Singapore consecrations not what being church is about

By on March 1, 2000

SURPRISE, America! You are considered a mission field.

As reported elsewhere in this issue, two American clergy travelled all the way to Singapore to be consecrated bishops so that they could return and serve as missionaries to the New World. Two hundred years ago this would have prompted a celebration but this recent news has been greeted mostly with boos and hisses.

So why all the negative reaction?

Is it just because northern hemisphere churches don’t like the idea that those they once evangelized in Africa and Asia now think they have something to teach them? It seems like the two consecrating bishops, the primates of Singapore and Rwanda, are making the point that what goes around can come around.

From a vastly different cultural context, these primates have judged another church to be in need of the Gospel, or at least a certain interpretation of the Gospel.

Prompted by the new bishops and their supporters, the two primates are assuming the Episcopal Church is deaf to the Gospel, that the established ecclesiastical structure is inadequate to deal with the situation and that cultural distinctiveness must submit to what they believe constitutes true Christianity.

In particular, they are opposed to any liberalizing of attitudes towards homosexuality. There are also some conservatives who still oppose the ordination of women. The irony here is that it was liberal bishops in 1974 who proceeded with the illegal ordinations of 11 women in Philadelphia. That arrogantly precipitous action has come home to roost in this latest incident. But two wrongs don’t make a right and the primates of Singapore and Rwanda were wrong in their action. Even some U.S. conservatives agree it was wrong, although many have tried to spin the blame on the U.S. church, arguing that one can hardly blame conservatives for taking desperate measures in desperate times.

Are times really so desperate? If so, it’s hard to see it. Sure there are a few intolerant liberal bishops, just as there are intolerant conservative ones. Some conservatives defend this, saying at least they are sticking to orthodox teaching. But that avoids the question at the other end, namely that the Gospel needs to be heard afresh in each generation and needs to be made accessible to contemporary society. That’s not conforming to the world, that’s speaking in parables people can understand.

The Anglican Church in Rwanda and Singapore is aggressively conservative. It’s not surprising given the surrounding culture and, especially in the case of Rwanda, the kind of missionaries who were sent to spread the Gospel message there. They were Evangelical and, like most missionaries of whatever background, their message was simple and direct. Encountering cultures that often permitted men to have many wives, they taught an almost Puritan morality. Sex in marriage and nothing else.

Polygamy is still tolerated among many Christians in Africa but another kind of sexuality isn’t: homosexuality.

Anglicans in the U.S. and Canada are split on the questions of ordaining homosexuals who have partners and blessing same-sex unions. As evidenced at Lambeth in 1998, most Anglican bishops in Africa and Asia have no doubts. They oppose it. Then, as now, they said if the church in the U.S. and elsewhere drifted further in a liberal direction, they would be compelled to send back missionaries to the countries which had missionized them to re-convert them to orthodox Christianity.

The recent consecrations in Singapore are the result.

Whether American or Canadian Anglicans eventually authorize blessings of same-sex unions or ordinations of homosexuals with partners is an issue of relatively minor consequence theologically and of little other consequence as far as society is concerned.

(Most Canadians are not opposed to same-sex couples, according to recent polls, but because churches tend to have an older population, most people in the pews are likely opposed to homosexuality. It’s not an issue for most people who aren’t in the pews – and who are the potential church of tomorrow.)

The struggle in North America is not how to preserve traditional sexual mores but about how to get the message of the Gospel to the unchurched. It’s the same in Rwanda and Singapore with one crucial difference. Society there is not society here. And the Gospel has a different appearance in different cultures today just as it has had a different appearance throughout the ages. However, modern communications and travel mean it’s possible to compare different styles in an instant.

Conservatives have been given short shrift in the recent past in North America. Many people in the church, certainly many church leaders in Canada, are trying to redress that. So has U.S. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, who didn’t deserve this. That’s why he smoothly handed off the political football to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The archbishop, regarded as an ally by conservative Anglicans because of his traditionalist stance on homosexuality, must now figure out what to do about these two bishops. He could do worse than tell them their orders are so irregular that he won’t recognize them as having episcopal jurisdiction anywhere until they are duly elected by a diocese. They won’t have to be re-consecrated but until then, they won’t be on his Christmas list.

What matters for Canadians, from Joe Batt’s Arm to Upper Skeena, is to recognize that this is not the way to solve problems. It’s true that rocking the boat can be more interesting than rowing because it is more dramatic. But that’s not what being church is about.

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