Friday, February 09, 2007

A Conversation over the Divide

I recently was in a conversation over at Preludium, and I wanted to document it here. My comments here are in magenta, while John 2007's comments are in blue (later, others joined the conversation, as you will see). I believe this conversation illustrates some of the primary concerns around our divisions in the Episcopal Church right now, if not the Anglican Communion. Your comments, of course, are welcome, but please hold to points that will either illuminate this conversation or help move it forward. My intent here is only to build some mutual understanding and perhaps find some points in common for a way to remain engaged.

In response to Mark Harris' post on a recent article by The Rt. Rev Michael Scott-Joynt, Bishop of Winchester, I wrote:

The real Communion is most manifest in the thousands if not millions of real, very human relationships on the ground throughout Anglicanism, and beyond.

Tanzania will be about the Primates. Sure, it helps to have them stick it out together as a sign of Communion, and it makes the global partnerships easier (well, at least some of the time).

But the real Communion, it seems to me, is in the person-to-person incarnational Gospel witness as we break bread together, partner for mission, and follow in the footsteps of Christ.

So, I've decided not to lose sleep anymore over what's coming out of a few higher ups in the C of E, Nigeria, or anywhere else as the Primates' Meeting approaches. I will pray for them, of course, and for our Presiding Bishop. She indeed appears to see beyond the fray.

I do want to see the Anglican Communion continue. . .

But, as one post pointed out today, the Communion is ultimately not mine, not ours, and certainly not the Primates'. It belongs to God in Christ.

Now, isn't that a hopeful thought?
~~~


To which John 2007 replied:

"But the real Communion, it seems to me, is in the person-to-person incarnational Gospel witness as we break bread together, partner for mission, and follow in the footsteps of Christ." Okay, pretty close. But I would point to the lack in this statement of seeking a common mind, agreeing on how to live together and what counts as living in the truth. Note also how two metaphors 'following in Jesus' footstepts' and 'break bread together' beg the questions that divide us: what does it mean to follow, and what kind of communion should we share? John 2007
~~~


R said...

John 2007,

I disagree that my statement lacks any intent to seek a common mind, implicit or otherwise. Partnering in mission, I believe, assumes a willingness to seek a common mind, not necessarily in all things, but at least on the missional work in front of us.

And I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "what communion do we share?" The rites themselves have been part of Anglican and greater catholic tradition for centuries and are about gathering around a table together to, among a great many other signs, acknowledge our unity in Christ Jesus. Without going into a major essay on eucharistic theology, the bread and the wine remind us, or even embody that our unity is in Christ, not necessarily in every belief that we hold dear. It seems to me Jesus did not expect unity of mind amongst his disciples (they frequently argued with each other), but missional unity and unity of heart by remaining together.

But I may have misunderstood you. If you could explain your question a bit more, maybe that would further the conversation.

God's peace.

~~~


To "r" in the post above, 'partnering in mission' is indeed important but so often this means (or is reduced to) social action. Admittedly, this is part of the gospel and part of our mission. But, and surely this is known, those who dissent from the direction ECUSA is taking with regard to sexual ethics and sexual morality, think that part of our mission--and at the heart of our mission--is to call people to repentance and holiness in their sexual lives. That is--I know it is for me--right at "the missional work in front of us."

And, my point about sharing communion is to challenge the idea that 'being at the table' is more important than how we live our lives. Of course, we share in communion among ourselves without being completely of like mind. But that is different than sharing communion with someone who you think is, in all reasonable interpretation of our tradition and our norms, living willfully in sin. I say this BTW as someone who has been in the center and slightly left (on some things) for 24 years as a minister in ECUSA. I have been "chastened" in my liberalism, or out of it. No longer do I think "being at the table" is most important. It certainly isn't something that jumps out of the pages of the NT at us. Much more on sanctity of life in that book, I think.

As an instance of what I think, when I listen to our presiding bishop she makes it clear, however laudable are her social goals, that discipleship as coming under the Lordship of Christ, the living, acting Christ (whom she apparently would have cautioned not to present himself as 'the Way, the Truth and the Life')is not at the heart of her mission. So what's 'missional unity' here? I could have used countless other examples, but the point is that what is dividing us--me now solidly with the conservative in ECUSA--is precisely a mission-central question. What we do with our bodies, and what we teach our children, and what we think, is important.
John 2007
~~~

R said...

