Theo Hobson: Sowing the seeds of change

Centrists / General Convention / Religion

Theo Hobson, writing in the Guardian, has done a careful analysis of the issues that underlie the present tensions in the Anglican Communion:

“The essential development of the past few years is the discovery of the impossibility of liberal Anglicanism. This is an amazing discovery, for theological liberalism used to be the heart and soul of this tradition. It was the centre of the Anglican church, far more powerful than the Protestant enthusiasm on one side and the Catholic enthusiasm on the other. The average bishop, priest and man in the pew were sceptical of the zeal of both extremes. What the current crisis has established beyond any doubt is that this liberal middle ground is dead and gone.

…By attempting to bounce the church into reform on [the ordination of glbt people], the liberal Anglo-Catholics revealed their fatal flaw. Their rhetoric of church unity and authority was exposed as mere rhetoric. Real Catholics do not pursue reform that endangers the unity of the church. They feel the church’s authority as terribly real; the church is their “spiritual mother”.

Williams has learned this the hard way: that Catholics cannot afford to be liberals too. A Catholic has very publicly sacrificed his or her belief in the moral rightness of ordaining homosexuals, for the sake of the church’s unity. He or she is playing Abraham, who was ready to sacrifice his beloved son, on divine orders. Kierkegaard called this the teleological suspension of the ethical: committing a moral crime for the sake of a cause that transcends human morality. Williams is performing the ecclesiastical suspension of the ethical: renouncing the moral good for the sake of the unity of the Church. This is what a Catholic must do.”

The full article linked below is definitely worth the read. (Thanks Jim Naughton for the pointer.)

I do have a fairly major quibble with one of the conclusions though. I don’t think that the issue is “moral conviction” vs. “church unity” – I think the issue would be better expressed as “immediate action on moral matters” vs. “allowing consensus to develop before acting.” As I read the Archbishop’s call for a Covenant, which would bind members to an Communion-wide collegial decision making process, this is the choice specifically being asked of us.

Frankly that particular vision is compelling. As an American and as a former academic, I find the best decisions are made in an open, consultative manner. Doing things this way in the Episcopal Church has always seemed to me to be the primary gift we have brought to the Communion and to the Church. I’m struggling to understand why now it is that there are voices within the American church that are unwilling to consult. If we think it good to do inside our Province, why should we not think it better to do on the larger stage of the Communion?

(Before anyone makes the obvious objection: Yes, there would have to be some distinction drawn when we’d be asked to wait between issues that involve danger to others versus issues. E.g. waiting for consensus to develop on the issue of killing or imprisoning people because they are glbt is not something that would be defensible. Waiting for consensus before ordaining more glbt priests as bishops would be.)

Read the rest here: Comment is free: Sowing the seeds of change

The Author

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


  1. The tragic flaw I see in the proposed consensus model is that it does little to change the intended outcome. We’ll still end up with a split contingency with some demanding alternative oversight whether it be because of women, or GLBT, or theological purity. Where is the payoff that is better than the current model?
    Given the contextual nature of theology and its constructs, do we really believe that disparate cultures can honestly achieve any sort of consensus– and why would we want them to? It seems to me that the liberal position continues to be: if you don’t want female bishops, then don’t elect (or appoint) one. Such a stance allows for missional context which varies from place to place. I personally believe that the CofE has finally given the go-ahead for female bishops because of the leadership that TEC provided in this matter– and our action came about without consultation abroad and consensus within our own ranks (despite what the WR says about it). I’m not suggesting that is the route to go, either, but I don’t believe it serves the Communion to ignore that fact, either.
    Lastly, how would we know when consensus has been achieved? That alone is going to reveal some deep differences, perhaps irreconcilable, in how we live out our polity. If women and gay folks aren’t eligible for membership in the hierarchy, then I cannot imagine giving assent to decisions made without their actives voices.
    In the end I fail to see how “slowing down” serves anything other than the status quo.

