Institution over inspiration? Bishop Paul


Institution over inspiration?

Bishop Paul V. Marshall
Diocese of Bethlehem
October 19th, 2004

Dear Colleagues,

In preparation for our November Bible study, please read the Windsor Report at Please come to our November meetings prepared to discuss its use of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

On our own website you should also read the gracious words of our own Primate and the Primate of Canada in response to the report. Two African archbishops have also expressed their appreciation for the work of the commission, and I’m sure that others will be reported on the Bethlehem of PA electronic list. Considering the dire threats and gloomy predictions that have been abroad about the content of the report, we can all rejoice in its overall moderation. Its constant emphasis on “bonds of affection” is a great blessing to me personally.

As you read the report and the early responses, however, I think there remain some hard questions to be asked of this document in the nine months or so during which it will be processed at various levels in the Anglican Communion. I offer some initial reflections to assist the discussion of the document in our November clergy Bible studies and in your parishes or study groups. A more detailed commentary and response will be the work of time and patience. I will join the bishops of the Province in responding on November 19.

While I am glad this report recommends no draconian actions against anyone, I am still deeply saddened by it. I perceive water meeting oil: an essentially institutional response to what claims to be prophetic movement. Contrary to its stated desire, the report seems to impose a curial solution, elevating institution over inspiration in the absolute sense. I hope that those who take this document to the next step can be clearer in speaking to us about the relationship of the prophetic to the priestly aspects of church life.

In that vein, I have thus far found no respectful provision in the report for conscientious action. Nor do I see recognition that many religious movements, including Christianity and its founder, begin with radical disturbance of the status quo. The character and actions of Jesus — as trouble of Israel and certainly no institutional insider — are not once mentioned, and I hope that this can be addressed as well.

The report seems not to recognize, regarding us whom it criticizes, that if one comes to a conclusion that something is morally mandated, one cannot deny what has come to be seen as justice because there is resistance to the idea in other places. I commend reflective reading of Why We Can’t Wait by the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The report seems not to recognize that justice issues might even tangentially apply to the current situation for those who have reached certain theological conclusions. In short, only one set of consciences is honored. Furthermore, I can detect no expression of “regret,” or even concern, expressed for the suffering of Christians whose sexual orientation puts them outside the ranks of those eligible for certain offices in the Church. We are only told not to hate or kill them. Furthermore, although the report attempts to excuse itself from discussion of the issues at hand, its gratuitous and offhand denigration of modern biblical study prejudices the outcome of thoughtful study and discussion of the issue itself.

The report can lead a reasonable reader to the presumption that our visible communion has become the highest good. Is there an idolatry here? At the risk of appearing cynical, one might wonder how many ways there are to say “don’t rock the boat.” I do not read the story of Jesus, even in its most literal terms, in such a peace-mongering way. I do recall, however, that in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, there is situated in the pit of Hell a theological discussion group, and we meet a bishop about to deliver to it a paper on how Jesus might have been more effective and long-lived if he had learned to get along with authorities! Institution over inspiration.

I am deeply saddened at the emphasis placed on canon law, and that the proposed settlement of the issues that concern us is to be a legal one, through a contract (“covenant”). Of even more concern, the proposed contract puts the ultimate power of decision in a person appointed by the British Crown without the consent of those governed throughout 38 provinces worldwide. If the proposed covenant should be accepted, the titular head of the Anglican Communion must be a person elected by the entire communion and thus may well not be the primate of all England: there is no wisdom in entrusting such a critical theological position to a political appointee. (I am a thorough-going fan of the current appointee, I hasten to add, and also hasten to note that he is not responsible for the manner of his appointment.) The Pope at Rome, with all the “pretensions” that our liturgy once called his “detestable enormities” is much more easily shown to be internationally and quasi-democratically chosen than is that head of our Communion who now is to be the “final arbiter” regarding the terms of the proposed contract. We cannot place the future of the communion in the hands of the government of the U.K., the U.S., or any other essentially secular organization. Perhaps the leadership of the Communion should rotate among the primates, from south to north. I realize that such a suggestion, although hardly new, does ask of our English cousins a certain disciplined dispossession, but that is always good for the soul.

