A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
By The Rev. Bill Carroll
Ephraim Radner’s recent response to Susan Russell gets a few things right. For example, he rightly laments some of ways that talk about dialogue and conversation gets abused in the current conflict. Whether Russell is guilty of it or not (many folks on all “sides” are guilty of this from time to time), it is certainly true that parties to conflict sometimes use this type of rhetoric to mean: “Let’s dialogue until you agree with us.” But that’s a parody of true conversation, and it’s an unworthy tactic for disciples of Jesus. Genuine conversation opens all parties to possible conversion—to God and each other—even if, as Radner observes, each party naturally believes its own position to be the faithful one. (In my discussion of conversation, I’m depending on the work of David Tracy on hermeneutics and interreligious dialogue.) In the Church (and elswhere for that matter), God is a partner to our conversations. God’s presence opens us to the possibility of fundamental conversion. Only the Holy Spirit can convict our stony hearts. This holds for our conversation with Holy Scripture and the Church’s sacred tradition, as much as it does for our gentle and not-so-gentle dialogues with one another. True conversation involves the risk of change. Despite the fact that there has been little formal separation so far, what we are currently experiencing is best understood as an ecumenical dialogue between two or more alternative Christian traditions that have been allowed to diverge to the brink of schism. We all bear some responsibility for this sad fact. Some parties to the conversation, indeed, now view it as an interreligious dialogue, since the “revisionist” party is no longer Christian in their eyes. So be it. It remains the case that the model of ecumenical and inter-religious dialouge illuminates the current situation of the Church.
In most places, such dialogues are no longer dominated by perspectives that minimize or deny real differences between alien and competing traditions, or which presuppose an underlying unity (usually a doctrinally eviscerated unity) a priori. True dialogue openly acknowledges differences, and it does not permit one party to present itself as above the fray, as if it had all the answers in advance. That’s what makes it so interesting, and even spiritually formative. Often both parties become better practioners of their own tradition, even if no one seems to change his or her mind about anything significant. As Christians, we encounter Christ in the face of the other and are given the opportunity to grow in charity.
And yet, if we are honest, when it comes to religion, we must admit that we come to the table with certain non-negotiable convictions. Mine include the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the preferential option for the poor, pacifism, a consistent ethic of life, the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, and every article of the Nicene Creed, among others. My pacifist and liberationist views upset my “conservative” friends. My pro-life views upset my “liberal” friends (probably including Susan!). Nevertheless, we continue to be friends, indeed brothers and sisters in Christ. For my part, I can maintain charitable communion with folks who disagree with one or more of these non-negotiables, but I always insist on them in my conversations with others. In a serious conversation, we cannot rule out in advance a substantial reinterpretation of even our non-negotiables. (Theological formation involves such a risky conversation, which is why seminary can be such a vulnerable time.) Nor can we rule out the possibility that we might utterly abandon some or all of them, perhaps to the point of being converted to the alien tradition with which we are in dialogue or to a radically different understanding of our own.
At the same time, however, to do so would be virtually impossible, at least with regard to certain core convictions, the true non-negotiables among non-negotiables. (Very hard to know in advance what these might be.) By and large, for good or ill, our core convictions seldom change. Exceptions exist, but they prove the rule. I can’t imagine abandoning a single article of the Creed or, for that matter, a single word of the formula of Chalcedon. (Because they are true in a realist sense that entails the falsity of contradictories and contraries, and because they help constitute the basic grammar of the Christian faith as I have received it.)
For different reasons, I can’t imagine giving up my commitment to full inclusion of all the baptized in the mission and sacramental life of the Church. Though this commitment is not constitutive of my Christian identity in the same precise way as other commitments are, it is, as far as I can see, the only way that I can respond faithfully to the presence and witness of LGBT Christians in my life—as well as the Good News of Jesus. It is a personally non-negotiable stance, involving matters of both doctrine and practice. I can only imagine how non-negotiable it is for some LGBT folks in the Church, though there are no doubt real disagreements among them about tactics and the issues of ecclesiology that are presently before us. I can also imagine, though not understand, why, for some in the Church, the “traditional” teaching on sexuality is either doctrinally or personally non-negotiable (or both). I believe that, to some, this seems to be the only way that they can be faithful, and I hope that I would defend their liberty of conscience with my dying breath.
That is why this particular problem is so intractable. We have contrary, non-negotiable commitments butting heads. The fact that the present conflict involves sex makes it even more difficult to resolve. (I frankly don’t see it being resolved without agreeing to disagree for a while. The only question is the framework within which we will do so.) Our sexual lives and sexual histories can be places of profound brokenness and sin, as well as deep emotional pain, in addition to being the God-given blessings that they were meant to be. Giving up any fundamental commitment entails a fundamental reconstruction of the self. Giving up these commitments when they involve deeply held attitudes about human sexuality is often even more difficult for us.