  2. Well, the thing is, though, rh: gay rights is a relatively new development. Women’s rights is over a century old. And of course, the numbers are there, too; gay folks represent only about 5% at most of the population, and are actively hated by many people anyway, so nobody really has to care much about the issue. All the more reason to have to take time and be careful, or else you get tremendous blowback. To give an example of this: at this point, today, 45 states out of 50 have laws against gay marriage. It’s not enough to be righteously right.
    But I disagree with the premise of this post for another reason, anyway. Peter Akinola and Jack Iker do not care to “consult” on this matter; it is forever closed, and they’ve said so openly. So they’re not operating according to the rules of the game anyway.

  3. These are the standard, and I think most powerful arguments against a consensus model. Thanks for calling on me to respond to them.
    In sort of the same order as you raise them:
    Why did General Convention have to consent to +Gene’s consecration three years ago? Because we believe that we must come to a consensus before acting. The Episcopal Church came to that consensus. If it’s ok for us to do that, why is it not ok for us to be part of larger organization that does the same thing?
    In response to your point about disparate cultures coming to consensus – if we don’t believe that can happen, then what’s the point of being a denomination (since we certainly have such in TEC)? It would be much easier and cheaper to create something like a Council of Churches that would focus on coordinating mission without requiring anyone to submit to coercive authority.
    With regard to prophetic action – I do think that prophetic action is how God is speaking to us. But prophetic action comes from God and is then judged by the Church as to its origin. Prophetic action can’t be recognized for what it is without some sort of consensus developing around it.
    Slowing down *will* default to maintaining the status quo. If this is automatically a bad thing, then your point is well taken. If on the other hand we believe that we must preserve what has been entrusted to us, while still believing that Jesus is still unfolding his revelation, then slowing down serves as a brake on human innovation and will be ineffective in stopping divine innovation.
    How will consensus be achieved? We do it through a version of the democratic process, which makes sense if we believe that we are the People of God. How would the Anglican Communion do it? Answering that is the point of the covenant process isn’t it?

  4. Anyway, Anglicanism is both Catholic and Protestant; that’s the benefit and the beauty of it.
    And we don’t see “the Church” as our authority, I never thought. We see Christ as our authority, and we – the Church – are His subordinates.

  5. BLS: – well then – +Iker and ++Akinola won’t be part of the Covenant then will they? (I think Abp. Akinola has already indicated his reluctuance to be part of the drafting process…)

  6. Yes, I guess you’re right – if it turns out that way. I think we’re all worried that this is a pure numbers game, and since TEC is small, we automatically get shoved aside. We’ve all assumed that the “covenant” will work explicitly against us.
    And now that I think of it, that must be why Peter Akinola is reacting as he is, isn’t it, in setting up an alternative to Lambeth? It’s hard to understand what’s going on, sometimes. The contexts are so different.

  7. Paul Martin says

    It seems to me that you have to define what you mean by consensus. If you mean it in its classical sense, which amounts to one vote, one veto, we still don’t have a consensus on the ordination of women. If you are willing to define it more practically, such as a supermajority vote (name your favorite fraction) then we have something to talk about. There will always be those who will insist on the classical definition, however.
    I see another danger in defining the question in this manner. It condemns us to a future of fighting rearguard actions, always trailing behind the rest of society rather than leading. The folks who leave the church because they find it too liberal know how to get our attention and that of the media. I wonder about all the people who leave because they cannot reconcile an ancient faith with their modern scientific worldview. These people leave quietly without making a ruckus, and we don’t realize how much we have lost. Some day, we are going to have to choose where our mission field really lies. I cannot believe that the world needs us to become another Southern Baptist Convention.

  8. Just to stit the pot (I promise I’m not just being snarky):
    I always thought that prejudice and bigotry were the human innovations that we were being called by God to overcome. I find it fascinating that a Covenant agreement would be designed to turn that equation upside down. So we slow down to make sure everyone is agreeable and that somehow will reveal God’s will for and to us?
    I’m sorry. I don’t get it. We act as if God needs time to catch up with us. I believe we need to start running as fast we can to catch up with what God is doing. We spend inordinate amounts of time and energy looking backward to some mythic gold age of Christendom. If we could only spend a fraction of that same energy courageous moving forward– with a vengeance– using our past as a guide but never being slaves to it– well… you know where I’m headed.
    As far as I can tell God has never called us back to Egypt. I realize that the irony we must contemplate is how one person’s freedom is another person’s captivity.

