Homosexuality and the Anglican debate

Off the Cuff” is a blog on the website “The Immanent Frame” that poses a question to a handful of leading thinkers and ask for a brief response. They ask what it is with homosexuality that has caused it to become such a persistent and divisive issue for Anglicanism and other religious traditions?

As the New York Times reported last week, in response to the Episcopal convention in Anaheim earlier this month, and in light of “profound rifts over sexual issues within Anglicanism,” Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, has released a statement addressing the issues of gay clergy and same-sex unions.

The Archbishop here signals support for the human dignity and civil liberties of LGBT people. While suggesting that the Anglican Communion recognize “two styles of being Anglican,” however, he also argues that “a certain choice of lifestyle has certain consequences.” The Church, he writes, will only change its stance on the blessing of same-sex unions after they have been justified by “painstaking biblical exegesis” and subsequently widely accepted within the Communion. Until that point, a member of a homosexual couple will continue to be treated just as “a heterosexual person living in a sexual relationship outside the marriage bond.”

In light of both the ongoing conflict within the Anglican Communion and the Archbishop’s latest missive, we ask: why has homosexuality persisted as a divisive issue for religious traditions and communities, within the Anglican Communion and beyond? And what are the likely effects of the Archbishop’s recent intervention?


Mary Anne Case, Arnold I. Shure Professor of Law, University of Chicago Law School:

Given the historical exclusion of women from decision-making in the Church, Rowan Williams’s invocation of the “venerable principle” that “what affects the communion of all should be decided by all” (”Quod Omnes Tangit”) as a brake on change in the direction of freedom and equality in matters of sex and gender is, as one of Boccaccio’s heroines suggested on Day Six of the Decameron, deeply problematic.

Eric Fassin, Professeur agrégé, Ecole normale supérieure (Paris):

But why should same-sex unions have become a litmus test for religious institutions? This has to do with what I propose to call “sexual democracy.” We live in societies that claim to define their own laws and norms in immanent terms, i.e. without reference to any transcendent foundation. In reaction, for religious authorities, natural law redefined as the biological law of nature can become the last refuge of transcendence. To such theologians, sexual difference may be the last, best hope of God on earth—while the social recognition of (unnatural) homosexuality appears as the ultimate frontier of denaturalization.

Siobhán Garrigan, Associate Professor of Liturgical Studies and Associate Dean for Chapel; Yale Divinity School

You’ve got to feel sorry for Rowan. The man who once appointed the first openly gay bishop in England is now reduced to waiting for an end to biblical literalism before even thinking about gay marriage. Ah, politics.

Jimmy Casas Klausen, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Wisconsin at Madison

Let’s be clear about what “two styles of being Anglican” seems to mean.

EITHER the venerable Body of Christ model, whose head governs and represents its members: the Archbishop says explicitly that the “place” of “LGBT people” in that Body is not open to challenge, but, because same-sex marriage does not represent the recognized policy of that whole Body, then same-sex-partnered clergy cannot stand as/at the representing head;

OR the model of networks: “liberal” churches supporting non-heterosexual clergy and “conservative” churches opposed to them consociating separately.

What, if not imperial inertia and the headiness of the top-down model of policy, could blind one to the fact that there have always been many more than two styles of being Anglican, that it’s not a Hobbesian decision between a “theologically coherent” Body or else apocalyptic anarchy? It’s not homosexuality tripping up the Communion. The logic of the Body Politic model of sovereignty and representation willfully ignores consociationism’s enduring infrapolitical reality.

Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Assistant Professor, Wesleyan University:

So why is homosexuality so threatening to Anglicanism? One possible answer is that homosexuality has re-opened unhealed wounds over women’s ordination (eighty years after the debate began in earnest, Blackburn Cathedral is offering male-consecrated wafers to anyone who refuses the authority of its female canon). Another is that a Falwellian culture war has been foisted upon the two-thirds world. Another is that the Global South is redeploying a Victorian gender code against the very people who imposed it upon them.

Emilie M. Townes, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology, Yale Divinity School

As long as we shape our theologies and spiritualities around simplistic Cartesian dualisms, we will continue to see homosexuality thrive as a divisive issue for Christian religious traditions. This temptation to live in split bodies and souls as signs of righteousness means that we fail to develop a richly embodied faith. Instead, we are content to live an antiseptic faith that takes the smells, sights, and sounds of life coming into life such that we have pristine crèches of Jesus’ birth rather than the fecundity of a stable. We then extend this to a deep wariness of our bodies because we fail to see the importance of weaving ourselves into faithful living—body and soul.

Read the rest here.

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