Episcopal Church 2021: Animal-loving Bishop Spawns Crisis
by R. Andrew Newman
MANCHESTER, NH (July 9, 2021) -- The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church today has warned that the Diocese of New Hampshire must not in any way be ostracized because it has chosen to elect the church’s first openly non-celibate animal-loving bishop.
"As presiding bishop, I am called to see to it that all perspectives are treated with respect,” said the Most Rev. Annie Thangohs. “We can, of course, disagree on the issue of animal-loving in the Christian life. I have seen, however, some distressing accounts in the secular press. I had hoped that we had removed that hateful term, bestiality, from our vocabularies. It is one more part our racist, sexist, heterosexualist, and speciest past that we must reject if we are to move closer to an open, loving, and inclusive relationship with the Goddess, who is our Mother, Lover and Friend.
“While we can disagree, with respect of course, no one should say to another member, ‘You have no part, no role in this church,’” said Thangohs, a widely respected thealogian and author of No Bleeding Jesus: A Womanist Celebration of Christa Our Mother and the Neutering of Oppressive ‘Orthodoxy.’
For the past 10 years, the question of animal-loving has been hotly contested in the Episcopal Church. It is estimated that more than half of dioceses in the church have ordained non-celibate animal lovers to the clergy and at least a third have blessed animal-loving unions. The election of the Rev. Canon Juan A. Fealmohr as the next bishop for New Hampshire is expected to add fuel to the debate at this month’s General Convention. Before he can be consecrated, the convention must approve his election.
Thangohs said that Fealmohr should be treated as a child of the Christa, not as a symbol for an issue with which the church is struggling.
After his diocesan election last month, Fealmohr was greeted by his family, his grown child from a previous marriage, his former wife, his former husband, and his current animal partner, a three-year-old Border collie, who licked his hand and rubbed affectionately against his leg
In an interview earlier this week, Fealmohr said, “I have no desire to cause heartache for the church, but through prayer I’ve realized that I cannot deny the sacredness of my relationship with Pike, my animal partner. I can no longer hide it under a bushel basket. The Goddess/God made me this way. “I’m made out to be a kind of flaming liberal. But I’m actually rather conservative for some of my supporters. As you can see, I still use ‘God’ as part of the divine formula, much to their dismay.”
Fealmohr recalled when he first discovered his true nature. “I’d always felt a tug at my heart for animals,” he said, “but it was only after seminary that I knew the Goddess/God wanted me to be more open and honest. I remember the day well. It was at a blessing of the animals on St. Francis’s day.
“These many years later I know the love that I’ve felt for and, more importantly, with the animal world will make me a better, more caring bishop. While the Spirit is moving the church towards greater acceptance of animal-loving persons and their companions, and my selection is an indication of that growing tolerance, let me say that I intend to be a good bishop, not an animal-loving bishop.”
Rhem Nent, a spokesperson for Orthodox Resistance, a group of right-wing church members who oppose the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals, sadomasochists, swingers and animal lovers as well as Wiccans, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and women to the Episcopal priesthood, said the Diocese of New Hampshire has taken a disastrous step and there would be lasting, serious consequences.
Nent's group last received national attention when it called into question why the Episcopal Church would allow Allah to be worshipped but not the “Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” Episcopal leaders and their ecumenical partners roundly condemned Nent and her group for insensitivity to Muslims and for failing to repent of her faith’s chauvinistic and exclusivistic creedal statements. Even moderate and conservative leaders in the church have decried Orthodox Resistance, saying Nent and her group are too strident, rigid and fundamentalist in their positions and approach.
Nent indicated that her group’s annual convention, in which plans to counter the selection of an animal lover as New Hampshire’s bishop will be formulated, will be next week. She said the meeting opens 9 a.m. Thursday with a Solemn High Mass in the breakfast bar nook at the Holiday Inn Express in Ft. Worth, Texas, just off I-20. A strategy session will follow Mass and breakfast. Nent said reservations are not necessary.
Church observers expect Fealmohr will win approval, with maybe a third of the House of Bishops voting no.
“It was one thing to approve homosexual marriage, to allow persecuted Wiccans to perform rites in the church, and to celebrate the femaleness of the divine,” said the Rt. Rev. Pfalle Baak, who is considered a leading conservative voice in the American church. “Christ, er, excuse me, the Christ/a would have supported those moves if she/he were alive today. She/he was a person of inclusion. To many this will sound intolerant, but it is quite another thing to marry or have physical relations with an animal companion. While our African and Asian sisters and brothers in Christ/a may subscribe to some outmoded paradigms of the faith, ones they should reconsider in the light of the Spirit, we should listen to them on this important issue.”
At the Lambeth Conference of 2018, a majority of bishops in the Anglican Communion, by and large from Asia and Africa, declared “physical relations between people and animals to be incompatible with Scripture.” Lambeth pronouncements are said to carry moral authority but have no real say in the American church. Several African and Asian churches have considered themselves in a state of “impaired communion” with the American church for decades.
D. Ed Waite, who holds the John Shelby Spong Memorial Chair for New Reformation Studies at Episcopal Divinity School, said critics of animal-loving are misguided in their reading of Scripture at best and hateful at worst.
“The writers of the Bible, locked in the prejudices of their day, could not have imagined the sort of loving, life-enhancing relationships we’re talking about here in 2021,” said Waite. “Sex, we must remember, is a gift from the Spirit, an indwelling of her/its love, and therefore it’s only fitting that the relationship between an animal and her or his human companion should be expressed sexually. Forcing the animal lover to deny her or his true sexual nature would be as unChristian as forcing the homosexual to remain celibate.”
Waite also expressed hope that animal lovers would not be placed in the straight jacket of what he termed “the now-discredited monogamous, heterosexualist model.”
“Animal lovers and their companions need to give free range to their love,” he said. “I’m confident that General Convention will roll back the bigotry and hate this month -- just as in the past it rolled back the prejudices against homosexuality and ended the excluding of people from our altars only because they didn’t share our faith background -- so that everyone will be able to see the beauty and the holiness of animal-loving. It is in these relationships that an animal, whether a cow, a dog or a gerbil, and a human see within one another the image of the Goddess.”
--R. Andrew Newman writes from deep in the heart of Flyover Land, western Nebraska. A freelance writer, the Flyover Philosopher has had work appear in Modern Age, Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, National Review, and Weekly Standard.
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