  9. rh: ” I find it fascinating that a Covenant agreement would be designed to turn that equation upside down. So we slow down to make sure everyone is agreeable and that somehow will reveal God’s will for and to us?”
    Fair point. If I believed that human beings had the ability to reliably discern God’s will then your point wins.
    But since I see plenty of evidence that we are fundamentally sinful, and left to our own, will go astray, I think “going slow” is another way of saying “be sure we get this right…”.
    God certainly doesn’t need to catch up with us. But we have a tendency to assume that what we want is what God wants. Sometimes that *is* the case, but often it is not. Being careful is all part of doing “a sanity check” as my engineer friends say. Grin.
    Don’t worry about being snarky. Stir away. Your counterpoints are really helpful.
    (I shall meditate on your final paragraph whilst I prepare for our Sat. night service.)

  10. “‘going slow’ is another way of saying ‘be sure we get this right…’.”
    Isn’t the logical extension of that way of thinking that the prohibition of women in orders, abolition, and whole of host of other “innovations” that have only recently made their way into our theologies is somehow pleasing in God’s sight? That the slowness with which we embraced those things is somehow a virtue on our part? I think our slowness to comprehend how those things are truly of God must break God’s heart. It’s not virtuous. It’s shameful, and a sure sign of our sinful brokenness.
    I’m all for not giving divine validation to our own voice. But the corrective to that is not presuming that God only speaks with and through the majority. Our scriptural tradition provides plentiful evidence to the contrary.
    That’s why I continue to say that we are trying to acheive consensus where none is needed. The ambiguity, the messiness, serves us well because it allows us to discern in the midst of the confusion. Example: how in the world can anyone tell if women in orders is a blessing to the church if we don’t have any to witness? Taking things slowly doesn’t serve anyone if no one is willing to breach the gap, cross over the line and give a different vision. Isn’t that what Jesus did?

  11. rh, I agree that consensus is not necessary.
    What is necessary though, in my opinion, is that we at least make an effort to make ourselves heard on this issue. We cannot simply sit here in the United States and preach to the choir, while gay people in other countries – Nigeria, for one – are literally in fear for their lives. What good is it for the United States to elect gay Bishops, when gay people are being put to death elsewhere? What kind of triumph is that? Further, ordinary gay people in the Episcopal Church don’t even have same-sex blessings yet. I’m glad Gene Robinson was elected; now it’s time for the real work to begin.
    We don’t need gay Bishops. We need to make things better for ordinary gay people, especially in other parts of the world. To me, standing still on the “gay Bishop” issue – a truly high-level problem – is very worth it.
    And BTW: the major problem here is that the bigotry and prejudice is not something the Church can sally forth to fight – because the bigotry and prejudice comes from the Church itself. This is an inside job.
    To me, “consensus” is not the goal; the goal is to make ourselves known.

  12. I disagree. Gay bishops are a high level problem only if we seduce ourselves into believing that the way we pray DOES NOT shape our belief. The issue here is not gay bishops– it’s the ability for the Spirit to call (and the baptized to affirm) ANYONE without qualification to the office of bishop. That is very much a street-level problem. Plus it is bad ecclesiology and a horrendous theology that violates the call of the baptized.
    And I continue to fail to see how any of this helps GLBT folks in Nigeria or elsewhere so long as we refuse to name the evil in our midst. The problem of gay ordination in the US and the problem of gay persecution in Nigeria is in no way comparable, nor do I believe they are linked in some practical way. I do not believe that sacrificing on this end does anything to help on the other end.
    And yes we do have same sex blessings. Perhaps not in your diocese but in many others. Call it local option or ecclesiastical disobedience or simply God’s justice, but they do exist. It’s shameful that these rites are not equally available but, using my same argument, our holding back on these rites does not help GLBT anywhere else, and it certainly does not help us work out the theology that surrounds these rites. Me not officiating such a rite does nothing to help you gain access to one.
    I can’t get these words of Jesus out of my head: I desire compassion, not sacrifice. I grow weary of the image of TEC sacrificing something in order to have a place at “the table.” So far as I can tell, this table is an imaginery one. If it is real, then maybe it’s time to do what our Lord did and overturn it. Methinks we want a different table, one where everyone is welcomed without qualification.
    If we want to make ourselves known- our true selves- then it serves no one to be less than who we are. I hold my convictions precisely because of my faith in and relationship with Christ, not in spite of it.
    Despite my strong language, I am willing to be converted on any of this. In fact, I am longing to see what others see. It’s not happening yet– and it’s no one’s job to convince me (not trying to lay that one on anybody here)– I really want this dialogue.

