A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
ROUTES TOWARD THE FIRE AND THE ROSE
The Very Reverend Samuel G. Candler
21 February 2004
An Address for “Episcopalians Seeking Unity in Diversity”
The Episcopal Forum of South Carolina
Charleston, South Carolina
I begin today with two words of thanks: to the organizers of this conference, the Episcopal Forum of South Carolina, and to the Bishop and the Diocese of South Carolina for their witness and their faith.
(I am glad “The Journey of the Magi” was mentioned earlier today; the title of my address is “Fare Forward: Routes Toward the Fire and the Rose.”)
Like the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians (3.10) “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” I want to fare forward.
I have been asked to offer perspectives on “ways in which unity might be forged in the midst of serious conflict.” I am honored to offer some perspectives, especially from my position as Dean of the Cathedral Parish of St. Philip, in Atlanta, Georgia. While we are certainly a large parish, we are also representative of many Episcopal parishes; we have serious disagreements among our members on certain aspects of human sexuality and on whether the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson was a mistake, was premature, or was directed by God’s Holy Spirit.
When I spoke at an open hearing at General Convention in 2003, I spoke, first, as a representative of a parish who had those disagreements. I offered a theological position, to be sure, a position which accepts the possibility that certain same-sex relationships can offer the grace of God; but I did not claim that this was the position of my entire parish. Indeed, I spoke because we are a parish who has held together despite our disagreements on these issues.
Since the summer of 2003, of course, our parish has mostly held together; but the journey has been difficult and painful. I daresay that the journey for many Episcopal parishes –especially in the South– has been difficult and painful. We fare forward; and with God’s grace, we will continue to fare forward.
Today, then, I offer seven ways in which unity might be forged, seven directions by which we can fare forward.
1) ENGAGE YOUR LOCAL PARISH
The first way is to remain faithful, active, and engaged in one’s local parish. If we are at all committed to our local parishes, then we know from experience the pain and difficulty of conflict. I believe this is a major reason that God places us in communities of faith: so that we can rub up against one another and learn deeper levels of love and forgiveness and reconciliation. It is easy to be a Christian alone on a mountaintop, or at a lonely beach, where no one seems to disagree with you. It is more difficult to be a Christian amidst other Christians; yet, we all know that the rewards of that Christian community far outweigh the difficulties.
Most Episcopal parishes these days do contain within themselves the elements of this national, and international, Anglican consternation. Many of us, from all theological camps, have spent considerable time with our contrary disputers. Certainly this entire conference is meant to be an example of that sort of disputation. I realize that my encouragement to remain engaged in one’s local parish will be heard painfully by some “progressives” and “conservatives” alike. Nevertheless, in the kingdom of God, such conversation will bear fruit.
Some of us are dying daily. We are being changed by these conversations. We are grains of wheat falling into the ground and dying. But those deaths will indeed bear much fruit. God is able to raise up from these conversations the trees of new life.
2) RE-CONFIRM COMMON VALUES
The second way to fare forward is to reiterate, and re-confirm, our common values.
We stand for values together, and we should declare them: Truth, Honesty, Commitment, Honor, Charity, Faith. We stand for faith not in the affairs of humanity, but faith in the grace of God. Our value is the grace of God.
These are mighty values. They take a lifetime to practice and to learn. They distinguish us from other religions and from the non-religious life. We are not now, nor have we ever been, sanctioning licentious, sexually frivolous, or idolatrous behavior. Those activities and practices will always be wrong in the Christian Church. We are arguing over whether some outside-the-tradition commitments can be sources of the grace of God.
3) RE-CONFIRM ORTHODOXY AND COMMON FOUNDATIONS OF FAITH
Moreover, we stand on common foundations of faith. The Episcopal Church, even in our present disputation, has not overturned any matter of historical and theological orthodoxy. I understand that some interpret the matters of marriage and same-sex commitment as heresy and unorthodox; but these have only rarely been understood as full-fledged matters of theological orthodoxy in our tradition.
The matters of orthodoxy are those set out, in particular, in what became known as the Nicene Creed. We believe in the Trinitarian reality of God. We believe in Jesus Christ as Lord. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life. We have other foundations of faith! We believe that the Old and the New Testaments are the inspired Word of God and that they contain all things necessary to salvation. We believe in, and practice, the two great sacraments of baptism and eucharist, whereby we are transformed and nourished by the grace of God. We believe we are sent into the world to be messengers of God’s gospel of reconciliation and grace.
We should reiterate, publicly, those statements. It was a mistake last summer in Minneapolis to refuse to vote on re-confirming our assent to some of the historic doctrines of the Christian Church.
This orthodox faith believes in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This resurrection, though historical, is not only historical. To believe in the resurrection is to believe that we also, as the followers of Christ, die daily and are reborn daily. To believe in the resurrection is to believe that we can be born again, not just once, but time and time again. The Christian life is a series of deaths, a series of changes, until finally, by God’s grace, we are granted an entrance into the land of light and joy. We are not there yet. Brothers and sisters, it does not yet appear what we shall be (1 John 3.2). But we know we shall be like him, resurrected!