John 2007

Your points are very well taken, and I do agree that "partnering in mission" is sometimes reduced to social action. Another frame of reference for that reality, though, is that social action may offer common ground while we wrestle with our disagreements over questions of sexual morality.

I'd like to point out that there seems the misconception at times that the "liberal" side is saying anything goes vis-a-vis sexual morality. I don't believe that to be the case. LGBT Christians are called to holiness in their bodies and sexual relationships every bit as much as heterosexuals. That there is disagreement on what this looks like, I will concede, but I am concerned that the argument at the present time often is oversimplified as holiness over and against licentiousness. That betrays the complexity of the views on both sides and does not lend itself at all to finding a common way forward.

I have posted elsewhere on the controversy over "the Way, the Truth, and the Life," particularly in the context in which it appears in John's Gospel vs. how it is being used as a universal litmus test in the present arguments.

I do heartily agree that there is more than table fellowship to the Christian faith. I would argue, as what I might call myself a "thoroughgoing sacramentalist" that the table fellowship itself is transformative for everyone who gathers -- that we are being brought into the Way of Christ through it.

Indeed for some it will be treated as a casual affair at times, but I hesitate pushing them out (short of there deliberate violence being done to the community), because that assumes the limits of God's grace in both the companionship at the table and in the shared gifts, as well as the Word that is shared as part of our tradition.

A shorter reponse might be this: can we learn to listen and respond to each other with generosity, even when we disagree? That, it seems to me, is the hard question facing all sides in the present mess.

~~~
r
You post announces rather than solves the issues. But Agreed:"A shorter reponse might be this: can we learn to listen and respond to each other with generosity, even when we disagree? That, it seems to me, is the hard question facing all sides in the present mess." However, to give one example, I cannot in any clear conscience at all have my children confirmed by VGR or take communion with him and feel good about it. Can I build a case, theologically, for doing so? I have been for years and it is something decidedly eschatological: God will one day make all things well and remove the oppressive burdens, heal the wounds of creation, and so we are bearing proleptic witness to that in the present even with those whom we disagree. So communion is in part a pledge to work toward that day, and a movement toward that day. However, that answer no longer satisfies me. The theological reasons are more than a few, and a personal reason is that it no longer brings with it the NT sense of surpassing peace and the peaceful fruit of righteousness. I have come to think, in fact, that we do everyone a disservice when the "table" is reduced to 'can't we all get along' which, I sense, you might agree with also. I think some other denominations (RC's and even thoughtful Baptists!) are living more into God's truth than we are on the presenting issues of the day.

I would also add that to "learn to listen and respond to each other with generosity" does not, for me, have to be within the same denomination. I can say, now much easier, 'Hey, ECUSA is trying out this experiment. Speak to them, Lord, and work on them--and on me too' outside of the ongoing fray. Do I think this means I am violating John 17? Not at all. By standing outside of ECUSA, or its leadership, I am saying, as I think places in VA are saying, 'Come stand over here. The ground is solid.'

And, on John 14:6, I can agree that it should not be a litmus test, and it does require some thought. But it would be nice to see a Presiding Bishop with some theological depth for a change who at least labors under the force of the dominical words, tries to explain and deepen the importance of the atonment rather than suggest that its an ungracious Christianity that focuses on that, and one who thinks that maybe, just maybe Jesus loves the world more than we do and taking him at his word, even in the so-called 'exclusivist' passages might be, at the end of the day, on the Last Day, the best thing for the world. John 2007
~~~
At this point, two other voices joined the conversation, carl and Christopher+:

r said:

"[S]ocial action may offer common ground while we wrestle with our disagreements over questions of sexual morality."

