Saturday, February 17, 2007

Counting the Cost of Communion

Thus far, the only substantive communication from the Anglican Primates’ meeting in Tanzania has been the release of the Report of the Communion Sub-Group (Report). Prepared by four members of the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council, the report examines the 75th General Convention of the Episcopal Church’s response to the Windsor Report. The Report has elicited a good deal of commentary already – from everyone except the Primates themselves. Presumably, we will learn of their response in the final communiquĂ© of their meeting; quite possibly as part of the reception of the Anglican Covenant process that they also are considering. The “Windsor Process” will now morph into the “Covenant Process.”

This is mostly good news for the Anglican Communion. As long as mutual listening and conversation continue, the opportunity for the renewal and strengthening of the bonds of affection between and within the constituent Provinces of the Communion remains. This is no small thing. It doesn’t mean schism will be avoided: greater familiarity may lead to a greater perception of how wide the differences between us really are. The question remains as to how we will respond to those differences.

Of concern to gay and lesbian Anglicans is the extent to which reconciliation within the Anglican Communion will come at the expense of our full inclusion. One time honored, but not very Christian, way to respond to difference is to scapegoat one particular group within the community as the bearers of the burden of difference, and then sacrifice that group as the means of creating unity over-and-against the excluded other. This was the approach taken at the 75th General Convention with the passage of Resolution B033, barring gay and lesbian clergy from election to the episcopacy.

If any doubt remained about the intent of that resolution, the Report of the Communion Sub-Group has clarified the matter and inscribed its force ever more deeply into our common life. We now have a Communion-wide body declaring that B033 complies with the recommendation of the Windsor Report, and the request of the Primates, for a moratorium on the consecration of partnered gay or lesbian clergy. This moratorium is open-ended: until such time as there is a “new consensus” in the Anglican Communion. Perhaps the proposed Anglican Covenant will illuminate just how such a consensus is to be determined.

Of course, the effect of B033 preceded this report. With the exception of the Diocese of Newark, whose nomination process was very far along before the passage of B033, no diocese has subsequently nominated, much less elected, a partnered gay or lesbian cleric as bishop. In the case of Newark, it would have been quite unfair to change the rules at the eleventh hour of the nomination process. As it was, it can not be denied that B033 had a severe dampening effect on the candidacy of the Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe there.

What is more, since the passage of B033 a number of highly qualified gay and lesbian clergy have simply refused to allow their names to be put forward for nomination. The cost of doing so is simply too high. Participation in an election process takes a great deal of time and energy, and it is unfair to a nominee and to a diocese to include someone on a slate of episcopal candidates who really has no hope of being elected or confirmed. With the acceptance of the Report of the Communion Sub-Group by the Primates, the chilling effect of B033 will become a deep freeze. It will then be argued that the sacrifice has been worth it. And it may be true that it has been successful if “success” is defined as preserving the unity of the Anglican Communion at any cost.

Of even more concern to me is the Report’s discussion of public Rites of Blessing for same-sex unions. The Report notes the variety of practice within the Episcopal Church, noting that authorization of such rites “would go against the standard of teaching to which the Communion as a whole has indicated that it is bound. We do not see how bishops who continue to act in a way which diverges from the common life of the Communion can be fully incorporated into its ongoing life. This is therefore a question which needs to be addressed urgently by the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church.”

With this statement, the Report throws down the gauntlet: banning the blessing of same-sex unions becomes the price of admission to the Lambeth Conference of Bishops. Does the Archbishop of Canterbury intend to enforce this criterion? How will he do so? Will some kind of “two-tier membership” structure within the Anglican Communion be part of the Anglican Covenant proposal, based not on Provincial decisions but those of individual dioceses? Sounds like a canon lawyer’s nightmare to me.

More likely, the Primates will look to our House of Bishops to collectively impose a real moratorium on the blessing of same-sex unions. Given the support of the vast majority of the bishops of the Episcopal Church for B033 (based in no small part on a previous threat to exclude them from the Lambeth Conference) I am not hopeful that our House of Bishops will have the courage to resist this threat as a body. What individual bishops may do remains to be seen. Either way, our canon lawyers will be employed well for the foreseeable future (not to mention the issue of diocesan boundary violations, to which the Report barely alludes).

