My response to Kendall Harmon

Canon Kendall Harmon has done me the honor of naming a loophole after me, and then done me the additional honor of suggesting that he thinks I am still capable of listening to what people I disagree with have to say. I think he deserves a serious response.

In a lengthy article on his blog, Kendall wrote:

“I want further to make a plea specifically to Jim Naughton, since I feel I can talk to Jim and try to be heard (alas an increasing rarity in the deteriorating climate in the Episcopal Church at present).

“First, I want to ask whether you realize how ethnocentric your reading of the communiqué is. It sounds like it comes from the country where apostolic leaders act like lawyers. Are we not called as Anglicans to ask what others would think? Do you really believe that your reading of the Communiqué is the way an African or Southeast Asian Primate would intend it? Is there even a way to write the communiqué as Greg Venables thinks it should be read and that you would read as Archbishop Venables intends that would make sense in the language of most of the other parts of the world?

“Second, I want to plead with you to consider that the Anglican Communion is not something to be trifled with as if it were some kind of a game, as if it all came down to what the meaning of the word is is. Should not the thing to do in this instance be to bend over backwards to give the most globally Anglican interpretation of the document? It is not a small thing that the third largest Christian family in the world may break up. I pray it does not. And I especially pray if it does break up it will not be because we tried to find loopholes but instead that we tried as hard as we could to be honest with one another and heard what others were saying to us in their terms–KSH”.

Kendall’s article is full of citations buttressing an argument that proves to his satisfaction that the communiqué from the Primates recommends that the Episcopal Church stop the practice of blessing same sex relationships—period. I have suggested, in various interviews and in several entries that I am too lazy to link to, that I think the communiqué requests a moratorium on the authorization of rites, but not on the practice of blessings, the great majority of which occur without benefit of a rite.

Kendall, as a theologian, argues his point through a close reading of densely-worded texts. This is a useful approach in Scripture scholarship, and in the law—cases in which the authors of the document you are attempting to interpret are dead, or express themselves exclusively through judicial opinion. In this instance, the authors are alive, and relatively close at hand. That is why we already know that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s interpretation of the document differs from that of Presiding Bishop Gregory Venables of the Southern Cone. And for a truly unusual interpretation, try on Peter Akinola’s notion that the communiqué asks the Episcopal Church to stop ordaining gay clergy.

I don’t know why the publication of each Anglican document sets off an interpretive free for all. It happened after Windsor. It happened after Dromantine. It happened after the release of the sub-group’s report on the Episcopal Church’s response to the Windsor Report, and it is happening again here. My own sense, from talking to some of the people involved in these various collaborative efforts is that ambiguous language is employed deliberately by those who perfect that final versions of these documents so that a “unanimous statement” can be released that keeps the Communion together long enough to argue another day.

I don’t doubt that some African and South East Asian Primates interpret the document differently than I do, or than Bishop Jefferts Schori does, but I don’t think that has anything to do with culture. (And I am not going to bother to defend myself against Kendall’s charge of ethnocentrism. There may be a less edifying spectacle that two comfortable middle-aged white guys arguing about which of them truly understands the spirit of the developing world, but nothing comes to mind at the moment.) It has to do with human beings’ natural tendency to interpret whatever is put before them in ways favorable to their own interests.

Fortunately, there is a way of clearing all of this up that doesn’t require consulting dead authors, or piling excerpts atop of one another and defending one’s interpretation of each dash and comma. We can ask the Archbishop of Canterbury how he interprets the document. He has actually weighed in on this issue, but in a way that I found confusing. Kendall quotes a fragment of the sentence that he spoke on this topic, but here is the whole thing:

“We have asked for more clarity as to whether a moratorium has indeed been agreed on the election of bishops in active sexual partnerships outside marriage; and we have suggested a similar voluntary moratorium by the bishops on licensing any kind of liturgical order for same-sex blessings (the understanding of the Meeting was certainly that this should be a comprehensive abstention from any public rites), at least for the period during which the wider discussion of the Covenant goes forward.”

To my mind, the language about “licensing any kind of liturgical order” clearly supports the interpretation I have been advancing. But, I have to concede that the language in parenthesis “comprehensive abstention from any public rites” brings us back, at least, to the ambiguity of square one. The blessing of same sex unions in this country almost never involves a licensed rite. But the ceremonies are hardly private.

We can attempt to divine Williams’ intention by citing eight other instances in which he used the comprehensive, and tracing the history of the use of the word “public” since Lancelot Andrewes, but a simple statement of his position would be much more persuasive. At least two reporters that I am aware of have asked for clarification, but Lambeth Palace has yet to respond.

I am perfectly willing to accept whatever interpretation the Archbishop puts forth. I don’t have a burning desire to be right about this. I have a burning desire to be clear. Obviously, if Williams expects us to ban blessings (and then police the ban), Bishop Jefferts Schori will have a much harder time persuading our Church to accept the Primates’ recommendations than if Williams simply expects us to maintain what is essentially the status quo.

Before we begin the difficult conversation on this issue, it is essential that we know what is being asked of us.

In closing I’d like to respond to Kendall’s plea not to trifle with the Communion. That’s not what I’m doing. It is unfortunate that the Communion communicates with its members in language that requires the kind of scrutiny that Kendall and I have been engaged in. But it does. So we have no choice.

If the Primates’ recommendation leaves room for the continuation of same-sex blessings, then I can only assume that room exists for a reason. The reason, I suggest, is that the Archbishop of Canterbury and a few others may have realized that giving us this bit of room significantly increased the odds of keeping the Episcopal Church within the Communion. So, if that room exists, it exists for the sake of the Communion. And if it doesn’t exist, it is essential that Episcopalians understand that as they contemplate their decision.

I think that about covers it. For those of you who feel moved to comment on this article, I request that you not call Kendall arrogant, insincere or dishonest, that you not refer to him as a “weasel” nor accuse him of bad faith. And I hope it goes without saying that anyone who would suggest that Canon Harmon is “under the influence of the Father of lies, their minds darkened by their perversion of HIS Word,” will not be commenting on this blog anytime soon.

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