Two points.

1. The two sides aren't wrestling in an attempt to come to some mutually satisfactory arrangement. They are advocating mutually-exclusive positions and both sides are absolutely convinced of the rightness of their cause. Neither side has any intention of retreating. Both sides seek only to convert the other. Consequently, there is no mutually-satisfactory arrangement to be had. I think the Western Front in 1916 might be a better metaphor than wrestling.

2. Mutual social action would also confer legitimacy. Liberals desire mutual social action for just this reason. It implies that the Church is broad enough to encompass the divergent theologies. But this is precisely the issue in contention. The Church is broad enough to encompass both theologies only if the liberals are right. This in my judgment is the more important issue. Conservative desire that liberal expressions of Christianity be de-legitimized. That is why conservatives demand either repentance or separation - to publically demonstrate the false nature of liberal religion.

carl
~~~


christopher+ said...

"I think some other denominations (RC's and even thoughtful Baptists!) are living more into God's truth than we are on the presenting issues of the day."

With respect, the Roman Catholic Church and Baptists do not agree on God's truth (certainly not as it applies to ecclesiology), so this is a difficult assertion to follow, unless it means that one should only be in fellowship - institutionally - with those with whom one agrees theologically/ecclesiologically. Perhaps that is so - at least as regards formal bonds.

"However, to give one example, I cannot in any clear conscience at all have my children confirmed by VGR or take communion with him and feel good about it."

Again, with respect, it is not clear where you stand on the 39 Articles, but Article 26 clarifies that any perceived "unworthiness of...ministers" - which you seem to believe Bishop Robinson to reflect - "hinders not the effect of the Sacraments." One can argue about what happens when no "just judgment" leads to deposition of one believed by some to be unworthy, but there it is. Given some newfound fervor for the Articles of Religion these days, this might be of interest. If this is not relevant, then there is no particular reason any of the other Articles would be either.

That puts us back where we started: trying to establish minimum standards for formal Anglican fellowship, which is what all present discussions seem to be about. Perhaps the time has indeed come for this very discussion. For the past century, the Lambeth Quadrilateral served this purpose well, but it no longer seems to be of much interest or relevance to much of the Anglican Communion, despite Windsor Report assertions to the contrary.



~~~
Christopher
1. I said "on the presenting" issues I find my Baptist friends and RC friends more in line with what I think is the truth about sexual intimacy. Of course, they are far apart on other things.

2. The whole line of thought about "efficacy of the Sacraments" no matter what the worthiness of the minister is beside the point, really, for me. For I am not interested in the sacramental efficacy as understood ex opere operato or by Article 26. I am interested in the very public and personal-psychological nature of the event and the conscience of my children. Surely, one cannot send children into such a ceremony double-minded oneself let alone if they themselves have huge reservations about the man through whom God's efficacy should flow.

I happen to think, in the current controversy, appeals to the Donatist controversy are often ill-deployed for those who had previously apostatized or caved in under pressure, came back to the faith and intentional embrace of Christian belief and practice--and that coming back and repenting is what is at issue here. Developmentally, I think it's nuts to ask bright teenagers who think gay sex is a violation of biblical norms that it doesn't matter that the Bishop is VGR (likable as he is, I should say, in so many ways).
~~~
(I assume that the last comment was posted by John 2007). Another commenter, Jim, entered the conversation at this point, and asserted that John's position promoted institutional homophobia. While polemical (as is carl's comment above), I include this because brings an important element into the conversation: namely, the impact traditional teachings on marriage have on LGBT members of the Christian community.


Jim said...

"I said "on the presenting" issues I find my Baptist friends and RC friends more in line with what I think is the truth about sexual intimacy. "

So we are back, finally, to the point. All of the noise, dishonesty and theo-babble stripped aside, we are left with the definition of a good church -- institutional homophobia.

There are indeed as some of the neo-pharisees preach, two churches. One populated by people so insecure they think haveing a good and decent man like Bp. Robinson confirm their kids will spread a contageon, the other confiedent that the power of the Spirit will lead all of us including even homophobe's children where the Spirit wants them to go, if only we will follow.

Yup, neo-pharisees are holier than me, and I am so glad. I am not going where they and their legalism are trying to drag the entire communion. One wonders if the new vestments for grand ahytola ++Akinola will have numbered fringes, one for each rule in the "convenant."

;;sigh;;

FWIW
jimB


