Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Cantuar's Red Herrings

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has issued his first more full reflection on the outcome of The Episcopal Church's General Convention and the potential future of the Anglican Communion.

He writes in one paragraph: ". . .the debate in the Anglican Communion is not essentially a debate about the human rights of homosexual people."

That got me wondering:

Then why have the Bishops of the Church of Canada condemned the actions of the Anglican Church of Nigeria's supporting a secular crack-down on the rights of homosexuals? And that's just for starters. Old news, it seems to me. . .The fuss, after all, really broke when the Diocese of New Westminster in Canada approved the blessing of same-sex unions, and Gene Robinson was consecrated a bishop in this country. We can argue about what other issues brought this to a head, but the fact that Bishop of New Hampshire's consecration became the flash point cannot be set aside so easily.

It seems the counter-argument goes that no, the real issue is how we "unilaterally" went about the election and consecration of +Gene Robinson, just as New Westminster "unilaterally" went about sanctioning the blessing of same-sex unions. We have heard this from those opposed to both from the beginning, but I think this is a red herring designed to appeal to our sentimental notions of unity. Behind this red herring is a serious intention to keep homosexuals in committed relationships out of ordained ministry, if not the Church altogether.

Arguments over how we deal, process-wise, with our unity deflect from the reality that this is indeed, fundamentally, a human rights issue. To put it in the language of the Church, it's a Gospel issue.

I suppose we could argue that being a bishop isn't a human right. True enough. But is essential eligibility to the episcopate a human right? In other words, can a child born gay or straight, male or female, and later baptized and confirmed and called as an adult to Holy Orders be, in principle, eligible for the episcopal office?

These sacramental questions beg the deeper issues at the heart of the "secular" human rights debate:

Is homosexuality naturally occurring and not pathological (in "church" language, is it God-given?)

Are homosexuals, regardless of how the broader culture views their sexual orientation and conduct, people or not?

Should homosexuals, in whatever cultural context, have full access, their sexuality notwithstanding, to the privileges of their vocational life, ordained or lay?

Are homosexuals permitted by the community to enjoy, as do heterosexuals, the support, solace, and "mutual joy" of a life-long commitment with another adult of the same sex?

The Archbishop of Canterbury's reflection seems to me to imply, somehow, these "human rights" concerns are, to some degree, beyond the scope of the Church. Or that they don't form the heart of the matter. Or, at very least, that they are trumped by the desire for catholicity, or unity.

To me, they are not. At a profound level, every human rights concern is a deeply theological issue: it is about how we honor the image of God in another person. If we are failing to recognize the image of God in any person by shutting them out of the sacramental life of the church a priori, we remain complicit in the fact that our catholicity, our unity, remains fallen, suffering from some degree of falsehood as it excludes one group of God's children from the Table of Jesus Christ.

In the Gospel we are called to proclaim, Jesus mixed with the outcasts of his day and honored their dignity: tax collectors, women, children, Samaritans, prostitutes, and thieves. They were welcomed into the community. Some became apostles. Some were privileged to witness the resurrection before the apostles. Jesus' view of unity, it seems to me, is never divorced from prophetic action: an open, and sometimes dangerously willful transformation of the broken human community into the Reign of God.

While in the same reflection, Rowan Williams echoes the Windsor Report by waxing eloquent about the inclusion of women clergy in the life of the Anglican Communion, he neglects what I have heard: that women bishops are often passively ignored, if not actively shunned by some of the bishops at Lambeth. And, of course, there really is no getting over the simple fact that women are not eligible for Holy Orders in numerous provinces of the Communion. . .something he seems to shrug off. . .the current controversy in the Church of England seems to have tied his hands.

At any rate, this is another red herring in the current argument. Women's ordination is far from a done deal in the Anglican Communion. It's possible that +Katharine Jefferts Schori's election marks only the beginning of re-opening a now generations-old struggle in the Church over this question. I think a good Communion-wide airing of the place of women in Holy Orders again wouldn't be unhealthy. But I worry that the Archbishop of Canterbury, if what he writes about women's ordination genuinely reflects his perspective, is in for a rude shock.

And, of course, there is the reality that had we waited for the Communion or even our own Province to reach a common mind on the ordination of women, they still would not be ordained at all in the Episcopal Church.

