A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
By David B. Taylor
R Langrish’s biggest crime is not against virtue, nor even against the Anglican Communion, but against the English language itself: “Some-how having everyone at the same dialogical table there required both a sense of belonging and a willingness to face unbelonging, all somehow set within a bigger context then [sic] any single cultural or political context can provide”; or “From my own experience of working in Nigeria I am aware of how at times the Bible was brought to Africa…it was brought and offered as part of one commanding contextual paradigm, and almost inevitably there will be the experience or suspicion of something like a tectonic change or betrayal when the presenting culture, or context, seems to have itself under-gone a paradigmatic shift, particular [sic] where this occurs without engage-ment and dialogue (all of which takes time)”. Not even nowadays has official English descended to such a depth of bathetic obscurity, except when it is being deliberately parodied by a comedian. And the reason for this fog of abstractions, this avoidance of saying anything graspable or definite, is not hard to guess: it is not that Dr Langrish cannot write or speak in any other way; more likely he has a bad conscious about the underlying message, so wishes to avoid formulating anything directly.
He purports to find a challenge in a question put to him by a Nigerian bishop: ‘You brought us the Bible; why do you not now believe it?’ I presume the implication is, “We believe the whole Bible to be literally true; you seem no longer to do so. Why?” The first and most obvious point to make, particularly in Nigeria where a large proportion of the slaves came from, is that had we believed the Bible in the eighteenth century the way they want us to believe it now, some of them could well have ended up being born into slavery. You can imagine the sense of outrage which slave-owners felt – many of whom were Christians, many of whom thought themselves devout and holy Christians – being told that slavery was incom-patible with Christianity. They could prove on the basis of Scripture this could not possibly be so; Scripture gave repeated and unambiguous rules on how Christian slaves were to conduct themselves, specifically even to Christian masters. So they took their stand on Scripture and utterly rejected the innovations being pushed forward by unScriptural-minded liberals. They were of course quite right in insisting on Scriptural justification for their actions; in spite of that, those who judged their stand to be immoral won the day. In exactly the same way, no one need question the Scriptural basis for the contemporary condemnation and oppression of homosexuals. This does not establish even remotely that such oppression is not sinful.
The object of Dr Langrish’s endless circumlocutions is to recommend – as directly as he dare, which is not very – an acceptance of the Windsor Report to the American bishops, who up to now have shown a laudable reluctance to go along with it; and it is not hard to see why. The report suggests pretty frankly that, in the interest of preserving unity, we must be prepared to accede to the demand for the continued oppression of homosexuals that some Third World bishops are determined to insist on. The first point to be made here is that all the great crimes of the Christian Church have been the consequence of attempts (usually by unscrupulous means) first to arrive at Unity, and then to impose it on all those who have their doubts about its merits; the Inquisition is only the most notorious of these attempts. In the present instance, the row over homosexuality looks to many of us to be a strategy which has a larger and more sinister aim in view. Towards the end of the seventeenth century the Church of England, having learnt its lesson through the incessant disruption caused by fanatical attempts to impose pure doctrine and godly discipline on the church by extreme Protestants, culmin-ating in the Rule of the Saints under the Republic, for practical purposes abandoned the whole notion of orthodoxy, and viewed with suspicion any demand for discipline. That is the situation which the Windsor Report is basically once again trying to remedy, and it must be resisted.
The report shows no interest in evaluating the worth of the Third World’s objections to the consecration of homosexual bishops. It seems to assume that since the objections have been made they are to be treated as self-justifying. It does not seem to have occurred to anyone, not even Ameri-cans themselves, that just as conservative bishops have no qualms about threatening disunity over this question, so liberal bishops would be perfectly justified in denouncing the Scriptural, but nevertheless immoral, attitude of their opponents. It is taken for granted that conservatives have a right to threaten disunity, and that liberals accordingly have a duty to accommodate them. Thus we see the stage being set for an act of pure criminality; and no one – certainly no English bishop – seems prepared even to protest, let alone resist. And Dr Langrish now hopes he can persuade the American bishops to connive in the same criminality.
“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ,” says Paul in Galatians iii.27-8, “have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female…” The list is good as far as it goes, but it needs completing: “…there is neither straight nor gay.” (And before anyone protests, may I point out that the practice of the church throughout history has pretty well ignored every one of the above pairings.) The race of a proposed bishop is irrelevant, as is the social standing, as is the gender, as finally is the sexual orientation.