~~~
R said...

"I think it's nuts to ask bright teenagers who think gay sex is a violation of biblical norms that it doesn't matter that the Bishop is VGR (likable as he is, I should say, in so many ways)."

John 2007 (I assume you wrote the above):

If I understand you correctly, you are making a distinction between pastoral and sacramental questions. To illustrate more broadly, if, say, one of my parishioners could not abide me because he or she disagreed with my manner of life or something I had, say, taught or said in a sermon, he or she could opt out (and have his or her children do the same) of receiving anything sacramental from or by me. To me, that is a pastoral choice. Likewise, the same, I suppose, would hold true with any bishop.

But the efficacy of the sacraments still remain.

I'm only re-stating what you said, just to make sure I understand this correctly. Is that so?

You're right, I am spending a great deal here simply fleshing out the issues, not trying to "solve" them. My desire here is to deepen understanding, at least on my "side."

~~~
christopher+ said...

John,

Naturally, I do not know anything about the beliefs and convictions of your teenage children - this seems to be the key issue for you - and I would not presume to speak to that. Also, if my comment yesterday sounded grumpy in any way, I apologize.

Here's the problem I see in all this. It is the problem of judgment, and Christian communities have struggled with it since the NT period, as the Pastoral Epistles, for example, clearly reflect. When we as Christians feel we must judge who is worthy enough to be with us at the Lord's Table (or in the Church at all), we set off down a problematic path. For which of us is truly worthy at all? We must ALL repent, all the time. Thus the virtue of humilty.

Your point seems to be about establishing the limits of participation (and thus worthiness), though, and certainly every community of people must do this to some extent. Yet, Jesus himself - our very Lord and Savior - contested the contemporary rules of religious and social worthiness time and time again. In His example, I see a call to great humility in judging the worthiness of others before God.

What's more, Jesus challenges our very human understanding that only those who "belong" in fellowship with us should actually be in fellowship with us. It is human - and perhaps necessary - to create communities of like-minded people; this is how nations and denominations are formed. Not surprisingly, though, Jesus calls us to a greater vision of unity, calls us to see beyond the strength of our own convictions and to try to love the way God loves. Perhaps this is, in the end, impossible, and clearly demarcated communities, peacefully coexisting with others, is the best we poor humans can offer.


Anonymous said...

"Jesus calls us to a greater vision of unity, calls us to see beyond the strength of our own convictions and to try to love the way God loves."

I do not hesitate to say 'We are all sinners, and if, say, the conservative position is correct on sexual relation that this gives conservatives no room to create a hierarchy of sins as if, say, pride in an evangelical is less abhorrent, more acceptable, to God than the sins evangelicals codemn.'

I am not out to set limits on community or to be preoccupied with boundaries. It has more to do with what might called the integrity--the hanging together--of certain events and practices. We could imagine people getting married, for instance, and making their vows to one another that lacked integrity--say, the groom has wandering eyes and has done nothing about it, or is marrying for money, or comes to the wedding with a slight buzz. In these cases the wedding ceremony would not proceeding in the best possible way, we would all agree. Now this is not a perfect analogy, esp since communion is about our unworthiness and God's forgiveness. And yet, I think Jesus' call is not just about 'unity' as you say but also about striving for moral purity. When, incidentally, our BCP says, in one eucharistic prayer, that we are to come to the table for strenght, I take this to mean strenght to follow Christ. If I cannot in clear conscience believe that is what we are praying and doing, then I think the event lacks the kind of integrity it requests on its own terms.

To Jim, I would say the charge of 'institutional homophobia' is hardly true of ECUSA unless you mean that any position that says the fullness of sexual relations is to be reserved for marriage as traditionally understood is homophobic. If you take this position then I guess if I give everything to my homosexual brother, let him live with us, pay for his college tuition, love him in every way, but disagree with his idea of finding a sexual mate, you would still say that's homophobic? John 2007

