the Anglican empire and the oppressive myth of unity
29 May 2011 00:00:00
I’m not a big fan of romantic fairy-tales. I mean once I’ve read one, I’ve read them all, especially the traditional ones. Boy meets boy, boy falls in love with boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy back, and they have a civil union and live happily ever after ruling their empire from their castle by the sea. No, even as a child I much preferred the kind of fairy-tale that didn’t work to a tried and true formula.
Most of you will know the Hans Christian Andersen tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes. To refresh your memory, it’s about an emperor who is so consumed with purchasing and wearing the finest clothing that he cares little for anything else. One day a couple of swindlers blow into town and convince the emperor that they can make him an amazingly beautiful outfit that even has the magical quality of not being able to be seen by people who are unfit to do their jobs or are just plain stupid.
Once the swindlers have finished pretending to sew invisible thread into invisible cloth they present the complete outfit to the emperor. Of course neither the emperor nor his attendants can see the so-called amazing cloth but they congratulate the swindlers anyway on a job well done so as not to alert anyone that they may be unfit for their jobs.
Finally the day of pageantry arrives and the emperor parades through town wearing his fine new invisible clothes. The crowds yell out how marvellous he looks though none in the crowd can see any of the fine cloth either. Finally a small child from the crowd pipes up and states the obvious as children are apt to do, “He has nothing on at all!” When the crowd hears the child’s words they too repeat this truth. The emperor realises the crowd is right but for the sake of pageantry he decides to suck it up and process onward anyway.
Having helped raise my younger siblings, I have been aware for some time that children have an extremely low tolerance for hypocrisy. If you are a parent or grandparent or a teacher, you may know this too. If given the opportunity, they will call it out like the small child in our story does. I’ve often thought that Jesus had this quality in mind when he said that you must become like a child to enter into the Kingdom of God.
Many of you will know that last week I hit my limit of the Anglican Church’s hypocrisy toward gay and lesbian people. We are not allowed into even the most preliminary stage of testing our calling to ministry if we will not commit to permanent celibacy.
This is the quiet policy of most of our Pakeha bishops in order that we do not offend the ultra-conservative and bigoted in the wider Anglican Communion. This is, they believe, for the sake of unity. So in essence, after five years of waiting to be allowed in, I have turned my back on the process. I could no longer tell myself or the emperor how marvellous he looks in his new clothes. I felt the need to remove myself and my partner away from the humiliation, out of a state of limbo, in order to be able to plan for our future.
I’m not going to re-preach Clay’s sermon from last week. I think he said it quite well. My thoughts this week have been engaged in trying to comprehend this concept of ‘unity’ as our bishops understand it and enforce it. When a priest is elected and ordained bishop, she or he vows to ‘promote unity’ within the church. I’m trying to get my head around how the exclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from being part of the full life of the church promotes unity, especially because bishops also vow to “uphold justice”. It seems to me, there is something distorted in this image of unity. For one thing, it reeks of empire.
Enforced unity was the key to success in the age of empires. The Roman Empire as Jesus knew it controlled over 6.5 million square kilometres of land. It stretched from the Rhine River to Egypt and from Britain to Asia Minor. When discussing the unity of the Roman Empire, we often refer to the time known as the pax Romana, or the Roman Peace. This was a period of just over 200 years of peace, prosperity and unity across the empire.
We should be reminded that, “the Romans regarded peace not as an absence of war, but the rare situation that existed when all opponents had been beaten down and lost the ability to resist.”[i] Unfortunately, the Romans also thought of unity in much the same way.
The Roman conquest model that later would-be empires looked to as a success story has been described as, “centralised control, the suppression of local identities, the imposition of a unified system of beliefs and values – […] the enslavement of conquered populations, the attribution of subhuman status to a large part of the workforce, and the deprivation of women of political power.”[ii] In the words of the philosopher Seneca, “What is good must be set apart from what is good for nothing.”
If any of this sounds familiar to you, it’s because during the 4th century Christianity adopted a template of the Roman Empire to structure its own peoples and territories under the emperor Constantine. But long before Christianity adopted the Roman model, Christians themselves became persecuted across the empire. Their system of beliefs was seen as contrary and destructive to the unity of Rome. The Romans already had their own collection of official deities. Judaism was tolerated only because it served as a catalyst to prevent revolts and uprisings from the large Jewish population spread throughout the empire. On top of this, there were various competing sects of Christianity all vying to become the one true church. The church went from being oppressed by the imperial doctrine of forced unity to oppressing others and recreating that same doctrine.
Unity as understood in the age of empires had nothing to do with people living side-by-side in perfect harmony. If it had, we never would have heard about a man named Jesus. The unity of people isn’t about perfect harmony, it’s about respecting the fact that diversity exists because we live in a diverse world and learning to live together not despite our differences but because we have differences. But how can true unity ever be achieved if our bishops cannot, will not stand up and say “I believe in the equality of all people. I will not consent to people being divided up into categories of good and evil, clean and unclean, pure and impure, worthy and worthless”?
Before I knew that Mary Magdalene was not the penitent prostitute the Christian empire portrayed her as, I heard a gay man say to an angry gay bashing minister,” Jesus was more like me than he was like you, he hung out with 12 guys and a prostitute.” Later of course I found out that this portrayal of Mary Magdalene was just another instrument of exclusion in the on-going attempt of enforcing church unity by oppressing identities.
History has shown that empires gain power through a process of conquer and divide. But empires also get conquered and divided. This is how the Christian Empire lost the battle of the Protestant Reformation.
When an empire, for the sake of unity attempts to oppress parts of our identity with policies of exclusion, we have no greater responsibility to justice than to challenge the emperor’s concept of unity. We have a choice, we can endorse the lie of the emperor’s new clothes or we can yell out, “He’s not wearing anything!” and try to save the church from its imperial fate.
So no, I’m not a fan of romantic fairy-tales. But I am a fan of happy endings. The day our bishops stand up to the injustice in our Anglican Empire, it will be a new chapter in the life of the church, a happy re-beginning….. it could happen.
This Sermon, preached by a guest-preacher at St. Matthews-in-the-City, Auckland, reveals the extent of the problem the Anglican Church has – even in New Zealand – with the prospect of ordaining an openly-Gay person to the ministry of our Church.
Following on the scandal that has arisen over the calculated exclusion of two candidates for the See of Southwark recently – one of whom was a partnered Gay, the Dean of St.Alban’s Cathedral; and the other the husband of a long-divorced woman, the Vicar of St.Martin-in-the-Fields, London – this continuing culture of exclusion of gays from the ministry of the Church must be seen to be counter-productive of the inclusive nature of the Gospel.
The time must come when little old New Zealand must protest at the exclusivism of the Anglican Church – in its continuing stance of seeming homophobia on the issue of the ordination of homosexual persons to the ranks of the ordained ministry. We are not part of the culture of the ‘Global South’, whose Anglican Churches are so against the gay community that they collude with their local government authorities to subject them to imprisonment or worse.
The sooner the Anglican Communion churches are freed from the hypocrisy surrounding their treatment of the LGBT community, accepting the fact that they are dealing with a minority of people who happen to have been born ‘different’ – yet made in the image and likeness of the same God we all worship – the better for the world we have been called to serve. Let’s hope the ACANZP soon abandons it’s homophobic overtones, and enters into the world that God loves and for which Christ died.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch