Eyes on the floor: Matters of conscience, matters of psyche

By Richard Helmer

N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, in his most recent tirade on The Episcopal Church, accused us of inciting schism, of “double-think,” implying the false choice between upholding the ministries of our LGBT members and full participation in the Anglican Communion. Others have argued well elsewhere against Bishop Wright’s rhetorical use (or abuse?) of The Episcopal Church as a straw man for whatever purpose.

But the “double-think” accusation lingers with me for many reasons. One of the most important is the implication that somehow The Episcopal Church fails to meet some standard of being of one mind on this or any other matter. It’s as though the disciples of Jesus Christ have never (our ought to have never) had an argument with each other, or that they never suffered an internal tension of conscience while following in the ways of our Savior.

Of course, they did struggle with these disagreements, both relational and internal. The arguments while on the road are easily recalled in the gospels. The church was barely formed following the resurrection, and the first disciples were already arguing about how best to organize and provide for the needs of the growing community. Or take two of the great apostles, for instance. Peter’s wrestling with the laws and purity practices of his ancestors as the Gospel began to spread amongst the Gentiles is a classic story in Acts. Remember Peter and Cornelius the Centurion in Chapter 10? Paul who stumbled – or was pushed by Christ – into conversion spends much of his letters sorting out profound theological tensions and arguments as he communicates with the small Christian communities he has helped found. Whether he settles these tensions and arguments, and how, is more than debatable even now, 2,000 years later. And the Pauline epistles are well-known for the conflicted and apparent two-mindedness about a wide variety of matters, not least of which involves the tensions between marriage and chastity.

On Thursday in the House of Deputies, as the legislative pace hastened on the penultimate day of General Convention, a matter of conscience arose around C023, a resolution meant to repudiate the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) laws in the United States. As one deputy put it during the debates, we found ourselves in the age-old tension between civil rights and theological tradition. To which is the General Convention of The Episcopal Church ultimately responsible?

It would be easy for me to respond that we historically equate civil rights with theological arguments about the fundamental nature of human dignity and freedom in God’s grace. This equation goes back in recent history to the heart of the abolition of slavery, and it was key in the civil rights era of the 1960’s and after. The scriptural stories that under gird this intersection of civil law and theological discourse are readily available to cite. But our American jurisprudence and the common notions of separation of church and state still leave us much of the time with a bifurcated view of reality – separated into civil on the one hand and ecclesiastical on the other. How we navigate this distinction is one of the harder tasks of the Anglican tradition – at least in the United States.

C023 exposed this reality today as key arguments (that held it to passing through the House of Deputies by a relatively narrow margin) boiled down to conscience: conscience to disagree. The clause that mattered most was this one:

That the Convention call on all Episcopalians to work against the passage of so-called “Defense of Marriage” state statutes and state constitutional amendments, and, in states where such statutes or constitutional amendments already exist, to work for their repeal.

The key phrase was “all Episcopalians,” which to some violated the principles of D025 that passed earlier in the week. D025 passed the House of Deputies by a substantially wider margin in part because of its acknowledgment that faithful Christians in the church together may disagree on the matters of same-sex blessings in particular and the theology of human sexuality more broadly. C023 appeared to leave no room for conscientious disagreement, or at least so it appeared to some of the more conservative members of the House. It was, as another deputy put it, a matter of legislating the hearts of some of our own.

Most of us know this really doesn’t work.

This brought to my mind a deep tension that is present today not only within The Episcopal Church, but in broader American society, and even within many of our sisters and brothers individually. It was best articulated by a former music student of mine, whom I visited recently in the Midwest while on vacation. Raised in a theologically conservative Christian tradition, she holds dear many of the classic virtues of Midwestern Christian culture. But a good friend of hers is a gay man who recently contemplated marrying his partner in a state where same-sex marriage is now legal. As she described her own considerations of the matter to me, she said she was absolutely in support of full civil rights for gays and lesbians. . . but she just wasn’t sure about gay marriage.