I am troubled that the report begins by asserting that the Bishop of New Hampshire was “appointed,” suggesting a steadfast refusal to comprehend church life in the New World, where neither the state nor the Episcopal college nor another small group chooses the bishops. Only much later in the document is there a nod to the concept of election. Despite occasional and very late reference to the laity, the report does not recognize the voice of the people as being worthy of note. The clergy and people of New Hampshire, who had rather a large hand in the proceedings there, are not taken into account in any significant way. The commission did not feel able to ask whether the Holy Spirit might speak through so many of the faithful assembled for a solemn election. The concerns are those of the institution.

The commission’s characterization of the 2003 General Convention as authorizing the creation of same-sex rites seems, unavoidably, to be a willful misinterpretation. As the sole author of General Convention’s offending paragraph, which was discussed in public committee meeting before coming publicly to the floor, I know that the text was designed to say that while this Church cannot now authorize such rites, it can tolerate their existence, giving the Spirit room to work and teach us one way or the other. To tolerate is different than to authorize; a document generally careful about definitions disappoints by nodding here.

In total disregard of 30 years of public discourse and more than 50 years of academic writing, the report states that insufficient formal theological work has occurred on the issue of human sexuality. It fails even to acknowledge the existence of the multi-part formal theological presentation made to the General Convention of 2000 in its formal reports (The Blue Book) or the other studies issued previously. There is nowhere expressed concern for the possibility, however faint, that insufficient reading and thinking has occurred on the part of those not now open to change in this area. I recognize that the burden of proof lies with us who wish to see change; there is nonetheless a responsibility on the part of the rest to at least read the newspapers.

I have told you before, even with tears, how it was the bench of Bishops in Parliament that resisted the abolition of slavery for so many years, unanimously and on the basis of the clear words of both testaments. Nowhere in this report is any cognizance taken of the fact that institutions are by nature resistant to prophecy, that bishops in particular have an abysmal track record in this regard: there is no hint of humility about our club and its historic patterns of intransigence.

Most sadly of all, as occurred even at our own diocesan convention last weekend, gay and lesbian persons are spoken of as though they are not in the room. A statement that gays and lesbians should not be hated or murdered does not atone for a lack of any recognition that gay and lesbian persons’ experience in Christ is generative of any theology that must be taken into account by the majority or that their experience in any way legitimately serves to criticize the status quo.

Those who are keeping “score” for either side will find something to please and disappoint them in the report. Those looking for sanctions might note that both ECUSA/Canada on the one hand and the invading foreign primates on the other are equally rebuked, but no sanctions are imposed.

However, the report requests the self-imposition of sanctions on the bishops who consecrated Bishop Robinson (but not those who invade other provinces), essentially asking them to have the good grace not to show up where they are not wanted, that is, at any international functions. This particularly British form of shaming adds sting to merely disinvesting them (in the days of the Empire, rogue army officers were given a revolver on the assumption that they would know what to do). While I am not one of those bishops, having had commitments that day, I hereby associate myself with them as I would with any group made untouchable by ruling class fiat, and consider any and all penalties they suffer as applying to myself. If they are not welcome at Lambent, for instance, I hope no bishop of our Church or of those other churches represented at the Robinson consecration feels welcome. Let us remember that not of all Bishop Robinson’s consecrators were American. Thus these sanctions that are to be self-imposed will affect several national churches. Perhaps an alternate meeting in South Africa will occur for those who are now to regard themselves as untouchable. It is a matter of profound regret to me that that the American and Canadian representatives on the commission voted for this provision: how they will be able to face their colleagues at our meetings will be interesting to see.

The report has just begun its journey through nine months of discussion and reception. My hope and prayer will be that as the bishops, primates, and other groups ponder it, their vision will be less constricted and institutionally bound and more open to the possibilities that it is not out of arrogance or whim, but out of a desire to serve at considerable risk, that this church has chosen to follow the voice it has been hearing for half a century.

We will have much more time to discuss this lengthy document, but I hope that this initial and tentative reflection, along with those that will inevitably come forth in the next few days, will assist you in thinking creatively about the report.


The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...