Monday, December 17, 2007

December 15, 2007

So the long awaited Advent Letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury has been released and already the online conversation is well under way. I have read it through three times and still find it difficult to know what exactly he is saying. He seems to think that the Communion can hold together as Bishops gather and talk, provided they are willing to do so within the framework of the Windsor Report and working towards a covenant. He sees the Lambeth resolution in which homosexuality is addressed by a majority of bishops as not being permissible based on scripture as follows:

While argument continues about exactly how much force is possessed by a Resolution of the Lambeth Conference such as the 1998 Lambeth Conference Resolution on sexuality, it is true, as I have repeatedly said, that the 1998 Resolution is the only point of reference clearly agreed by the overwhelming majority of the Communion. This is the point where our common reading of Scripture stands, along with the common reading of the majority within the Christian churches worldwide and through the centuries.

He is concerned to find ways for the communion to live together and those who wish to distance themselves from actions (of the American and Canadian provinces) with which they disagree be able to do so.

He has himself clearly taken the view that he cannot discuss whether or not he believes that scripture is open to an interpretation that allows for a change in anthropology with regard to gay and lesbian people. He appears to have thought so in the past regarding ordination at least, and was initially willing to countenance the appointment of a gay man as a Bishop on the Church of England (Jeffrey John). He seems to think that his beliefs in the matter must be somehow subjected to a majority resolution of Lambeth and wishes that others, notably the American Church, would exercise a similar restraint for the good of the whole.

The problem I have with this is that it becomes unity at the expense of a single group of Christians in the name of consensus about biblical interpretation. He writes:

The Instruments of Communion have consistently and very strongly repeated that it is part of our Christian and Anglican discipleship to condemn homophobic prejudice and violence, to defend the human rights and civil liberties of homosexual people and to offer them the same pastoral care and loving service that we owe to all in Christ's name. But the deeper question is about what we believe we are free to do, if we seek to be recognisably faithful to Scripture and the moral tradition of the wider Church, with respect to blessing and sanctioning in the name of the Church certain personal decisions about what constitutes an acceptable Christian lifestyle. Insofar as there is currently any consensus in the Communion about this, it is not in favour of change in our discipline or our interpretation of the Bible.

I believe that those who claim to know ‘the plain meaning of scripture’ have forsaken any intellectual credibility. That is quite different from those who recognize the legitimacy and necessity of interpreting scripture in light of cultural, scientific and social realities that have led in the past to changes in our cosmology (the earth is not flat, nor the center of the universe) and anthropology (slavery is wrong; women are full human beings; roles may change etc.), but who in conscience disagree.

The Archbishop seems to find the possibility of unity only by saying that we cannot change without consensus for change. I think there must be some possibility other than the ‘all or nothing’ approach he appears to accept (although I am quite prepared to be shown that I have misunderstood his inscrutable style.)

I, for example, have taken the view in my current diocese (Atlanta), where we have no explicit consensus or Episcopal policy about commitment ceremonies, blessings and so on, that until it is legal, accepted and above board I will not offer such ceremonies in the church itself. This is a compromise that is distasteful to me, but allows people to get on with their Christian lives while the wider church sorts out how to live together. I also believe that we are nowhere near consensus about something as sacramental as pronouncing blessing on same sex unions (although I am quite clear that we should be seeking that consensus). We can however beg God’s blessing on anything we choose, recognizing that we may or may not receive it. So in those ceremonies at which I have presided we usually write a prayer for the whole congregation using the language of the couple that they come up with in response to the question as to what ‘blessing’ would mean or look like in their lives. This too is a compromise for the sake of the wider church.

Nothing will satisfy those who believe that any public recognition of homosexual relationships is beyond the pale. But for those who are receiving this kind of celebration of commitment (as we call it) as “the same pastoral care and loving service that we owe to all in Christ’s name” it looks and feels like a wedding whatever it is called and whether or not I pronounce blessing.

This past week I was part of a focus group of clergy from ‘mainline denominations’ discussing whether and how we address issues of sexuality and justice in our congregations. We were all asked to summarize our thoughts at the end of the session. Mine were a) how far we have come in a mere thirty or forty years; b) how disheartening it is for gay and lesbian people to find acceptance in a parish that is part of a denomination who keeps expressing ambivalence about them; and c) how this issue has in many respects defined my entire ordained ministry, how it is not what I would have chosen, how we don’t really ever discuss it any more at All Saints’ as the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in our leadership, life and ministry is a ‘given’ (as is our desire that it be expressed fully in the wider church), and how tired I am of the conversation about it, important though it is.

No comments: