The Rt. Rev. Stacy Sauls, a candidate for presiding bishop, has written a lengthy essay in this month’s issue of his diocesan paper on what is at stake at General Convention. I am grateful to Kendall Harmon at Titus 1:9 for pointing it out. I was going to try to pull out an excerpt, but it is hangs together in a way that makes that difficult–which is by way of saying that the bishop writes well. Click on the keep reading button and read it all.
Why Sex Is a Complicating Factor but Not the Real Issue
Sex sells in America. One particular commercial comes to mind. It involves a woman shampooing her hair in an airplane restroom while making incredibly suggestive sounds that are heard to the great shock of everyone else on the flight. What does sex have to do with buying shampoo? Nothing, of course. The Church is learning the hard way what advertisers learned long ago. Sex sells because it pushes decision making from our most rational capacities to our most visceral ones.
The presenting issues of our current controversy in the Church are sexual, specifically whether the Church can be supportive of a certain kind of same sex relationship (marked by mutual love and respect, exclusivity among partners, and lifelong commitment) and whether people in such relationships should hold positions of ordained leadership, especially as bishops. Reasonable, intelligent, and equally committed people of faith, to be sure, hold different and completely rational opinions about these issues. That is not the problem. The problem is that sex pushes us to react viscerally and instinctively instead, and we frequently succumb, as much on one side of the issues as the other. It is this visceral reactivity that is behind the name calling, slander, and rampant immaturity bedeviling us at the moment and getting in the way of any thoughtful resolution of the issues. Visceral may be OK for buying shampoo. Faith deserves better.
It concerns me that our reactivity around sex, and especially homosexuality, is keeping us from seeing that the current controversy is no more really about sex than is what kind of shampoo we buy. If sexual ethics were the real underlying issue driving us, we would be dealing with our Church’s 1973 decision to allow divorced persons to remarry just as much as we are dealing with our Church’s 2003 decision to allow a partnered gay man to be a bishop. The theological issues are very much alike.
Both decisions raise issues of scriptural authority. Indeed, the scriptural case forbidding remarriage after divorce is stronger than that involving homosexuality (Mk. 10:11-12; Mt. 19:9). Both decisions raise issues of sin. It is difficult for us to face, but what Jesus said is sinful is not divorce; it is remarriage. In fact he defined it as a sin that the Old Testament treats exactly as it treats “a man who lies with a male as with a woman” (Lev. 20:13). Both decisions seem to go against the weight of almost 2,000 years of Christian tradition, at least on the surface. Remarriage after divorce raises issues of the sanctity of marriage that the homosexual relationships we are talking about do not, specifically that marriage is spiritually indissoluble and that it is intended for one man and one woman, not one at a time but just one forever. And remarriage after divorce gets at the core of Christian sexual ethics much more significantly than homosexuality if for no other reason than that it applies to so many more people.
However, we are not hearing about the decision to allow divorced persons to remarry. The reason is that sex is not the real issue. Instead, sex is having the same effect on our conversation that it is intended to have on our decisions about shampoo purchases. Our visceral reactivity may be obscuring what is in fact at stake. We cannot afford that.
And there are church leaders, even those who see the issues quite differently than I do, who will acknowledge that the real issue isn’t sex at all. Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, the leader of the Anglican Communion Network, is one. In the recent and much-read article by Peter Boyer in the April 17 issue of the New Yorker, “A Church Asunder,” Bishop Duncan says, “I’m not in a fight over sexuality, gracious sakes” (p. 60). It is one of the things on which he and I agree.
What the Real Issue Is
At the House of Bishops meeting in the fall of 2002, Bishop Duncan stated that his intention was to force a constitutional crisis in our Church. After having spent many hours in intense (and helpful, at least to me) conversations with Bishop Duncan, I think that he and I might also agree that it is this constitutional crisis that is really at stake now. The constitutional crisis goes beyond written charters and their interpretation, although it involves those. It goes to the very nature of The Episcopal Church, and indeed of Anglicanism. The question we are facing is whether Anglicanism, as a broadly comprehensive community of faith, can long endure.
The constitutional issue we face is between two competing visions of what it means to be an Anglican. One vision has its roots in the English Reformation, particularly something known as the Elizabethan Settlement with its key principles of (1) common prayer as the broadly inclusive framework of unity holding together a diversity of doctrinal belief on even fundamental issues and (2) local leadership of the local church. This vision of Anglicanism seems to me particularly well-suited for a world endangered by rising and intolerant fundamentalism, coping with globalization, and struggling with an ever-increasing rate of significant change and its resultant discomfort.
The alternative vision sees our roots in the English Reformation as fatally flawed. Dean Paul Zahl of the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry states, “This whole crisis has revealed a very serious deficiency in the character of Anglicanism. It’s a severe deficiency in Anglicanism because there isn’t really a church teaching in the same way there is in the Church of Rome…. I would say there is a constitutional weakness, which this crisis has revealed, which may in fact prove to be the death of the Anglican project—the death, at least in formal terms, of Anglican Christianity. We’ve always said that we’ve had this great insight, and I used to think that we did” (New Yorker, p. 63).
