I’ve been doing a lot thinking about the present situation of the Episcopal Church. At the urging of some of my friends, I’ve tried to put these thoughts, incomplete and not fully formed as they might be, down in writing. I’m labeling them 1,2 and 3 but that’s just for my own convenience – each one follows from the one(s) that precede it.
The Bishops of the Episcopal Church will be soon meeting in Camp Allen TX to begin to consider their response to the recent Communique from the Primate’s Meeting in Tanzania. There is still some divergence on exactly what is being asked of the Episcopal Church – and what an acceptable response should look like.
On one side you have the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church saying that TEC is being asked to “pause for a season” in its movement toward the full inclusion of GLBT Christians into the Episcopal Church. She characterizes what we are being asked as a request for our reassurance to the rest of the Communion that we will not allow the consecration of a bishop who is living in a same-gender partnership with another person. And that the Bishops will not “officially authorize the creation of any same gender relationship blessing liturgies”.
And then we have the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury who states that, with respect to the issue of same-gender blessings, the Bishops of TEC must forbid the performance of any public liturgies. Which has, in of itself, ignited a torrent of words attempting to parse the meaning of “public” and “forbid”.
And finally we have the words of the Rev. Dr. Stephen Noll (whom I believe accurately represents the thinking of the sub-saharan led majority of the Global South) which says the Episcopal Church is being asked to “repent” – to change its stance on the inclusion of GLBT Christians and instead of welcoming them, to begin to attempt to help them understand that their sexual orientation is disordered. Part of the expected response of TEC then would be that all deacons and priests living in same-gender partnerships would be ultimately removed from active ministry.
I think of these three positions taken by the various voices as a spectrum running from left to right. The House of Bishops (HoB) is being asked to respond in some manner and then the Primates will determine where the response falls along spectrum. I suppose the Primates will then determine if enough votes are present to decide that the HoB response is acceptable. If this were just a political question, TEC would be polling the voting Primates to see how far to slide their response to the left so that a simple majority of the Primates would vote that such a decision was acceptable.
But I don’t think this should be understood as a simply political question and I’m not sure that anyone anywhere is really comfortable with using the faith-lives of fellow Christians as chits in a act of legislative horse-trading.
Furthermore, given the positions being staked out on the right-end of the spectrum and the knowledge that people on that side have of the Episcopal Church, I’m pretty much convinced that they are asking for something that they know full well the Episcopal Church is not able or willing to do. And that knowing this, they are actually trying to force the hand of the Archbishop of Canterbury to declare what he is willing and not willing to find acceptable across the spectrum I envision. In other words, this whole exercise is really just a mechanism to begin a global realignment of the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church is merely a stalking horse in this process.
So – given all this – any response by the Episcopal Church to the Communique will be judged to be wanting by the voices on the right-end of the spectrum and any perceived acceptance of an honest response of the part of TEC by the other Provinces of the Communion would be used as justification to begin the realignment.
In other words, speaking as an Episcopalian, this is no longer about us, or about the GLBT members of the Episcopal Church. This is about a global reformation focused around the actions of Church of England. We can see the stark truth now of the old african proverb – when elephants fight, it is the grass that is trampled.
So, if you will grant me that this analysis is mostly correct, what is next for the Episcopal Church? Any real positive response right now will judged as wanting by those who need a negative response to fork the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Many voices all across the spectrum have agreed that at the core, the conflict we are experiencing is not really about the inclusion of GLBT persons into the life of the Church. It’s really about the Church’s response to modernity and post-modernity. It’s about what constitutes Truth in the 21st century and how willing the Church should be to accommodate itself to the world-view of the culture in which it is immersed. Much of what the Episcopal Church is being criticized for is its willingness to actively engage modern intellectual trends and in many cases find ways to use them as vehicles which lead toward Jesus. We in the Episcopal Church may cite St. Paul’s teaching that God called him as an Apostle to the Gentiles and St. Peter as the Apostle to the Jews as precedent for a two pronged yet yoked ministry to the world in its fullness, but the rest of Communion does not agree.
So keeping that real issue in mind, lets imagine that response of the HoB to the Primates is judged wanting. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church of England decide to agree with that assessment and the Episcopal Church is told that she can no longer consider herself part of the Communion. Archbishop Drexel Gomez has envisioned such an outcome and has speculated that the result will lead to a process of coalescence in which the present Communion evolves into two new expressions, one of which is centered on Canterbury and sub-Saharan Africa and the other which is centered on the American Episcopal Church. I suppose for convenience we could label these the Anglican and Episcopal Communions.
But that process is going to take a while.
In the meantime the Episcopal Church is going to have to walk into a region beyond.
As I contemplate such a future, I’m finding that I’m drawn more and more to the parallels between the relationship of the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion on one hand and the Joseph and the other 11 sons of the Patriarch Jacob on the other. Joseph’s brothers decided that they could not tolerate his presence among them and took actions which sent him away from the rest of family and into that region beyond. But God used that act and Joseph’s life in Egypt to create a place that ultimately saved the lives of his father and his brothers. Perhaps as the Episcopal Church is told to walk apart and to go forth into a new world-view, it will be our task to find ways that the Christian Gospel can be preached effectively to a people for whom the old ways no longer work. And that some day God will bring all the members of the family back together again in a way that causes us to recognize that we need each other and we are not meant to live apart.
At any rate, it gives me hope that God is still with all of us.
…as someone raised the question in the comments below about what I think the HoB should do, here’s my personal response (with the additional comment that I’m learning how true Dean George Werner’s words were when he told me at my installation, it’s better to be “very” than “right”.
I don’t believe the Episcopal Church intends to conform to Lambeth 1.10. I think that is why the Presiding Bishop is using the phrase “pause” and not “stop” and certainly not “reverse”.
Her reasoning is that by staying at the table we have the best chance of changing the minds of the rest of the people in the Communion.
In response to your question about what the Bishops should do, I guess my hope is that should they decide to “pause” they will do so in a way that makes clear the fundamental difficulty the Episcopal Church has with Lambeth 1.10 – and that we corporately intend to stay inside the Communion in an attempt to correct the error it has made.