At the General Convention in Indianapolis this summer, the Episcopal Church was not content merely to change the standard of Christian marriage to include same-sex partners. It voted to step unreservedly into the normalization of transgender, transsexual, queer and questioning human self-understandings. It remains to be seen what new categories of gender or sexual expression may soon be forthcoming in the burgeoning world of options that seems waiting to be discovered as a protected minority and brought into the mainstream of society for approval. Frankly, anyone who believes that the main story at our recent General Convention is about same-sex blessings can’t see the forest for the trees. The Episcopal Church has moved so far beyond same-sex matters as to make any further discussion of the topic within the denomination passe. We’ve stepped into a braver and newer landscape altogether.
This has never been about whether we are to welcome people who come through the doors of our churches with the compassion and love of Jesus Christ. Clearly we are to do so. In 30 years of ministry I can think of only one person whom I asked to leave the congregation I served. He had almost single-handedly destroyed our ministry to single persons, and was constantly finding a reason to hang around our youth at inappropriate times. Some have described my approach to these present challenges as seeking to exclude people from God’s love and grace. This is sheer parody. I ministered to same-sex attracted persons in every parish I have served, and did so, I believe, with compassion and the hope of Jesus Christ.
We all have need of God’s forgiveness and grace for the many things we have done which we wish we hadn’t and the things we have left undone that we wish we had. Beyond this, there are things we’ve yet to discover that need God’s forgiveness, so blind are we to the things we hide from ourselves and which others may see only too well. Yes, the Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. But it is also a place where Jesus Christ, the carpenter, still mends broken lives. This is the story we need to tell and live.
To that end we must stand for what God has revealed in Holy Scripture and preserved in the breadth of his church. Sadly, there have been seasons when segments of the church have strayed from this teaching. One example we remember all too painfully is the way some sought to justify slavery or defend institutionalized racism. But we ought not to forget it was primarily Bible-believing Christians who first brought to light the teaching of the apostles on the ungodly dimension of these institutions and practices. Today it is a different threat altogether. What is at stake among other things is the goodness of God’s created order and the power of God to sustain those who come to him seeking a holy life. The Bible teaches that we are created in the image of God as male and female and that marriage between man and woman is a God-given institution for the benefit of the human race in this fallen and fractured world.
This does not mean one lacks appreciation for those who, for a variety of reasons, are single — either from choice, divorce, death of a spouse or have not met a person with whom to share life in marriage. Nor does it mean we lack charity for those whose experience or perception is different. It does mean there is a norm, a “God given-ness” that is right, and for the good of all needs to be taught and celebrated. A great archbishop of Canterbury wisely taught 70 years ago, “The Church needs to be very clear in its public pronouncements so it can be very pastoral in its application.”
In my years in ministry, I have seen firsthand the problems created when this axiom is forgotten or reversed. It’s altogether disastrous when the teaching of Holy Scripture is abandoned. These errors are increasingly what the national leadership of the Episcopal Church has embraced. It has led to departures from the church by many, a drastic loss of confidence from others and yawning disinterest from post-baby boomer generations. From such false choices the Diocese of South Carolina must distance itself. If ever there was a time for the church to be clear and hopeful, offering a moral compass to the confused and God’s grace, forgiveness and healing to all, it is now.
The Rt. Rev. Mark J. Lawrence is the 14th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.