By Nick Knisely
In recent days there has been plenty of commentary both here and other places about the statement from the House of Bishops’ meeting in New Orleans and what it means for us as Episcopalians and Anglicans. The points made in those places are probably already familiar to the people reading this essay and I don’t see it as being helpful to list them here. (Take a look at the Lead if you’re need a refresher.) What I want to do here is to invite folks to look at what has happened in New Orleans in a different way through a different lens.
In the days leading up to the meeting I came across a reply to a comment on someone’s blog. The original post mentioned that “Rowan Williams was willing to sacrifice biblical truth for the sake of maintaining unity.” A few comments later someone replied to the effect that she “was right that Rowan might sacrifice to maintain unity, but that she misunderstood the reason why. Rowan was willing to compromise because he understands maintaining unity as biblical truth”.
That comment has been stuck in my brain ever since. It gives me a way to express something I’ve been struggling to put into words for years. I am a catholic Christian in a way similar to my reading of where Rowan Williams is coming from. I believe the Body of Christ looks like the wide diversity of human experience – intentionally and not by accident. This is not a belief I brought with me into the Episcopal Church, but it is one that I have grown into as I have prayed the liturgy and read the bible with the people I have met in this denomination.
It is because I am a “catholic minded” Christian that I have never been able to find any internal resonance for myself with the idea that “we” or “they” must now walk apart from each other.
I am for Jesus like, I believe, just about every other voice in this moment. For me that leads me to confess that I am for the greatest amount of communion with the largest diversity possible.
Having thus laid out my own prejudices, let me now offer up my differing take on the House of Bishops’ statement.
The statement from the HoB is a political document extracted from them via threats and coercion. To read it as theological statement or a self-consistent teaching document is to misunderstand its purpose and genesis. It does not grow out of spontaneous desire of the Episcopal Church to toss yet another hot-potato into the conversation. It was not something that the House of Bishops looked forward to creating. It is the response to the request from the voices of the Primates Council of the Anglican Communion.
Given that it is not meant to be a confessional statement of belief or a teaching from the house, then what hope can it bring to us in the Episcopal Church?
The HoB statement is more important for the consensus it represents than it is for what it actually says.
For years now we’ve witnessed raucous House of Bishops’ meetings with boycotts, minority reports, people refusing to worship with one another and political horse-trading. What we’ve not seen is our bishops resolutely coming together into a community, listening to each other and working to create a document that they could all support to one degree or another. We have that here and it is the most surprising thing about the flawed and internally inconsistent document.
I have been struggling for sometime now trying to understand the complaints we hear across the breadth of the Anglican Communion that the problems in its internal life are due to American imperialism and lack of concern for others. It’s a charge that hasn’t seemed fair to me given that the Episcopal Church has only ever tried to order its own life and spoken of its own practice for the most part. But while watching the goings on in New Orleans and listening to the overseas voices, I recognized something I hadn’t before. People who feel disenfranchised in the Episcopal Church and Episcopalians who feel disenfranchised in the Anglican Communion have been busy and effective of late reaching out and making allies for themselves outside of the Episcopal Church.
There’s nothing wrong with reaching out like this, and in most cases it seems commendable to me. But the unintended consequence of this looking for allies is that we here in the Episcopal Church have effectively turned our local squabbles into international ones. And our exported squabbles now not only threaten the health of our province but the internal lives of other provinces as well. It’s not that they don’t have to face the same issues, it’s that our culture’s framing of the issues is, in an unintended way, causing the issues to framed in their different culture in our terms rather than allowing them the opportunity to frame them for themselves.
To put it baldly: The lack of spiritual health in the life of the “instruments of unity” in the Episcopal Church is spreading to the “instruments of unity” in the rest of the Communion.
If the consensus statement from the House of Bishops represents the first steps on the long journey back to a mature and christian response to conflict in our province, then perhaps an important milestone in our recovery has been passed.
What do I as a “catholic-minded” Christian think a mature response to conflict looks like? For me the first and primary response to brokeness is not to walk apart from each other – it is rather to kneel together at the Lord’s table.
I take both St. Augustine’s theological anthropology and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem seriously enough that I fundamentally doubt that we can either reason our way or interpret scripture accurately enough to find out way out of our present mess.
It is only by coming together to Christ and being fed from his self-emptying and freely gifted sacrifice that we can be healed.
So given that, our most effective response to the present conflict is to freely and honestly admit our brokeness and that we are stuck in a place we don’t know how to get out of. We are in an acute situation, and the first thing to do in an acute situation is to not take an action which would make things worse. Rather than cutting deeper to try heal a serious wound, might we instead first try to staunch the bleeding? I would argue that pastoral care for both sides, not schism or temporary separation, is what is called for in this moment in our Church.
Do I have specific suggestions about what that pastoral care would like like? Well, yes, I do actually… But I don’t think my suggestions are going to be terribly helpful because I’m not a member of one of the groups asking for care.
I believe the most Christian path would be for us to listen to both the communities of LBGT christians and those on the other side of the present debate who feel disenfranchised and marginalized by the actions of General Convention about what they respectively feel would be helpful. They have not been quiet in asking for specific things. And then to be honest and frank about what we can do and what we can’t do – recognizing our sinfulness and our brokeness as the source of our limitations.
I do not know the definitive way that would lead us out of our present stuck situation. I’m leery of people who claim they do. (If there’s a true prophet amongst us, please tell me the sign by which I recognize her or him.)
What I do believe is that the answer will only come to us as we commit ourselves more and more strongly to becoming the Body of Christ in the world. The closer we come to Jesus, the closer we come to each other. The closer we come to each other, the greater the agape love we share and the less insurmountable the problems we face.
The House of Bishops’ appears to me to have taken a turn down this new road. And for that reason more than any other, I am more hopeful now than I was last week.
The Very Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely is Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix Ariz. He serves as Chair of the Standing Commission on Episcopal Church Communication, is active in ecumenical works and was originally trained as an astronomer before he was ordained. His blog is Entangled States.