Off the cuff is a new feature at The Immanent Frame, in which we pose a question to a handful of leading thinkers and ask for a brief response. Our question today concerns the issue of homosexuality in debates about the Anglican Communion.

<br />As the New York Times reported last week, in response to the Episcopal convention in Anaheim earlier this month, and in light of “profound rifts over sexual issues within Anglicanism,” Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, has released a statement addressing the issues of gay clergy and same-sex unions.

The Archbishop here signals support for the human dignity and civil liberties of LGBT people. While suggesting that the Anglican Communion recognize “two styles of being Anglican,” however, he also argues that “a certain choice of lifestyle has certain consequences.” The Church, he writes, will only change its stance on the blessing of same-sex unions after they have been justified by “painstaking biblical exegesis” and subsequently widely accepted within the Communion. Until that point, a member of a homosexual couple will continue to be treated just as “a heterosexual person living in a sexual relationship outside the marriage bond.”

In light of both the ongoing conflict within the Anglican Communion and the Archbishop’s latest missive, we ask: why has homosexuality persisted as a divisive issue for religious traditions and communities, within the Anglican Communion and beyond? And what are the likely effects of the Archbishop’s recent intervention?

Our panelists:

Mary Anne Case, Arnold I. Shure Professor of Law, University of Chicago Law School

Eric Fassin, Professeur agrégé, Ecole normale supérieure (Paris)

Siobhán Garrigan, Associate Professor of Liturgical Studies and Associate Dean for Chapel; Yale Divinity School

Jimmy Casas Klausen, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Wisconsin at Madison

Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Assistant Professor, Wesleyan University

Emilie M. Townes, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology, Yale Divinity School


<br />Mary Anne Case, Arnold I. Shure Professor of Law, University of Chicago Law School

I fear those who support equal rights and equal rites for gay couples and individuals, whether in faith communities or in law, tend to underestimate the extent to which a commitment to traditional sex roles rooted in the subordination of women motivates the opposition.  Among Baptists, a division that began with two views of Negro slavery has continued to this day with two views of women’s role in the leadership of the Church and the family.  In the Anglican Communion, many of those who now oppose the ordination of gay people in committed relationships also opposed the ordination of women.  A bishop’s miter remains for some among those things “which pertaineth unto a man” and should be forbidden to a woman, whatever her sexual orientation.

Rowan Williams tells Anglicans to take “due account…of the teachings of ecumenical partners” in formulating answers to questions of homosexuality.  The head of one of those partners, Pope Benedict XVI, has been quite clear and direct in linking his Church’s recent teachings on homosexuality, on the ordination of women, and on heterosexual marriage in a theological anthropology of essential sex and gender differences.  Benedict analogized what he saw as the growing disregard for the essential “nature of the human being as man and woman” to the destruction of the rainforest in his December 22, 2008 address to the members of the Roman Curia.  Given the historical exclusion of women from decision-making in the Church, Rowan Williams’s invocation of the “venerable principle” that “what affects the communion of all should be decided by all” (“Quod Omnes Tangit”) as a brake on change in the direction of freedom and equality in matters of sex and gender is, as one of Boccaccio’s heroines suggested on Day Six of the Decameron, deeply problematic.

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<br />Eric Fassin, Professeur agrégé, Ecole normale supérieure (Paris)

Homosexuality is certainly a divisive issue within the Anglican Communion—but it may also be the one concern that unites most religions today, from various Christian denominations to the Islamic world. The point is not so much the homophobia, but the obsession: why does it matter so much? For example, in 2005, for the first time in its history, the Roman Catholic Church decided to systematically exclude from its future ranks not only gays, but also gay-friendly priests. Apparently, this is a priority—and not only for the Vatican.

