August 8, 2003
Last week, the Episcopal Church's triennial Convention was the site of a media frenzy. On Tuesday, church leaders meeting in Minneapolis took the unprecedented step of approving a practicing homosexual bishop, the Rev. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Before they departed Friday, they also authorized local faith communities to bless same-sex unions.
At first glance, the Episcopal Church -- sometimes called "the establishment at prayer" -- seems an unlikely battleground in America's culture wars. Strolling through the exhibits in Minneapolis, one encounters all the trappings of traditional piety: elaborate vestments, elegant chalices, magnificent stained-glass windows.
Yet this church has just tossed aside 2,000 years of bedrock Christian teaching about marriage, the family and sexuality. It has rejected beliefs that are fundamental not only to Christianity, but to Judaism and Islam, the world's other great monotheistic religions. Episcopalians' inability to defend core doctrine suggests that mainline American churches are losing their theological moorings, and increasingly falling prey to the prevailing winds of secular culture.
Testimony in the convention's hearing rooms seemed to bear this out. Speakers who urged approval of homosexual unions did not use the vocabulary or categories of thought of the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer.
Instead, they appeared to embrace a new gospel, heavily influenced by America's secular, therapeutic culture. This gospel has two watchwords: inclusion and affirmation. Its message? Jesus came to make us feel good about ourselves.
Adherents of the gospel of inclusion offered arguments like this: "The church should bless same-sex partnerships so everyone feels included." "People will want to join this church if they see others being welcomed." "God is love. He doesn't care about the gender of the people we love."
Last week's events in Minneapolis suggest that, in 2003, the three historic bulwarks of Episcopal Church doctrine -- Scripture, tradition and reason -- are crumbling in the face of the gospel of inclusion and affirmation.
To be sure, the new gospel's disciples do not generally jettison Scripture outright. Instead, they radically reinterpret it, using techniques imported directly from America's postmodern universities. Walter Brueggemann, a theologian quoted in a pro-same-sex-union Episcopal publication, put it like this: Scripture is "the chief authority when imaginatively construed in a certain interpretive trajectory." Approached this way, inconvenient passages can be dismissed altogether as inconsistent with "Jesus' self-giving love."
Tradition fares no better at the hands of the gospel of inclusion. The Episcopal Church has always regarded marriage as the sacrament that sanctifies the "one flesh" union of man and woman. But the new gospel expands the notion of sacrament to include anything that "mediates" the grace or blessing of God, and causes us to give thanks. As a result, the Rev. Gene Robinson can describe his relationship with his male partner as sacramental, because "in his unfailing and unquestioning love of me, I experience just a little bit of the kind of never-ending, never-failing love that God has for me."
Reason is the last casualty of the gospel of inclusion. The new gospel subordinates thinking to "feelings." As a result, its adherents show little concern that approval of homosexual acts renders the church's multifaceted doctrine on marriage and sexuality largely incoherent. (The Rev. Kendall Harmon of South Carolina has described same-sex unions as "relationships in search of a theology.") Inclusion's disciples have little interest in doctrinal consistency. Instead, they are content to proclaim vaguely that "God is doing something new," and to urge other Christians to have faith, because the Holy Spirit is leading the charge.
Is the homosexual question a side issue, largely extraneous to the church's mission? Adherents of the gospel of inclusion insist that it is. In fact, however, this issue goes to the very heart of the Christian mission.
The gospel of inclusion preaches a reconstructed, therapeutic Jesus, who accepts us exactly as we are. Traditional Christianity, however, holds that Jesus calls us to repentance of sins, and to transformation through a new life lived in accordance with God's will.
The gospel of inclusion has little place for repentance or transformation. Thus, it has little place for the central feature of Christianity: Christ's cross, which brings redemption through suffering. This new gospel may be appealing, for it permits its adherents to "divinize" their own, largely secular agenda. But in a Christian church, it cannot easily coexist with the gospel of Christ.
Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Originally published in The Wall Street Journal. Read this article on the Center of American Experiment website. Reprinted with permission of the author.