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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church


The Way Ahead after Dar es Salaam: A Letter to the American Bishops

The Way Ahead after Dar es Salaam:

The Way Ahead after Dar es Salaam:

A Letter to the American Bishops

 

By David Bruce Taylor

 

I

SN’T it time to declare your independence?   If America could respond with such outrage to the imagined tyranny of George III, is it sensible to submit like lambs to the real tyranny of the Primates’ meeting at Dar es Salaam?   They claimed to be discussing the future of the Communion, but one look at the document makes it clear they were wholly concerned with discussing you.   Out of thirty-six paragraphs, only the first eight even pretend to be concerned with more general matters.

 

   The two sticking-points the document identifies are the 1998 Lambeth Resolution 1.10, and the Windsor Report.   Discussion throughout assumes there is an all-but-universal acceptance of both, whereas all the participants were certainly aware there is in fact a widespread rejection of both.   The refusal even to hint at such a reality is what gives the document its hideous aura of deceit and menace.   It reads not unlike the pronouncements that used to be issued by the Soviet Union: if you refuse to acknowledge reality, it is the same as if that reality does not exist.  

 

   When the Lambeth Resolution was first passed, those of us who rejected it were not particularly worried.   There was no obligation to accept it, and no means of enforcing such an obligation if there had been.   The Windsor Report began to change all that, and Dromantine, and now Dar es Salaam, were and are attempts to carry it further.   The Anglican Communion that is revealed (admittedly only in prospect as yet, rather than in reality) is wholly different from the organization to which we all thought we belonged.   The most obvious threat is to our hitherto assumed right to speak our mind; the frequent reference to the ‘bonds of affection’ (another double-speak redolent of the Soviet Union) actually means – quite unmistakably – bonds of constraint.  

 

    On Sunday 18th February, the day before the meeting started, the Primates traveled to Zanzibar to celebrate the Eucharist in the cathedral.   I wonder what the epistle reading was.   I know what it should have at any rate included:

 

Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honour, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed.   Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are

 

brethren; rather they must serve all the better, since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved.   Teach and urge these duties. 

(I Timothy vi.1-2)

 

Clearly the Christian church has changed its mind considerably since those days.    Those who campaigned for the abolition of slavery in the eighteenth century had to set aside the New Testament’s unambiguous and repeated endorsement of slavery (Ephesians vi.5-8, Colossians iii.22-25), to the horror and dismay of those Christians who actually owned slaves, and who plausibly argued on the basis of the above texts that slavery could not possibly be inconsistent with the gospel.   The campaigners nevertheless set all that aside, arguing that such texts had become a pretext for cruel and unjust oppression.    In the same way, if some Christians today argue that, although it is true the New Testament condemns homosexuality, that too has become a pretext for oppression that is only a little less cruel and unjust, are they really doing anything unprecedented?   Conservatives may not be persuaded, but can they claim justification for rejecting such a view out of hand, or refusing to even to talk to those who hold it.

 

   And this points to the real issue of the debate, which is not specifically about homosexuality at all, but about the supposed right of some members of the communion to impose their views on all the rest.   No one has ever suggested, nor are they suggesting now, that conservative views should be suppressed or excluded.   What is at issue is whether conservatives can claim a right to silence or exclude their opponents.    Dar es Salaam makes it clear they openly claim such a right, and that Dr Williams is ready – is always ready – to concede whatever demands they make.  

 

   We have the strange spectacle, in Britain at any rate, of the media, though overwhelmingly staffed by people holding views on this issue close to those advocated by liberals, nevertheless appearing in their comment to side with evangelicals, and to assume that in this – as in all previous rows between the two parties – it is the evangelicals who will carry the day.   Journalists are not concerned with who is right and who is wrong.   It is religion, isn’t it!   Questions of right and wrong, truth and falsehood simply do not apply.   The reason for their stance is that evangelicals, when asked to state their views, use a tone of voice that is confident and challenging, while liberals, on the other hand, invariably sound diffident and apologetic.   Liberals, if they wish to make a better impression on the general public, must learn to make the same assumption as evangelicals do that theirs is the real voice of truth.  

