By Steve Beard
“In the slow-moving train crash of international Anglicanism, a decision taken in California has finally brought a large coach off the rails altogether,” observed distinguished biblical scholar and Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright of Durham. He was responding to The Episcopal Church’s (TEC) July 14 decisive vote to “allow in principle the appointment, to all orders of ministry, of persons in active same-sex relationships”—a decision Wright described as making a “clear break with the rest of the Anglican Communion.”
In a column for The Times after the vote, Wright says the Episcopal bishops “knew exactly what they were doing” and characterized the move as a rejection of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s and other Anglicans’ moratorium on consecrating practicing homosexuals as bishops. “They were formalizing the schism they initiated six years ago when they consecrated as bishop a divorced man in an active same-sex relationship, against the [Anglican] Primates’ unanimous statement that this would ‘tear the fabric of the Communion at its deepest level.’”
“Many in TEC have long embraced a theology in which chastity, as universally understood by the wider Christian tradition, has been optional,” Wright observed. “That wider tradition always was counter-cultural as well as counter-intuitive.”
“Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachers have always insisted that lifelong man-plus-woman marriage is the proper context for sexual intercourse,” he explained. “This is not (as is frequently suggested) an arbitrary rule, dualistic in overtone and killjoy in intention. It is a deep structural reflection of the belief in a creator God who has entered into covenant both with his creation and with his people (who carry forward his purposes for that creation).”
Noting that ancient and modern paganism has always found this “ridiculous and incredible,” he said the biblical sexual ethic of heterosexual monogamy is consistently taught throughout the entire Bible, the teaching of Jesus, and Church tradition. Wright pointed out that scriptural sexual ethics are not confined to a few verses from St. Paul. “Jesus’s own stern denunciation of sexual immorality would certainly have carried, to his hearers, a clear implied rejection of all sexual behavior outside heterosexual monogamy,” he wrote.
Appeals to justice from Episcopal leaders, Wright says, are misguided. “Nobody has a right to be ordained: it is always a gift of sheer and unmerited grace.” The ordination appeal “seriously misrepresents the notion of justice itself,” he writes, “not just in the Christian tradition of Augustine, Aquinas and others, but in the wider philosophical discussion from Aristotle to John Rawls.” Further, justice means not “treating people the same way” but “treating people appropriately” and making distinctions.
“Justice has never meant ‘the right to give active expression to any and every sexual desire,’” Wright added.
Noting that everyone has “deep-rooted inclinations and desires,” he said the question remains, what shall we do with them? “One of the great Prayer Book collects asks God that we may ‘love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise,’” he concludes. “That is always tough, for all of us. Much easier to ask God to command what we already love, and promise what we already desire. But much less like the challenge of the Gospel.”
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.