Episcopal priest the Rev. Caroline J. Addington Hall has written a book that should be of interest to United Methodists embroiled in debates over human sexuality and the church. In her book, A Thorn in the Flesh: How Gay Sexuality Is Changing the Episcopal Church, she tells the recent history of the Episcopal Church from the birth of the sexual liberation movement in the 1960s to the current situation of schism and division.
The story is told in detail and with a sensitivity to the nuance and complexity of the debates and politics that play out on a national and global scale. A married lesbian, Hall is an advocate in the battles and her framing of the debate, tone, and language do not hide this. What she describes in the book is a splintering of two churches that started coming apart at the beginning of the 19th century. In her words:
In this period of reformation, the interpretation/authority of scripture has been challenged many times: the abolition of slavery as an acceptable way of life, the acceptance of divorce, the ordination of women, and now full inclusion of gay and lesbian people. This latter is perhaps the bitterest fight because it incorporates the question of gender as well as the question of marriage, and it is also the most difficult to argue because the Bible says nothing positive about homosexuality. The battle for gay inclusion of exclusion seems to mark the development of two different religions, both called Christianity, but it may have served as the final point of bifurcation for two strands that began to unravel as early as the late nineteenth century.
The book is fascinating because of its depth as it traces the story of the Episcopal Church in recent decades. It is fascinating for this United Methodist as we appear to be walking over much of the same ground.
This brief review cannot do justice to the book, but reading it did raise two other thoughts that may or may not be worthy of further discussion.
First, Hall connects the ongoing battles over sexuality in the church to the Baby Boomer (my word, not hers) generation’s coming of age in the 1960s. The left-right divide of that decade set the terms for the debate and the issues going forward. I wonder, in part, if this is why the rising Millennial generation is so weary of this conversation. It is their parents’ fight, not their own. This is my question, not Hall’s, but her book stirred the thought.
Second, Hall connects the debate over sexuality to broader questions in the church. For instance, she offers this observation about the various responses within the Anglican Communion to Islam.
In the Anglican debate, the second question about coexisting religions becomes: Is Jesus Christ the only way to God, or is it limiting God to think that he cannot also work in other ways? Archbishop Akinola, who sees Jesus as the only way, aimed to grow the Church of Nigeria as big as possible in order to vanquish Islam nonviolently — though he has never ruled out the possibility of violent response. Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori, on the other hand, sees the valuable contribution of Islam and has joined in faith conversations with Muslim leaders.
I find Hall’s engagement with the broader set of issues and the broader context of Anglican Christianity most helpful. It sees issues as inter-related rather than isolated, which strikes me as more reflective of real life.
Hall does not hide her bias in the book. Conservative motives are often cast in a negative light and liberals are the heroes. She ends the book with an appendix that argues that the Bible does not really teach what traditional Christians have said it does. But the book is fascinating reading and an in-depth look at the melange of issues that the United Methodist Church has been wrestling with for 45 years. As our church becomes more “global,” the fault lines Hall describes will only deepen.