Hartford, Conn. - Frank Kirkpatrick, Ellsworth Morton Tracy Lecturer and Professor of Religion at Trinity College, and author of The Episcopal Church in Crisis: How Sex, the Bible, and Authority are Dividing the Faithful, delivered this year’s Shirley G. Wassong Memorial Lecture to a full McCook Auditorium on Monday night. Kirkpatrick focused on dissension in the Anglican Communion, caused by disagreements in fundamental beliefs and moral practices, primarily stemming from the controversy of whether to accept same-sex relationships and gay and lesbian clergy.
The Anglican Church has been struggling with this issue since 2003, when the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, was consecrated, causing an uproar in the Anglican Communion and creating a deep rift both within the Episcopal Church of the United States and between it and the Anglican Communion as a whole. Within the Anglican Communion, opposition to the Americans’ decision to accept gay bishops was strongest in Africa, threatening to divide African dioceses from Americans.
In the U.S., disagreement over Robinson’s consecration led many individual parishes, and even the Bishop of Pittsburgh, a Trinity graduate, to break with the Episcopal Church. Within the Anglican Communion as a whole, the dispute caused a serious rift between more conservative Anglican provinces in Africa and those more liberal provinces in the US and Canada. Kirkpatrick noted that the dispute has led to some historically ironic developments, among them, Pope Benedict XVI’s move to welcome disenchanted Anglicans into the Catholic church, including Anglican priests who are married, and the decision by Episcopalian churches in South Carolina—the same churches that 150 years ago actively defended the institution of slavery on Biblical grounds—to accept the authority of conservative African bishops rather than bishops in the US who support the ordination of gays.
Kirkpatrick argued that a “close-minded obsession with finding moral purity will lead to further splintering” of the Anglican Communion, and maintains that the opposition to homosexuality does not conform to the four authorities to which Anglicans have traditionally turned to settle disputes:
scripture, reason, tradition, and increasingly, Kirkpatrick argues, experience. Experience, reason, and tradition, Kirkpatrick argues, favor the blessing of loving relationships, regardless of gender, Kirkpatrick says, and he argues that the scripture passages most often cited to support bans on homosexuality are, at best, ambiguous on the issue when one considers the historical contexts in which they were written. He says that a resistance to same-sex couples ignores experience, and is not in the best interest of the future of the Communion, or in the spirit of the religion, while history teaches us that quests for moral purity often lead to fanaticism and even terrorism. Kirkpatrick said that the main criterion of the Anglican Communion should be to strive for “an acceptance of flourishing relationships grounded in love regardless of gender.”
On the specific topic of marriage, Kirkpatrick suggested the Church should get out of the civil marriage business altogether and stop serving as an agent of the State. He said the Church should continue to bless the unions of those who are legally married, but he questioned whether priests should perform legal weddings on behalf of the State. “Why should the Church be the agent of the state?” he asked.
In conclusion, Kirkpatrick predicted that those resistant in the Communion would struggle to combat the acceptance of same-sex relationships, while there are inscreasing numbers of non-gay persons who are tolerant of same-sex relationships. The lecture drew attendance from local churches as well as Trinity students and faculty.
The Shirley G. Wassong Memorial Lecture in European and American Art, Culture, and History was established in 1996 in memory of Mrs. Wassong, with the support of friends, family, and her husband Joseph F. Wassong, Jr., Trinity Class of 1959. The annual lecture features members of Trinity’s faculty and guest scholars in alternating years, who represent a variety of academic disciplines and areas of interest ranging from antiquity to the present day.