In a small western Massachusetts town in 1997, a lesbian applied for the position of pastor. The search committee of five octogenarians gathered. One man said, "If we call a lesbian, this search will split in two. And I'll be the first to leave."
A woman who had known him for all 80 of her years said, "Are you bribing us or the gospel?"
The Episcopal Church has chosen the right thing in the battle of the bishop. To choose against justice, for unity, achieves neither. The only thing spiritually worse than a church schism is permitting injustice so as to avoid schism. The only thing morally worse than divorce is an abusive marriage. Unity and togetherness are magnificent features of both church and family. Being straight and clear about their magnificence means we can actually have them and justice, too -- they matter as consequences, not causes, of genuine community.
Communities and families that give up on justice lose the very value they are trying to protect. Genuine community involves justice and fairness; each is true when power is rightly shared, not wrongly imposed. When justice flees because harmony is invoked, both harmony and justice are lost.
In the matter of the Episcopalians and their utterly delightful bishop from New Hampshire, who has enough spiritual sense not to be afraid of this conflict in which he humbly stars, there really aren't good reasons for unity to trump justice. "Staying together" to avoid schism is a matter of fundamental injustice to the many true Christians who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered. It will erode both genuine community and harmony so that the church will stand on a foundation of sand.
The only hope for community is justice; the only hope for a family is justice. In that context, harmony is beautiful. Outside that context, harmony gets ugly fast. We all know couples where the conflict is so underground that we can't stand to be in the room with them. We wonder why they stay together. Staying together is no reason for staying together. It simply doesn't work to bind families or communities or churches.
What is at stake in this justice-harmony controversy is nothing less than the power of God to issue new revelation to humanity. This is no small thing. Those who argue that homosexuality is prohibited in the Bible simply aren't reading the Bible well. Of the 10 or so references to homosexuality in the holy book, none discusses committed relationships between homosexual people. All the references condemn promiscuity, which is also rightly condemned for heterosexuals. Similarly, the Bible does not issue instructions on how to drive a car (there were no cars), whether to have an abortion or genetic testing (neither existed), or how to live in a '50s-style family where women stay at home (there were no such families).
Reducing the Bible to its literal meanings means pouring cement on its pages, followed by water, which turns the Bible into stone. The Bible is a living, not a dead, document. This faith is also a matter of no small importance. Indeed, schism that rigidifies the Bible while limiting God's active role in history is so theologically destructive, spiritually suspect and morally abusive that those of us who love God and Jesus must rise up on behalf of both community and justice in the Episcopal Church.
Those who rejoice in the open direction of our society, of the state of Vermont, the country of Canada, the Supreme Court's decision in Texas on sodomy, are having our cake and eating it, too. We have marvelous communities aborning and powerful justice surrounding them. The fastest growing churches in my denomination are those that are "open and affirming," what the Presbyterians call "more light" and others call "welcoming" churches. It has been the deepest joy of my 30 years of ministry to watch people who thought the church condemned them be welcomed. Civil unions are often more meaningful than straight marriages.
Open churches are straight about what matters and not straight about other things. We are straight but not narrow. We love the harmony of just communities, and we aren't willing to sacrifice justice for that harmony. We also love the way "God has yet more light and truth to show forth." That statement was issued by none less than the Rev. John Robinson aboard the Mayflower.
In those churches and denominations that choose harmony over schism, schism will still come. Why? God's power can't be limited. The Bible was not writ in stone. If some Christians continue to unjustly condemn homosexuals, the stones indeed will cry out. Like God Almighty, they always do when justice is involved.
(The Rev. Donna Schaper is senior pastor of the Coral Bagles Congregational Church in Miami. She is the author of "Sacred Speech: Keeping Spirit in Our Speech." )
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