Gay rights split Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey

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St. Georges Anglican Church in Helmetta N.J.St. George’s in Helmetta defects, keeps buildings.

The Episcopal Church’s bitter division over gay rights has hit the Diocese of New Jersey. The congregation of St. George’s in the Central Jersey village of Helmetta recently reached an unusually amicable agreement to separate from the diocese and purchase its church buildings.

While the Diocese states this is the first official Episcopal congregation to break away, a website called “Shelter From The Storm” lists 34 “Anglican” churches in New Jersey that specifically reject any form of marriage other than “one man, one woman,” most of which are affiliated with national or international organizations other than the established Episcopal Church.

Official statements and virtually all online and media discussion primarily comprises the wrangle over who owns church real estate. In the case of St. George’s, comment has been little more than self-congratulation about conducting the split without recourse to litigation. Not much, if anything, has been publicly said about the specific causes of the split. There can be little doubt however, that attitudes about homosexuality were the flash point, as has been the case throughout the denomination.

Rainbow Burned flagFor the many branches of the Christian religion, “the gay issue” is like the guest who came to dinner and refused to leave. It seems to continually impose itself on many who wish it would just go away. Some denominations, such as the Southern Baptists, have unhesitatingly taken a strong antigay line. Others, such as the Unitarians, have embraced LGBT people in full equality. Perhaps the denomination that has suffered the most painful and intense inner conflict is the Episcopal Church.

Throughout the history of this country, the Episcopal Church has stood as a pillar of the social order: home to most of the founding fathers and to many of our presidents. Tradition, order, stability and quiet authority seemed to emanate from its usually neo-gothic precincts. It was also the wealthiest denomination overall, as well as having within its realm the richest individual churches, such as Wall Street’s landlord, Trinity Church (much of the financial district is built on land owned by Trinity).

In the last decade, this picture has radically changed. In order to understand the changes, those who aren’t familiar with the history and structure of the Episcopal Church may need a little background. Most people are aware that in 1534, King Henry VIII wanted a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and the Pope wouldn’t sanction it for political reasons. Henry decided to break with Rome and declare the English Church independent. This was the origin of the Church of England, though the causes were in fact more complicated than the simple divorce issue.

In later centuries, with the spread of the British Empire, the English Church became established in many of the territories under British control. In America, the Church of England became known as the Episcopal Church, meaning a church ruled by an “episcopate”: a system of bishops. Of course, other American denominations have bishops as well, but in colonial days there were few Catholics in America. The various Pentecostal denominations that today have bishops were not yet invented and Methodist bishops were not yet regarded as “the real thing” by the establishment.

Unlike the Catholic Church, the various international branches of the Church of England are not subject to a central authority. For reasons of tradition and history, the Archbishop of Canterbury is considered the head of the church (though the titular head of the C of E is actually the Queen) but his role in foreign branches of the church is advisory and without the sort of executive power the Pope wields. 

Unlike the Catholic Church, great differences of social and theological opinion are openly held and advocated by various church authorities, none more so than in the matter of homosexuality. These range from the complete acceptance expressed by Archbishop Tutu, the civil-rights hero of South Africa, by Bishop Spong, theologian and retired bishop of Newark, N.J., and Bishop Senyonjo (retired) of Uganda. Others, such as Archbishop Akinola of Nigeria and Bishop Abura of Uganda have joined in the gay witch-hunt now in progress in those countries, condemning gays in the strongest terms and  supporting Uganda’s pending “kill the gays” legislation.

Historically, the worldwide Anglican Communion has been a big and comfortable tent, able to accommodate many shades of opinion by avoiding dogmatism and upholding that primary WASP value: “don’t make a ‘scene.'” The gulf between a man like Akinola and one such as Archbishop Tutu is, however, too big to bridge with simple good manners.

The worldwide Anglican Communion has already split into at least two factions: the traditional church, following the original hierarchy and embracing new thinking including the ordination of women and the equality of gays. Breaking away are several new organizations of conservative dissidents, one calling itself the “Communion of Anglicans in North America,” or CANA for short. This organization, while filling its website with a philosophy of love, in fact accepts the primacy of the present Archbishop of Nigeria, Nicolas Okoh, a man who fully subscribes to the idea that “same-sex marriage…and all sexual perversions should be roundly condemned…”

All of the breakaway organizations are motivated by an absolute rejection of the idea that homosexuality is simply another form of “normal” and that the few Biblical comments on the subject can be ignored right along with similarly outmoded scriptural ideas such as the permissibility of selling your daughter into slavery, stoning recalcitrant children and not wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread. Discussion of such primitivisms forms no part of the worldwide wrangle and yet homosexuality, a topic regarding which Christ himself is not recorded as having made a single comment, has formed the primary substance of the crisis.

