in such communities. Gay relationships begin to appear in societies where there is less desperation.

There is no room here to elaborate, but a study of the practice of marriage in Christian communities will show a close adherence to the perceived needs of the regional culture. Conception, birth and death are the impetus for our most profound dogmas. (Curiously, the theologies of marriage that explain marriage practice in particular times and places are with rare exception shallow after thoughts.) But what seems indisputable is the conformity of the church’s concept and practice of marriage to what its surrounding culture believes it needs it to be.

The church is trailing behind the extraordinary and swift changes of our society. Unlike our ancestors, we Westerners tend to be very long-lived. We have good control over procreation, and as a society have a great need for a low, not high, birth rate. We have no overarching religious perspective — indeed, we have rebelled against the strict conformity that our ancestors thought was natural. We are individuals, members of small, often widely-scattered families, whose life project is not the survival of our community but the flourishing of each person’s own life-story. Women are increasingly complete equal partners to men, made possible by modern medicine, among other things. As a result of these and many other factors, our practice of marriage now includes a significant allowance for divorce and re-marriage, and a growing tolerance of casual sex, adultery and co-habitation.

While there is still no consensus on the reasons why people grow to become gay or lesbian, that there are a growing number in our society should come as no surprise, especially in light of the above. It is this writer’s hypothesis that the reason homosexuality has become such a powerful symbol — good for some, evil for others — is that its emergence throws into relief the enormous undigested changes in the lives of straight people. We are struggling to throw off our inherited practices of marriage, and their accompanying theologies, while still claiming to respect them. Everyone, straight and gay, is trying to understand what is happening.

George Barna has made available a mountain of statistical information to the churches (see www.barna.org). One striking fact that this staunch conservative Christian has discovered is that conservative Christians divorce and re-marry at the same if not slightly higher rate as the general American public. Their attitudes toward sexual morality are indistinguishable from the mainstream as well, despite professed allegiance to the norms of our ancestors. This implies that as usual, the church’s theology of marriage is shallow. Lest this be seen as partisan, one has only to reflect upon the trite sophism of liberals’ attitudes toward sexual morality, that what two consenting adults do behind closed doors is no one’s business—including presumably God’s. The traditional Christian project of becoming holy in the image of the Incarnate Word allows neither for unreflective hypocrisy nor de facto nihilism in a certain existential dimension of human life.

The sea change in the condition of our lives requires a significant re-alignment of our practices of marriage. This is a good opportunity to realize that we have for once the opportunity to elaborate a much deeper theology of marriage to help influence, not react to, this re-alignment. We must begin with a re-consideration of the biblical perspective. Realizing that the Scriptures reflect preoccupations of the subsistence economy of that time will help us not only translate but also re-inculturate the Word of God in our own age. This will also require that we try to fathom why homosexuality has such emotive power in our time, its challenge to the underlying reasons we are hypocrites or sophists when it comes to sex and marriage. There is no room either for a mere parroting of the Bible or for a supercilious rejection of it. Nor can we continue either to project onto our time the concerns of other times or map onto the past the preconceptions specific to our age. There is an essential transcendental perspective, which must be preserved and practiced devoutly, and there is dross which has become irrelevant. In this sense, Fr Englehardt’s “minority opinion” makes perfect sense — focus on what is unchanging.

One last point which is essential to any emerging understanding is that our novel situation grows out of history’s most highly organized economy and sophisticated technology. This fact is not lost on other peoples who still live close to subsistence levels and criticize our “decadent morals.” It is also an artificial situation, requiring gigantic amounts of cheap petroleum and a congeries of other products and practices that raise serious issues of justice and ecological damage. And because it is an artifice, whatever morality emerges is mostly relevant only to the particular conditions of the life we presently live. For an economic collapse after a global catastrophe could possibly propel the whole human race back to eating our bread literally by the sweat of our brow. Back to short lives full of grief, struggle and strife. Back to a mind-set of survival in which you are either a complete participant in procreating a future for your clan or a traitor to your family and your god.

We have a lot of work to do.

Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at bppwhalon@aol.com.


THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.