Is this “double-think?” It would be all too easy to jump on this like N. T. Wright and point out the apparent inconsistency. While I now am very clearly a supporter of same-sex marriage, both civilly and theologically, I remember once being in such a position myself: holding an inner tension that could not quite reconcile my care and concern for my LGBT neighbors and their rights with my world-view and emotional – visceral even – attachment to a particular understanding of marriage. It was this tension that I held for a long time in an attempt to find a middle position in the midst of an evolving conscience – or as my bishop put it to me in conversation this evening, a matter of change in the psyche.

Somehow, this tension about marriage and sexuality hits us at the very core of our self-identity. Maybe this is because all of us grew up and developed as thinking and reflecting individuals in relationship with a particular understanding of marriage – for good, for ill, or for both. To change that particular understanding is, of course, to send some unsettling questions into the deepest places of our souls – those places that formed even before we could speak. And to change those deep places requires of us a true inner leap of faith, of stepping into the unknown. I remember when I did precisely that on matters concerning human sexuality. It took me nearly six months to settle into a new understanding of the world. I was grateful to have a community – at that time a university chaplaincy – to support me during that time.

Something that N. T. Wright does not bring himself to acknowledge – at least publicly – is the simple fact that The Episcopal Church, the broader society, and, yes, even the Anglican Communion are all in various stages of wrestling with a leap of faith just like this. It could be argued that the threats of schism and the fissures in The Anglican Communion are – to some degree – reflections of the deep internal conflicts of many of our leaders and communities as we attempt in vain to find solid footing in an otherwise shifting understanding of grace. . . and how that grace relates to our shifting understandings of basic anthropology and some of our most essential traditions and social institutions.

This points back to the brilliance of D025 and the now pending C056 that the House of Deputies takes up on Friday. They were wrought, particularly in the House of Bishops this General Convention, through bishops on opposite sides of these questions engaged in conscientious listening to one another – the Indaba process that a number of our bishops first experienced, ironically enough, at Lambeth.

Indaba’s deep listening and sharing is accomplished without the goal of converting one another. Rather, the intent of the process is to find in one another the deep and abiding love that is shared for the wider community, even when disagreement is strong. If conversion happens, it is mutual and communal. D025 and C056, in their current forms, reflect not a “double-think” but a communally-held tension in the collective psyche of our Church. They represent the truth of conflict held tenderly and honestly in loving community. And I think that is a beautiful truth, and a powerful one – especially for a world that resorts to demonization and warfare all too quickly to “settle” differences.

I am reminded that all of us on the more liberal side of our Church and faith tradition must endeavor to remember the process and experience that brought us as individuals and communities to where we are, and how we must be wary of our expecting others to be in the same place at the same time with us. This is not to suggest we forestall laboring for justice. But at the very least, we must acknowledge and hold compassion for those who most strongly disagree with us. It would be easy to cut them off or hold them in derision. The whole point to remember, as has been stressed by so many of our finest leadership, is that they are a part of us. We belong to one another in God’s grace. This is living into the Ubuntu theme of this General Convention, and indeed that of the Christian Gospel.

When the disciples argued, Jesus continued to walk with them. When the early church argued, they kept at proclaiming the Gospel. When Peter was flummoxed in a vision of unclean animals, the Spirit showed it to him again and again. When Paul was caught up in cycles of his own theological rhetoric – I imagine his brow furrowed as he pondered the carefully crafted paragraphs – God still stood by, stretching Paul’s mind and heart towards new vistas of grace-filled revelation.

So, it seems to me, as the dust settles and the outcome of this General Convention begins to clarify where we are now as a Church of many minds but one heart towards Christ, we must remember our call to stand by one another and all our communities as we journey through the deep questions of conscience and psyche our resolutions reflect.

After all, we belong to one another. . . perhaps even across the great expanse of the Atlantic.

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