For the last generation (or more), Episcopalians have been fighting with one another over how to respond to the presence of gay and lesbian Christians in the church. This debate has mirrored one that is going on in the larger society. The growing acceptance of same-sex marriage in the church and society has led some people to pronounce that the fight is over.
Whether this is true or not is a conversation for another time. (Some Protestant denominations in the United States remain resolutely opposed to moves to accomodate gay and lesbian Christians. In the Church of England, the conversation has barely begun.) The question I want to ask is this: what’s next?
What will be the next issue that the church rips itself apart over? Because if there is one lesson from history, it is that church members will always find something to fight about, from the nature of Christ to “higher criticism” of the Bible. The Baby Boom generation in the Episcopal Church has been through three major fights over a new prayer book, ordaining women, and the role of gay and lesbian Christians. Fighting and disagreement is is part and parcel of the church, because both diversity and sin are part and parcel of what it means to be human.
Given the way the world is going, it’s easy to imagine some sort of bioethical issue being the next hot-button subject. I’m not competent to judge what it might be. But I think one issue that may be quickly approaching us is assisted suicide. The issue has recently come before some state legislatures and the general public in referendums, with some success and some failures. It has all the hallmarks of a contentious issue: one in which compromise seems impossible (you either permit it or you don’t) and one which brings up questions about the “sanctity of life.”
But I’m interested in what others might think is next on the horizon. I hate to seem fatalistic about this, but the debate about so-called “open communion” at last summer’s General Convention indicates that even a group of people that largely agrees on one contentious issue can be divided on another.
Parenthetically, we might note that the fact of conflict in the church should give Christians pause and make us question whether “victory” in a church fight is really what we should be aiming for. It should also make us think about the resources in our own tradition for dealing with broken relationships and conflict. But those are all ideas that have been addressed elsewhere.