At this point, I have little to add to this conversation, but I will keep copying the posts as others chime in and the conversation remains on topic.

The comments seem to have evolved along two distinct lines: the sacramental authority of clergy vis-a-vis their moral character -- in essence, does a bishop offer valid sacramental leadership if he or she is in a relationship that is outside the traditional norms (with Bishop Robinson as an example?)

However, John 2007 seems to believe that this is a red herring, which deflects from his primary concern, it seems, and the second distinct line of this conversation: the moral authority by example that ordained leadership offers. Put another way, if the moral behavior (which includes sexual behavior), and more to the point, moral teachings of our leadership do not measure up (and willfully so) to our understanding of what is required of the Christian Way, do we reject that leadership? And does that measure justify our leaving the table (and, hence Communion?)

Some of us would argue that the call of Christ to remain at table, even with those whose moral behavior we disagree with, trumps the moral considerations. I agree with this in the particular case of disagreements over human sexuality, although I must temper that with the acknowledgment that I am not offended by LGBT couples in committed relationships amongst the clergy. In fact, I am supportive of their unions. But there are situations still very clear in my mind when sexual behavior becomes destructive (as in sexual misconduct), in which case the leadership involved should, in my view, be disciplined or even removed from office.

This is where the argument gets complex, and we start drawing moral lines in different places. But the current question continues to boil down to this: can committed, homosexual relationships be considered authentically Christian or not? For those of us who say yes, there is some natural bewilderment over the hostility on the other side. For those who say no (like John 2007), the witness of same-gender couples in ordained leadership is not sufficient to sway holding onto tradition that privileges heterosexual marriage or chastity as the only possible relationships in which human sexuality can be expressed in holiness.

The argument also begs some deeper questions about human sexuality in general. Is it innately good, morally neutral, or inherently distorted? It seems Christian traditions of various kinds have argued all three. It also appears to me that most of us agree that context and intention have a very important role to play in determining the moral character of a sexual relationship in any particular case. Is the relationship loving? Is it mutual? (Have both parties entered into it freely and willingly?) Does it reflect a deep commitment that is visible in many other areas of the relationship? And, critical it seems to me, does it bear fruit in the building up of the immediate community? I'm not thinking of procreation here in the strict sense of the couple producing biological children, but as building a locus of hospitality in which Christian ideals of transformational welcome, servanthood, and fidelity to the centrality of God in our lives become viable and life-giving for others.

The incarnational aspect of the relationship is also important to me: do we see in the couple a commitment that reflects not only our unique commitment to Christ, but Christ's utter commitment in love to us? Christian sexuality, it seems to me, holds up an ideal involving the giving over of our bodies, hearts, and minds entirely to another -- an act, indeed, that reflects the self-giving of Christ in love, compassion, and mercy. Within that mutual self-giving, there is the blossoming of a sacramental union that transforms both, drawing them together more deeply in God's love. That this is also possible through celibate dedication (generally to a community and a life of prayer and service) is a given.

That we at times fail the ideal in both cases is also given, even if we are faithfully in a union and commit no adultery with another person, we are often guilty of neglecting our primary relationships when our work, hobbies, or self-absorption take over. Or we may become possessive or obsessive with our partners. Likewise, a celibate monastic can fail in his or her vows in many ways without physically breaking the vow of chastity.

This, to my mind, drives a very hard question into the heart of the absolute standards that are often posed in the current debate. The institution of marriage is not the ideal itself, but, at its best, only creates the possibility of that ideal self-giving. In other words, the institution of marriage only provides a road-map for a holy union. It cannot guarantee it, even if the road-map is followed. Only God's grace can.

