Women [and] Archbishops: Lent & Liberation, Part 4

Brackets matter. Take the title of this blog post, for example. It signals two things at once: 1) the topic of women in relation to archbishops; and 2) the tantalizing possibility of women as archbishops. The title manages both of those meanings with the nifty little conceit of brackets.

But there are other kinds of brackets, the kind that aren’t spoken but are clearly operational nonetheless. Like this: “For the sake of Church unity there are certain things [women’s ordination] that we really can’t talk about right now.” Or this: “Accepting gay people in our churches would break centuries of traditional Church teaching [about the all-male priesthood].”

Brackets are [functionally and politically] handy and [spiritually] dangerous. If we can’t say what we really mean and talk with each other about what really counts, does it really matter what kind of [political or religious] conversation we’re having?

Unless very skillfully used, I find brackets annoying. So let’s take the recent resignation of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury as an occasion to consider the insidious use of bracketing in Christian churches.

The circles in which I tend to run are abuzz about brother Rowan’s failure during his tenure fully to embrace lesbian and gay people. Anyone who has read his brilliant theological essays knows that he actually does affirm LGBT people. The real problem here has been his inability fully to embrace women. That failure is at the root of the “gay problem” – and it’s usually bracketed.

All of us engaged in the struggle for sexual inclusion need to be very clear that the entire struggle rests, not on sex and sexuality, but on gender – and especially on the status of women and women’s bodies.

So on this Lenten journey toward new life, I would like to share just three [further] observations about this struggle, which may seem arcane at first. Trust me; these matter, just like [insidious] brackets.

1. Raping Men is Worse [in the Bible] than Dismembering Women

The next time someone trots out the story of Sodom in Genesis 19 to oppose equal marriage rights – a story about rape, not “homosexuality” – ask that person about the strikingly similar and horrifying story in Judges 19.

Destruction of Sodom. The dismemberment of a woman apparently doesn't warrant divine pyrotechnics.

In that biblical story from Judges, a host is faced with the same dilemma as Lot was in the story from Genesis. In Judges, however, no angelic intervention prevents the sexual sacrifice of a woman to fulfill the requirements of a hospitable household. The woman in that story, an anonymous concubine, is brutally raped by Benjamite men in Gibeah and is later ritually dismembered to prompt retributive military action by Israel (see Judges 20:6-11; and for goodness’ sake, don’t let your children read the Bible!).


So why have no Hollywood films been made depicting the fate of that concubine at the hands of the Benjamite tribe in Gibeah nor of the swift retribution inflicted on the Benjamites by Israel? No European legal statute or Medieval penitential category emerged to describe the rape and ritualistic dismemberment of that nameless concubine. There is no sin of the Benjamites referred to as “Benjamy” or sinners as “Gibeahthites” as there are “sodomy” and “sodomites.” Why? (I’m grateful to the books on sodomy by Mark Jordan and Michael Carden for that essential question.)

The answer is painfully clear: biblical writers were truly horrified by the prospect of raping men. Dismembering women? Eh. Not so bad, really…

2. Polygamy Protects Women [Who are Submissive] in Households

Bishop John William Colenso

Only the most historically astute Anglican Christians today will recall that John Colenso was a 19th century Anglican bishop in South Africa. He got into trouble by permitting new converts to Christianity to continue in polygamous relationships. This prompted a crisis in the Anglican Communion that didn’t get “settled” (if it really ever did) until the late 20th century.

Even though both the 1988 and 1998 Lambeth conferences grudgingly accepted polygamy for the sake, ostensibly, of the economic well-being of women, something far more patriarchal is at work here. The (limited) tolerance of polygamy in all these decisions is directly proportional to the lack of any threat it poses to the gendered order of marital relations, more particularly to the patriarchal ordering of a household.

As long as there is a man in charge, we can live with a bit of [ethical] wiggle room.

3. Same-Gender [Non-Hierarchical] Marriage would Destroy the Ozone Layer

Think back to 2003. Remember all those objections to the election of openly gay and partnered Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire? Those objections were not about “homosexuality.” The voices objecting to that election made some rather revealing rhetorical shifts. They no longer referenced the biblical story of Sodom (that’s so 20th century). Instead, they started insisting on the earlier Genesis accounts of the supposed “complementarity” of women and men as essential in God’s design of creation.

In a 2003, Peter Akinola, the Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria, declared that setting aside the “divine arrangement” of marriage as between a man and a woman is an “assault on the sovereignty of God.” In a rather startling rhetorical move, Akinola compared this assault to the human depletion of the ozone layer insofar as “homosexuality” marks a “terrible violation of the harmony of the eco-system of which mankind is a part” (See Steven Bates’ great account of all this.)

The “harmony” in question is none other than the gendered ordering of the patriarchal household.

Those are just three among countless instances of bracketing the dignity of women for the sake of preserving patriarchy. They call me to fervent repentance in this Lenten season for failing to do more to dismantle patriarchy. They also beg a question, at least for me: Why am I still a Christian? I do have reasons for embracing this peculiar faith, and I’ll try to articulate them as we move on toward Easter.

