What is the current tension in the Anglican Communion actually about? Plenty of people are confident that they know the answer. It’s about gay bishops, or possibly women bishops. The American Church is in favour and others are against – and the Church of England is not sure (as usual).But it's much more fun to paint this as an assault on gays, or a retrenchment of progress, or better yet, a battle between "evil" fundamentalism and "good" liberals.Yet, as Jesus asked: "Why do you call me good? There is no one good but the Father alone." So let's set aside categeories and declarations and consider the issue as the Archbishop sees it.
It’s true that the election of a practising gay person as a bishop in the US in 2003 was the trigger for much of the present conflict. It is doubtless also true that a lot of extra heat is generated in the conflict by ingrained and ignorant prejudice in some quarters; and that for many others, in and out of the Church, the issue seems to be a clear one about human rights and dignity. But the debate in the Anglican Communion is not essentially a debate about the human rights of homosexual people. It is possible – indeed, it is imperative – to give the strongest support to the defence of homosexual people against violence, bigotry and legal disadvantage, to appreciate the role played in the life of the church by people of homosexual orientation, and still to believe that this doesn’t settle the question of whether the Christian Church has the freedom, on the basis of the Bible, and its historic teachings, to bless homosexual partnerships as a clear expression of God’s will. That is disputed among Christians, and, as a bare matter of fact, only a small minority would answer yes to the question.
Unless you think that social and legal considerations should be allowed to resolve religious disputes – which is a highly risky assumption if you also believe in real freedom of opinion in a diverse society – there has to be a recognition that religious bodies have to deal with the question in their own terms. Arguments have to be drawn up on the common basis of Bible and historic teaching. And, to make clear something that can get very much obscured in the rhetoric about ‘inclusion’, this is not and should never be a question about the contribution of gay and lesbian people as such to the Church of God and its ministry, about the dignity and value of gay and lesbian people. Instead it is a question, agonisingly difficult for many, as to what kinds of behaviour a Church that seeks to be loyal to the Bible can bless, and what kinds of behaviour it must warn against – and so it is a question about how we make decisions corporately with other Christians, looking together for the mind of Christ as we share the study of the Scriptures.
Because, of necessity, he sees it differently than the rest of us do. I've been in his position, and I am sympathetic to it. One of the things you learn as a pastor is that you alone are responsible for, and you alone have to see, the "big picture." You have to look beyond what would make your life easier in the short term, what would please or pacify the noisiest person in the pew, the biggest critic, the worst gossip, the most generous contributors, the oldest families, your most diligent opponents, and try to lead the church in the direction God wants it to go. You can't do that autocratically, and you can't do it with an insistence on the purity, or the "prophetic nature," of your vision. You have to be aware of so much it can be paralyzing, or you can seem to be paralyzed. So the Archbishop, in those three paragraphs above, states the crux of the matter as he sees it, and tries to steer a course that will keep as many people involved in the discussion as possible. And he frames it, not as a matter of the acceptance of rejection of homosexuals as persons, or even as priests and bishops; he frames it, as the last paragraph quoted makes clear, as a matter of polity. Ordaining gay bishops in open homosexual relationships is a change of practice for the Anglican Communion, and the question is: who gets to decide that the Communion will change that practice?
There are other fault lines of division, of course, including the legitimacy of ordaining women as priests and bishops. But (as has often been forgotten) the Lambeth Conference did resolve that for the time being those churches that did ordain women as priests and bishops and those that did not had an equal place within the Anglican spectrum. Women bishops attended the last Lambeth Conference. There is a fairly general (though not universal) recognition that differences about this can still be understood within the spectrum of manageable diversity about what the Bible and the tradition make possible. On the issue of practising gay bishops, there has been no such agreement, and it is not unreasonable to seek for a very much wider and deeper consensus before any change is in view, let alone foreclosing the debate by ordaining someone, whatever his personal merits, who was in a practising gay partnership. The recent resolutions of the General Convention have not produced a complete response to the challenges of the Windsor Report, but on this specific question there is at the very least an acknowledgement of the gravity of the situation in the extremely hard work that went into shaping the wording of the final formula.I emphasized that last bit because that is precisely where the conversation is now taking place. Both sides of this debate are loudly declaring their "right" to be "right," and denying the other side any legitimate authority in this discussion. Both sides want the Archbishop to speak for them, because there can be only one truth, and they alone have access to it. I've seen this battle, I've lived through it too many times. What Archbishop Williams says about the battle lines running through, not just the Communion, but through local churches, could just as well be said for the United Church of Christ, where autonomy of the local church is so absolute that it means the UCC's General Synod is equally autonomous, and the two usually act completely seperate from each other (I worked with churches in Houston, trying to keep them in the denomination, that didn't know General Synod had approved the ordination of gays and lesbians years earlier.). In a nutshell, that is the situation the Archbishop is trying to avoid. And he puts is finger precisely on the problem: the hubris inherent in the highly popular "prophetic stance:"
Very many in the Anglican Communion would want the debate on the substantive ethical question to go on as part of a general process of theological discernment; but they believe that the pre-emptive action taken in 2003 in the US has made such a debate harder not easier, that it has reinforced the lines of division and led to enormous amounts of energy going into ‘political’ struggle with and between churches in different parts of the world. However, institutionally speaking, the Communion is an association of local churches, not a single organisation with a controlling bureaucracy and a universal system of law. So everything depends on what have generally been unspoken conventions of mutual respect. Where these are felt to have been ignored, it is not surprising that deep division results, with the politicisation of a theological dispute taking the place of reasoned reflection.