Here's what I think about unity and the consecration of openly gay and lesbian bishops:

In the grand scheme of things, the legal oppression of homosexuals in Nigeria, sanctioned by the Anglican Church there is, seen through the eyes of the Gospel I read, a far more egregious threat to the unity of the Anglican Communion than the ordination of one gay bishop in North America, however untimely it may seem to our brothers and sisters around the world. The situation in Nigeria is a threat because, by dismissing fundamental human rights, it undermines the full catholicity we are being called to by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I think it outrageous that the Archbishop of Canterbury is willing to publicly gloss over this situation while he and the Primates hold a spiritual gun to the heads of The Episcopal Church over the consecration of +Gene Robinson.

Likewise, holding any Province back from consecrating openly gay or lesbian bishops in the name of unity is ultimately self-contradictory, short-circuiting the Church's often reluctant, but absolutely essential journey towards the reign of God envisioned in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I may be a "religious liberal," but I also put a strong emphasis on Scriptural authority, on our tradition, and on unity. The actions of General Convention, 2006, tried to purchase unity with a Faustian compromise. The spooky question remains:

Into what kind of unity did we just try to buy ourselves?


Anonymous said...

Mark, you have expressed it beautifully here. Thank you. I'm speechless. For now.

Anonymous said...

"I may be a "religious liberal," but I also put a strong emphasis on Scriptural authority, on our tradition, and on unity." Really? There seems to be little emphasis on it in your post. You have an idea of justice, but is it scripturally informed? Does everyone have a right to leadership in the church, at least according to Scripture, or are there other standards at play? (Please keep in mind, I think the standard cuts both ways. Just as I think the Scripture is clear that +VGR should have never been eligible to be bishop, neither should +Roseberry have been made a rector.) Further, you claim that sexuality is God-given is correct and judged as good by God, but where is the refelection that in Genesis 3 everything, every single thing was tainted by sin, inluding sexuality? I suppose the real question for those of us on the right but to the left of the DV's is How can the church bless an activity which the Scriptures have uniformly condemned, and yet still be considered faithful to the Scriptures?


R said...


Thank you for the generous post. Not sure how you got the idea I'm "Mark," but if you mean Mark Harris, I should correct you. I wouldn't want him blamed for what I have to say!

God's peace,


R said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
R said...


Thank you for the post. I thought my emphasis on Jesus' treatment of the marginalized encompassed a great deal of Scripture.

I would only counter-argue with your point that our Scriptural interpretation is always culturally biased, whether through our own understanding, or through, frankly, the cultural understandings of the authors of the texts themselves. In short, there is no such thing as a "plain reading" of Scripture. For instance, we could argue the primacy of the Levitical texts banning what we would call "gay sex." But would we also agree to ban lending at interest? Or stoning an unruly child?

My commitment to the Scriptural tradition around sexuality is rooted in what I understand as the underlying themes I see. . . in a series of texts that range from being supportive of polygamy all the way to seeing chastity as the highest virtue. The overriding theme seems to be compassion and fidelity.

To get to the point:

I believe both you and I, with our divergent views, can be reading Scripture conscientiously. There is another standard in conversation with our readings of Scripture, and that is the work of the Spirit in our very real, incarnational lives, where Christ meets us.

My "change of heart" on human sexuality happened when I applied the Gospel standards of examining the fruit of committed, same-sex relationships in friends' lives both inside and outside the Church. What I saw was mutuality, compassion, and a place of hospitality. . .and, in some cases, a nurturing home for children.

Anonymous said...

I don't deny that there are some good fruits in same-sex relationships, from a human perspective. I have watched partners care for AIDS -ravaged partners with a caring that I wish I could sometimes instill in other couples during periods of illness. That being said, the laws of Deuteronomy and Leviticus tell us what a holy, righteous, just, full communal life with God is like. They were not onerous but given to a redeemed people to show them for what they needed to repent and how to act in a relationship with God. In short, the laws were another act of God's grace, which I think our society sometimes forgets. But we don't stone unruly kids or adulterers or gays or anyone else because Christ bore the penalty for each of those sins on the cross as well.

I do think that one can make an argument for the blessing of same-sex relationships, but, just like marriages subsequent to divorce, I don't know that one can make the argument for it from Scripture. And I think that is where the biggest division in our church is found. I don't deny that people on both sides think they are reading the Scriptures faithfully. I do believe that, when two conscientious readers find themselves disagreeing, as we are in this example, one or both of us may be wrong. I do deny the oft-expressed belief that our ability to reason, to think, is somehow uncompromised or unaffected by sin and better able to interpret what God preserved in the canon.