To understand what is at stake, think of the connection between Rowan Williams’s recent statement on homosexuality (July 27, 2009), and his earlier one on Islam (February 5, 2009). The archbishop of Canterbury caused an uproar when he suggested that the introduction of Shariah in British family law was “unavoidable.” What this meant was that civil law should accommodate religious rules in general. Conversely, what the reaction to the homosexual menace implies is that churches need not accommodate social transformations. Clearly, the problem of secularism still boils downs to: which comes first?

But why should same-sex unions have become a litmus test for religious institutions? This has to do with what I propose to call “sexual democracy.” We live in societies that claim to define their own laws and norms in immanent terms, i.e. without reference to any transcendent foundation. In reaction, for religious authorities, natural law redefined as the biological law of nature can become the last refuge of transcendence. To such theologians, sexual difference may be the last, best hope of God on earth—while the social recognition of (unnatural) homosexuality appears as the ultimate frontier of denaturalization. Hence Pope Benedict’s melancholy call last Christmas for a “human ecology,” intent on preserving the “rainforests” of heterosexual marriage against sexual democracy.

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Siobhán Garrigan, Associate Professor of Liturgical Studies and Associate Dean for Chapel; Yale Divinity School

You’ve got to feel sorry for Rowan. The man who once appointed the first openly gay bishop in England is now reduced to waiting for an end to biblical literalism before even thinking about gay marriage. Ah, politics.

Last week’s statement is both the same-old same-old and worryingly new. What’s same-old is the dread of schism, post-colonial guilt, racial and cultural misunderstanding, resentment of the USA, and misrepresentation of human sexuality (“lifestyle choice”?). What’s new is the tone of impatience—with LGBT issues and the Episcopal Church’s response to them.

But doesn’t the threat to Anglican unity come more from the same-old issues than from the discovery of the gay Gene? Why, then, be impatient about homosexuality?

Homosexuality represents the loss of the Church’s historically core trope of theological, communal and personal self-understanding: a man fucking a woman. Think Christ and his bride, the bishop leading “her” his church, the heterosexual couple who qualify for their “representative role” (representing the church) by virtue of the marriage bond. If you have two homosexuals making their home together, then who, as the old joke has it, wears the trousers? Such a “confusion” of power and such a denial of the “natural order” seems not unlike Africa running itself, calling God “Mother,” or immigrants having rights… Homosexuality is thus scapegoated because, as it is driven out to the wilderness (another “lifestyle choice”?), it can be blamed for the fall of supposed civilization as we know it.

The witness of LGBT Christian lives and the Episcopalian response is prophecy, not heterodoxy. Sadly this will probably only be recognized once this goat has been sacrificed and the same-old problems predictably persist nonetheless.

This subject warrants far greater examination, so please come to the conference “Why Homosexuality? Religion, Globalization and the Anglican Schism,” Yale University, October 17th 2009.

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<br />Jimmy Casas Klausen, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Wisconsin at Madison

In his 27 July statement, the Archbishop of Canterbury seems desperate to avoid the specter of authoritarianism in the Anglican Communion.  Even if the Church of England now prefers to understand itself as a hegemon in the old sense—a leader among equals—it cannot ignore Anglicanism’s imperial hangover:  its list of provinces reads like a brief from the Ages of Exploration, Colonization, and (direct or free-trade) Imperialism.  So when the Archbishop enjoins “mutual recognisability, mutual consultation” among churches in order to avoid “mere federation” or (worse) pluralism, I can’t help but think that such practices of “mutual responsibility” still aren’t so mutual.

Let’s be clear about what “two styles of being Anglican” seems to mean.

EITHER the venerable Body of Christ model, whose head governs and represents its members: the Archbishop says explicitly that the “place” of “LGBT people” in that Body is not open to challenge, but, because same-sex marriage does not represent the recognized policy of that whole Body, then same-sex-partnered clergy cannot stand as/at the representing head;

OR the model of networks: “liberal” churches supporting non-heterosexual clergy and “conservative” churches opposed to them consociating separately.

