A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
There is an old joke about a caterpillar who on seeing a butterfly says, "You'll never get me up in one of those." I am struck by the relevance this protest has to the church's present predicament. How often do we fear the very thing we might one day be? Faced with the colorful butterflies of diversity we might become, some in the Anglican Communion seem to want to commit forever to creep as caterpillars towards who knows what future, or at best to remain in a secure cocoon, wrapped with the silken cords of restraint, fearful of our own metamorphosis.
Having begun to digest the Windsor Report (WR), I would like to thank the Lambeth Commission for what must have seemed at times a thankless task. While I have reservations about some of its assumptions and recommendations, and deprecate its tendency towards restraint (or worse, constraint), the WR may help us to harness the energy and will to move in a direction beyond the one the authors may have intended: to more rapid transformation away from an institutional ecclesiastical culture and more faithfully into the likeness of Christ, whose Body's many members cannot circumscribe his oneness nor express his infinite variety.
There is a clear inconsistency in warning the church (citing the Primates) that "to turn from one another would be to turn away from the Cross" (157) while suggesting that the bishops who were out of step in the area of sexuality might absent themselves from representative gatherings, presumably in the interest of not further offending those already offended. A similar restraint is not asked of the bishops who violated the Lambeth resolutions and church tradition and law on invading other dioceses (155), which only goes to show that, as Orwell might have said, some bishops are more equal than others. In addition to the practical question—How do we discuss matters when the "loyal opposition" is disinvited from the meeting?—the simple question of human relationship arises. How can you have Communion with people with whom you will not meet? This also reinforces the feeling of the church as a club with members who are out of favor and hence unworthy of full participation.
The worst features of a club are the tendency towards force and constraint. The WR (118) wants the churches of the communion to adopt a covenant that will "make explicit and forceful the loyalty and bonds of affection which govern the relationships between" them. If loyalty and affection have to be forced, I am afraid we are not talking about love but coercion; and the threat of the withdrawal of affection, and the use of force to ensure it, is very far from the Gospel, and not too far shy of abuse.
For example, the "matter of indifference" cited in paragraph 88—the various opinions concerning the nature of Christ's presence in the Holy Eucharist—was not considered a "matter of indifference" at the time of the Anglican settlement; far from it, as the Articles of Religion are at pains to point out. Now that four hundred years later the Roman Catholic Church has, for the most part, come around (essentially) to the Anglican point of view on this matter—in addition to adopting the vernacular liturgy and the common cup, other matters far from indifferent at the time—we may all well look back and say it was a tempest in a teapot. But people were burned at the stake at the time, and you can be sure it made a difference to them.
Surely it is also ironic that the WR cites this tolerable disagreement on the Holy Eucharist, one of the Sacraments in every sense of the word, while at present we seem to be unable to tolerate differences of opinion on who may be the subjects of Matrimony and Orders—"rites and ceremonies" which Anglicans have never classed as essential to salvation, and in which considerable leeway has always been explicitly allowed. The issues of pastoral and moral theology raised by the actions of New Hampshire and New Westminster have never in Christian history been held to be at the core of the Christian faith.
Which brings me back to Saint Paul. The report cites Romans 14–15 and 1 Corinthians 8–10, but fails to bring to light the most important Pauline text on matters of indifference, Galatians 5:1–6. Circumcision or uncircumcision makes no difference to salvation, but if you insist it does make a difference then you have "cut" yourself off from Christ. And while Paul had the Apostolic Council on his side on circumcision, his claim that eating meat offered to idols was indifferent challenged the decision of that same Council. Those who insist that obedience to a particular moral code (or set of Council resolutions) is salvific (thereby relying on what Paul called "the flesh") are in error; and those who stand in opposition to Councils that wrongly declare that certain matters are of the essence of the faith are relying on what Paul called "his gospel." If you take something indifferent and try to make it a "core doctrine" you risk cutting yourself off from Christ.
In addition, in the process for determining whether a matter is indifferent (90), the paper alludes (perhaps unconsciously) to Galatians, but neglects to note that in addition to matters that separate Jew and Gentile, Paul also declared Christ to have set aside (for the baptized) all that separated slave and free, and male and female. This too has relevance for the present discussion and ought not be omitted. If "gender" is truly a matter of indifference in Christ, then it is wrong to make matters involving it core values of the gospel.
I certainly have no wish to see the end of the Anglican Communion, as a historic reality based on inherited traditions (see WR 47), allowing for considerable differences of opinion on matters not laid out in the Creeds of the Undivided Church. But "the Anglican Communion" is not coterminous with either the "instruments of unity" (which only began to function as such in 1789, 1867, 1968 and 1978, and which can hardly therefore be held to be either "foundational" or "essential"), nor with any proposed future synodical body. It is clearly of the bene esse to remain in communion, but only to the extent that it serves the mandates of the Gospel, via (if need be) an agreement to abide by the principles of spiritual fellowship fundamental to the well-being of the church, rather than through a form of legal constraint which will inevitably lead to division. The choice between Spirit and Law is the same one faced in Galatia. I see no reason to choose differently now than Paul counseled choosing then.
