Friday, January 15, 2016

Civilizational Divides and Church Disciplines

Inevitable; it was always almost inevitable.

It took a decade and more in coming—the vote by a majority of Anglican Primates to “discipline” (not “suspend”) the U.S. Episcopal Church (TEC) for blessing same-sex unions and “changing” the meaning of marriage. (1)

I stand firmly and joyfully in support of the Episcopal Church’s decisions, but we need to recognize, soberly, that these dynamics far transcend religion itself.

The cracks in the Anglican Communion’s foundations simply reflect growing the civilizational divide between the post-Christian West and much of the rest of the world. While the legalization of same-sex marriage has grown apace in countries like in the British Isles, the Scandinavian countries, France, Portugal, Spain, Argentina, Canada, Brazil and the United States (to mention but a few), countries more deeply tied to conservative sexual sensibilities have dug in their heels in reaction: Nigeria, Uganda, India, with Russia trying to become leader of a moral coalition against alleged Western “decadence.”

The more progress, the more resistance

The more the West asserts its changed moral convictions, the stronger the opposition becomes. For Westerners accustomed to leading the “advance of civilizations” this is a rude awakening. As the conservative African bishops remind us constantly, the colonial era is over. Like it or not, the West is now only one part of a competitive collection of civilizational blocks outlined in Huntington’s prescient The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.

A world-wide fellowship of Churches like the Anglican Communion cannot escape the consequences of such divergent civilizational developments. That ecclesiastic and political leaders (like Putin, for example) would play on this divergence for various secondary gains was also inevitable, humanity being what it is. A good deal of capital can be made out of a sense of moral superiority, resistance to the influence of former colonial powers, or promoting a sometimes simplistic version of “our” moral past.  

Both sides are deeply part of their own cultural context. The different focus of their polarized moral arousal cannot be separated from this fact.

One of the early advocates of LGBT full inclusion, retired Bishop John Spong, saw this inevitability in a New York Times op-ed piece as long ago as 1998. The Primates' very carefully worded (aka 'Anglican') statement, may well the last attempt to re-form the Communion as a ‘loose fellowship of churches' that actually continues to stay in some relationship—a family—however impaired. 

Moral arousal or moral outrage?

So, each side feels morally superior, and believes they are right. As the U.S. Primate Michael Curry states clearly, the TEC feels this is a matter of fidelity to Gospel values, as the Spirit leads the church into deeper realizations of truth. In the past two decades TEC has declined to abide by the declarations of the last two Lambeth Conferences about marriage, for human rights reasons seen as spiritually compelling.

Meanwhile, moral arousal does not have to become moral outrage, however tempting that is or how enjoyable it feels. I know where I stand, and why. You probably do, too. But Jesus warned us about the dangers of arousal becoming outrage. (3) We know that outrage increases a dangerously blinding, either/or, us/them view of reality that can be destructive. 

Arousal can, on the other hand, lead to grace and steadfastness in the face of opposition—and holding firm to the practice of seeing opponents as real human beings with real concerns, however divergent.

1.  See the actual text of the Primates Statement at

2. See Thomas Friedman, "The Age of Protest" at

3.  "Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you." (Matthew 5:44). Love here, of course is agape, an intention for their ultimate well-being, not fond feelings. See previous blog on the Paris attacks on this website.