Thus if other churches have said, in the wake of the events of 2003 that they cannot remain fully in communion with the American Church, this should not be automatically seen as some kind of blind bigotry against gay people. Where such bigotry does show itself it needs to be made clear that it is unacceptable; and if this is not clear, it is not at all surprising if the whole question is reduced in the eyes of many to a struggle between justice and violent prejudice. It is saying that, whatever the presenting issue, no member Church can make significant decisions unilaterally and still expect this to make no difference to how it is regarded in the fellowship; this would be uncomfortably like saying that every member could redefine the terms of belonging as and when it suited them. Some actions – and sacramental actions in particular - just do have the effect of putting a Church outside or even across the central stream of the life they have shared with other Churches. It isn’t a question of throwing people into outer darkness, but of recognising that actions have consequences – and that actions believed in good faith to be ‘prophetic’ in their radicalism are likely to have costly consequences.
It is true that witness to what is passionately believed to be the truth sometimes appears a higher value than unity, and there are moving and inspiring examples in the twentieth century. If someone genuinely thinks that a move like the ordination of a practising gay bishop is that sort of thing, it is understandable that they are prepared to risk the breakage of a unity they can only see as false or corrupt. But the risk is a real one; and it is never easy to recognise when the moment of inevitable separation has arrived - to recognise that this is the issue on which you stand or fall and that this is the great issue of faithfulness to the gospel. The nature of prophetic action is that you do not have a cast-iron guarantee that you’re right.The example of Martin Luther King, Jr. comes to mind here. But Dr. King's stand was not a break with his church, it was an outgrowth from it. His break was with American society, and indeed with other pastors of other churches, but not with his church. A prophet never stands alone; a prophet always stands within a tradition. And the first question the prophet has to ask herself is: is this a hill worth dying on?
The question of the humanity of gays and lesbians is not at issue. The question of ordination, on the other hand, is; and ordination is not the action of a few, or even a majority: it is an action of the entire institution. My New Testament professor led a class at a church where I was a student pastor one year, and he spoke to them about the boundaries around the Lord's table. The UCC practices an open table, accepting all who believe in Christ as lord and savior. All well and good, my professor said, and he agreed with that position. But where, he asked, are the boundaries? If someone comes to your house and puts his feet on the table and smacks his lips and talks with his mouth full and spills the wine...is that okay? Likewise, if they come to communion and chug the wine and put their feet up on the pews and generally behave like a lout in what should be at least a respectful, if not solemn, ceremony...is that okay?Where are the limits of our tolerance, our acceptance, and why? Whose communion is it, anyway? Yours? Mine? The congregation's? The larger church's? The church catholic? Where do we draw these lines, and why?
Communion is not a private action, it is a corporate one, and certain practices are expected of the participants. Ordination is not a private action, either. I do not ordain myself, a la John Ashcroft; ordination is the recognition of elevation to a position of responsibility and authority by a community. But, asks Archbishop Williams, which community? The community of the Diocese of New Hampshire? The community of the ECUSA? Or the community of the Anglican Communion? That is the issue: who ordains whom, and on what authority? This may not be the question some want to consider. But Archbishop Williams is right: the issue here is Anglican identity:
But we have tried to be a family of Churches willing to learn from each other across cultural divides, not assuming that European (or American or African) wisdom is what settles everything, opening up the lives of Christians here to the realities of Christian experience elsewhere. And we have seen these links not primarily in a bureaucratic way but in relation to the common patterns of ministry and worship – the community gathered around Scripture and sacraments; a ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, a biblically-centred form of common prayer, a focus on the Holy Communion. These are the signs that we are not just a human organisation but a community trying to respond to the action and the invitation of God that is made real for us in ministry and Bible and sacraments.And to the extent that doesn't work, something else may be necessary:
But what our Communion lacks is a set of adequately developed structures which is able to cope with the diversity of views that will inevitably arise in a world of rapid global communication and huge cultural variety. The tacit conventions between us need spelling out – not for the sake of some central mechanism of control but so that we have ways of being sure we’re still talking the same language, aware of belonging to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ. It is becoming urgent to work at what adequate structures for decision-making might look like. We need ways of translating this underlying sacramental communion into a more effective institutional reality, so that we don’t compromise or embarrass each other in ways that get in the way of our local and our universal mission, but learn how to share responsibility.I like that emphasis on "shared responsibility." it is something I fear many critics as well as supporters of the Archbishop will miss. We shun responsibility; we abhor it, we abjure it. We retreat behind "tradition" as the protection for our stubbornness, or run to "prophetic witness" as an excuse for our own selfishness and impatience. What we never want to do is take responsibility. And it is that refusal to pay the piper when we want to call the tune, that leads to what is being considered the inflammatory "proposal" of this statement:
