Why should we want consensus?

Centrists / Religion

A couple of the people commenting on what has been posted thus far have asked a very basic question of those claiming to be moderates – “Why should we wait for consensus? Why not act on what we believe to be true, especially so since we see this truth to be a matter of prophetic justice?”

It’s a very good question, and I offer this sketch of my own thought in response.

Articles 9 and 10 of the Thirty-Nine articles describe the present brokenness of the human condition. (It’s not “Total Depravity” in the strict Calvinist sense, nor is it semi-pelagian/semi-augustinian. It strikes me a being closer to the Orthodox understanding than to anything else in western thought.) We are broken in that we default to selfish thinking – “en curvatus se” as Luther (following Augustine, following Paul) puts it. Why we are in that state is unimportant in the present controversy.

Because we are not ultimately able to fully trust our own thoughts and desires, I believe that the Bible, the Councils and Traditions of the Church, and the careful use of Reason are tests which an idea must pass before it can be taught among Christ’s faithful.

This testing has the effect of making theology change slowly. Which is a good thing if you take as a given that we tend to go awry when we strike out on our own. Going slowly and only in conversation with the Scriptures, the living Faith of the Church and the best of human thought is the only reliable means we have to avoid falling into destructive theological traps.

But I hear it as also requiring that we have to commit ourselves to constantly and actively listening and testing since we know that justice will be delayed by this testing, and the delay has to be as small as possible.

It would also be a good thing to remember that the Law was made for humanity and not vice-versa. When it’s an issue of life and death, the proper response is to default to saving human beings, not to inaction because of lack of clarity.

And of course, if a Prophet shows up, then all gets reconsidered. But Prophets come with signs so that we can recognize them – and it would a good thing for us to remember that the Body is given the task of testing the prophets.

It is those principles (and those caveats), that inform my understanding about why conversation is needed and consensus to be desired. And why a certain fuzziness can be (and perhaps should be) accommodated while the process of finding holy consensus is underway.

The Author

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


  1. Fr. Nick,
    I think however that there must be caveats for testing the consensus as well because the consensus can be formed by curvatus en se as well and writ-large–the mass murder of Jesus tells us as much.
    As I read the works of Mark Jordan and others, it has struck me that out of the spirits of the air, the Church in its Tradition and reasoning and reading of Scripture created the sodomitic wholly evil other as scapegoat for all the ills of the world, and this principality and power pulled out of the air, has been overlayed upon the same-sex affected ever since and we’re supposed to live out its script and throw ourselves off the ledge, and it does attack and threaten the actual lives of persons like myself.
    How do you minister to that? I don’t think centrists can in fact do so, or administer any kind of real and graceful help, nor do I think that you in fact face some of the realities of your centrism, such as the queer youth thrown out on the street that inhabit the Tenderloin of San Francisco and hustle just to survive. This is a fruit of the present consensus, and it is rotten to the core.
    As the hysteric outburts of Zahl and Wright show us for example, scholarship and reasoning often have other stuff hiding behind them even as they sound ever so reasonable until finally pushed, then what is underneath begins to rise to the surface, so even drawing upon the three legs you mention, the consensus can err and can fail in the meantime to be of any pastoral value. I think that it is in the Eucharist, the seat of the stool, where we can ultimately begin to see what is and is not reasonable, for we begin to see the fruits of others and the fruits of ourselves and IF there is scapegoating or blaming or a willingness to place on the margins, we know the consensus is not reasonable, for it crucifies–Christ being our Wisdom. Remember this is not simply about theology, this is about flesh and blood, and I think too many who posit from the armchair and from their heads fail to see this three-dimensional reality; I get to live it daily.

  2. Dear *Christopher,
    Please check my blog tomorrow. 😉 I’m going to write a note to you later.

  3. Fr. Nick,
    I would hope that all who are baptized do, remembering that it is in the Eucharist first and foremost where we receive forgiveness of sins known and unknown, done and left undone.
    But the truth is that would depend on which diocese I lived in. In this diocese, I can receive. In the one next door, those in same sex relationships are denied the Eucharist. Several couples travel this way at least once a month to partake. In other parts of the world things might be more severe.
    Your question, however, does not answer my question put to centrists, especially priests, about pastoral and ritual care, nor does it answer my other question about the dangers of consensus.

  4. I think what it comes down to is that when centrism is framed politically or tries to suggest that there isn’t politics involved, I distrust it, especially from pastors because of the type of pastoral and ritual care that folks like myself tend to receive from those claiming centrism. Which has meant in practice, doing an awful lot oneself or with smaller gatherings of gay Christians. Maybe that is the best we can do right now, been then I wish we as a Church would be honest and say so, not hiding behind high sounding statements on pastoral care that have little concrete reality.
    In reading through Archbishop Ndugane’s recent statement, I sense there is a via media that I can trust because I know he wishes not to lose a single sheep and I hear a classic Anglican, which at heart has a great deal to say about the pastoral; I know that he would find some way to minister to folks like myself that respected our integrity. My concerns are pastoral, and I have yet to see centrists answer the pastoral questions or considerations that elsewhere I have experienced by claimed centrists. To say we’re welcome at Eucharist does not answer pastoral matters, muchless matters related to that in ritual care.
    I think at heart here we have a matter of trust. I distrust much of our present pastoral care for reasons I’ve named both in my own and the experience of others. It’s heightened by the fact that I have a terrible tendency toward scrupilosity.
    If we can begin to work on trust across our divides, I think we will all be better for it, but working toward trust also necessitates, especially when one finds oneself in a position of authority, such as a pastor, that one can answer questions put forth about actual pastoral care and ritual practice when asked. Otherwise, the worst type of political often does decide the pastoral response and ritual care in my experience, worst because it often lacks a respect for dialogue and conversation with those seeking the care or practice.

