Thursday, July 16, 2009

Bishop Wright and TEC

July 15, 2009

Bishop N. T. Wright of Durham in England has published a column in today’s Times which is worth reading as the highest and best concise expression of a genuinely Christian and conservative position on homosexuality.

He, along with most of the press that I have seen assumes that resolution D025 does something new and explicitly ends our willingness to accede to a ‘moratorium’ on the consecration of gay or lesbian bishops, when in fact it is a positive and descriptive statement of the current position of The Episcopal Church. (This is certainly a contrast to the controversial resolution B033 which was pushed through in the last hours of the 2006 convention as a compromise resolution.) Bishop Wright articulates his point of view on inter Anglican relationships in light of his reading of scripture. At the same time he makes use of less than honest polemic to push his agenda. He believes that his point of view ought to be the only point of view held, or rather acted upon, in the Anglican Communion. He says that TEC acted in a way “formalizing the schism they initiated six years ago” and suggests that we are “rewriting the rules” in an act of “cynical double-think”. Doubtless this is good stuff in a newspaper, and on the political stump, but is true neither to the recent history of the communion, nor to The Episcopal Church.

The Story Thus Far

Six years ago, when General Convention voted to confirm the election of the Bishop of New Hampshire, a divorced and partnered gay man, elected by his diocese on the second ballot, they did so in accordance with the constitution and canons of this church which have been consistently misunderstood by others in the communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury is reported as saying during his visit to this convention that some bishops in the wider communion prefer to hear from other bishops. In the same conversation he lamented the time it can take for The Episcopal Church to arrive at decisions on our common life. We have heard Jenny Te Paa of New Zealand and a member of the Lambeth Commission regret that members of that commission which produced the Windsor Report did not understand the polity of TEC. It was the Windsor Report, a mostly good and substantial piece of work, which sought to change the rules or understanding of communion by seeking ways to rein in the Episcopal Church from continuing in the direction that we were clearly heading in affirming the full humanity of our gay and lesbian members and welcoming their full participation in the full life of the church. This was one more step in a conversation including more than thirty years of listening process, debate and discussion. The Windsor Report slowed things down and allowed for more discussion on a number of subjects that threatened happy relationship between provinces in the communion. It sought to address two main issues: the affirmation of homosexual people and the innovation of bishops ‘crossing borders’ without observing the normal protocols. The effect has been rather like seeking to close the barn door after the horse has left or seeking to put toothpaste back in a tube. The Windsor Report has in many ways served to shape the conversation ever since. It has provided a basis for Archbishop Williams and Bishop Wright along with many others to put their hope for the future of the communion in establishing a covenant. Critical to the effectiveness of that covenant for unity, they believe and argue, is some kind of juridical aspect or mechanism for discernment. This would be intended to ensure that no province could act in ways that are challenging or difficult for a majority of others to conceive as good. Moral authority is generally conceded when one or other party in a contentious relationship starts either resorting to quoting, or in this case changing the rules.

The Interpretation of Scripture

Bishop Wright, along with many others believes that TEC’s affirmation of homosexual people is deeply flawed and contrary to scripture. It is on the basis of that decision that he wants to ensure that Anglicans who reach a different conclusion about scripture be prohibited from acting on their conclusions. It is the belief that any affirmation of homosexual relationships are prohibited by scripture which conservatives on this issue use to justify their decision to separate from their church as a group (is that not schism?) rather than accept that within TEC they are in a minority. It is that same belief that apparently justifies heated rhetoric in that cause of ensuring that there is no place for the affirmation of GLBT people within Anglicanism, rhetoric which the Bishop of Durham is quick to challenge in others (such as he does with the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans newly instituted in England).

The Proper Context for Sex

So let’s look at his concise expression of those beliefs. First Wright argues for the tradition (shared by many Jewish, Christina and Muslim teachers) that "lifelong man-plus-woman marriage is the proper context for sexual intercourse”. This he believes to be “a deep structural reflection on the belief in a creator God who has entered into covenant both with his creation and with his people (who carry forward his purpose for that creation).” If I understand this correctly, he is making the argument that marriage is and must be bound up with procreation and implies that marriage and sex within marriage cannot be otherwise as a ‘deep structural matter’. TEC along with many other Anglican provinces includes procreation as a purpose of matrimony but not in an exclusive or proscriptive way, allowing for fecundity, generativity and procreativity to be expressed in ways other than, and in addition to giving birth to children.


