Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A tale of two empires and the queers

Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has a tough job as our emissary to a wider world.
The little corner of Christendom in which I have come to dwell, the Episcopal Church in the United States, received a wrist slap arising from backlash against two empires last week, leading to newspaper headlines. The whole affair has zero impact on those of us who simply go about our business of being church in the USA: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming all, resisting oppression, and pursuing peace, while pausing periodically to ponder awe and say "thank you" to Whatever animates this world and makes us human.

But non-religious friends have asked about the kerfuffle, so here's my take at some length.

The Anglican Communion, the worldwide confederation of churches in which the action is happening, is a lot like the Commonwealth of Nations, that state residue from the British Empire in which "[m]ember states have no legal obligation to one another. Instead, they are united by language, history, culture and their shared values ..." That last item is where the action is -- what if, though united by our past in having been under Britannia's thumb, we have evolved in our own directions?

The British empire was not an unalloyed boon for any of us who emerged from it. More often than not, it was about brute force, repression and exploitation from "the mother country." Colonists in the United States were the first to shuck it off and enjoyed the advantage of a whole continent to expropriate from its inhabitants and pillage for ourselves. Most other former British colonies were nowhere near so lucky.

As I was recently reminded, for too many former colonized peoples, the empire brought a treacherous religious bargain:
"The white man came to our land and brought us the Bible; when it was over we had the Bible and they had the land."
Obviously the Christian faith offered more than just theft or there would not be strong and growing Christian churches, some derived from the British tradition and calling themselves Anglican, in most of the decolonized world today. Underneath a lot of dross, the story of the Bible is about liberation from various principalities and powers. Many oppressed people have taken readily to Christianity, even as the powers-that-be have tried to constrain both the faith and the people.

Many of the churches of the former empire got the Bible but not the liberation and replicated the hierarchical rigidities of their oppressors. They were taught to read the Biblical stories literally, to confound tales of the social arrangements of the ancient Hebrews and Romans with some timeless metaphysical reality, rather than seeing simply a particular, time-bound, setting in which God reveals Godself. Homosexuality, as contemporary societies know this human variation, hadn't been imagined when the Bible was being written/assembled. For that matter, neither had marriage as we know it. Nor the permutations of gender ...

Literalism-constrained churches of the former empire can hardly be blamed for being repelled when it seems both the old empire and the new American one are telling them they must give up what colonial masters had previously imposed as marks of civilization.

The Anglican Communion is caught in the effluent of this history. It's perpetuation is especially dear to the clerical leadership of England. After all, they have the preposterous task of heading up an established (government-endorsed) national church to which only 17 percent of their population claims allegiance. From that unstable platform, the Archbishop of Canterbury is supposed to be also the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, most of whose adherents live in formerly colonized regions.

The Episcopal Church has a slightly different history than the Global South branches of Anglicanism. (The other English-speaking colonial settler states of the former empire also have their own differing histories but I'm leaving them aside here.) After all, we got out first, were almost unimaginably far away, and had our own bumptious new country to formulate ourselves within. We left the Church of England precipitously after independence, elected a bishop for the former colonies and got him consecrated by the Scots, and gave ourselves a governing legislative and administrative structure that mirrors the U.S. Constitution. We built our own version of church. The idea of the worldwide Anglican Communion didn't come along until the mid-1860s, three generations after the Episcopal Church had organized its idiosyncratic self.

So what's all this got to do with last week's hoo-haa? I see the fuss over the Episcopal Church's decision to fully welcome all people in both leadership and marriage (and notoriously thereby include queer folk among "people") as mere pretext for expression of discontent over the depredations, spiritual and intellectual as well as material, of two empires.

An under-recognized feature of the several centuries during which Britannia ruled the waves and sun never set on Victoria's empire was secretive, prurient, imperial homo-eroticism. The Royal Navy was often assumed to be a cesspool of buggery, rather as U.S. prisons are often seen today. Come to think of it, for many sailors, since they had been hijacked into service, that Navy was a prison. Britain's imperial officers and administrators were products of single sex boarding schools; a quick read of that great imperial author Rudyard Kipling's novel Stalky & Co. offers a glimpse of the seething homo-eroticism in that world. Such towering imperialists as Cecil Rhodes (founder and owner of Rhodesia/modern Zimbabwe) and Robert Baden Powell (founder of the Boy Scouts) lived lives and nourished attachments that look to have been gay to modern eyes. But all of this was empire's furtive, dirty, secret,  not the proud, consensual homosexuality we've found today. No wonder that former colonial inheritors of Anglicanism want no truck with homosexuality as exemplified by those tortured and torturing men, whatever indigenous gay traditions may or may not have existed in their lands.

English clerical authorities eager to retain some vestige of past imperial glories have every reason to play along with the homophobic elements of the Global South. All those English clerics lose is their legitimacy in the eyes of more people in their own country. The pain they inflict on others, on gay English Christians, lay and clerical, is a small price for someone else to pay. These days gay priests within the Church of England can have a civil marriage, but not a church one. Being priests, they probably think the latter is important.

And then there's the Episcopal Church in the United States. It's easy to ask who cares? -- and materially, none of this matters much. But we'd be wise to use the wrist slap to help us notice that nobody, anywhere, much likes American imperial pretensions. With our wealth and our power, we bulldoze other cultures and societies and barely notice who we crush. It's no wonder, even when we're occasionally right, nobody is going to follow our lead or have our back. We need some humility around here. That's just how the world works.


Susan Leone Starr said...

You have no idea how much I would like to have friends who would read this and appreciate it. ONE is my number, and I will share this with her on facebook.

Brandon said...

You commented at length after all.:)

A few weeks ago, I found this conservative blog, the Anglican Curmudgeon. Its stance is the opposite of yours but worth a read.

faithful said...

Religious imperialism did not start with the British Empire. There were prior empires that practiced similar approaches to slavery and sexual bondage of those who were young and powerless.

janinsanfran said...

faithful: no indeed, this didn't start with the Brits, though they remain pertinent to Anglicans, don't you think? As a friend pointed out on Facebook, we Christians too often forget that Jesus was executed as a rebel against imperial Rome. Empires we have always with us?

ellen kirkendall said...

In the Church of Christ and Reconciling Methodist churches I have attended all are accepted as members of the congregation and we are considered married couples BUT we are not allowed a church wedding. Everyone pretends this is not important and it introduces a certain hypocracy into our church lives that does damage to our religious lives, gay and straight alike.

Diana said...

Thanks for bringing an interesting historical perspective to our current "kerfuffle." One factual correction that I think it's important to address. You wrote: "These days gay priests within the Church of England can have a civil marriage, but not a church one. Being priests, they probably think the latter is important."

You are correct that it is legally possible for gay priests to be married civilly, but it's important to know that doing so will almost certainly result in the end (or severe limitation) of their ministry. The Church of England has made clear that clergy who are in non-celibate same-sex relationships will be disciplined. Many gay clergy live with partners under the radar, but getting civilly married makes your relationship public. A few bishops are still willing to turn a blind eye in those cases, but most are not. Look up the recent court case of Jeremy Pemberton, who was denied a license to serve as a priest in a new diocese where he had taken a "secular" hospital chaplain job.

My wife was ordained in the Church of England and I was ordained in the Episcopal Church. We chose to establish ourselves here in the Episcopal Church precisely for this reason. Given the outcome of that court case, my wife quite literally can't go home again without giving up her vocation, as there is no way either of us would be licensed to serve in the CofE. The statement from the Primates has only served to underscore that reality.

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