  13. rh:
    “Methinks we want a different table, one where everyone is welcomed without qualification.”
    -It’s a lovely vision, and I think it will be what heaven is like. But it’s not achievable on Earth. Would you welcome an unrepentant racist or someone who thought that glbt people should be killed because they are sub-human to this table? I wouldn’t. It would make it unsafe for others.
    In this earthly existence there have to be limits because we are limited and sinful. The issue of who sets the limits (the community?) and who enforces them (the same community?) is what we’re really trying to sort out at the moment.
    “:Despite my strong language, I am willing to be converted on any of this. In fact, I am longing to see what others see. It’s not happening yet– and it’s no one’s job to convince me (not trying to lay that one on anybody here)– I really want this dialogue.”
    -Thanks. No one can ask more that this. And that’s why I’m willing to enter unreservedly into a dialogue process. (Which doesn’t mean I’ll be able to sign on the dotted line at the end…) Because I want the dialogue too.
    (And just one other bit – in response to an earlier plea of yours – I wish we could act as forcefully as Jesus did. But Jesus knew the truth in a way we can not while we are in this world. We follow him as best we can, but we can and do get things horribly wrong. There’s plenty of church history (relations with Jews, witch trials, Inquisition, burnings, beheadings, etc..) to back this point up. All of which was done by people who thought they were overturning tables and driving out wrong-doers.)
    Thanks for hanging in with us – and for asking the hard questions. There’s no point to a dialogue otherwise. Grin.

  14. Warren Eckels says

    I wonder whether we can witness more effectively to Nigeria and Uganda within the Anglican Communion, or outside of it. As it stands, we cannot give support to the good and uncontroversial works that local Anglicans are performing since the local prelates have barred our entry.

  15. Warren: – At this particular moment perhaps not. But what if a Covenant statement would allow us the ability to do that?
    Since there is pretty much unanimity among everyone in the Communion but Nigeria and Uganda on this point on this issue, why should we imagine that a consensus would develop around their position?
    If on the other hand we refuse to participate in the drafting of a Covenant, and a replacement jurisdiction is created here in the US, then what ability would we have to speak to Nigeria at all?

  16. Mark McCall says

    “As I read the Archbishop’s call for a Covenant, which would bind members to an Communion-wide collegial decision making process,…”
    It is interesting that you assume the covenant will be procedural rather than confessional, i.e., that it will stipulate a decision-making process rather than a set of propositions or articles of faith that everyone accepts. Many people seem to assume that it will be confessional, but I don’t see any point to a covenant that does not contain a procedural aspect along the lines of what you describe. (The covenant could, of course, be both confessional and procedural, but what is desperately needed is the decision-making procedure.)
    There are some nuances to the process you outline. For one, the covenant needn’t “bind members.” It could instead bind the communion. In this latter case, members would retain their autonomy, but it could be exercised in one way only: secession. I would favor a binding process of this sort and it might entice more provinces to join. It would also preclude the ECUSA position I find most offensive: we are autonomous and can do whatever we like AND we are entitled to be members of the communion on our terms AND no one else can be members of the communion within our territory.
    It also could be emphasized that this process does not create an infallible magisterium as some argue. An authority can be final without being infallible. Look at the Supreme Court, which is the final authority on legal matters in this country, but is in no sense “infallible.” Indeed, it reverses itself on a regular basis.

  17. I think that his understanding of the “core” of catholicism is wrong. Further, the more crucial aspect of “liberalism” is not merely one’s “liberty” or “conscience,” but the choice itself. That we can make changes at all is the crucial aspect of liberalism. that we can agree to a covenant is more valuable than our coercion.
    I think the catholic core, with a small “c,” is the recognition of the others involved in the work of the human economy – past and future. Catholicism enables people to reflect and reform the tradition for the ages, rather than merely hand down strange texts.
    Being a “liberal” was never a middle ground. It is a believe in where moral worth is located; that individual human agency has some merit; and that protestations for the common good – for unity – sometimes are veils for corruption, violence and cruelty.

