With a little more than 2 million members, the Episcopal Church of the United States is far from being the country's largest Christian denomination. But its recent pronouncements indicating support for openly gay bishops and church blessings for same-sex couples will have reverberations beyond that church, beyond Christianity and even beyond religion. For all the theological issues it raises, acceptance of gays and lesbians at the altar reflects -- and affects -- the campaign for equality in the larger society.
Meeting last month in Anaheim, the General Convention of the denomination approved two resolutions that will widen the split between the U.S. branch of Anglicanism and many of the other 43 churches worldwide that trace their roots to the Church of England. One resolution calls for a "renewed pastoral response from this church, and for an open process for the consideration of theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same-gender relationships." The other affirms that God has called gays and lesbians to "any ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church."
In a letter to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori called the ordination resolution "more descriptive than prescriptive," and said it didn't repudiate a 2006 call by the U.S. church for bishops to "exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to wider strains on communion." She made similar assurances about the resolution on same-sex blessings.
But the U.S. church's latest pronouncements will further inflame the furor that broke out after the 2003 consecration in New Hampshire of Bishop V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest in a committed same-sex relationship. After the latest votes by the U.S. church, Williams spoke of a "two-track" Anglican Communion, in which the worldwide church would have a looser relationship with regional churches that went their own way on matters such as the ordination of openly gay priests.
Actually, Episcopalians already have seen an acrimonious parting of the ways between the national church and bishops and faithful who have aligned themselves with churches in Africa and South America that have more conservative (and in some cases crude) views about human sexuality.
One could dismiss the fissure in the Anglican Communion as a purely internal matter that turns on theological issues of little import to non-Anglicans or non-Christians, such as whether the church's policy toward homosexuality should be guided by Jesus' seeming lack of interest in the subject or the condemnations of homosexuality in the Old Testament and the writings of St. Paul. Why should nonbelievers care about this dispute any more than they do about abstruse intra-Christian debates on church structure, predestination or whether the Bible should be read literally?
It isn't breaching the wall of separation between church and state to observe that evolving attitudes within a religious group, regardless of their theological aspects, often parallel views of right conduct and belief in the wider society. Consider equality for women. It would be silly to argue that the Episcopal Church's decision in 1976 to ordain women as priests, which alienated Anglicans in other countries as well as the Roman Catholic Church, was unrelated to gains women in the United States had achieved in secular settings.
In a society that has accepted women as judges, chief executive officers and university presidents, the absence of women at the altar will strike the man -- and woman -- in the pew as increasingly incongruous. The influence works both ways: A young girl who sees a woman presiding over the most sacred rituals of her faith will wonder why there is still resistance to full participation by her gender in earthly activities. A devout gay teenager who is confirmed by a homosexual bishop will be less likely to doubt his worth when confronted with bigotry and bullying at school.
This doesn't mean that religious organizations are obliged to adopt every innovation of the larger society, and obviously many don't. In supporting civil marriage for same-sex couples, this page has pointed out that legislation allowing such unions in no way jeopardizes the rights of churches to define religious marriage. They are as free to limit sacramental marriage to heterosexual couples as the Roman Catholic Church is to confine priesthood to men, despite civil rights laws prohibiting sex discrimination in employment.
As long as the 1st Amendment is in the Constitution, religious groups will be able to define their theology and their worship as they please, excluding from the pulpit not just women and gays but members of racial minorities as well. Although it can take repugnant forms, such freedom is one of the glories of this country.