There you have it. The first vision of Anglicanism sees our character as having continuing validity and perhaps being uniquely suited for our times. The second sees our character as severely deficient and constitutionally weak. How the two can coexist with so fundamental a difference is not clear. The difficulty is this. The second vision intends to replace the first, not coexist with it (New Yorker, p. 65). At the same time, if the first does not make room for the second to be heard, the traditional Anglican approach of comprehensiveness will be no less endangered. Anglicanism cannot be legitimately defended by stifling dissent any more than the American constitutional principle of freedom of speech can. It is quite possible that the traditional Anglican approach to spirituality, theology, and seeking God’s truth may well vanish from the earth. If we Episcopalians allow that to happen, what I always believed was our most important characteristic will have become our tragic fl aw.
Our Heritage as Anglicans
So let us turn our attention to the traditional vision of Anglicanism to see what exactly is at stake.
Anglicanism took shape in the crucible of the English Reformation. The issues of the day were theological, like what the Eucharist meant and justification by faith. They were not sexy issues by our standards, but they were perhaps more basic ones.
The resolution of these issues swung between Catholic and Protestant views leaving a violent wake behind. The often bloody conflict was resolved in a collection of actions we know today as the Elizabethan Settlement, named for Queen Elizabeth I, its architect. The two most important of those actions were the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity, both passed by Parliament in 1559, the same year as the Prayer Book of Elizabeth’s reign was published. The Act of Supremacy declared that the English monarch was the supreme governor of the English Church. It was aimed in its day, of course, at the Pope, a “foreign” prelate. The constitutional principle it has left us is that the local church is best led by those who actually live in it, those who are actually responsible for the people’s care (in The Episcopal Church this includes the people themselves), those who are accountable to the community they serve.
The Act of Uniformity mandated the use of one official Prayer Book for the English Church. For all of its mandatory character as to how the Church of England prayed, what it also did was provide wide latitude for what the individual members of the Church of England believed in their consciences. For example, as to Eucharistic theology, the English Reformation had swung between the exclusionary extremes of the Catholic understanding of transubstantiation (as in the first Prayer Book of Edward VI in 1549, which declared with respect to the consecrated bread, “The Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ”) and the Protestant understanding of memorial (as in the Second Prayer Book of Edward VI in 1552, which declared with respect to the same bread, “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee”). Elizabeth put the two formularies together in her Prayer Book of 1559, their logical inconsistency notwithstanding.
Now it is sometimes said that Elizabeth was not concerned about truth, only order (New Yorker, p. 63). In reality that does Elizabeth a considerable disservice. What is closer to the truth is that in the face of two opinions, both rational, intelligent, and faithful, and about which no consensus existed, Elizabeth concentrated on the process by which we search for truth as the priority. In the face of serious and widespread disagreement, Elizabeth opted for respectful coexistence rather than premature resolution. Elizabeth’s Prayer Book allowed complementary understandings of the truth to coexist with respect and within a framework of common prayer, which in fact did allow a common understanding to emerge in time, something we call the Doctrine of the Real Presence.
To put it another way, Elizabeth had the wisdom in the context of the doctrinal wars of the Reformation to define orthodoxy by its original meaning, which is “right worship,” and not by its subsequently acquired meaning of “right belief.” It isn’t that Elizabeth defined truth out of Anglicanism. It is that she resolved the English Reformation by concentrating on the patient and tolerant process of seeking truth, which promotes a broad diversity in the short run and a committed consensus in the long run, rather than the knowledge of the substance of truth as the Continental Reformation had, which promotes a rather unhelpful lack of humility in the face of rational and widely held difference of opinion.
Whether we will continue to be guided by Elizabeth’s wisdom in the process of seeking God’s truth in common prayer rather than by being told the truth from above, particularly by the church hierarchy exclusively, is what is at stake (New Yorker, p. 63). The question is whether our discomfort, especially in the face of the incredibly rapid change that so characterizes our world, will lead us to abandon the slow and messy way we Anglicans have sought God’s mind, which exacerbates rather than relieves that discomfort, in order to feel better sooner.
Before we are too quick to point fingers, let me say that our intolerance for discomfort has led us to weaken Anglican comprehensiveness on the basis of positions I agree with as much as on the basis of positions I disagree with. Discomfort is an equal opportunity malady. Anglican comprehensiveness has also been challenged by the marginalization of those who oppose the ordination of women. Once one theological minority is relegated to the margins, it becomes perfectly acceptable to relegate others there, too. In the same way, once a break in communion is tolerated for one doctrinal controversy, it becomes perfectly acceptable to resolve others the same way.
The limits of Anglican comprehensiveness have been challenged before. It is being challenged now. What has not been challenged until now is the principle of local leadership. Episcopalians at least have not purported to decide the question of women’s ordination or homosexuality for anyone but themselves. The same is not true with respect to archbishops of other provinces who have attempted to impose their absolute and unquestioning understanding of God’s truth on us (New Yorker, p. 63-64).