Anonymous said...

r and JB:

I am just glad you guys can passionately discuss this without the name-calling. Though, I suppose supporters of Virtue, Robinson, and Roseberry might disagree that you are not throwing stones--lol. At least they are not at one another. In the words of that immortal purple fish on Finding Nemo, just keep talking, just keep talking. . .


R said...


I wouldn't argue, either, that our reason is unaffected by sin. As strong a my perspectives are, I always have to prayerfully remember that there is a chance I could be mistaken.

I think one of the places we might continue to disagree is over the essential nature of the Biblical Canon itself. Was it given by God, or by God through the imperfect Church? In which case, even the Canon is not inerrant.

I keep in mind that Scripture has been successfully used to defend (tacitly, at very least) slavery. . .it has also been used to defend misogyny, anti-semitism, and racism. Our break with these, all that most of us now regard as sin, took more than a reading of Scripture. It took informed courage to stand in opposition against a long tradition of biblical interpretation, deeply engrained in the culture of the Church. In every instance, it was painful and difficult.

My assertion is that Scripture has authority in our tradition, perhaps even a primary authority: it is where we begin learning about the Christian witness and the saving work of God. But like other authorities, it does not stand in a vacuum, but is ever brought -- sometimes critically (and I mean that both ways) -- into our ongoing life with Christ in prayer and the community of the Spirit, where ongoing revelation occurs.

There have been major shifts in the history of the Church in the understanding of Scripture as it applies to the greater culture(s). We may be living in such a time now. Is it messy? Yes. More than I want it to be? Absolutely.

But, at some point, there has to be trust that God's grace is moving us together through this.

I, too, want to say thank you, JB, for keeping this conversation civil. It seems to me the biggest problem for the Anglican Communion is not the disagreement over how to read Scripture or who's in or who's out of the Episcopate, but whether or not opposite sides can respectfully disagree and still live together in community. The healthiest calls at General Convention were just for that -- no selling out or threats of schism -- but honest disagreement while remaining in the community of sacrament and prayer, and keeping the conversation going. To me, that's real unity. After all, once the sexuality debate settles (however and whenever it does), there will be something else in our tradition to argue about.

As we have a sacramental tradition, rooted in the best of Scripture and witnessing to a broken world, I hold that it is communion itself that transcends our differences. . .and even our very human need to be "right" (and hence, figure out who's "wrong").

That's my hope, at least.

Anonymous said...


Thank you, too, for the discussion rather than name-calling. You are absolutely right that Scripture has often been misused, and I think that's why so many want the church to look at the whole set of teachings on a subject. Slavery is a great example (since it comes up immediately following our Dt reading this week in chapter 15. If Israel had practiced the slavery described in Dt. would the ANE have recognized it or our Civil War culture as the impersonal, human property it was? I doubt any serious scholar would argue that it was. No one had to be a slave for more than six years, unless one chose to be. further, when one was released, the master was called to give generously and with an open heart. So the misuse came from sinful prooftexting. I think the way the current issue is handled does the same. One side seems to ignore all the Scripture against, and the other side seems to want to count it as "the" sin, neither of which, I believe, reflects our calling in relationships.

God's Peace,

Random Ramblings NJ said...


This "east coast lesbian" is writing to thank-you for your blog. You have no idea how comforted I feel by your words and your compassion. At times over the last several days, it has been important for me to find comfort and solace on some of the liberal/progressive blogs (yours included as well as All Saints Pasadena and Fr Jake).

Finding solace and comfort outside my own parish helps me to stay grounded and focused so that I can interact with the folk in my parish, including my interim on recent events. Some count on me to talk about events from the LBGT perspective. When my emotions have been all over the place of late, it is not always easy. I am, however, making progress and have, I think managed to get my point across at Church this past Sunday and other interactions.

Thanks again for being a sanctuary. And please keep those prayers coming.

I realize that this post may be slightly off topic. But is it really. What I want i full inclusion in TEC that I love. I am trying to live this out in my own way.

East Coast Lesbian

R said...

dr tyler,

Thanks for stopping by my blog. You are always welcome here.

God's peace, and my prayers for you in your journey with Christ.

Closed said...

Fr. R,

Thank you for spotting the red herring. Many of the reads haven't: at heart ++Williams argument does say that a gay bishop is the problem, and by extension gay people in the Church. He has had a regular bu subtle and continuous way of scapegoating whenever he writes of gay issues since his elevation to Canterbury. This piece of his is no exception.