Of course, resistance to the scapegoating mechanism, which is a Gospel imperative, does not rest with bishops alone. In our polity, the General Convention will have to take up these matters in 2009. We then will see if the House of Deputies has more backbone than in 2006 when it comes to resisting the abuse of episcopal authority.

The truth is that if our House of Bishops refuses to consent to gay or lesbian bishops-elect, and bishops refuse to authorize rites for the blessing of same-sex unions, there is little recourse for clergy and laity until the next episcopal election. This was a hard lesson learned in the Diocese of California, whose Diocesan Convention has been calling for the authorization of such rites for twenty-five years. In the meantime, all of us who care about the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the Church, whatever our order of ministry, must pray and discern how best to respond to events as they unfold. We will need to carefully ponder the need for ecclesiastical disobedience and be ready to bear the cost.

My hope is that a better way will be found, which respects the diverse contexts in which the Anglican Communion is situated around the world. Rather than impose a single rule, it would be better to allow for a variety of practices that can better inform our common life over time. How else can the voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people be heard respectfully? The “local option” enshrined in the resolution of the 74th General Convention, which “recognized that local faith communities within its common life were exploring and experiencing such liturgies [blessing same-sex unions],” while messy and “dissonant,” remains the middle way forward for the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

Much more will be revealed. While there is no need to be anxious, we do need to be vigilant, prayerful, and attentive to the process as it unfolds. We will also need to have the courage of our convictions, for only on that basis can we have a Communion worth the cost of sacrifices freely offered, rather than one based on sacrifices imposed by one part of the Body on another. Reconciliation by amputation is not the way to preserve the Body of Christ whole for the sake of the healing of the world. There is a more excellent way.

Update: be sure to read Bishop Marc Andrus' somewhat more positive assessment of the Report.


thomas said...


Thanks for your thoughtful response to the report out of Tanzania. I agree that this is a difficult time for our church as we seem to be offered the choice of communion with our brothers and sisters around the world, or, the inclusion of LGBT people in our church and the recognition of their gifts.

It seems to me that we in the Episcopal Church have an insight about the place of LGBT members that others in this world do not yet have. The difficulty of being in this position is that our actions are misunderstood, and deliberately mis interpreted by some, as a departure from "orthodox" life chaniging faith, toward some feel good anything goes theology.

Having made the journey from ignorance to valuing the relationships of gay and lesbian people, I know what a difficult shift this is in the gut and then theologically.

I think this breathing room, sadly at the expense of gay and lesbian people who bear the brunt of this waiting, can be an opportunity. How shall we as a church, regardless of what happens with any listening process, share examples of the gifts of ministry and the fruit of the Spirit in that we know typifies the lives of LGBT people and their partnerships? How can we witness to the ways these partnership/marriages actually strengthen the work of the Gospel? Does the Episcopal Church have a plan?

It seems to me that we have not done our best at this, realizing that the experience of some around the world is so different. It seems the task is not to win over the hearts of those who will take the longest time to come around, but to give those "in the middle" a clearer sense of how God is working among us. Perhaps then we will find a way to walk together as a communion, while respecting the gifts and call of all our members.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I couldn't agree more with your assessment, John.

The 'cold chill' on the willingness of LGBT people to test B033 has indeed, turned into a 'deep freeze'.

This injustice is neither pleasing to the eyes of God nor true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I do believe this is a sin against the Holy Spirit, and you know what She can do when she's pissed.

So, hold on to your hat. After Tanzania 2007 and Lambeth 2008, I expect she's going to make quite an appearance at General Convention 2009.

I have no idea what that will be, but buy some really inexpensive socks on sale so you won't miss them when they get blown off.

And yes, it is not time for pessimism or anxiety but it is time for vigilance.

It was ever thus with the work of justice which requires constant vigilance. For example, I thought it had been reported that Moderator (Dunkin) Do-nuts had left for the airport in a huff. And yet, Colin Coward is reporting that he's still in TZ, plotting in a late night session with Big Pete and Martyn-with-a-Y and his besotted wife, Angela.

And, stranger than fiction, Matt Kennedy over at Stand Firm is calling for boundaries. Imagine that!

They are not to be trusted. The lot of them.