Parsing Rowan: Catholic, Covenant, and “chosen lifestyles”
Today the Archbishop of Canterbury has published some reflections on the recently concluded General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Please go read these reflections — slowly — and then read it all again. While progressives are likely to howl at several points in the text, there are also some bits that will give heartburn to conservative-leaning Anglicans. If, like most readers of 7WD, you are left of center and don’t like Rowan’s reflection, go have a (quick!) look at the comments on Stand Firm. You’ll see that folks on the extreme right are convinced that Rowan has sold out.
Pretty much every Anglican blogger on the planet is going to have some things to say about what has been written. I considered passing this one by, but I’ve decided to toss in a few comments to particular bits of what Rowan has written. Before that, however, I want to make a couple of general points clear. First, I am grateful for the leadership of our present Archbishop of Canterbury. While I have certainly not agreed with everything he’s done or said, I do believe he has — out of deep, genuine, and inspiring faith — done everything he can do in order to preserve the unity of the Anglican Communion, while respecting the contexts of each province. Second, he is often misread by Americans, who use many of the same words as our English friends, but with totally different meanings. He is not a rampant homophobe out to zap the Episcopal Church. Third, Americans have often accused Rowan of misunderstanding the polity of the Episcopal Church. Perhaps that is true, to some extent. But it is even more true that we have failed to see things from his perspective as Archbishop of Canterbury. It is, though on a vastly different scale, similar to the role of a rector; there may be things that I would personally like to permit, but which my office demands I refuse. (See John Alexander’s excellent reflections on “Person, Orders, and Office” for more on this.)
Now, on to a selective look at a few bits of what Rowan has offered.
No-one could be in any doubt about the eagerness of the Bishops and Deputies of the Episcopal Church at the General Convention to affirm their concern about the wider Anglican Communion… The relationship between the Episcopal Church and the wider Communion is a reality which needs continued engagement and encouragement.
Great! I’m glad Rowan came to Anaheim. We got to see what he’s like in person, and he experienced the Episcopal Church in all its glory and in all its problems. I am grateful that our efforts in resolutions D025 and C056 to affirm our “bonds of affection” were recognized. As I’ve said before, lots of Episcopalians need to get on airplanes and fly to the rest of the Anglican Communion to make real our desire to stay in close relationship. In times of difficult relationships, the only way they are worked out is with sustained engagement.
In response, it needs to be made absolutely clear that, on the basis of repeated statements at the highest levels of the Communion’s life, no Anglican has any business reinforcing prejudice against LGBT people, questioning their human dignity and civil liberties or their place within the Body of Christ. Our overall record as a Communion has not been consistent in this respect and this needs to be acknowledged with penitence.
Rowan has not always had a stellar track record calling out prejudice against LGBT people, and I’m glad that he places this concern front and center here. I’d like to see him continue this trend by reminding Peter Akinola et al that Lambeth 1.10 (“the mind of the Communon”) calls for a listening process and for condemnation of discrimination against LGBT people in civil society.
However, the issue is not simply about civil liberties or human dignity or even about pastoral sensitivity to the freedom of individual Christians to form their consciences on this matter. It is about whether the Church is free to recognise same-sex unions by means of public blessings that are seen as being, at the very least, analogous to Christian marriage.
On the first point, I agree. We ought not to confuse our individual rights and needs with the proper responses and needs of the Church, on any issue. One could easily write a whole book about that (“Personal freedom vs. Catholic identity”), but I’d like to move on to the second point. In the Windsor Report and its aftermath, we are talking only about same-sex relationships and same-sex blessings. While some people (from both left and right) might equate same-sex blessing with same-sex marriage, they are really different things. I’ll stipulate that we’re on the way to talking about same-sex marriage in the church and in the Anglican Communion, but we have plenty to talk about right now before we get to that point.
Personally, I see no reason why I should not bless the loving, faithful relationship of two men or two women who seek the blessing of God in the church. That should be within my purview as an incumbent cleric in a parish. For what it’s worth, this happens routinely in the Province of Canterbury, so Rowan should not imagine that this is only a Canadian or a US “problem.” I have written public letters in support of civil same-sex marriage, where it is a matter of civil rights — being in civil society. However, I personally feel that we need to have further reflection and consensus before proceeding to same-sex marriage ceremonies celebrated in churches. It is not because I have any belief these are not appropriate, but rather that we need to work out the liturgical and theological landscape first. The marriage service in our Book of Common Prayer will not work by merely changing pronouns; a more thorough-going reworking is required, and I do not believe it is the purview of a parish priest to rewrite the prayer book. However, to bless people, things, and relationships is within the purview of a parish priest. (Personally, I’d like to see the church get out of the civil aspect of marriage altogether, but that’s another posting.)
