At least from the mid-twentieth century, traditional gender and sexual mores have been coming “unstuck” in Europe and North America. Legal and social prohibitions have been lifted–first against divorce, then divorce and remarriage; against extra-marital sexual activity and cohabitation; against birth control and abortion; against out-of-wedlock pregnancies; against homosexual activity and partnerships; against adoption by singles and homosexual couples. Reproductive technologies have opened the possibility of effective birth control, in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, surrogate motherhood and other biological-clock extensions. In some places, public consensus is beginning to resettle and to take the form of positive legal provisions–no fault divorce laws with equal parental rights; legalized abortions; a variety of legal arrangements for cohabiting and/or reproducing couples; and–in this country most recently–civil partnerships open to same-sex as well as mix-gendered pairs. Likewise, after a post-war lull, women have re-entered the workplace and moved into the professions. Slowly, laws have been passed to guarantee equal access, to require equal pay for equal work, to institute maternity/paternity leaves, and to remove glass ceilings.
In all of this, our Church has been a follower rather than a leader. Where divorce and the remarriage of divorced persons were concerned, the Church ”˜waited upon’ secular consensus before making changes in its own canons. Despite the Queen and Margaret Thatcher, the Church delayed the ordination of women to the priesthood until 1991, and only in the last two synods has voted to creep ahead towards making the appointment of women bishops possible. While not yet church-dividing, the Anglican communion generally and the Church of England still officially regards the ordination of women as pending reception and in principle reversible. North American church moves to treat homosexual partnerships as legitimate–by authorizing rites for blessing (New Westminster, Canada) and by ordaining +Gene Robinson, a coupled gay man, bishop of New Hampshire–now focus a furor in the Anglican communion. Just last month, the Archbishop of Canterbury extended the new, gay-friendly woman Presiding Bishop of ECUSA (now, TEC) his prayers, but not his congratulations.
Whether or not these gender developments constitute a/the cause or even a symptom, conservatives have made them the pretext for an institutional crisis within the Anglican communion. The Archbishop’s recent proposal, ironically entitled Challenge and Hope, reads like a recipe for dividing our Church. For modern church persons, these rough-and-tumble developments raise a host of questions: Where were we? How did we get here? Why? Where do we go from here?
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