We are at a point in our common life where discursive argument will no longer settle the issue, at least for most of us. That is why the same stock arguments are repeated by both sides, again and again. The way forward involves fundamentally risky conversions for one side or the other—probably both. (In reality, there are not two stable “sides.” There are many reasons why people are committed one way or the other. There is no uniform position within the Global South, either!) The way forward may also involve a decision to walk apart, temporarily or permanently, which is not nearly so bad as it is sometimes made out to be. As I’ve said before, even though we are all obligated to work and pray for the unity of the Church, there are worse sins than schism.
Radner also rightly acknowledges the sincerity of those of us who hold an uncompromising stance on issues of LGBT inclusion in society and the Church: “This is no surprise: most of us think that our positions are correct and operate from that conviction; most of us think God is on our side.” We owe him a similar courtesy. I, for one, do not doubt that Radner is acting out of a sincere sense of obedience to God and a passion for the unity and holiness of God’s Church—that highly compromised and yet divinely instituted Body, which, for all its flaws, continues Jesus Christ’s incarnate presence in the world and proclaims his Gospel, in word and deed, to all persons until the end of time. All serious parties to this conversation are guided by similar convictions. We love the Church and want to be faithful to our gracious God and Savior.
Furthermore, despite its condescending tone (why does Radner get to decide which of someone else’s grievances are “legitimate”?), his affirmation of the “legitimate grievances” of LGBT folk against the Church sets him apart from many opponents of LGBT inclusion in a positive way. We might even find common ground with Radner on at least some civil rights issues, which is not at all true for all conservative positions (especially in his neck of the woods, home of Focus on the Family and the notorious Amendment 2).
Even though I find some common ground with Radner, I must take issue with a few of the things he says. First, he repeatedly refers to the “teaching of the Communion.” This simply begs the question. The Communion simply does not have a single teaching on these matters. All that resolutions of the Lambeth Conference represent are the teaching of the majority of the bishops present. At issue in our present conversation about the reception of the Windsor Report is what degree of authority such resolutions have now—and what degree they should have in the future. No doubt they have some degree of authority. The question before is whether and to what degree they are binding on the autonomous provinces that make up the Communion. Lambeth itself has repeatedly affirmed the self-governing character of the provinces, and it has always heretofore been quite careful to avoid the mistaken impression that it serves as some sort of global synod or council. That’s why it’s called a Conference, and it is why it passes no canons, which is one of the marks of a council.
For all its ultramontanist leanings, the Windsor Report itself acknowledges that, as a matter of strict canon law, provinical synods (in our case General Convention) would have to act, in accordance with the process laid out in the Constitution and Canons of each, in order to adopt the proposed Anglican Covenant in a binding manner. The WR also acknowledges the diffuse and ambiguous structures of authority in the history of the Anglican Communion. Being an Anglican is dreadfully untidy, and we are still negotiating the institutions that hold us together in the post-colonial period.
What the present conversation about the future of our Communion reveals is that we have no consensus about the status of Lambeth resolutions—or of the declarations of any of the instruments of unity—in our common life. With a shock, we recognize just how much we disagree, not just about sexuality but about the very character of the ties that bind us together in the Anglican Communion. I have no doubt that many in the Communion sincerely believe that we were bound not to act because Lambeth had spoken. Apparently, despite the WR’s rather pointed and snide criticism of the bishops involved, this was not at all clear to the majority of bishops and deputies at our General Convention.
I do think it is high time that we all admit that we disagree about both the history and the present status of our relationships within the Anglican Communion and that we stop trying to grab the high ground for our own preferred point of view. I am confident that the best historical scholarship would bear my view out, though I have no doubt that many plausible counter-narratives (far more plausible than the WR’s) could be constructed in all sincerity in defense of other points of view. I don’t see the point of arguing about whose Anglicanism is more genuine and true to our tradition, however. If only we had a single coherent tradition! As I see it, this line of argument is a dead end, at least in the heat of conflict. (Anglican historiography has always been beset by this problem, and many otherwise fine histories are marred by unacknowledged special pleading for a single point of view of the nature of Anglican identity, bet it Anglo-Catholic, Laudian, Latitudinarian, Evangelical, etc.. In the title of a recent book, Rowan Williams advisedly uses the plural.)