This, for me, raises an interesting question. Must a devoted, loving relationship be blessed by the Church to be considered a source of grace? We must remember that Adam and Eve were not, so far as we know, married. Knowing some committed relationships (LGBT ones included) that have never been blessed by the Church, and the fruits that they yet bear for the Christian community and the world, I am open on this matter. Put sacramentally, as a priest I do not "marry" people. I can, on behalf of the community, only bless the sacramental union that they manifest -- that God's grace has already created in their relationship.

christopher+, in this post, points to a better way:
christopher+ said...

John 2007,

"I am not out to set limits on community or to be preoccupied with boundaries."

But is this not precisely what we do when we cast someone as unworthy to be with us at the Lord's Table - or to administer the Sacraments, or to take Holy Orders - and (more to the point) when we recognize only one possible way to pursue the perfection to which Christ calls us amidst so many aspects of biblical guidance? I am not judging this as necessarily wrong; I am simply saying we must recognize it for what it is: the setting of limits. To be fully consistent, would one not also have to assert that partnered gay people should not be baptized, confirmed, or admitted to Holy Communion? Or is there a fundamental difference between the worthiness required for one Sacrament and that required - if required - for others?

"And yet, I think Jesus' call is not just about 'unity' as you say but also about striving for moral purity."

I certainly would never say that Jesus' call for unity is the crux of Jesus' call to us. That, it seems, is better covered in the Summary of the Law: Love God, love neighbor as self. For on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

"I take this to mean strength to follow Christ."

As do I. Nonetheless, there are different biblically based understandings of how we live out our discipleship in community. If we as Anglican Christians cannot agree on this, we are back to setting up limits and boundaries - a very human default position and one God in Christ calls us by word and example to get beyond. As I have said, though, such purity of love, with which Christ seems primarily concerned, might be beyond our frail, human grasp. Yet we must try and try and try again. Clearly, your loving support of your gay brother is a faithful step in that very direction, an ongoing act of godly love.

I'll stop copying these posts here, unless the conversation at Preludium develops further along other lines.

What thoughts or reflections do you have to add?


3 comments:

Tood said...

I agree with you. I sometimes think that people think we are arguing for anything goes sexuality. As a gay man and a fairly new Episcopalian, it's not. Sex without commitment and love is outside the bounds. Also, and I can't emphasize this enough, if we split, we lose a valuable witness that can teach us all. I've learned a great deal from evangelical members of my parish. Their way of prayer and reliance on Scripture have illuminated my own journey. Let's pray for the Primates and keep worshipping together and see what new things are done in our church and relationships.

Anonymous said...

Good grief, Richard, did you even see this?

"those who dissent from the direction ECUSA is taking with regard to sexual ethics and sexual morality, think that part of our mission--and at the heart of our mission--is to call people to repentance and holiness in their sexual lives. That is--I know it is for me--right at 'the missional work in front of us.'"

He thinks the heart of the Church's mission has to do with people's sex lives.

And you're arguing the 39 Articles? My goodness, what silliness results when two M.Divs start debating.

Josh Thomas

R said...

Josh,

Yes, I saw it. christopher+ actually opened with the 39 articles -- not a tack I would take, mind you, but his point was taken from a question of sacramental validity.

As I understand it, John 2007 is arguing for pastoral reasons that he cannot accept the sacramental (or pastoral, at least) authority of someone (in this discussion, say, +Gene Robinson) whose committed relationship he disagrees with. I'm not sure he's arguing people's sex lives are the heart of the Church's mission, but that encouraging people to lead chaste lives according to his understanding of the tradition is part of the mission at he sees it.

Needless to say, I don't agree with his arguments!

I only write this in as much as I want to be sure we're not reading too much into them.