Bishop Wright is clear that this is not a ‘private response to Scripture’ but of “the uniform teaching of the whole Bible, of Jesus himself, and of the entire Christian tradition.” He does not allow (in this article) for any possibility that the presumptions and preconditions for such a tradition could change, and appears to believe that the context of our conversations about human sexuality are the same as have been down the ages, especially over against paganism. Christian Tradition has, for the most part, navigated changes in biblical cosmology as we have, not without considerable difficulty, acknowledged that the earth revolves around the sun. We have navigated significant shifts in biblical anthropology, moving beyond biblical assumptions that slavery is ‘normative’ or that women are chattel. It is possible that we are now making another change in our anthropological assumptions about GLBT people, and that change is well under way for TEC

Justice and Identity

The bishop wants justice in the sense of “treating people appropriately, which involves making distinctions between different people and situations.” He appears to see the request for justice on the part of some who support the full humanity of GLBT persons as such as a request for a “right to give active expression to any and every sexual desire.” This is neither the intent, nor a conclusion that must be necessarily drawn from discussions of justice in this matter. The underlying problem in the conversation seems to be how we evaluate and understand ‘identity’ which the Bishop goes on to address, essentially dismissing claims that sexual identity as gay or lesbian is comparable to ‘male or female, English or African, rich or poor’ as a modern and recent innovation. He also points out that much postmodern reflection has turned away from identity as a useful category as such, understanding instead that “we ‘construct’ ourselves from day to day”.

This last point gets us to what I understand to be the heart of the matter. Bishop Wright and many thoughtful conservatives on this issue simply do not want to or cannot allow the possibility that there is such a thing as a gay or lesbian person as such. They choose to believe (based on some combination of visceral instinct, cultural norms and past Christian teaching) that anything other than sexual activity for the purpose of procreation within marriage between one man and one woman is immoral and a perversion of God’s intentions for humanity. They evaluate people who have come to define themselves as gay or lesbian as people who are not ordering their desires in accordance with Scripture and Tradition (my words, not his), and who are asking for the (immoral) ‘right’ to pursue their sexual desires. Arguments from etiology (“God made me this way”) are on shaky ground here however deeply felt. We are a long way from being able to say anything definitive about the origins of homosexuality. The relationship between nature and nurture, genetics, culture and other factors in the development of attraction are not now and may never be clear. What is clear is that sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. For the overwhelming majority of gay and lesbian people no amount of therapy, prayer or sheer force of will makes any positive difference to that reality. Some talk of knowing from a very young age, certainly before any ‘age of reason’. Years of engaging various ‘listening processes’, theological reflection, convention debate and just about every other venue for conversation have led me and many others to accept sexual orientation as largely analogous to other fundamental descriptors of human experience and reality such as race or gender.

A Brief Way to a Different Conclusion

An alternative to this Traditional and juridical approach to Scripture and relationship is to remember how for much of Anglican history we have found our unity in common prayer, some shared history or connection with the Church of England, and some common commitments, (including the historic episcopacy, locally adapted) expressed in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. We can also look at the history of Biblical Interpretation and the variety of principles used by Christians, including allowing the brad sweep of the story of God’s dealings with humanity to help us interpret particular instances or issues. There is, in spite of conservative protestation a measure of choice in how we elect to view homosexual people. If, after years of conversation, we see that gay and lesbian people who are supported, affirmed and loved as such usually live happier, more fulfilled and godly lives that when they are feared, persecuted or told that their desires are a perversion of God’s intentions. If we can see that their lives are more reflective of the abundant life promised in the gospel when they are accepted rather than when told that their only option is to suppress their thoughts and decline en masse to allow any possibility of sexual expression of their affections, then we are getting nearer to following St. Paul who said “test all things and hold fast to that which is good”. ‘That which is good’ manifests the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, compassion, fecundity, generosity and so on. A majority of us in TEC now see that such is the case when gay and lesbian people are encouraged and supported in living lives in accord with the gospel. If Bishop Wright were ever to accept such a possibility, I believe he would find that his entire and wonderful project of Biblical interpretation would stand and be strengthened.

Resolution D025 is not disingenuous as the Bishop implies, but a full expression of the current mind of this church. The listening process of the Anglican Communion can include listening to the pastoral experience of the Church and could include gracious restraint on the part of those who would act in ways that enshrine sinful prejudice as part and parcel of what it means to be Anglican. Generosity toward TEC in this regard would be thoroughly within the Tradition of gracious Anglicanism that allows relationship over time to shape and sometimes transform doctrine. We can, if we choose, continue to gather together around the Table of the Lord knowing that everyone of us is being transformed into the likeness of Christ. For that is the heart of the matter: the freedom of choice we are afforded in God’s gracious love. Our attitude toward gay and lesbian people is, in the end and in spite of all our cultural norms and conditioning, a matter of choice as to how we will follow the biblical imperative to love one another as God loves us and not turn some culturally prevalent norm, past or present, into an idol.

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