A more helpful approach would not presuppose Radner’s (or anyone else’s) answer to the question at issue in our conversation. Radner needs to make a constructive case why we should all come to understand our relationships in the way he proposes. So do the opponents of the WR’s proposals. What we are debating now is the ecclesiological framework for our future conversation about issues around sexuality, which will not go away. In this conversation about conversation, the future is utterly open and depends upon the contributions of each one of us. I remain convinced that the Windsor Report’s proposed Anglican Covenant is not the only way—or even one acceptable way among others. In my view, Windsor envisions too much enforced unity—far too much “Lording it over” one another. Even if this were desirable, it wouldn’t work. My sense is that we need far more work on our interpersonal relationships, as well as on letting go of our need to control one another, before we will be able to have this conversation in a way that will make any constructive difference.
Second, I don’t think that Lambeth’s repeated (and ignored) calls for dialogue can be read in the way that Radner insists they must. My sense is that Lambeth I.10 was a compromise document and that the calls for dialogue were included, as they were in earlier resolutions, largely in order to bring more bishops on board. People who were present would have to confirm this. If I were a betting man, I’d bet that some of those who first proposed this language were hoping that such a conversation would lead to a change in position on the underlying questions in sexual ethics, or at least that it would open up a space to keep persons with different beliefs (and perhaps different practices) within one Communion. At a minimum, they were hoping that the promise of genuine conversation would allow some people to vote for Lambeth I.10, who otherwise could not without violating their conscience.
Regardless of the intent, however, would it really be a genuine conversation, if there was no risk that the position taken by the majority at Lambeth would ultimately change as a result of the dialogue? If even a general council can err, can’t Lambeth also err, which is patently less than a council and less than ecumenical in scope? But suppose Radner were correct about the bishops’ intent (was there just one intent?). Wouldn’t those who voted for I.10 be guilty of the exact same kind of abuse of the rhetoric of conversation of which Radner accuses Russell. On Radner’s reading, if I understand him rightly, the purpose of such a conversation is to reconcile advocates of LGBT inclusion to a conclusion known in advance. Not to put it too bluntly, but, if this is genuine conversation, then so is the appearance of an accused heretic before the Inquisition.
Lastly, the distinction that Radner draws between political and theological discourse seems utterly unwarranted to me. This would be true for any area of theology, but it is especially true in ecclesiology—even more so in Anglican ecclesiology, which stresses the concrete structures and political process of the visible Church. Among other things, what we are debating are questions of polity, and the Church is inescapably political both in its internal debates and in its engagement with God’s world. Even less democratic provinces have their Church politics, which are just as worldly as ours. None of which is to say that God can’t use the process.
As I see it, one pernicious effect of this distinction is to exempt the political stance implicit in Radner’s own theological discourse from critique. I’d like to see him take more responsibility as a political actor in the present conflict in the Church and in society. Responsible theology is suspicious of its own tendency to become a self-justifying ideology. What we have here are many alternative theologies with strong commitments to divergent social practices. In our conversations about the future of our life together in the Anglican Communion, we may and must ask hard questions of one another about both our theology and our closely related practices of Christian discipleship, with the Christ-centered biblical narrative (and above all the Gospel) as our chief criterion for evaluating both.
Moreover, this does not depend, as Radner seems to suggest, on some idiosyncratic theses of liberation theology (though, from my own point of view, I would insist that any serious Christian theology must take the many valid insights of all forms of liberation theology into account). It is well grounded in the practice of all the prophets—and of Jesus himself, who proclaims the Gospel of the Kingdom in word and deed. It is also warranted by classical Christian spirituality, where bodily disciplines, relationships with others, and rules of life inform one’s changing relationship with God. My own Franciscan tradition, responding to a clear thrust in the Gospels, insisted on the privileged perspective of poor and marginalized persons many centuries before any such thing as liberation theology existed. Moreover, as Rowan Williams notes in Resurrection, on the basis of his reading of the primitive apostolic kerygma in Acts, conversion to God always involves conversion to our victim, whether innocent or not. Radner may not agree with the kind of incarnational practice that Russell advocates, i.e. that “True discernment can only happen in the context of people’s experience of these developments.” But then again, isn’t Radner’s grievance as much a “political grievance” as a theological one?
I believe that incarnational arguments (Eugene Rogers calls them “embodied” arguments) had far more to do with the reception of women’s ordination than did any of the discursive arguments of the theologians, pro or con. I also believe that, at the end of the day, such arguments will have far more to do with the full inclusion of ALL the baptized, including Christ’s LGBT disciples, in the full spectrum of the Church’s ministires and sacraments. Ultimately, the words and deeds of God precede the theological construction of human beings. To quote Ed Bacon, who is rector of the vibrant parish where Russell also serves, “I’m glad that God didn’t wait for a theological consensus about Incarnation prior to Mary’s pregnancy!”
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