Causing the most bitterness in the schism has been the issue of who owns the real estate. Many Episcopal churches are grand, historic and magnificent structures that would be prohibitively expensive to duplicate today. Unlike in most other Protestant denominations, the local congregation does not own the facility. All church property is owned by the diocese and/or the national church. Congregations wishing to disaffiliate from the Episcopal Church have in some cases had to walk away from buildings that had housed their local church for a century and more. In still more cases, millions of dollars in litigation has been spent in the struggle to control the properties.

That more than 650 congregations and four entire dioceses have left the Episcopal Church regardless of those costs indicates the depth and fervor of their rejection of gay equality, just as the perseverance in preserving an open and accepting church that believes in equality is a testimony to the profound sincerity of those who have remained in the original Episcopal organization.

Discontented Episcopalians have somewhat of a special problem. A Baptist who finds he differs with his denomination can cross the street and become a Methodist or a Presbyterian without a great deal of upheaval. While members of those denominations would doubtless be quick to underscore their differences, frankly a “man from Mars” would be
hard put to tell them apart. This is not the case with Episcopalians. While their fundamental theology is not greatly different from other Protestant denominations, the package is quite different. With its historic traditions stretching back to the very earliest times of Christianity, its grand liturgical customs, elaborate vestments, processionals and incense, an Episcopalian service is very different indeed from, say, a Baptist revival. Where then can an Episcopalian who finds him or herself at odds with the church go to find a new religious home not too unlike the old one?

In an obvious attempt to capitalize on Episcopalian disunity, the Pope issued a special invitation to the disaffected to become Catholics, even allowing Episcopal priests who want to cross over to remain married. For most, however, this is not a solution. For one thing, it entails accepting papal supremacy, the very issue that caused the Church of England to break with Rome in the first place. For most conservative Episcopalians, the answer has been to break with the old organization, join a new Anglican Communion and fight to remain in possession of their parish real estate and church buildings.

The determination of the official (old order?) Episcopal Church to hold on to the property may, to the outsider, seem a bit dog-in-the-manger-ish, especially in view of the fact that it was the local members who raised the funds to build and maintain the local church to begin with. However, one needs to understand that the Episcopal Church, historically, has been organized geographically into parishes. Each parish has a church. 

Let us hypothesize that, for whatever reasons (perhaps a contagious brain fever) all the members of the parish of St. Abdomen-In-The-Mold decide one day to become Pentecostals (or Baptists, or Wiccans, whatever). Well, fine…that’s their prerogative. It’s a free country–sort of–and they can do as they please. However, they can’t take St. Abdomen’s church with them because then you have a parish with no church, and where do incoming Episcopalians then go? 

It doesn’t matter if one single member of the church decides to decamp, or a hundred members, or every last one of them. The church itself remains the headquarters of the Episcopal parish of St. Abdomen, even if no one is left but the sexton. The church must take a long view.  New parishioners will come and in the fullness of time the congregation will be reborn. 

There is also the practical aspect that the real estate is worth inestimable millions of dollars. For example, the property owned by the aforementioned Trinity Church on Wall Street is worth more than the gross national product of a small nation. You might think churches shouldn’t be fighting over money but that would be because you haven’t tried to pay the heating bill for one of those cavernous structures or kept the roof from leaking. Bishops must, perforce, have a practical side to their considerations.

Until recently, the liberal Diocese of blue state New Jersey was free of this terminal disunity. That has now changed. Recently, St. George’s in Helmetta reached an  agreement that allows the disaffected congregation to purchase the church buildings, leave the traditional diocese and join with CANA. St. George’s new website, while clothed in a lot of verbiage about love and goodwill, nonetheless makes it clear (if you dig a bit) that the gay issue is a root cause. 

Church members are warned that repeal of DOMA must be fought. In joining CANA, the members of St. George’s implicitly accept the primacy of Archbishop Okoh and he has left no doubt whatever about where he stands regarding gays. Okoh has warned that Nigeria is endangered by “an invading army of homosexuality, lesbianism and bisexual lifestyle.” Okoh, as has been detailed by Savitri Hensman writing in The Guardian, has a habit of “editing Bible passages so that the meaning is lost…” Hensman further states: “Okoh is by no means the first to distort the meaning of the story of Sodom to encourage, rather than warn against, victimizing the vulnerable and rejecting the unfamiliar….However he is unusual in his self-belief and fierce hostility to those who disagree with him.” The internal contradictions in some of Okoh’s sermons along with his simplistic and a priori Biblical interpretations have led some observers to question if the man is “quite bright,” as it were.  And this is the man the members of St. George’s in Helmetta, have voluntarily decided to accept as their primate, all because it appears they can’t accept gays as equals.