 

   And the first point on which to announce this change is on the meaning and proper use of scripture.   In the Dar es Salaam statement, as in all previous ones, there is frequent reference to scripture and to the authority of scripture (but a total absence of any actual references to it!).   Evangelicals assume – and sadly I think they may be right – that most liberals are not all that familiar with scripture, so that any reference to it immediately silences the opposition.    Liberals give the impression (rarely more than that) that they do not accept the claims evangelicals make for what kind of book the Bible is and what kind of authority it should have, but they avoid making any precise claims of their own, and that is their big tactical mistake. 

 

   They should state openly, without apology or equivocation, that in their view the whole of Reformation theology is based on claims about scripture which are utterly implausible.   Firstly it is not a rule book: Christians are perfectly entitled to have black pudding for breakfast, their wives are perfectly entitled to go to church bare-headed, and even to deliver the occasional sermon - all things which are prohibited by the New Testament, but that does not mean they are prohibited.     And secondly it is not a revelation; Paul’s views, in particular, are not necessarily those of God.   God was not speaking directly through the mouth of Paul when Paul condemned homosexuality, any more than he was when Paul endorsed slavery.   The Bible is a collection of ancient documents put together to be the basis of a value system.   Treated that way it still works well – and it works even better when combined and contrasted with that other value system bequeathed by the ancient world, the pagan classics, which can also have a wonderfully cooling influence on the perfervid zeal that often results from attention to scripture alone.   

 

   Liberals like to live in the centre of the modern world, which is another tactical mistake: the modern world is not convinced that it has any need of them.    It is dubious also about any possible relevance of the ancient world, but that did have relevance in the past, so that (if only for historical reasons) it cannot entirely be neglected.   Yet liberals do have a tendency to neglect it, or at least – which is just as bad – to give the impression that they do; some of the younger clergy scarcely conceal their real opinion that scripture is a load of unreadable old rubbish.   Even if it were, if your opponents place great emphasis on it and appear to win the argument by doing so, it follows that you too must incorporate a knowledge of it into the debate.   Just as your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, so must your knowledge of scripture.  

 

   Now let us look at some of the detail of this latest report.   In paragraph 10 two conflicting causes are identified for the ‘threats to our common life’: the first is that the American and Canadian churches ‘challenged the standard of teaching on human sexuality articulated in the 1998 Lambeth Resolution 1.10’ (which, until the Windsor Report, no one was aware was supposed to be obligatory); the second is the ‘interventions in the life of those Provinces which arose as reactions to the urgent pastoral needs that certain [external] primates perceived’.   “The Windsor Report”, we are told, “did not see a ‘moral equivalence’ between these events…”   Translated into the school-boy language which such trivialities merit, the interveners could plead, “I wouldn’t have hit you if you hadn’t started calling me names”.  

 

   “What has been quite clear throughout this period is that the 1998 Lambeth Resolution 1.10 is the standard of teaching which is presupposed in the Windsor Report…”   What this literally states is true; what it implies is a calm and deliberate lie.   Those who acted in contravention of the Lambeth Resolution did so because they utterly disagreed with it in the first place, and had no reason even to suspect they were not fully entitled to do so.   At one point in his address to the English General Synod on 26th February, Dr Williams suggests, “This is a war no one chose”.   He couldn’t be more wrong: Dr Carey quite deliberately chose it.   He could see popular opinion deserting the position it had held on the question of homosexuality for all his life-time, and opinion in the Church of England beginning to shift in the same direction.   The Lambeth Resolution was a purely political stratagem, designed to prevent the English church from going any further down that road.    The Primates in their recent statement deplore the innovations made in north America; but what has proved to be the biggest and most disastrous innovation of all is the suggestion Dr Carey clearly made, in particular to African bishops, that they had some kind of right to demand that the whole church was obliged to agree with their view on this question.