But, the Langrishes of this world will surely protest, this is to rush in heedlessly. We may one day arrive at this ideal, but it cannot be achieved as yet; there has to be a period of listening, as the Windsor Report to its credit demands. As Jeremiah long ago observed: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt…” (xvii.9). Conservatives readily accede, have always readily acceded, to the demand for ‘listening’ without a qualm, knowing that it involves them in no practical consequences whatever. What the word ‘listening’ means to them is perfectly set out in a document which outdoes even the Windsor Report in effrontery, namely Repair the Tear. On page 7 it calls on the Primates to “ensure that the ongoing listening and sharing of perspectives that is necessary in all pastoral care is not seen to undermine the status of Lambeth 1.10 within the Communion.” The plain English of that is: “By all means listen, provided that even before you have heard a word of it, you have already decided that nothing they say is going to make the slightest difference to your thinking.”
The Windsor Report, while it seems keen on reviving the orthodoxy and discipline which the Church of England largely rejected centuries ago, makes no mention of what is the real defining characteristic of Anglicanism, which is the acceptance that differences of belief, both in doctrinal and theological matters, are no barrier to cooperation in work and worship among its members. It is that outlook, which has worked so well for centuries, which the report now seems anxious to remedy, so that we must all now arrive at a common view of the present question. Those who take a different view from the prevailing one are either imperilling the Communion itself, or at least their own position within it – this despite the meeting of the Primates in Northern Ireland in February 2005, which concluded with a reaffirmation of the autonomy of the various provinces of the Communion. If we stick to that idea, there is no longer any problem: the American Church is then fully entitled to take the view it does, even though at variance with that (for instance) of the African bishops. It is those who cannot tolerate this acceptance of diversity who are the real culprits, who threaten the stability of the Communion, and who should be warned that unless they learn to take a more tolerant and sensible approach, it is they who are endangering their continued membership of the Communion. The real damage done by Lambeth 1.10 was not specifically to do with homosexu-ality at all; it was the entirely new, and extremely dangerous, idea that the Lambeth Conference could impose a centrally approved view on all provinces in the Communion. This is the question that needs to be brought into the open and fully debated; the Windsor Report, on the contrary, assumes that we now have the basis for a new (and, I’m sure they think, improved) version of the Communion.
If you want to feel slightly sick, take a look at what Dr Langrish has to say on the subject of repentance:
As you probably know, in our response to the Windsor Report the English House of Bishops sought to strengthen the language of repentance, which we believed to be more appropriate than regret. Now as we have seen so often this week langu-age can so easily be misunderstood and divide. So let me be clear, we were not seeing repentance in punitive or scapegoating terms; rather as something much more clinical and precise – that seeing of an action of behaviour in a new light, the light of new circumstances under God, understanding it afresh and changing behaviour accordingly, not out of fear but out of love.
Even more than for Humpty Dumpty, words for Dr Langrish mean just what he wants them to mean; considerations of what they mean to all the rest of us do not apply. There is of course (we are dealing with the House of Bishops after all) an ulterior motive in this preposterous suggestion that somehow the word ‘regret’ is a little harsh, and that we would all prefer to use the milder world ‘repentance’. That motive is to secure the use of the all-important word ‘repentance’, and I’m sure the English bishops mean it when they say that for their part it has no ‘punitive or scapegoating’ implications. They do not care, and do not expect anyone else to care, that for those bellowing most loudly for the American church’s ‘repentance’ it has precisely those connotations, and indeed it is precisely that significance of the word that they wish to insist on. Nevertheless, just utter it once or twice, Dr Langrish implores, and that should be enough to quieten the opposition; despite the fact that everyone who has seen the opposition at work over the last ten years knows well that this is precisely the kind of capitulation which will impel them to make ever more uncompromising demands.
The other point on which there needs to be just a little bit of give is of course on future policy on the appointment of bishops. Dr Langrish puts on a slightly academic hat here:
The origin of the episcopate has been debated by scholars over and over again – is it to be found in the rise of a senior or presiding presbyter, or in the kerygmatic ministry of the apostles witnessing to the resurrection and charged with primary responsibility for articulating the faith and making new members of the Body of Christ? The reality is probably both…
In practice the reality is probably neither. Queen Elizabeth I well under-stood the real usefulness of bishops, and the Popes have always understood it: whoever appoints them controls the direction of the body in which they operate. To accept input from conservative evangelicals over the appoint-ment of bishops is perilous, since it is likely to impede, as it is intended to impede, all further progress. It is the siren voices of the English bishops that would like to persuade you that this is only for a time until a general agreement is reached. Those who want to exert their influence have a far different end in view; they believe that by achieving your compliance ‘for the moment’, they can in effect secure it for ever – they certainly have no intention of ever changing their present position, no matter how much ‘listening’ is involved. The path of virtue demands that you make it clear to them you are aware of this and have no intention of complying.
DAVID BRUCE TAYLOR
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