When interviewed for this article, Rev. William Guerard, rector of St. George’s, denied the gay issue was paramount. He stated: “The reason we decided to leave the Episcopal Church was about much more than homosexuality. It was about the authority of scripture, the ancient doctrines of the church identified in the Nicene Creed, and the identity of Jesus Christ, the meaning of his death, the reality of his resurrection, and the essential importance of relationship with him for salvation, all of which was being challenged if not denied outright by bishops in the Episcopal Church.”

Archbishop John Sentamu (Archbishop of York, traditionally viewed as second in stature to the Archbishop of Canterbury) preached: “Essential to Anglicanism is a sense of magnanimity/’moderation’–a holding together, often in creative tension, of different emphases or points of view, but always in a spirit of charity and appreciative enquiry.” Thus Sentamu expresses the traditional position that there is room in the church for varied viewpoints and universal agreement on everything is not necessary. 

Rev. Guerard’s statement, however, seems to go to the very heart of the faith, the Nicene Creed. Viewed since the fifth century as the fundamental expression of Christianity, the creed makes no mention of either homosexuality or the Bible. Rejection of the Nicene Creed would arguably place one outside even the most elastic boundaries of Christianity; however, since the inerrancy if the Bible is not specified in the creed, one may presume that substantial differences of opinion regarding Biblical accuracy and interpretation are permissible.

Rev. Guerard was asked, “How can you reconcile Christianity with the harsh repression of gays called for by certain African bishops who are associated with the breakaway Anglican movement?” He chose not to reply to that question.

When asked, “What will be your policy toward gay persons who are or may wish to be members of St. George’s?” Rev. Guerard answered, “As for our policy toward people who wish to join the church, St. John said it best.  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins, and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.”  Our policy is that we come as we are, but we do not expect to stay that way.  All of us have sin in our lives, and we all need God’s power to overcome it. Jesus promised that all who believe in him and sincerely follow him would receive the Holy Spirit to empower them to live a new life. That new life is focused on the will of God, not our own sinful condition, and we are always reminded that we are called by God to love our neighbors no matter where they may be in their walk with God.”

Analysis of the preceding quotation requires little guesswork. It is a clear statement that homosexuality is a sin and gays would be welcome in St. George’s if they accept the idea that their basic, inborn nature is sinful and they expect belief in Jesus to produce a miraculous change that will turn them straight, or perhaps at least celibate. The final line of the quote specifying the need to love one’s neighbors notably does not include extending equality to them.

Rev. Guerard’s statements may be contrasted with the following excerpt taken from a joint statement of the Bishops of New Jersey and Newark regard
ing the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi: “We join with other Christian and religious leaders, with the LGBT community and with all people of good will who take their stand against hatred, bigotry and bullying; against every expression of physical and verbal violence; and against any violation of the dignity of LGBT persons. When the rights of any–especially the members of vulnerable groups who have so often been scapegoated–are threatened, the rights of all are endangered. We want to call attention to another, potentially deeper, issue here. It is the invasion of intimacy. Intimacy is a holy place within every human being; an innermost sanctuary where we develop our ultimate beliefs and values, nurture our closest relationships and maintain our deepest commitments. No one has the right to disclose that intimacy for someone else without consent. Such a violation is tantamount to the desecration of a sacred space. It is, in fact, a sacred space. It is the territory of the soul.”

The recognition that our inner nature–our sexuality–is a sacred space for LGBT people as well as for everyone else, represents a stark contrast to the automatic assumption that homosexuality is by definition sinful.

One may question why the village of Helmetta has produced what, according to Canon Cynthia McFarland, director of communications for the Diocese of New Jersey, informs us is the only congregation to break away from the diocese and join CANA. An answer is not easy to formulate. Helmetta is not some isolated “land that time forgot” deep in the Pine Barrens. It is right in the middle of the state and, like all the rest of us, struggling to catch up with the 21st century. Helmetta was founded over a hundred years ago by George W. Helme, a businessman who decided to build a snuff factory and a hundred workers’ homes near Jamesburg. For a while, the Helme Snuff Co. was the largest manufacturer of the tobacco product in the country and employed virtually the entire town. Helme became the second richest man in New Jersey, founded St. George’s Church and built a grand mansion near the factory. Three generations of Helmes ran the snuff mill, which finally closed in 1993, leaving the town an economic orphan. The last Helme to head the company, G.W. Helme’s grandson, died in 1956. Helme’s mansion was demolished in 2002. With the Helme family and the town’s only industry gone, the community inevitably faced an identity crisis. It began to redefine itself as a residential area with the old factories to be replaced with age-restricted housing. 

Coming out of its semi-feudal past as a company town run by the family in the big houses on the hill, it is unlikely that its redevelopment as an area dominated by senior-citizen housing will bring with it liberalization or contemporary thinking. Perhaps Helmetta’s profound crisis stemming from the abrupt loss of so much of its past has created a deep psychological need to hang onto what shreds remain of old ways and old thinking. We can only speculate.

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Analysis and Commentary:

Rev. Guerard’s predictable boilerplate about everyone being sinful and belief in Jesus being the answer begs the question of why, if God created everyone, God made some people gay only to then condemn the very nature with which he endowed them. Is God a sadist? Is he creating a cosmic joke? The fundamentalist reply is that homosexuality is a temptation no different from the temptation to commit any other crime, and must be similarly resisted. This thinking flatly ignores the fact that other crimes such as robbery and murder injure people. Being gay is not about injuring someone but about loving someone. 

The popular theological catch-phrase “God is love” does not, after all, specify God is straight love. It just says “love.” The fundamentalist may go on to argue that “love doesn’t imply sex.” To that some may reply, what world are you living in? Certainly some forms of love do not involve sex but we are not talking here about parental love, or the love of friends or the love of chocolate cake. We are specifically talking about the kind of love that very definitely does involve sex.

The most telling aspect of this theological discourse is the total stonewalling by fundamentalists of the oft-repeated challenge that the Bible contains many stern injunctions and condemnations that are today entirely ignored by one and all. To the best of our knowledge, no one at St. George’s is arguing for the right to sell one’s daughter into slavery, stone recalcitrant children or condemn people for wearing cotton-poly blend shirts, yet all of these strictures and much more are very firmly pronounced–in quite unequivocal language–in the Bible. Why then should the very few Biblical comments on homosexuality stir such ardent and uncompromising attitudes? Fundamentalists simply do not respond to this question. It is ignored as totally as those inconvenient Biblical passages. Likewise, facts about mistranslation and original context are equally ignored or dismissed by fundamentalists regardless of supporting scholarship.

John Stuart Mill once said, “Not all conservatives are stupid people, but all stupid people are conservative.” So, does this mean the rector and congregation of St. George’s have taken the position at issue because they are too stupid to understand new ideas? Not at all. Oh, that may be the case in particular instances but overall we are dealing with a basic difference in the ability to perceive. Studies have been done that indicate the brains of conservative and liberal people work in distinctly different ways. That being the case, changing the conservative mindset becomes virtually impossible in many cases. 

Of course, this is not a black/white division. Mindset may be considered a continuum rather than a set of discrete boxes. People at various points on the continuum may well move one way or the other in response to evidence but people all the way down at the nether end of the continuum are hopeless. Nothing–not even Jesus himself appearing in the sky surrounded by a host of angels and saying “you fools got it all WRONG,”–will change their minds. They’ll still be ready to disenfranchise, diminish, condemn and even kill those who are different from themselves, and all in the name of the God of peace and love.

This brings us to the final point of commentary, St. George’s association with CANA. It is telling that Rev. Guerard ignored our question regarding the African bishops. By joining CANA, St. George’s has voluntarily placed itself in an impossible moral quandary. The Anglican/Episcopal Church is by its very nature and historical tradition, hierarchical. There is no such thing as a valid, independent congregation. All congregations and clergy are subject to the authority of a bishop. To answer the question, Rev. Guerard would have had to either condone the virulent homophobia of Archbishop Okoh or place himself at odds with the very person he and his congregation have just accepted as the primate of their new denomination (and Okoh does not suffer differences of opinion cheerfully.) Better to say nothing.

Nonetheless, St. George’s has accepted Okoh as primate and Okoh, who impresses this writer as not being very well educated and perhaps a bit of a loon as well, is very much a homophobe and a supporter of the even more viscous and rabid African clerics such as Akinola and Abura. To St. George’s, then, we say, you are known by the company you keep. George Orwell would understand the theology you have embraced; it is called “doublespeak.” It is nothing but hatred wearing a pretty mask dubbed “love.”

St. Georges Anglican Church in Helmetta N.J.St. Georg
e’s in Helmetta defects, keeps buildings.

The Episcopal Church’s bitter division over gay rights has hit the Diocese of New Jersey. The congregation of St. George’s in the Central Jersey village of Helmetta recently reached an unusually amicable agreement to separate from the diocese and purchase its church buildings.