  18. John – when you write “Being a “liberal” was never a middle ground. It is a believe in where moral worth is located; that individual human agency has some merit; and that protestations for the common good – for unity – sometimes are veils for corruption, violence and cruelty.”
    Could you explain to me what the “It” refers to in the second sentence? Does it refer to “liberal” or to “middle ground”. (I’m having trouble parsing the meaning…)
    I think I want to strongly agree with you… but I want to make sure I know what I’m signing onto. Grin.
    At any rate, I think your point at the end – that protestations for the common good are sometimes used to veil sinful behavior is crucially important. My own lack of ability to consistently discern such things rightly is what drives me to insisting that the community must do the discernment and not the individual.

  19. Again, I have to ask: Why is this issue important? What is the benefit of our having openly gay Bishops when other gay people in the world have nothing? Why is this consuming everybody’s time and attention? From what I’ve read, at GC we didn’t even get to a resolution that condemns Nigeria’s anti-gay laws. Why not? Why don’t we ever pay any attention to what’s going on anywhere else, or do anything about it?
    We don’t have same-sex blessings. Canada does, explicitly; Bishop Ingham issued a public rite for its parishes to use. We, OTOH, have a mealy-mouthed statement that we are “still discerning” on the topic, and that it is “not contrary” to the canons to do so. Feh. Canada did something for the many; ECUSA is doing something irrelevant except to a very, very few. Meantime, we’re doing absolutely nothing for the people who really have problems. (And Canada did condemn Nigeria, BTW, and formally disassociated itself.)
    Here’s something else that a friend pointed out to me: we now have a Bishop living in a sexual relationship outside marriage, which violates the canons. Here’s another thought: nobody addressed this at GC, either. We could, apparently, have changed the canons themselves. So are we going to take half-measures forever? Doesn’t it seem clear that perhaps gay Bishops is not, going forward, the best strategy to fight the entrenched bigotry within the Church? And who will it help for us to be cut off from the worldwide Church? We’re 2.5 million here; there are 70+ million elsewhere. (And I think the issues definitely are linked, and obviously so does Peter Akinola. The Church of Nigeria’s support for the anti-gay laws there finally makes sense.)
    Jesus, BTW, set his face towards Jerusalem, and was the sacrifice.

  20. (Sorry for the snarkiness. I should take a deep breath before I post, sometimes.
    TEC is a good place, and there are many good people in it. I’m grateful to it for being there, and I’m sorry all this is happening.)

  21. Fr. Nick,
    Your wrote:
    Would you welcome an unrepentant racist or someone who thought that glbt people should be killed because they are sub-human to this table? I wouldn’t. It would make it unsafe for others.
    I would in fact commune alongside the racist or the one who saw me as subhuman; it is likely however that they wouldn’t commune alongide me. I trust given time and grace that the Sacraments themselves do in fact work upon us, giving us a lens through which to see the others gathered. But this takes time and patience. I think if someone rather threatens or harms another that’s on another level than holding views about those of another race or orientation. And it prevents me from becoming my own rejectionist, forming myself against an other who then becomes the pure evil, for remember George Wallace, he did change. Were it not for King’s magnanimous vision, I’m not sure that would have ever been possible. And this doesn’t come out of a naive failure to comprehend that such a person might be dangerous to me, but from my own sense of being simul iustus et peccator.
    I tend to agree with you, as you know, we had to develop our own rite of holy union, and though my priest would likely have been glad to officiate, for various reasons, we found it best to seek a Benedictine sister to do so, though my priest did pray for us publicly at Sunday Eucharist the next day. I feel like the everyday matters of navigating life as a gay Christian where thrown aside to have an icon upon whom all sorts of projections are made from all sides and down the middle. I would have preferred a change in canons or if we couldn’t authorize a national rite (I think we’re not there yet and need to sift through rites as we’re coming to understand theologically what a same sex couple means liturgically) then empower local rites. And let’s not mention how we keep failing to engage with Nigeria. My parish is supporting work in making relationships with local gay Anglican leaders in Africa following GC. That’s more like it.

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