Another value that we claim, of course, is truth itself. “Not compromise for the sake of unity; but comprehension for the sake of truth,” goes the old saying. The various parties in this dispute can still proclaim many common truth statements. I urge us to stay together not for the sake of mere tolerance and compromise. If we stay unified only for unity’s sake, we stand on sinking sand. Rather, our unity is for the sake of truth. Tolerance is a good value, but the value of truth is stronger still.
Now, in our Christian faith, truth is disclosed from both natural and revealed sources. Moreover, the arguments allowing for a minority use of same-sex unions are both natural and revealed. They are natural because they acknowledge that a small minority of human beings are homosexual by identity and orientation. This minority is not a threat to the majority. A healthy homosexuality is never a threat to a healthy heterosexuality.
The arguments for the acceptance of same-sex unions are revealed because they throw us at the mercy of a graceful God, even after we have exhausted ourselves through reason or science seeking natural explanation or direction. What has been revealed to us is Christ, and more particularly the grace and redemption of Christ. Whatever identity we are born with, whatever our natural identity –whether Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free– we are given new identity in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3.28).
It is also revelation that we are created by a higher order than what our nature teaches us. God wonderfully created and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature.
We value revelation. It needs proclamation and explanation. We value orthodoxy. Orthodoxy has come to mean much these days, but one thing it does not mean is that God approves only of my own sort of Christianity. Orthodoxy means that we follow the agreed-upon dogmas discussed and staked out in the first five centuries after Christ.
There were no dogmas expounded as to sexual orientation. We all realize, I hope, that there was no need to argue about them. The roles of heterosexual folks, and the innate proclivity for heterosexuality hardly merited attention. It was not arguable. Instead, the phenomenon of homosexuality was so accepted to be un-natural that it was commonly used, in the Bible at least, as an example of common sense. Doesn’t common sense, nature, teach you that homosexuality is deviant? Doesn’t common sense, nature, teach you that long hair does not become a male? The same word for “nature” is used by Paul to both the Romans and the Corinthians. At least in the biblical arguments, this was the function of homosexual imagery.
Somewhere along this line, orthodoxy came to mean “right teaching.” I propose that it more genuinely means “right praise,” or even “right worship.” Orthodox folks are united enough in their worship of a transcendent God who has yet become flesh in Jesus Christ that we worship together. Right worship, wonderful and majestic and intimate worship, results from our attention to this transcendent and yet immanent God.
When we have lost our common dependence upon a transcendent God is when we have lost orthodoxy. Indeed, our wrenching disagreements on homosexual issues have deterred us from gazing upon the transcendent God. Liberals among us may have concentrated too much upon human desires. Conservatives among us may have concentrated too much upon human agreements. Neither human desires nor human agreements will bring in the kingdom of God.
We can fare forward by seeking the transcendence of God. In a small but powerful book of many years ago, called The Integrity of Anglicanism, Stephen Sykes critiqued the use of the word “comprehensive” to describe the Anglican tradition. He critiqued F. D. Maurice in particular, questioning the accuracy of an Anglican comprehensiveness.
But I believe that the Anglican tradition does describe a comprehensiveness, not ours but God’s, over time. I believe there is still a way that God unites political and theological parties which we interpret as contradictory. F. D. Maurice pointed to the possibility that no party of the Church ever contains the whole of God’ truth within itself. It is only after time that the Church recognizes the universal truths within each time-constricted party or movement. This argument has merit for me. It is rather a Nicene or Chalcedon argument, if you will. What the world sees as contradictory the grace of God can see as unified.
Only God brings in the kingdom of God. That is where we should devote our attention at this moment. What is God’s sense of truth and reconciliation in the matters before us? How might God be telling both sides in the debate something different that what either side has been appealing for?
4) THE INVALID DISJUNCTIVE ARGUMENT
This brings us to a fourth way that we can fare forward. We can forge unity by understanding and avoiding what logicians call the “Invalid Disjunctive Argument.”
The invalid disjunctive argument presents us with false absolutes. “Either A or B,” goes the argument, “but not both.” Currently, many of us believe that “Heterosexual relationships can be blessed by God,” or “Homosexual relationships can be blessed by God.”but not both groups.
The laws of logic have always delineated two senses of the word “or.” The word “or” can be used exclusively: Either “I will take you to the beach today,” or “I will take you to the zoo today.” Both cannot occur, due to the exigencies of time and space. This is the exclusive sense of the word “or.”
However, most logicians use the nonexclusive sense of the word “or,” the inclusive sense. “I will buy you a diamond ring,” or “I will buy you a new car.” Theoretically (given enough money), both these statements are possible.