So while I think Rowan is right to draw a distinction between individual Christians’ practice and the practice of the Church, I think he is premature to suggest that we are at the point of discussing same-sex marriage as a Communion.
In the light of the way in which the Church has consistently read the Bible for the last two thousand years, it is clear that a positive answer to this question would have to be based on the most painstaking biblical exegesis and on a wide acceptance of the results within the Communion, with due account taken of the teachings of ecumenical partners also. A major change naturally needs a strong level of consensus and solid theological grounding.
Generally, this point is well taken. The river of church tradition is deep. But it is also wide, with currents and eddies all around. Rowan knows well that we have read some of the Bible consistently over two thousand years, but we have changed our reading of some bits of it as well. In fact, nearly any sensible Christian will admit this. The question then becomes, as Rowan suggests, when to change our reading. Must we wait for “a strong level of consensus and solid theological grounding”? What does that look like? On any number of issues (divorce, slavery, work on the Sabbath, liturgical practices, the role of the laity), our reading has changed. These changes have not always gone smoothly, and varying degrees of consensus were in effect when the first local or national churches began to change. I would say that a move to change our reading with regard to same-sex relationships is well within the river of tradition. Yes, not everyone agrees this is the time, but there has never been a time when everyone agreed on a particular change. It is ironic for an Anglican to insist on churchwide consensus, given our deliberate separation from the See of Rome. We should not make change lightly, but we should also not imagine that approval must be universal prior to the change taking effect.
This is not our situation in the Communion. Thus a blessing for a same-sex union cannot have the authority of the Church Catholic, or even of the Communion as a whole. And if this is the case, a person living in such a union is in the same case as a heterosexual person living in a sexual relationship outside the marriage bond; whatever the human respect and pastoral sensitivity such persons must be given, their chosen lifestyle is not one that the Church’s teaching sanctions, and thus it is hard to see how they can act in the necessarily representative role that the ordained ministry, especially the episcopate, requires.
Part of the point of this paragraph is taken up in my response to the previous paragraph. Here I want to tackle only two words: “chosen lifestyle.” Frankly, I find this puzzling. The overwhelming majority of scientists agrees with the understanding that our sexual orientation is largely determined biologically. It is an orientation, not a lifestyle choice. While not all cultures or persons share this understanding, I would have thought Rowan would share this view. That may be a key factor in reading him. Someone who has read his earlier (pre-bishop) theological corpus might be able to help me out here.
If sexual orientation is created, not chosen, then it is a disorder to expect humans to live other than the way they were created. The reason I am willing to pronounce God’s blessing on same-sex relationships is my understanding that these people are living out of their identity as people created in God’s image, just as I seek to do in my opposite-sex marriage. God has given a variety of gifts of sexuality (same-sex, opposite-sex, celibacy, and so on). Before a conservative tries the slippery-slope argument, the issue is always “created good” and consent. Just as God does not bless coercive opposite-sex activity, surely God would not bless any coercive sexual activity. I raise this because of the tendency for some folks on the right to suggest at this point that I am making an argument which paves the way for pedophilia, etc. Nothing could be further from the truth.
But back to Rowan. Surely he does not expect someone who is created with the gift of same-sex attraction to live as if she or he were a person created with the gift of celibacy? Or does he? If so, I would be greatly troubled, as this would overturn what I might have thought to be a shared Anglican understanding of personhood.
In other words, the question is not a simple one of human rights or human dignity. It is that a certain choice of lifestyle has certain consequences. So long as the Church Catholic, or even the Communion as a whole does not bless same-sex unions, a person living in such a union cannot without serious incongruity have a representative function in a Church whose public teaching is at odds with their lifestyle.
