Monday, July 6, 2009

Lambeth Redux

July 6, 2009

On October 5, 2005 I published a long blog piece during a sabbatical leave which had some ‘legs’ at the time. General Convention is about to begin and it seems likely that there will be a substantial discussion about authorizing some kind of liturgy for recognizing same sex relationships. I thought it worth repeating much of what I wrote four years ago as it still more or less represents my position on the matters before us, although I have become much less tolerant of delay and diddling and believe that we should get on with agreeing to pronounce blessing on gay marriages. A lengthy entry follows:

On Monday evening I attended the annual meeting of the Compass Rose Society on behalf of All Saints’. It is a treat to visit Lambeth Palace, and to have time and dinner with the Archbishop of Canterbury in his official home. The gathering included Martyn Minns, an old friend, rector of Truro Church in Fairfax, Virginia, and one of the leaders in America of the movement to realign the communion (more on that further down the page), and Michael Ingham, the Bishop of New Westminster in Canada, the diocese that is singled out along with ECUSA for particular attention owing to their official approval of the blessing of same-sex unions in a council of the church.

Not to many days ago I described myself in a blog entry as a ‘happy universalist’. I want to retract that as it is not technically true. If we are really free, then there must be the possibility of eternal damnation. I understand this to be some part of Jesus’ mysterious term ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’. Karl Rahner, a member of my personal pantheon of saints, wrote a difficult book called Foundations of the Christian Faith in which he writes of the possibility of an absolute and existential ‘no’ in and to life. I believe in such a thing and that such a rejection of all that makes for life is not the same as the outward rejection of Christian (or any other) Faith. In some instances what seems to be a rejection of faith can be a rejection of a manipulative use of power for example, and therefore an affirmation of life. So while I believe in the possibility of choosing eternal damnation, I do not worry too much about people actually choosing such an option, and happily leave the question of ultimate salvation and the question of eternal life in God’s hands. “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of God.”

This is somewhat related to the answer that Rowan Williams gave to a question I asked him. I asked whether ‘repentance’ for a province of the church could mean anything other than an official proclamation saying ‘we were wrong, we are sorry and we won’t do it again.’ He answered that repentance is what we offer each other as Christians and that one branch of the church can offer another. Repentance or metanoia means the turning of life toward life in Christ and so means a willingness to say ‘I need to think again’ and that I will repent as I am drawn more fully into Christ. (Obviously this is not a direct quote from the Archbishop of Canterbury, but it is how I remember his answer.) I’ve had one conversation at the pastor theologian group and another this week with Martyn in which friends who disagree with me deeply and radically have been willing to engage a real conversation and try to avoid the kind of talk where we lob grenades and talk past each other. In that spirit I want to try and lay out (briefly) current thinking one more time. Those as tired of this as I am need read no further, but homosexuality is the issue already leading to the breakup or radical realignment of the Anglican Communion and I have to pay attention to the existential reality if writing about the church’s role in salvation is to have any meaning or value.

Yet More Thoughts on the Church and Homosexual People

I asked Martyn why the consecration of Gene Robinson was enough for him to want to split the church and realign the communion. Why is this issue of such fundamental importance to him? His response was to ask me how I could be so sure that I was right about homosexuality to go against the majority of world Christendom and cause a split in the church and in the communion. So as I mentioned in an earlier blog there is a certain amount of chicken and egg in this. Who started the war? Etc. He also said that my side (i.e. those who take a progressive position with regard to homosexual people) had all the power and the money. He spoke a lot of the anger and sense of betrayal of his friends in the global south in general and Peter Akinola in particular. He believes (as I do) that there really is no turning back, that there is a civil rights issue for the American church and that he, and people who believe as he does can no more be tolerated than racists or people who continue to think that women should not be ordained. He cannot see a way for us to stay together on that basis and he believes deeply that I am wrong about homosexuality, and that I am basing my belief on a new and thoroughly wobbly category when I say that I believe there is such a thing as a homosexual person. He argues that the complementary nature of men and women is found in the creation story and echoed throughout scripture, notably in the writing on marriage in Ephesians – a view with which I have great sympathy. His pastoral experience leads him to say that there are many people desperate to change their lives and that they find being told that they do not need to change does them a disservice and withholds from them the saving power of the gospel. He has many in his church he tells me who have successfully left behind their homosexual desires. He is truly sorry (and I believe him) about those who believe they have been damaged by some of the tactics of those who preach and profess that they can change homosexual desires into ‘natural’ ones. He is truly offended that he is now supposed to say that a same sex relationship can be holy and blessed in the same way that a marriage is holy and blessed. What do I need to hear in all this and to what do I need to respond?

First, I am not prepared to break up the church over a wobbly category, an ‘idea’ of homosexuality. I do not know exactly how homosexual people are formed as such, whether it is somehow predetermined in the womb or whether (as I suspect) it results from a complex series of decisions and experiences that form and shape our sexual responses to one another. I am however prepared to break up the church over people who God loves. I see before me a parade of faces of people whose lives are infinitely better and more free when they are affirmed in the community of faith and allowed to make those life giving and self giving commitments of love that are open to the rest of us in marriage. Psychiatry long ago gave up on the idea that it was pathological to be gay or lesbian. St. Paul counsels that we test all things and hold fast to that which is good, and that the good is seen in an increase of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. I see those things in the lives of many we know and love at All Saints’. I assume this to be true in the life and ministry of Gene Robinson – certainly that is the testimony of his friends. I am prepared to stake everything on their being welcome at the Lord’s Table as they are, just as everyone else, with much to be transformed, but also with many an offering made acceptable in the grace of God. So I repent of being willing to break up the church over an anthropological category (‘homosexual person’), while holding fast to those people who God has raised up for service in the community of faith and who I believe does not hold as second-class citizens of the Kingdom.

I believe that all of our theological decisions and forms of church are provisional in some important way, and repent of those times when I have claimed or implied certainty.

I believe that the business of pronouncing sacramental and prophetic blessing is the business of some unit of the church. The question is what unit: the local parish? A diocese? An autocephalous or independent province? Some larger body or bodies? On the whole I believe the larger the body the better and as a matter of our current reality, that probably needs to be the province, or in our case ECUSA. In the meantime I believe that we can ask, importune or beg God’s blessing on anything. Our prayer must always start with the genuine desires of our heart even as we acknowledge that our hearts might well be changed in the praying. The service I have used with All Saints’ parishioners does not even use the word ‘blessing’. We have talked through what we assume the results of being blessed by God would be and have asked God to grant those things to couples who make deep commitments. If it would keep the church together, I would agree to being much more tentative and much less cavalier about pronouncing God’s blessing until there is much greater agreement about whether such is something we can do happily.

As a matter of good order I believe we are in a terrible position having a bishop of the church (the whole church or at least the whole Anglican Communion) who is not in a ‘sanctioned’ relationship. At the very least we must as ECUSA quickly find a way to acknowledge some such option for homosexual people. Only then can we ask our brothers and sisters around the world for some forbearance and grace in the face of this novelty.

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