 

   You would have thought by now that Christians generally would have woken up to the fact that the endless splits and divisions in Christianity are caused by the insistence, whenever disputes arise within the church (as they are bound to do from time to time) on the side that believes it has victory within its grasp being determined to impose its view on the whole body. Actual experience makes it clear that, in situations where apparently irreconcilable differences occur, a split can be averted by acknowledging – and tolerating – the disagreement; rather than rely on Lambeth Resolutions, or Windsor Reports, or Dromantine Declarations, if it is left to tolerant and free discussion, in time the disagreement resolves itself.   Let me give an example.   When I was a boy there was a fierce debate among the clergy as to whether capital punishment was a good or a bad thing, a necessity or a barbarity; those who argued the former, of course, had scripture on their side.   Now, fifty years later, the problem has long been resolved – in favour of the unscriptural position – and no one feels the least concern about it.   If Dr William is as anxious as he says to avoid a split, that is the advice he should be giving.   

 

   Instead, of course, he has systematically and unswervingly given ground to the African triumphalists, and fondly hopes that tears and beseechings directed at the other side will be sufficient to avert the catastrophe.   At no point has he ever defended the right of those who disagree with the Lambeth Resolution to do so; the right of the north American churches to rectify what they see as the injustice – a very traditional and universally practiced injustice, but an injustice all the same – inflicted by the Church on homo-sexuals: not just the injustice of branding them as sinners, even when fully aware that Paul’s understanding of the condition is faulty and that the condition itself is simply a part of nature and causes no problems to anyone; but also the injustice of attempting to impose celibacy on them as a condition of their acceptance within the community.   We have all seen in recent years the consequences of imposed celibacy, some would say the inevitable consequence of such an imposition.    The condemned innovations of the north American churches are a just and right step towards rectifying these quite simply unChristian traditional views and practices – just as the condemnation of slavery as unChristian was just and right, even though the New Testament clearly stated otherwise.  

 

   “When gentlemen’s agreements fail”, Dr Williams asks, “what should we to about it.”   He will not like to be reminded of the obvious English answer: “Dissociate yourself from people who clearly are not gentlemen”.    His despair at the present situation is not hard to understand.   At one point in his speech he suggests, “It is folly to think that a decision to ‘go our separate ways’ in the Communion would leave us with a neat and morally satisfying break between two groups of provinces…Every province could break in several different directions.”    There will be plenty ready to reply, “So be it.   Such is the deserved consequence of your own dithering and folly.”    But in fact the prognosis is unduly pessimistic – except in one particular area of the Communion: the English provinces.    In north America, and in English speaking provinces generally, the liberals will be in a majority; in the now notorious Global South, on the other hand, the conservatives will prevail.    In England it is not likely that either party can, or ever will be, able to prevail.   It has always been like this, which is exactly why the Church of England has learnt the tolerance of diversity that it has.   What a pity, then, that it has failed to export it, or that Dr Williams has failed to defend it.    When the break occurs (as now looks to be more or less inevitable) most Primates will remain comfortably seated on their various thrones; it is only the Archbishops of Canterbury and York who will find themselves lying on the top of a mast.

 

   If the Dar es Salaam statement is to be believed, it is the Windsor Report that is to be the Shibboleth, as it were, that separates the Ephraimites from the rest of Israel.   Up to now the American stance has been deliberately ambiguous – for honourable reasons, let it be said.   TEC as a body does not like the report one bit, but also wishes to avoid a break if it can.   It is clear that such equivocation will not satisfy the primates.   Which path therefore should TEC follow?   It has always maintained that the question of the ordination and consecration of homosexuals, just like that of women, was essentially a question of justice rather than theology.   Are the bishops now prepared to sully their consciences by taking the alternative view?   If unity can only be maintained (and let us be clear, it is the conservative faction that have insisted on this dichotomy) by sacrificing the just aspirations of homosexuals, not just to be members of the church, but officiating members, and at all levels, then which option would a just and honourable body of men choose?    “Open your mouth for the dumb, for the rights of all who are left desolate.”   Don’t just nervously offer a minimal assent to this iniquitous Windsor Report; reject it, officially, wholeheartedly, unambiguously.  If those trying to pressurize you into an unworthy sub-mission break fellowship with you, is that really such a disaster?    You will have delivered not just yourselves, but all of us, from a yoke of godly discipline such as we in England experienced during the Republic and never wish to see revived.   

DAVID BRUCE TAYLOR

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to lcrew@newark.rutgers.edu Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.

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