Again, this one is puzzling. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that I stipulated that it’s sinful to live in a same-sex relationship. So the argument would continue, such a person is not suitable for the exercise of ordained ministry or “representative function” in the church. Really? Let’s talk about me for a second. I regularly purchase things I do not need. I regularly fail in the exercise of my ordained ministry. I find my 17-year marriage to be a wonderful gift, but sometimes it is also challenging. I do not give as much as I could give to the church or to those in need. There are countless ways in which I fall short of who God wants me to be. In other words, I am a sinner — a lifelong public sinner. And yet my gifts as a presbyter are received and celebrated.
Now, as it turns out, I do not believe that it’s sinful to live in a same-sex relationship. But even if I did, I might see that any Christian has a problematic “lifestyle” and yet we are able to receive gifts from these sinners in the church. Why is one perceived sin different from others? Why can’t we see that one set of behaviors might prevent ministry in one cultural context, but that same behavior might be affirmed in ministry in another context?
This is not a matter that can be wholly determined by what society at large considers usual or acceptable or determines to be legal. Prejudice and violence against LGBT people are sinful and disgraceful when society at large is intolerant of such people; if the Church has echoed the harshness of the law and of popular bigotry – as it so often has done – and justified itself by pointing to what society took for granted, it has been wrong to do so. But on the same basis, if society changes its attitudes, that change does not of itself count as a reason for the Church to change its discipline.
The last sentence is spot on. The Church must not be in the passenger seat in moral matters. We cannot take direction from society. I’ve not heard people say, here in the Episcopal Church, “let’s change our position on human sexuality because of the latest Gallup poll.” Indeed, the church — both in England and in the US — has too often failed to lead on moral matters. We should look back across history and see that whether it’s indigenous people’s ministry, women’s ordination, or racial diversity, the Church has exemplified a pattern of behavior. Too often, we have been resistant initially (using many of the same arguments made by opponents of GLBT inclusion). Then, often just before or just after the “tipping point” is reached in wider culture, the church shifts its own teaching and practice. We’re at that delicate moment now. I think it’s time to move ahead, but not everyone does.
When a local church seeks to respond to a new question, to the challenge of possible change in its practice or discipline in the light of new facts, new pressures, or new contexts, as local churches have repeatedly sought to do, it needs some way of including in its discernment the judgement of the wider Church. Without this, it risks becoming unrecognisable to other local churches, pressing ahead with changes that render it strange to Christian sisters and brothers across the globe.
The three-hour free-form liturgies of those parts of the Anglican Communion which were founded by evangelical missionaries would not be recognizable to those formed by one-hour prayer book liturgies. Does that mean we should insist that these practices be avoided? In parts of England and the US, Anglo-Catholics are known to invoke the saints in prayer, to venerate the reserved Sacrament, and to wear layer upon layer of vestments. At least two of these practices are condemned in the 39 Articles of Religion, and they are all foreign to the experience of many Anglicans. Ought they to be suppressed? No, we are able to allow local variation in all manner of things, and one minor point of church practice should not be an exception; our attitudes toward those in same-sex relationships could vary across the Communion. This is consonant with our current practice in other areas. It is fine to many Anglicans with whom I have spoken, who are eager to stay in Communion and in relationship with the Episcopal Church, even when they do not share our understanding of human sexuality.
This is not some piece of modern bureaucratic absolutism, but the conviction of the Church from its very early days. The doctrine that ‘what affects the communion of all should be decided by all’ is a venerable principle. On some issues, there emerges a recognition that a particular new development is not of such significance that a high level of global agreement is desirable; in the language used by the Doctrinal Commission of the Communion, there is a recognition that in ‘intensity, substance and extent’ it is not of fundamental importance. But such a recognition cannot be wished into being by one local church alone. It takes time and a willingness to believe that what we determine together is more likely, in a New Testament framework, to be in tune with the Holy Spirit than what any one community decides locally.
Interesting. I am, generally speaking, inclined to agree that discernment is best practiced in community — the larger the community the better. But it seems to be unhelpful to suggest that the Holy Spirit might not move an individual or a local church to do something that is not agreed by others. A reading of Christian history would support my view, I believe.
Sometimes in Christian history, of course, that wider discernment has been very fallible, as with the history of the Chinese missions in the seventeenth century. But this should not lead us to ignore or minimise the opposite danger of so responding to local pressure or change that a local church simply becomes isolated and imprisoned in its own cultural environment.