The Globalization of Our Anglican Heritage
As well as it may have served the Church in the past, it could be that the Elizabethan Settlement is not up to the challenges posed by an emerging worldwide family of churches having a common Anglican identity but seeing the world from quite different perspectives. The international character of a communion of churches was not something the Elizabethan Settlement had to face until The Episcopal Church emerged into the world in the aftermath of the American Revolution. It was only then that the Church of England acquired a sibling for the first time, through awkwardly and perhaps against its will. And as with the addition of any sibling to a family, things began to get more complicated. The application of the Elizabethan Settlement in a new environment of independent countries no longer ecclesiastically or politically bound was one of those complications.
Things were to get more complicated still. Over the years, the Anglican family of churches grew as a result of English colonialism. The English colonial experience and the expansion of the Church of England eventually led to the calling of the first Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops from all over the world, but only after any intention that the Conference decide issues of doctrine for the individual churches was abandoned. Indeed, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s invitation to the first Lambeth conference specifically stated that the Conference “would not be competent to make declarations, or lay down definitions on points of doctrine.” Archbishop Benson, in opening the second conference, reaffirmed the principle that “the Conference was in no sense a Synod and not adapted, or competent, or within its powers, if it should attempt to make binding decisions on doctrines or discipline.” Instead, its purpose was conceived of as missional and pastoral. The motive of missional cooperation also eventually led to the creation of the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting (in that order), which along with the Lambeth Conference and the Archbishop of Canterbury we now call the Anglican Communion’s Instruments of Unity.
Anglicans have experienced Church unity in practice on a relational level and by our common participation in the Instruments of Unity, especially for purposes of mission. We have understood Church unity in theory by a foundational Anglican document known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (BCP, pp. 876-878). The Quadrilateral defines Church unity by four distinctive characteristics: (1) the Holy Scriptures as containing all things necessary to salvation and as the ultimate standard of faith, (2) the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds as sufficient statements of the Christian faith, (3) the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist, and (4) the historic episcopal succession locally adapted. The competing vision of Anglicanism now seeks to add a fifth, doctrinal agreement beyond the broadly inclusive framework of the Quadrilateral.
The Windsor Report’s Contribution
Here the Windsor Report enters the conversation between Anglicanism’s competing visions. It has “invited” The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada to enact moratoria on the authorization of public rites for the blessing of same sex relationships and the consecration of any additional gay bishops, at least in partnered relationships. It has also asked other provinces for a moratorium on crossing the boundaries of The Episcopal Church so as to interfere with the leadership of the local church by the local bishop. Pending an authoritative response by the General Convention, The Episcopal Church has met all of the Windsor Report’s requests. Other provinces have not complied with respect to the interference in our Church.
The Episcopal Church will consider the Windsor Report and respond to its requests at the General Convention next month. It is too early to predict what that response will be, but the initial proposals are to agree not to authorize public rites for the blessing of same sex relationships and to leave the issue of future bishops to our constitutional processes as The Episcopal Church with the request that all involved exercise extreme caution and care for the positions of our Anglican partners. I, for one, can live with those proposals even though there are aspects of them I don’t particularly like, and it is my hope that the final response will not vary too much from what is proposed. I do not expect the Anglican Provinces of Nigeria, Uganda, or the Southern Cone to heed the requests of the Windsor Report about interfering in The Episcopal Church. The wrongs of others, however, are not a good reason for us to fail to do the right thing ourselves.
So what is the Windsor Report that we are responding to in light of what is really at stake? To the extent the Windsor Report is a voice in the conversation, it is helpful, because it raises some valid questions about how the identity of the family of churches we call the Anglican Communion is continuing to emerge in its characteristically untidy way. To the extent it is an ultimatum, a threat, or a laying down of the law by some siblings to others, though, it represents one vision of Anglicanism supplanting the other and abandoning the Elizabethan Settlement altogether.
Time Will Soon Tell
Those who prefer the older vision of Anglicanism, in order to be true to our own values, must make room for the alternative vision to have a place, to be a part of the conversation. That is so because it is true to our heritage and constitutional nature even though the newer vision now asserting itself would not make room for the coexistence of the original one. We must not marginalize anyone on the basis of a legitimate disagreement, even those who would marginalize us. That may indeed be our fatal fl aw, and time will soon tell.
What I believe is that preserving the traditional Anglican theological process of seeking truth in common prayer will still serve us well if we let it. What I believe is that the traditional vision will be able to make room for the alternative vision without succumbing to it. The best protection against error, after all, is the free exchange of ideas. In fact, in a world facing the discomforting challenges that ours is, particularly the rapidity of change, I believe the traditional Anglican approach is the world’s best religious hope and perhaps the only one that will be able to carry the Christian faith far into a new millennium. But whether it will survive the General Convention of 2006 and the Lambeth Conference of 2008 is very much in question. That, though, and certainly not sex, is what is really at stake.