What, if not imperial inertia and the headiness of the top-down model of policy, could blind one to the fact that there have always been many more than two styles of being Anglican, that it’s not a Hobbesian decision between a “theologically coherent” Body or else apocalyptic anarchy?  It’s not homosexuality tripping up the Communion.  The logic of the Body Politic model of sovereignty and representation willfully ignores consociationism’s enduring infrapolitical reality.

The Archbishop’s encouragement “to act and decide in ways that are not simply local” is surely a glorious goal—but mutual responsibility would be achieved truly consistently through the pluralism of overlapping communities with multiple heads, multiple bodies, multiple spirits.

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<br />Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Assistant Professor, Wesleyan University

Toward the end of Three Guineas (1938), Virginia Woolf takes a moment to marvel at the recent findings of the Church of England’s Commission on the Ministry of Women. Although it found no theological support for the position, the Commission continued to bar women from the priesthood because doing so reflected “the mind of the Church.” In short, the Commission declared that the church should not ordain women because it did not ordain women.

We can see the same strange logic at work in Rowan Williams’s recent statement, which asserts that the Communion will not accept gay bishops or same-sex blessings because there is no consensus on the matter. It might change its mind after “painstaking biblical exegesis and…wide acceptance of the results within the Communion,” but considering such painstaking exegesis has been done for at least half a century, we are thrown back upon the same position that baffled Woolf: the Communion will change its mind when the Communion has changed its mind.

So why is homosexuality so threatening to Anglicanism? One possible answer is that homosexuality has re-opened unhealed wounds over women’s ordination (eighty years after the debate began in earnest, Blackburn Cathedral is offering male-consecrated wafers to anyone who refuses the authority of its female canon). Another is that a Falwellian culture war has been foisted upon the two-thirds world. Another is that the Global South is redeploying a Victorian gender code against the very people who imposed it upon them.

But the interpretation I would like to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury address is one that he offered himself, before his own mind melded with that of The Church. In an essay entitled “The Body’s Grace” (1989), Williams suggests that the problem with homosexuality is sexuality itself. Unlike heterosexual relationships, which the Church can reduce to reproduction, “same-sex love annoyingly poses the question of what the meaning of desire is—in itself, not considered as instrumental to some other process.” Facing desire itself, we face our own vulnerability—to loss, to humiliation, and to joy. Williams then goes on to sketch non-reproductive desire as an image of God’s (often unreciprocated) yearning for humanity, grounding his vision in Hosea, Samuel, and even Paul. If anyone can still stomach it, then, those who undertake the “painstaking exegesis” for which the Archbishop calls would do well to start with his own.

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<br />Emilie M. Townes, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology, Yale Divinity School

As long as we shape our theologies and spiritualities around simplistic Cartesian dualisms, we will continue to see homosexuality thrive as a divisive issue for Christian religious traditions.  This temptation to live in split bodies and souls as signs of righteousness means that we fail to develop a richly embodied faith.  Instead, we are content to live an antiseptic faith that takes the smells, sights, and sounds of life coming into life such that we have pristine crèches of Jesus’ birth rather than the fecundity of a stable.  We then extend this to a deep wariness of our bodies because we fail to see the importance of weaving ourselves into faithful living—body and soul.

This finds an all too comfortable home when it comes to talking about sex and sexuality, race and racism, class and classism, and so on.  We believe that parts of our being are inferior to other parts of our being, which leads many to isolate homosexuality as a set of acts (usually only sexual and deemed deviant) rather than as one of the many ways our identities are shaped in God’s good creation. While I am a frequent champion of what I call “fearless Bible study” in our churches, this must be done in rigorous conversation and study with ethics, theology, biology, history, sociology, and more.  For I am convinced that God’s revelation for and to us is found in the richness of unfolding the Bible into life and life into the Bible such that we begin to develop a deeper and richer appreciation of the power of covenant and commitment as profound biblical themes signaling faith-filled living.  The assumption that heterosexual marriage is the highest expression of human bonding is a theological leap that ignores the infinite promises found in love.

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