We are all “isolated and imprisoned” in our “own cultural environment.” All of us. To many Americans, the current practice of the English church with respect to same-sex relationships seems hypocritical and unhealthy. (Cohabiting clergy in registered same-sex civil partnerships are required to tell their bishops that they’re not having sex; thousands upon thousands of couples have had their relationships blessed in English churches, but “there are no public rites.”) And yet, we Americans should recognize that this is the English culture working itself out. The same courtesy might be extended the other way across the Atlantic. The American way is to be “transparent” and open about, well, everything. Nigeria, England, and America all delight in cultural context. Let us celebrate that difference, even amidst our deeper unity on the most important matters of faith.
In recent years, local pastoral needs have been cited as the grounds for changes in the sacramental practice of particular local churches within the Communion, and theological rationales have been locally developed to defend and promote such changes. Lay presidency at the Holy Communion is one well-known instance. Another is the regular admission of the unbaptised to Holy Communion as a matter of public policy. Neither of these practices has been given straightforward official sanction as yet by any Anglican authorities at diocesan or provincial level, but the innovative practices concerned have a high degree of public support in some localities.
I agree. We need to do lots of theological work if we are proposing a change in church practice. I think that’s been done here in the US for same-sex blessings. I appreciate Rowan’s two examples of lay presidency and CWOB (Communion without baptism). These are, in m view, far greater threats to our catholic identity.
To accept without challenge the priority of local and pastoral factors in the case either of sexuality or of sacramental practice would be to abandon the possibility of a global consensus among the Anglican churches such as would continue to make sense of the shape and content of most of our ecumenical activity. It would be to re-conceive the Anglican Communion as essentially a loose federation of local bodies with a cultural history in common, rather than a theologically coherent ‘community of Christian communities’.
Well, here we’re getting to the rub. What is the Anglican Communion? It’s tempting to think of it as an ancient institution, dating back to Augustine of Canterbury in 597. But the Anglican Communion as we know it really dates back to the onset of the jet age, with the rise of the Anglican Consultative Consult and the Primates’ Meetings in the latter years of the 20th century. The Lambeth Conference might be over a century old, but even that was primarily a gathering of Euro-American bishops until the later years of the previous century. This current crisis is really the adolescence of the Anglican Communion. We are working out precisely what we share in common and how we differ. I would object strongly to the notion that we’ve ever had a “theologically coherent” community. We’ve been a people who have shared a colonial history, who have shared a liturgical heritage, and who have shared bonds of common affection. That need not change. (By the way, even within the Church of England I’m not sure it would be fair to say there is 100% “theological coherence” in the varieties of belief from Angl0-Catholics to charismatic evangelicals, let alone the difference from High Church Oxford to rural Tanzania.)
The Covenant proposals of recent years have been a serious attempt to do justice to that aspect of Anglican history that has resisted mere federation. They seek structures that will express the need for mutual recognisability, mutual consultation and some shared processes of decision-making. They are emphatically not about centralisation but about mutual responsibility. They look to the possibility of a freely chosen commitment to sharing discernment (and also to a mutual respect for the integrity of each province, which is the point of the current appeal for a moratorium on cross-provincial pastoral interventions).
Personally, I think the Nicene Creed, the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, and our common liturgical heritage are sufficient to articulate our identity. That said, I have no deep objection to a Covenant — a fresh statement of our common beliefs and mutual responsibility. But let us be clear, if the Covenant has within it the possibility of a province of the Anglican Communion being subject to sanction or to expulsion, then very few provinces will sign such a document. The General Synod of the Church of England is not going to ratify a document which might remove the Church of England from full membership in the Anglican Communion. This means that the Covenant as a tool for sanctions is dead in the water.
I am pleased to see Rowan call out cross-provincial pastoral interventions. When the Church of England rejects a punitive Covenant, the secessionist Anglicans will move in, setting up parallel jurisdictions. Though my English friends tell me I am crazy when I say this, I am going to say “I told you so” in a few years when FOCA has its own bishops.
But it means that there is at least the possibility of a twofold ecclesial reality in view in the middle distance: that is, a ‘covenanted’ Anglican global body, fully sharing certain aspects of a vision of how the Church should be and behave, able to take part as a body in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue; and, related to this body, but in less formal ways with fewer formal expectations, there may be associated local churches in various kinds of mutual partnership and solidarity with one another and with ‘covenanted’ provinces.