Consider these statements: “I am blessed,” or “You are blessed.” If I am blessed, does that logically mean that you are not blessed? No, not at all. Logicians see this confusion as an example of the “invalid disjunctive argument.” (see The Elements of Logic, by Stephen Barker, page 88).
This was the kind of error entertained by certain parties of the Reformation itself, when they argued about the presence of Christ in the sacrament. Either Christ was present in the bread of the sacrament, or Christ was present in the collective memory of the faithful, but not both. It was the Anglican genius to accept both these claims. What was considered contradictory at one point in our Christian history is no longer considered contradictory.
Anglicans fare forward by engaging the truth claims of seemingly contradictory parties.
5) IMPAIRED COMMUNION
A fifth way we can forge unity is to acknowledge the communion we do have. Here I want to accept the phrase “impaired communion.” Yes, many of us are in impaired communion. I acknowledge that reality every time I receive communion, every time I distribute communion to the hundreds of people streaming up to the altar. I see pain, but I also see joy in those lines. I see freedom, and I see bitterness. I see elation and disappointment. We human beings are impaired; we are divided.
This fifth claim, then, may be my most critical: We are truly acting as the Body of Christ in this tortured dispute and controversy.
We are the Body of Christ. It’s a common enough image, isn’t it? It is a frequently cited biblical image. But it must be further described by these times. We are not just the Body of Christ today. We are the Body of Christ in our very suffering.
Communion is about taking communion together, sharing together in the Lord’s Supper. Scripture is very clear that this sharing, wonderful as it is, is not without pain and suffering. Whatever else we might disagree on concerning our western cultural age, we can certainly agree on this: It is a sign of these affluent times that we have forgotten how our communion together involves suffering.
Communion is not just an opportunity to feel good once a week, an opportunity to say “Isn’t it nice that we can all get along.” No, to share in the cup of salvation is also to share in the cup of suffering.
Paul reminded the Corinthians that “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10.16). Jesus told his arguing disciples at Mark 10.39, “The cup that I drink you will drink.” This is not just the saving blood of Jesus Christ; the communion cup is also the blood of suffering.
We are suffering. We are impaired. We are sharing the burdens of Christ.
6) WITNESS TO THE WORLD
My sixth “fare forward” is witness. I believe the Episcopal Church can truly aid our country. In case you haven’t noticed, the entire United States of America is arguing about the place of civil unions, same-sex unions, gay marriages -- whatever folks are calling them.
We are a part of that national conversation, just as we have been part of the national conversation on war, on abortion, on the role of women in society, on civil rights, on any number of other issues that have divided society. We are supposed to be the ones knowing how to argue about it, and how to do so gracefully.
This is the Church’s contribution, nay –not our contribution, but our very duty to our country. How do we argue legitimately about the privileges and ceremonies accorded homosexual people and still hold together as a church – and as a country?
Why stay together? Because this is our witness to the world itself. We are supposed to witness something to the world. We can be in disagreement, even in anger, but we can stay committed together in love.
This would be our greatest work in the defense of marriage, too. It is not homosexual commitments that threaten the institution of marriage in the world today. I submit that the greatest threat to the institution of marriage is the ease in which people turn away from any commitment these days. How easy it is to divorce! How easy it is to change jobs! How easy it is to change church allegiances!
The opportunity given to the Episcopal Church today is to witness to the country, to witness that we can be in disagreement but that we can still commit our lives to each other.
If one committed parishioner in our Church decides to walk away from the Church, he has taught his children that the door is open to similar dissolution of any corporate commitment.
There is no question that corporate commitments are hard. Note the history of splinter groups throughout history. We split from each other, and then our successors split from one another, too. This is not the witness that the world needs from us today.
7) THE CROSS
At the end, we come to the Cross. The last way we forge unity is by focusing on the cross of Christ. This cross is no mere ornament, a piece of jewelry that we wear around our neck as a sign of unity. This cross is the one borne in our hearts, burned in our hearts, from the fire of suffering.
To stay together in the midst of dispute and conflict, is to bear this cross of suffering together. To remove ourselves from one another, and from this conflict, would be to pray that this cup of suffering be removed.
It cannot be removed. We are suffering. The cup is a cup of suffering. This bread is broken for us.
This suffering is a humiliating experience. None of us wants to enter it. But it sure makes us humble. It makes us understand anew that a power greater than us is here. Whatever our claims are, we make them in humility.
I pray that this is a holy suffering, one in which we share in the sufferings of Christ. If so, this very suffering will hold us together. To undergo suffering means, literally, to undergo change. If this is a holy suffering, then each of us is being changed. We are being changed, ever so gradually into the image of Christ. Can we dare rejoice in sufferings (Colossians 1.24)?
The cross will lead to resurrection; the fire and the rose are one.
Many of us have talked a lot about Paul’s letter to the Romans. I want to close with his magnificent words from chapter eight:
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8.18-25).
The Very Reverend Samuel G. Candler
Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip
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