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Don't repeat the mistake on page 847 of The Prayer Book . Here is what God really requires from the chosen people:
A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
A Blazing Row
Trinity VII 2010
A Sermon by David B. Taylor
I’ll start from the story of the conversion of Cornelius in Acts x – not with it, because I suspect you are already sufficiently familiar with it for my purposes. I’ll just point out that an entire, and very long, chapter is devoted to telling it – by far the longest single narrative in the New Testament. And why was that? Because, as the next bit of Acts makes clear – the opening of chapter xi – it was the subject of a blazing row. Here’s how Acts xi starts: Now the apostles and the brethren who were in Judća heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem – you expect, now, you’re going to hear how he was congratulated on this bold stroke, which hugely increased the potential of the new message to reach a wider audience; but no such thing. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” And then follows, as if we hadn’t already exhausted the subject, a long recapitulation of what we were told in chapter x, concluding thus: “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.”
Either the world has changed unrecognizably since those days, or that concluding verse paints a rather too rosy picture – and probably the latter. We live at a time of almost incessant rowing in the Anglican Communion between those who wish to innovate – principally the American church – and those for whom innovation is anathema. What brings the subject up now is the current row in England over whether women can be bishops. It is fairly clear that those who think they can have won, and it is only a matter of time before the first woman bishop is consecrated. And do we really expect that the opponents of the idea will now be silenced, and will glorify God? The truth is that a handful of them may. And then another handful will be silenced, certainly, but will feel no inclination to glorify God; they will sit at home muttering to themselves that the Church of England is finished. When a parson declares that the Church of England is finished – and many of them have in the course of my life – what he really means is that the idea he had of the way the Church ought to go forward is finished; and this is usually true, and is usually no disaster. Unconditional surrender to Papal authority, alas, isn’t going to happen after all, but reuniting with Methodism – at least in Britain – very well may; there will be women bishops after all, and in time – and probably no very long time – it is likely that the first homosexual bishop will be consecrated. Jeffrey John, after all, is only fifty-seven; it seems unlikely that Rowan will easily be able to block his advancement a third time.
But that still accounts for only a minority. A majority, and probably a large majority, of discontents will by no means be silenced; they will continue – as they have up to now – to be very vocal in their denunciation of the new approach; and it is overwhelmingly likely, also, that many of them will leave the Church of England altogether – some to go over to Rome, which has always been their real spiritual home anyway, and some in the other direction, to a more disciplined form of Protestantism, where the motions of liberalism and innovation are never felt. And we need not doubt, despite what we read in Acts xi, that exactly the same thing hap-pened then, and the actual evidence supports that. In Paul’s day the Christian community was overwhelmingly from a Jewish background; by the end of the first century it was overwhelmingly from a Gentile one. Those who could not accept the innovation had simply drifted away. And what happened then is what will happen now.
The rejection by the Synod of Dr Williams’ attempt to soften the blow to traditionalists by making special provision for what they see as their needs has put him in a position that is worse than embarrassing. A Prime Minister who suffered a similar rebuff from the members of his own party would feel obliged to resign, and Rowan will do little to enhance his reputation, either with his contemporaries or with history, if he insists on carrying on. It is nevertheless hard to feel sorry for him; he put himself in the position he is in, and anyone with even minimal political instincts would have sensed that he was doing so. Rowan doesn’t seem to have such instincts which, in his position, is a very serious lack; it is no bar to sanctity to lack them, but it is a huge defect in an archbishop.
On the other hand, he is not solely responsible for the calamity; much of the blame lies with his predecessor, Dr Carey, and the way he handled the 1998 Lambeth Conference. It is from that date – only twelve years ago –that this habit of incessant rowing began; those who are of my generation can recall fifty or sixty years prior to that of uneventful, blessed peace. What caused the sudden change?
The 1998 Lambeth Conference passed a now notorious resolution dealing with the subject of homosexuality. That in itself would have caused no difficulties. Up to that date the resolutions of the Lambeth Conference were not thought to have any coercive power. Let me give you an example of what I mean. In the early part of the last century several resolutions had been passed stating that the use of contraceptives was incompatible with the gospel. Lots of people disagreed and said so. There was never any talk of ‘disciplining’ such people, or of suppressing their point of view. Similarly, when the Lambeth Conference of 1938 reversed that view and decided that the use of contraceptives was accept-able after all, this also carried no corollary of coercion. People were still free to be guided by their own conscience in the matter, as they always had been under the previous resolutions. And all resolutions of the Lambeth Conference had been like that: their aim was to guide the conscience, not to overrule it. For reasons best known to itself, the 1998 Lambeth Conference strongly hinted that Resolution 1.10 was not mere guidance; obedience was obligatory.
Initially of course no one took any notice; most did not even realize they were supposed to, and that includes Dr Williams himself. As soon as he became Archbishop of Canterbury, a new Bishop of Reading was needed – this because the previous Bishop of Reading had become Bishop of Monmouth to replace Rowan himself. The Bishop of Reading is a suf-fragan in the diocese of Oxford, and the Bishop of Oxford recommended to Rowan Canon Jeffrey John, at the time a canon in the diocese of Southwark, but also a homosexual who made no secret of the fact. Rowan’s initial reaction was enthusiastic endorsement. And then the rowing began, chiefly instigated by a body mendaciously calling itself Anglican Mainstream, who not only stirred up its own opposition to the appointment, but made itself the channel of opposition expressed by other bishops and archbishops of the Anglican Communion; it was Rowan’s immediate, and utterly silly, capitulation to that opposition which has been the recipe for the subsequent endless rowing during the whole of his time in office. What causes rows is the attempt at coercion; it always has done. Rowan should know enough church history to know that, and he probably does; but he probably also feels himself to be the helpless victim of circumstances. He is now, but it is his own fault that he is.
