By Aaron Gaglia (@GagliaAC)
“Homosexuality has become the symbol of the changes which are happening in our society” claimed Integrity USA President Caroline Hall last night at an event discussing her book, A Thorn in the Flesh: How Gay Sexuality is Changing the Episcopal Church. Hall argued that the controversy about homosexuality within the Episcopal Church and beyond is not mainly about theological arguments but more fundamentally about deep changes in our society and what relationship the church should have to these changes. The event was sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC).
Richard Weinberg, director of Communications at Washington National Cathedral gave introductory remarks about the Cathedral’s commitment to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) persons. RCRC President Harry Knox introduced the speaker. Knox is well-known in the LGBT community, having worked previously for both Integrity USA, the unofficial LGBT caucus in the Episcopal Church, and the Human Rights Campaign, a national homosexual advocacy organization in addition to serving on the President’s Faith-Based Council. Knox is also an ordained minister in the Metropolitan Community Church, a majority-homosexual denomination. Though abortion is the predominant focus of RCRC, the coalition also has an interest in related issues of sexuality.
In addition to being president of Integrity, Hall is priest-in-charge at St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church in Los Osos, California. She begin by showing why the issue of homosexuality is so important to her, chronicling her journey as a lesbian through trying to make herself straight in an Evangelical church to still having lingering doubts after she was ordained as an Episcopal Priest on whether her opposition in the church was right.
Hall intended to write a theological work exploring the arguments used in the Episcopal Church against being both gay and Christian, yet she realized “we really have not been having a theological argument.”
The California clergywoman explained that the Episcopal Church is changing and “it’s changed in the same way that are society is changing and that’s really what this is about.” As the Episcopal Church is a derivative of a state church, the Church of England, it thus has “very porous boundaries” in regards to society. “I think that that history, that DNA, if you would like, makes the Episcopal Church far more influenced by what’s happening in the wider society” than other denominations.
Hall saw the biggest changes in society relating to equality. “Since the civil rights movement there has been a great shift toward equality as a value.” This expressed itself in both women’s rights and in gay rights. She argues that this shift toward public affirmation of homosexuality does not threaten heterosexual marriage as conservatives argue but instead threatens the patriarchal system where “white male power was privileged.” Hall argued that homosexuality has been brought to the forefront in the last three decades because of what it threatens, namely “the patriarchal system,” “purity codes,” and “the political use of those things.”
The Episcopal priest partially attributed controversies in the Episcopal Church about sexuality to the resurgence of evangelicals in the church in the 1970s through the charismatic renewal movement. Hall noted that many evangelicals departed the Episcopal Church in the 1870s when the Reformed Episcopal Church split off. The author asserted that evangelical Episcopalians returned to prominence during a rise in evangelical Christianity in the 1970s. Hall reported that those same evangelicals then largely left in the late 2000s to form the Anglican Church in North America.
Hall explained how evangelicals became focused on homosexuality as a sin in this way: “The political right were able to harness these people who were very excited about God and were very excited about the Bible. And they were able to harness them politically by setting up homosexuality as this bogeyman which the Bible was against and therefore they as evangelicals should be against.”
In Hall’s estimation, homosexuality was not condemned by the church because it is considered a sin by the Bible and the church throughout the ages, but rather because of politics and fear.
The Episcopal priest concluded by briefly talking about the East African country of Uganda and the Christian influence there in regards to sexuality. Hall charged that evangelical Anglicans are reinforcing an idea among Ugandans that gay sexuality is a Western decadent phenomenon and is not African.
In closing, Hall mentioned that her research revealed that the church is having a debate about “what it means to be Anglican and who gets to define it” and those same questions as relating to Christians in general. In her estimation, this debate is much bigger than theology.
Hall’s talk is a good reminder that the issue of homosexuality inside the church is not an isolated issue but is integrally related to questions of authority and how the church should relate to the world.