The idea of a ‘covenant’ between local Churches (developing alongside the existing work being done on harmonising the church law of different local Churches) is one method that has been suggested, and it seems to me the best way forward. It is necessarily an ‘opt-in’ matter. Those Churches that were prepared to take this on as an expression of their responsibility to each other would limit their local freedoms for the sake of a wider witness; and some might not be willing to do this. We could arrive at a situation where there were ‘constituent’ Churches in covenant in the Anglican Communion and other ‘churches in association’, which were still bound by historic and perhaps personal links, fed from many of the same sources, but not bound in a single and unrestricted sacramental communion, and not sharing the same constitutional structures. The relation would not be unlike that between the Church of England and the Methodist Church, for example. The ‘associated’ Churches would have no direct part in the decision making of the ‘constituent’ Churches, though they might well be observers whose views were sought or whose expertise was shared from time to time, and with whom significant areas of co-operation might be possible.I prefer to quote what the Archbishop said rather than paraphrase it. He says precisely that an unwillingness to take responsibility for actions (and he is clearly aiming that at the ECUSA, not without reason, I think), to "limit their local freedsom for the sake of a wider witness," could lead to the situation of "'constituen't Churches." He is not declaring an answer, he is pointing out a consequence. A consequence that may arise from a principled stance on a contentious issue, but a consequence nonetheless. As the prophets knew and made clear in both their lives and their teachings, you don't get to be a prophet without paying some price for your prophecy, even as you point out the price the community of God must pay, for its faithlessness. If we of the ECUSA are going to insist the rest of the Communion is in some measure faithless on this issue, we must be prepared to pay some price for that stance. And is that price only to be paid in schism, in exclusion? If so, what does that expectation say, about Anglican identity?
I don't know that the Archbishop is stating a solution, or even proposing a resolution. I think he is merely stating the obvious, and laying responsiblity on all involved, as they have acted. Are the African bishops rabidly anti-homosexual? They find no support from the Archbishop. He does not include that stance in Anglican identity. Are the American churches determined to make this a hill they will make the Communion die on? They bear the responsibility for that action. No one, in this scenario, is good; no one but God alone, and everyone, in their desire for power, for control, for authority, is claiming God is on their side. The Archbishop simply recognizes that painful, awful reality, and here calls both sides to see what happens next, or what now might have to happen.
There is no way in which the Anglican Communion can remain unchanged by what is happening at the moment. Neither the liberal nor the conservative can simply appeal to a historic identity that doesn’t correspond with where we now are. We do have a distinctive historic tradition – a reformed commitment to the absolute priority of the Bible for deciding doctrine, a catholic loyalty to the sacraments and the threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, and a habit of cultural sensitivity and intellectual flexibility that does not seek to close down unexpected questions too quickly. But for this to survive with all its aspects intact, we need closer and more visible formal commitments to each other. And it is not going to look exactly like anything we have known so far. Some may find this unfamiliar future conscientiously unacceptable, and that view deserves respect. But if we are to continue to be any sort of ‘Catholic’ church, if we believe that we are answerable to something more than our immediate environment and its priorities and are held in unity by something more than just the consensus of the moment, we have some very hard work to do to embody this more clearly. The next Lambeth Conference ought to address this matter directly and fully as part of its agenda.This is not at all an easy issue; and the solution to it does not boil down to one answer, or the other. The way forward is, as ever, very difficult. Like our own salvation, the Anglican Communion must work out this issue with fear and trembling, and not out of a conviction that we have the power, and we must exercise it. Now, more than ever, the teaching of Christ of the power of powerlessness, must be heeded and exercised.
The different components in our heritage can, up to a point, flourish in isolation from each other. But any one of them pursued on its own would lead in a direction ultimately outside historic Anglicanism The reformed concern may lead towards a looser form of ministerial order and a stronger emphasis on the sole, unmediated authority of the Bible. The catholic concern may lead to a high doctrine of visible and structural unification of the ordained ministry around a focal point. The cultural and intellectual concern may lead to a style of Christian life aimed at giving spiritual depth to the general shape of the culture around and de-emphasising revelation and history. Pursued far enough in isolation, each of these would lead to a different place – to strict evangelical Protestantism, to Roman Catholicism, to religious liberalism. To accept that each of these has a place in the church’s life and that they need each other means that the enthusiasts for each aspect have to be prepared to live with certain tensions or even sacrifices – with a tradition of being positive about a responsible critical approach to Scripture, with the anomalies of a historic ministry not universally recognised in the Catholic world, with limits on the degree of adjustment to the culture and its habits that is thought possible or acceptable.
But, as the Archbishop tacitly recognizes, the likelihood that lesson will be heeded, is nil.