For now, I’ll just say this: there actually is a woman archbishop. Her name is Katherine Jefferts Schori. For some complex political, cultural, and religious reasons, she is not called “archbishop” but instead the “Presiding Bishop” of the Episcopal Church. But she is, in fact and in effect, an archbishop. Thank God.

I don’t mean that she alone will somehow erase the patriarchal past. I don’t even mean that she is a feminist (she might be, I don’t know). Given Christian history, those issues don’t matter nearly so much right now as the mere fact that the Archbishop of the Episcopal Church is a woman.

That gives me hope. I know it does for many others as well. And wouldn’t it be great if Queen Elizabeth II found hope in that, too? She, after all, will decide who will replace Rowan Williams. Let us pray…

We are all Sodomites

Anyone who has ever refused hospitality to a stranger – to someone who is different, odd, peculiar, “not us” – is guilty of sodomy (Genesis 19). Anyone who has ever refused to care for widows and orphans or practiced economic injustice is also guilty of sodomy (Ezekiel 16:49).

Everyone is guilty of sodomy just by virtue of belonging to a nation that oppresses immigrants or won’t provide food and health care to single mothers or is just by being human (treating “outsiders” with suspicion seems wired into our collective DNA).

We, all of us, are sodomites and stand in need of repentance and forgiveness.

The Bible seems pretty clear on all this, but you’d never know it from listening to most religious talk radio or watching televangelists. “Sodomy,” in both popular religious culture and in our courts of law, means something quite different from what Biblical writers understood it to mean (here’s a hint: today it usually means that nasty thing gay men supposedly do all the time).

I was prompted to write about this by some Facebook exchanges over the publication of the book Out of a Far Country, by Christopher Yuan. This autobiographical book recounts Yuan’s journey through drug addiction, lots of sex, an HIV/AIDS diagnosis, and his return to Christian faith – a return that helped him to heal and become an ambassador for leaving the “gay lifestyle.” That lifestyle, presumably, is marked by, well, drug addiction, lots of sex, and HIV/AIDS.

But this is not a review, nor a critique of Yuan’s book (which I have not read). I am much more concerned about those who seem eager to use – the better word is exploit – Yuan’s story and his book for a socio-religious agenda to “cure” or “heal” gay and lesbian people.

I applaud Yuan for taking steps to recover from drug addiction, finding reconciliation with his family, and living into a healthier way of life. I am, however, offended by those who are using that story to paint (yet again) a deeply distorted picture of what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

Yuan’s story is emblematic of LGBT people in just about the same way that Las Vegas brothels and wedding chapels are emblematic of heterosexual people. In both cases, the reductionism and stereotyping are not only disingenuous; they are dangerous, harmful, and deadly.

Consider Jamey Rodemeyer, yet another gay teenage suicide to add to the appallingly long list of how “strangers” are treated in our society. Jamey even made an “It Gets Better” video! (You can read about that tragedy here, but I don’t recommend it if your heart is easily broken.) The religious and cultural exploitation of Yuan’s story is just as responsible for Rodemeyer’s suicide as the citizens of Sodom were responsible for the kind of inhospitality worthy of divine retribution. We are all sodomites.

I was on a panel with Yuan back in 2006 during the SoulForce Equality Ride event held at my alma mater, Wheaton College (read my reflections about that event here). The college put Yuan on center stage as evidence of both the destructiveness of “homosexuality” and the possibility for “healing” it. That Wheaton would do so indicates a severe lapse in that school’s critical thinking faculties from which, at one time, I learned a great deal.

But Wheaton’s posture indicates much more as well – the school is guilty of sodomy.

Imagine declaring this: drug dealing and violent crime in urban neighborhoods clearly indicates the inherent evils of the African-American lifestyle. Wheaton (and I should hope many other religious institutions) would reject that claim as racist. Yet Yuan’s story is fair game for exploitation, to deploy it like a religious product for discrimination, exclusion, bigotry, and inhospitality.

With more than fifty years of biblical scholarship overwhelmingly rejecting the idea that Scripture condemns LGBT people, Christian communities are the ones who stand judged and in need of repentance and forgiveness for their sin of sodomy toward LGBT people.

(When I started this blog, I vowed not to deal at all with biblical apologetics concerning LGBT people. That is so twentieth century and the argument should be long since over. Of course, it’s not. To summarize some of the reasons why that argument should be over, I’ve written a short essay on contemporary biblical scholarship on this issue, “Biblical Sexuality and Gender,” which you can find here or on this site here.)

The Destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah

Christian communities should take the sin of sodomy quite seriously indeed, just as Jesus did. As far as we know, Jesus said absolutely nothing about LGBT people. But he did say something about sodomy. As he sent out his disciples to proclaim the gospel and do the work of ministry, Jesus issued a warning. Any town that does not extend a hospitable welcome to those disciples will suffer a worse fate than Sodom and Gomorrah (Matthew 10:15).

Christian followers of Jesus ought to renew our commitment to the spiritual practice of hospitality, especially since all of us are sodomites. Christ, have mercy.