  5. Hi Christopher –
    I’m probably being too Socratic (and cryptic) in my response. Your answer that all the baptized are able to come to the Eucharist make me follow with a question about why we would exclude the non-baptized? (And the answer is that over time a consensus has developed…)
    To respond to your question about the dangers of consensus, since, as you point out consensus can be itself flawed: since I believe the Church is the Bride of Christ, and the place where the Holy Spirit can be reliably found, it is in the consensus of the Church that I believe we ultimately find truth. If we back ourselves into error, the Spirit will lead us out.
    I don’t imply that people should worship consensus, or even wait fo full consensus – rather I mean that they should desire it. The Anglican methodolgy of the open-reception of innovation presupposes all this. That’s what I was trying to say in my points about the caveats that need to held up while consensus is developing. Pastoral response to human need always trumps waiting. You and I may disagree on what that pastoral response should look like, but I don’t think we would disagree that it must be done out of love. Having been picketted for being a “glbt” friendly congregation I’m not speaking theoretically here.

  6. Fr. Nick,
    Actually, the question of open communion is a rather new question if we mean by it a specific question about the matter and given contexts, so I would say its a matter that should be under the open-reception consideration. That says nothing of my own thoughts about said, which are neither “yes”, nor “no” because my answer is rather framed pastorally. Were I to think of it only from a systematic response, my answer would be somewhat different. I could say the same thing about marriage, for the tradition is in fact mixed about the matter, and I think there are some positive reasons to consider that mixed understanding for thinking about relationships as places for potential growth in the virtues and communities of ascesis, which present models seem to pass by in favor of an “already arrived” approach, though our divorce practices suggest otherwise.
    There are many matters for which the Church catholic still has no consensus: understanding of baptism (which has quite varied understandings even within a tradition if we dig, not too mention through history), ordination (Anglicanism is notoriously mixed on this matter given one’s Churchmanship), marriage (which Christians have had lengthy disputes about and much to disagree upon for most of Christian history) to name just three. That doesn’t even get us to the ordination of women or consecration of women as bishops. Muchless, how marriages were contracted prior to the 18th century in Anglicanism.
    Anglicans disagree about divorce and remarriage, about practices of betrothal and premarital sex, I suspect about polygamy though some are none to open that there is a disagreement, and not too long ago about contraception.
    To be honest, I don’t think the matter of contraception was adequately dealt with in all the reasonableness and theological richness at Lambeth 1938 which we expect of homosexuality (Peter Damien would have considered said sodomy if he considered it at all, so might Aquinas), and it’s clear that officially neither do our Roman Catholic confreres. Did we make a decision out of convenience for ourselves? To some degree, from here it seems so, though I agree with the conclusion if nuanced in terms of not having a “contraceptive mentality”. After all, it opened way to reconsider homosexuality and sexuality more generally and what our starting point is for thinking about said matters? I would say communion (or the unitive), others would disagree. I could say the same about masturbation (another form of sodomy by other accounts).
    What bothers me about the consensus model being proposed is that I think it says too much about what we have had consensus about without proposing processes for finally clearing up said matters as well–because it doesn’t touch emotional/visceral places in the same way, so why is it with homosexuality that all of a sudden we need such a degree of consensus, while on these other important matters, some of which have been morally related, we’ve lived with, it seems to me, much more disagreement and fractiousness? I think it is one thing to say let’s tone it down, let’s make room for further listening and discussion without the fireworks (or legal repression), let’s love one another by assuming gracious intent rather than wanting to destroy the faith once received, let’s see what these relationships come to and bring (which is likely mixed just like marriages) to our communal life and to themselves, and another thing to insist upon what seems to me a concern for a type of agreement we may never have or come to, and haven’t yet on other seriously important matters of morals/ethics and rites/authority/office.
    Certainly, we likely do disagree on the “how” of pastoral care in terms of counsel and ritual matters, and I’ll be adding a post on that this evening with regard to open-reception processes and how I think they are more messy and fluid than some would like to see.

  7. Hi Nick,
    While I am in favor of moving forward with the greatest degree of agreement possible, I am leery of consensus for two reasons: it constrains the first step in the right direction. If no one leads, no one follows. If no one experiments, there are no results to judge.
    Second, we pursue this argument as though there is all the time in the world to get it right. But there are souls at stake right now. The actions of General Convention 2006 weakened our ability to reach out to gay and lesbian seekers, and undermined the trust that many of the gays and lesbians already in our pews feel towards our church. Sometimes it feels to me that the argument about the future of the Communion proceeds as though these folks were expendable.

  8. Lisa says

    I’ve been lurking since discovering your blog during GC, and I appreciate your thoughtfulness. I’m struggling with these issues — of moderation and consensus — since I’m more like the pig than the chicken in the classic story.
    I subscribe to the ENS e-mails, and just received one announcing the recent deaths of two retired bishops, including George M. Murray, the first bishop of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast. This snippet particularly caught my attention in light of your recent ponderings:
    “Murray was one of eight white Christian and Jewish clergymen, and the only Episcopalian, who issued a letter, entitled “A Call to Unity” in April 12, 1963 deploring the civil-right marches being led in Birmingham by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
    “‘We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely,’ they wrote.
    “Four days later King replied in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail that African-Americans had waited 340 years for their constitutional and God-given rights. ‘I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience,’ he wrote in part.”

    If you had been a priest of our Church back in those agonizing days, do you think you would have backed Bishop Murray’s or Dr. King’s actions? And do you think those difficult days have any lessons that apply to the current struggles within The Episcopal Church? I don’t mean these questions to sound as argumentative as they may sound. I truly value your attempt to think these things through, and am sincere in asking for your further reflections.

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