By leaving the door open for such a development, the WR reveals that this is not a matter of fixed and immutable doctrine. One could scarcely imagine the church issuing a document calling for further study of the Incarnation, for example. The WR therefore reveals that the ordination of bishops in same-sex relationships, while in its view unadvisable at present, is not a matter of doctrine: the old consensus is no more, even if a new one has not yet emerged. (143)
The difficulty with the moratoriums called for by WR is that they require a de facto acceptance of a consensus that no longer exists, and submission to an authority that has yet to establish either its legitimacy or its trustworthiness. It is surprising to hear the WR state (127) that the "Communion has made its collective position clear" when only Lambeth and the Primates and the bishops of a number of Provinces have spoken. This is an illegitimate and arrogant (in the strictest sense of the word) assertion. It echoes the inaccurate claim that bishops "in the Anglican tradition" somehow have a particular role as "teachers of scripture." (58) As even a cursory look at the Anglican ordination rites will show, the office of teaching lies with the presbyters; the task of the bishops is to preserve the unity of the church, and Lambeth seems not to be adept at this task. It is, after all, one thing for a club to enforce rules that all its members have agreed to; but it is quite another for gatherings of bishops meeting in bodies which specifically and historically state they have no power to legislate on matters of doctrine suddenly to begin to do exactly that, calling for obedience to a constitution that does not now and never has existed. This is not consensus.
When we more closely review the history of Lambeth's positions on sexual morality, a clear pattern emerges. Three such issues have come before Lambeth over the years (divorce, birth-control, and polygamy), and on all three Lambeth first upheld and later reversed or radically amended its recommendations as the consensus changed. Is this trip really necessary? Isn't it rather pointless and divisive to continue to draw line after line in the sand that time and tide will only wash away?
When it comes to offering an explanation in defense of this manner of life, since there are an unknown but real number of Anglican bishops living in same-sex relationships (all but two of them surreptitiously), and they are all serving (or retired from having served) as exemplars to the flocks they lead, isn't that sufficient evidence of the rightness of their lives and a better proof than further spillage of ink? Do not the gifts of the Spirit count for anything? Do not actions speak louder than words? They were enough to convince Peter, and through him the church, that Gentiles were worthy of salvation. When John's disciples sent to know if Christ was the expected One, he did not offer them a reasoned point-by-point from scripture, but rather his acts—liberation from blindness, brokenness, and death. He ended with telling words, "Blessed are those who take no offense in me!" (Luke 7:19-23)
Ultimately the burden of proof (as the Articles of Religion require) lies upon those who wish to make strict adherence to this one aspect of a traditional sexual morality a matter of salvation. Although they may have the tradition on their side, those same Articles point out that tradition is often in error. At the same time, contemporary biblical scholarship is clearly tending towards limiting the scope of the negative judgments on same-sex acts to the same range of relationships and circumstances as mixed-sex acts: infidelity, rape and idolatry. The "reasserters" (as they call themselves) deny this, but they must do more than simply reassert, and to date they have been unable to make their case—and it is the responsibility of the "prosecution" to do so. The "defense" need only demonstrate a reasonable doubt and show "how what is now proposed not only accords with but actually enhances the central core of the Church's faith." (WR 60)
The proposed covenant seems focused too much on the institution and too little on the gospel the institution is meant to serve. So we return to the cocoon and the butterfly. Biblical images for this come to mind as well, principally that of the tower of Babel—an effort to exalt a human "instrument of unity." Communion is not to be based on human instrumentalities but upon the unity we share in Christ. If we are to have a covenant, let it be the Baptismal Covenant. If greater specificity is wanted, throw in the Lambeth Quadrilateral! But let that be enough.
Clearly the reform and good order of the institution better to serve the mission of the church is important. Yet the Primates of the West Indies and Southern Cone speak of "mending the net"—which is fine when you plan to catch fish; but what Jesus said was, "Follow me, and you will fish for people!" If the Episcopal Church (and some of the other provinces of the Communion) choose to follow Jesus rather than staying with Zebedee in the boat mending nets, we do so in the belief that we are doing as Jesus would have us do, which is not to ensure the survival of an institution but to preach the gospel.
In addition to the biblical images, I am also reminded of the medieval fixation on the Holy Grail instead of Christ, and especially Percival's failure to ask the crucial question: Whom does the Grail serve? What would the church be like today if the Lambeth Conference had never met? Or, if having met, passed no resolutions, but merely shared the Bread and Wine and fellowship of the Body? Unable as they have been to abide by their own mandate, look at the resolutions they've adopted through the years: how timely have they been in speaking to the needs of the church and the world, and then acting actually to meet those needs? To what extent have the "instruments of unity" in recent decades not rather been the seedbeds of division?
The Anglican Communion has been a good place to be; but it is up to us now whether (to use yet another biblical image) we will follow Peter's inclination to build three booths, or follow Jesus Christ into the valley of engagement with the world's woes. The Anglican Communion will be with us if it chooses. If it does not, we will not, whatever some may think, be walking alone. Like the man born blind whose healing so scandalized the orthodox of his day, the Episcopal Church and a few others may end up thrown out of the synagogue because of what we have seen and known. But we will not, believe me, be alone.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Tobias Stanislas is Vicar of Saint James Church Fordham, the Bronx
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