Today’s New York Times report about the sobering epistle from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams included several passages that I am sure raised eyebrows extra high among Anglican leaders in Pittsburgh and Episcopal leaders in New York City. As you would expect, this news story by the team of Laurie Goodstein and Neela Banerjee will be carefully parsed on this side of the Atlantic, because the Times is the holy writ for leaders in The Episcopal Church (formerly the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America).
For starters, it is important that the issue of same-sex unions is placed in the lead, along with a reference to the 2003 consecration of the openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
My reading of the archbishop’s statement — with its repeated emphasis on a threat to the sacramental unity of the Anglican Communion — is that attempts to modernize the ancient Sacrament of Marriage to include same-sex unions is just as divisive an issue for traditional Anglicans (and Catholics, and Orthodox Christians, and evangelical Protestants) as the issue of openly gay bishops. Here is one of the most crucial sections of the letter to the Anglican primates:
… (The) debate in the Anglican Communion is not essentially a debate about the human rights of homosexual people. It is possible — indeed, it is imperative — to give the strongest support to the defence of homosexual people against violence, bigotry and legal disadvantage, to appreciate the role played in the life of the church by people of homosexual orientation, and still to believe that this doesn’t settle the question of whether the Christian Church has the freedom, on the basis of the Bible, and its historic teachings, to bless homosexual partnerships as a clear expression of God’s will. That is disputed among Christians, and, as a bare matter of fact, only a small minority would answer yes to the question.
Unless you think that social and legal considerations should be allowed to resolve religious disputes — which is a highly risky assumption if you also believe in real freedom of opinion in a diverse society — there has to be a recognition that religious bodies have to deal with the question in their own terms. Arguments have to be drawn up on the common basis of Bible and historic teaching. And, to make clear something that can get very much obscured in the rhetoric about ‘inclusion’, this is not and should never be a question about the contribution of gay and lesbian people as such to the Church of God and its ministry, about the dignity and value of gay and lesbian people. Instead it is a question, agonisingly difficult for many, as to what kinds of behaviour a Church that seeks to be loyal to the Bible can bless, and what kinds of behaviour it must warn against — and so it is a question about how we make decisions corporately with other Christians, looking together for the mind of Christ as we share the study of the Scriptures.
My one criticism of the Times piece is that it does not allow leaders on both sides to debate this theological and doctrinal side of the Canterbury statement. That would, of course, have taken more than a few inches of type. Click here for my attempt in a Scripps Howard column.
Of course the crisis is linked to politics, inside and outside the church, and the story had to stress that. But the reason that Anglicans on the right side of the cathedral aisle are cheering today is that (a) Rowan Williams consistently described this as a conflict that must be addressed as an issue affecting the whole church, the global church, and that (b) he repeatedly said answers must be found in Scripture and in ancient church traditions. He mentions the historic flexibility of Anglicanism on cultural issues, but not as often as he underlines the authority of, for example, the “Bible and historic teaching.”
But back to what the Times report does include. Which phrase leaps out at you in this passage?
Conservatives hailed the archbishop’s move as an affirmation that the American church stepped outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy when it ordained a gay bishop three years ago.
The archbishop wrote, “No member church can make significant decisions unilaterally and still expect this to make no difference to how it is regarded in the fellowship.”
Leaders of the Episcopal Church — the Communion’s American province, long dominated by theological liberals — sought to play down the statement’s import, saying it was just one more exchange in a long dialogue they expected to continue within the Communion.
Yes, says the Times, the U.S. church is dominated by “theological liberals” and those words — which are loaded, but factually accurate in almost any reading of modern Christian theology — can be used in broad daylight. If anyone is going to challenge this phrase, they would need to argue that the true ruling elite among Episcopalians is made up of pragmatists who are more interested in the survivial of the institutional church than they are in any one particular theological point of view. The most honest debates among Anglicans are held between honest and candid leaders of the left and the right who are willing to state their beliefs openly and then defend them.
Then there is this eye-opening paragraph:
The Anglican Communion has about 77 million members in more than 160 nations. Members in conservative provinces far outnumber those in the liberal provinces. The Episcopal Church has about 2.3 million members but contributes a disproportionate amount to Anglican Communion administration, charities and mission work. The Anglican Communion Network, a group leading the conservative response, said it had 200,000 members last year.
Bravo. There are all kinds of hard truths in that one punchy summary statement — from the disproportionate clout of American dollars in British offices to the growing statistical reality of conservatives in the Third World. And note the small size of the Anglican Communion Network. Or, is that actually small? How many Episcopalians are there perched on kneelers on any given Sunday?
This will be a major story for at least a decade, in church courts and secular courts. Who gets to write this covenant that is supposed to unite the communion? I would assume the archbishops of the 38 Anglican provinces will do much of the work and supervise the rest. They might seek input from Catholic and Orthodox leaders. And what will be the key issues they end up debating?
I’ll stick with my list of four tough questions that I posted the other day:
(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Was this a real — even if mysterious — event in real time? Did it really happen?
(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Is Jesus the Way or a way?
(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin? The key word is sin.
(4) Should Anglican leaders ban the worship, by name, of other gods at their altars?
Stay tuned. And make sure you let us know the URLs for the best blogs — on the Anglican right and the Episcopal left — that are discussing this story and posting public responses by bishops and activists.