Again, do not worry, my friends in the Episcopal Church. We are going to be in the same tier as the Church of England and most of the rest of the Communion. If the Akinolites and Duncanites continue their own self-imposed excommunication, we’ll have our two-tier Communion, but not through any mechanism of the Instruments of Communion.
This has been called a ‘two-tier’ model, or, more disparagingly, a first- and second-class structure. But perhaps we are faced with the possibility rather of a ‘two-track’ model, two ways of witnessing to the Anglican heritage, one of which had decided that local autonomy had to be the prevailing value and so had in good faith declined a covenantal structure. If those who elect this model do not take official roles in the ecumenical interchanges and processes in which the ‘covenanted’ body participates, this is simply because within these processes there has to be clarity about who has the authority to speak for whom.
Repeat after me: the Church of England is going to be in the same boat as us. If the Covenant is modified to be palatable to the General Synod of the Church of England, it will be fine for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. There is no forced choice between Anglican unity and full inclusion. Those who cannot abide unity with the Episcopal Church will leave, but that is their own choosing. The two-tier Communion of which Rowan speaks cannot happen, by my reading of the Church of England and the Instruments of Communion.
It helps to be clear about these possible futures, however much we think them less than ideal, and to speak about them not in apocalyptic terms of schism and excommunication but plainly as what they are – two styles of being Anglican, whose mutual relation will certainly need working out but which would not exclude co-operation in mission and service of the kind now shared in the Communion. It should not need to be said that a competitive hostility between the two would be one of the worst possible outcomes, and needs to be clearly repudiated.
The last sentence is right. We must not view ourselves in competition with separated Anglicans any more than we view ourselves in competition with Methodists or Baptists. God’s church is filed with many expressions and gifts. I pray for the well-being of my friends in separated Anglican churches, and I pray for our reunion. (By the way, we should not pursue a contentious legal strategy either, in my view.)
It is my strong hope that all the provinces will respond favourably to the invitation to Covenant. But in the current context, the question is becoming more sharply defined of whether, if a province declines such an invitation, any elements within it will be free (granted the explicit provision that the Covenant does not purport to alter the Constitution or internal polity of any province) to adopt the Covenant as a sign of their wish to act in a certain level of mutuality with other parts of the Communion. It is important that there should be a clear answer to this question.
I find this to be highly problematic. This suggests that some bishops in the Episcopal Church might adopt some kind of Covenant apart from the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church. I wonder if Rowan would approve if, say, the Bishop of Southwark decided to consider himself loyal to the Episcopal Church and to set up practices with regard to same-sex blessings accordingly? No, provinces must be able to act within themselves. If we must have parallel jurisdictions, so be it. But to have different statuses within a province would be confusing at best.
To recognise different futures for different groups must involve mutual respect for deeply held theological convictions. Thus far in Anglican history we have (remarkably) contained diverse convictions more or less within a unified structure.
Yes, and let our past be our guide for the future on this front. We are at this point not because of the consecration of the present Bishop of New Hampshire. We are at this point because of the rise of militant conservatives and those who would attempt to project a puritan life onto our Anglican identity.
If the present structures that have safeguarded our unity turn out to need serious rethinking in the near future, this is not the end of the Anglican way and it may bring its own opportunities. Of course it is problematic; and no-one would say that new kinds of structural differentiation are desirable in their own right. But the different needs and priorities identified by different parts of our family, and in the long run the different emphases in what we want to say theologically about the Church itself, are bound to have consequences.
Yes, agreed. As I wrote above, we are in our adolescence as a Communion. Just as a teenager may examine some aspects of selfhood and yet retains the essence of personhood created at birth, so the Anglican Communion must examine some aspects of itself even while clinging to its essential identity.
We must hope that, in spite of the difficulties, this may yet be the beginning of a new era of mission and spiritual growth for all who value the Anglican name and heritage.
On balance, I was pleased with what Rowan has said. Though it won’t be ideal to either the far left or the far right, I think he has attempted in a useful way to describe the current situation in all its complexity, with some theological and ecclesiological substance. There are no easy answers to any of this, but through sustained relationship, we can move together. As Rowan concludes, may this “be the beginning of a new era of mission and spiritual growth for all who value the Anglican name and heritage.”