Nothing in his time of office has been more reprehensible than his deal-ings with the American church. They showed conviction where he could only manage accommodation. After he had compelled Jeffrey John to withdraw his candidacy for the Reading bishopric, the Americans boldly went ahead and consecrated the no-less-homosexual Gene Robinson to be Bishop of New Hampshire – something they were fully entitled to do; all the provinces of the Anglican Communion are, and always have been, autonomous. The bishops who had pressed for the resolution 1.10 at the Lambeth Conference scented blood; they had, as they believed, forced Dr Williams to back down over the consecration of Jeffrey John, they now flexed their muscles to try and force him to ‘discipline’ the American church. This is the moment when his authority collapsed. He could, and should, have insisted on the point I have just made: that the provinces of the Anglican Communion are autonomous, so the American church was entitled to act as it had done. Instead he preferred to go with the flow. He made clear his displeasure with the Americans over what they had done, and asked for a moratorium on all further consecrations of bishops who were known homosexuals. That was in 2006 and, to the dismay of many of us at the time, the American bishops agreed to it – hoping, as is clear from subsequent developments, that Rown would use a period of respite to soften the savagery of African and Asian bishops. They saw the moratorium as a temporary cessation; unfortunately Rowan made it clear he saw it as a permanent one. He made no attempt to persuade his fellow bishops to moderate their stance or, failing that to rebuke them for it; on the contrary, all his efforts went into castigating liberals for giving such pain to the traditionally-minded. Unsurprisingly, therefore, in 2009 the American bishops decided to set aside the moratorium and shortly after that they consecrated another homosexual bishop, this time a woman. And Rowan, having learnt nothing from experience, is even now trying to discipline them for doing so. His original request for a moratorium had been treated as that – a request. It now appears he always thought of it as a demand, with penalties attached to disobedience; and he simply has no powers to make such a demand.
Throughout his difficulties he has frequently appealed for forbearance, but unfortunately only to one side of the argument, which is why these appeals have finally been rejected by the other side. I’d like to read you extracts from a letter which appeared in the Church Times the week before last. It is written by a number of clerics holding benefices in the Southwark diocese, and it relates to the invitation recently extended by the Dean of Southwark to Dr Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the American church (they apparently feel it is undemocratic to have archbishops as such), to preach in his cathedral. Here’s what his critics have to say about her:
For Dr Jefferts to preside and preach at the mother church of the diocese jeopardizes the spiritual health of the Southwark Anglican community, and compromises its Christian witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We the undersigned distance ourselves from Southwark Cathedral, and express a lack of confidence in its leadership. We have very grave concerns about the diocese remaining as a whole if certain leaders in the diocese continue along this liberal political track, and are not checked by others. We are praying that the new diocesan bishop…will lead the diocese back to the biblical, historic and eternal gospel, and its values. It is only around those that our diocese can experience real unity, purpose and mission once again.
What strikes one about this letter is its sheer discourtesy. Those who wrote it would no doubt insist that the pure word of God is far more important than courtesy; but they are wrong, and that is the error which gives an air of nastiness and menace to almost everything they say. If it were true that the Bible instigates such discourtesy, that still wouldn’t justify it; it would be a criticism of the Bible. But it isn’t true. Or rather, the Bible doesn’t have to be read in that way. You can find passages which support it; but you can find biblical passages which support almost any attitude you wish to adopt. The passages you choose tell us far more about you than about the Bible. Here’s one (from the second epistle of John) that I find nasty, but which I suspect they would approve:
Any one who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son. If any one comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into the house or give him any greeting; for he who greets hims shares his wicked work.
(II John 9)
And here’s a passage which gives far more acceptable advice as to how to talk to people who disagree with you:
Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the opportun-ity. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer every one.
Rowan has insistently pleaded that no one should say anything to upset such people in the interest of avoiding schism. All that achieves is that the threat of schism will never go away as long as he is in office. His opponents know that schism is his greatest fear, and that is precisely what emboldens them to make ever-increasing demands, to which is attached the threat of schism (as the letter quoted above demonstrates) if those demands are not met. Who is put forward as a bishop? Make sure he is acceptable to us, or there will be schism. Who has been invited to preach? No, they won’t do; they don’t carry what we insist is the true message of the gospel. And Rowan has never found the courage to rebuke such people. You don’t need to silence them, and no one has ever demanded that they should be silenced; but we do insist they have no right to silence those of a different point of view, which what they insist on if schism is to be avoided.
When other provinces of the Communion were up in arms over the consecration of Gene Robinson, rather than try to placate them with the Windsor Report, he could have insisted the Americans were entitled to act as they did – which was true. He could even have pointed out – though this could be seen as a step too far – that in the eyes of most people in the Western world, including Britain, the American attitude to homosexuals was far more moral – far more Christian, indeed – than that of their critics. He has a gift for defining every question in such a way that it does not admit of a solution. So in the present case: yes, we must have women bishops – with exactly the same status and authority as the men – but, no, not in such a way as to cause disquiet among those who reject the idea of women bishops altogether. It can’t be done. Fortunately we have the Synod to settle the question that Rowan himself seems to prefer should never be settled – in order to avoid schism. Schism is bad, but there are things worse: too much moral compromise, too much cynical accommod-ation, in a word, too much politics (of the wrong kind) and not enough religion. Amen.
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