Living in tension: Paul Marshall on the challenge of Anglicanism today

Centrists / General Convention

Bishop Paul Marshall of the Diocese of Bethlehem included thoughts about the challenges that confront Anglicans today in his address to his Diocesan Convention. (I note with strong agreement, that he prefaced his remarks by talking about the signs of life and spirit that he has found among the people of his diocese – and the vital work that they are undertaking in partnership with Anglican christians in Sudan.)

From Bishop Marshall’s address, and on the topic of different “camps” in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion:

In saying that I do not mean to say that we should pretend that our varying understandings do not exist. On the contrary, I meant something active and powerful and traditionally Anglican – that is, in honoring and exploring our differences, we may generate the way through them to a place nobody would have imagined.

Let me dwell on this for just a minute. I just spoke of 400 years of Anglicanism in Virginia, now let me go back a mere 40 years, to a non-Anglican in California. In 1967, Dr. Ralph Greenson, “psychiatrist to the stars” and medical professor in Los Angeles, wrote about the tendency of his colleagues not to communicate with each about their disagreements in theories or practice. Remember, these are psychiatrists who weren’t communicating. Listen to his observations from 1967. Where you hear the language of his vocation, insert the language of our life as disciples. Ask whether Greenson’s words do not speak to our situation:

Those who wish to suggest innovations or modifications of technique do not usually confer with others who are more traditional in their viewpoint. They tend to form cliques and to work underground, or at least segregated from the mainstream… As a consequence the innovators are apt to lose contact with those groups… that might help validate, clarify, and amend their new ideas. The secluded innovators are prone to becomes “wild analysts,” while the conservatives, due to their own insularity, tend to become rigid with orthodoxy. Instead of influencing one another constructively they each go their separate ways as adversaries, blind to whatever benefits each might have gained from an opening and continuing discussion. (The Technique and Practice of Psychoanalysis I, p. 2)

To put his observation in spiritual terms, we grow when we risk exploring each other’s perceptions and applications of biblical truth to test and strengthen our own grasp of God’s will for us. I would say that it is quite one thing to think that one possesses truth and quite another thing to experience oneself as being possessed by truth. Whether it is an old truth or a new truth, they who believe they own the truth will become rigid and defensive. They who believe they are possessed by truth, new or old, find themselves in joyful service to the truth, and willingly engage others so that all members of the conversation can be productive and balanced. Rigidity and disconnection are the enemies of spiritual growth in conservatives and liberals alike.

The value of the worldwide Communion, when it is working well, is that those who see something new and those who cherish something old, are in a position to grow in a conversation that is truly catholic. At the moment, at least, that possibility still exists and, like many, I hope that the long-promised conversation may actually get started.

A capital idea!

You find the rest of the address here.

The Author

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


  1. Matt Gunter says

    Thanks for sharing this. Bishop Marshall demonstrates more humility and charity than we are used to seeing lately.
    I would only suggest that it is more complicated than the labels “liberal” and “conservative” allow.
    The Anglcian way has always been complicate in its comprehensivness as it has sought a balance of the three “traditions” of High Church/catholics, Evangelicals, and Latitudinarians. Each of these traditions has a venerable history and speaks its own theological
    “dialect” of the Christian “language”. When they communicate with each other they remain mutually indelible. When they don’t they, they don’t. Without each other, each tends to evolve grammatical irregularities.
    I think we are living the consequences of those last two sentences. Given their presuppositions, Episcopalian Liberals/Progressives (Latitudinarians) naturally conclude that same-gender unions are bless-able. They make arguments for it that they find convincing. Then they believe they have made the case. But they have only made the case to themselves in their own “dialect”. When they present what now seems so obvious that no reasonable person could fail to understand to people who seem not to understand they are baffled. Assuming their dialect is the normal one, their response to those who speak a different dialect (Evangelicals and High Church/Anglo-catholics) is to just keep repeating themselves slower and louder. All the while, and because of their own isolation and peculiarities,
    Evangelicals and catholics are convinced they are speaking gibberish.
    Latitiudinarians can be intransigent in their way. And Evanglicalism and High Church/catholicism need not necessarily oppose all innovation. But whatever innovation there might be must be “spoken” in their respective “dialects” to be understood and accepted. That has yet not happen in the case of same-gender unions.
    What we need are people, especially bishops, who are demonstrably theologically bilingual.

  2. You have a hearty AMEN coming from Arizona Matt. One of the points I’ve been trying to make online ever since Convention in Columbus is that the Episcopal Church can not be described in binary (us/them) terms. It’s the primary reason I’ve been trying to find a term or terms for people arrayed along the spectrum of the wings of the Church.
    The good news, from where I sit, is that not only are people starting to use terminology that describes a spectrum rather than a duality, but leaders like +Paul are starting to talk about the reason that Anglicanism finds holding the variety of views it does in the tension it does.

  3. Matt Gunter says

    In the above, it should be mutually “intellibible” instead of mutually indelible: When they communicate with each other they remain mutually intelligible. When they don’t they, they don’t. Without each other, each tends to evolve grammatical irregularities.

  4. I think it more complicated than these three traditions or that somehow all who are for blessings are Latitudinarian–Bp. Marshall, for example, is not thus. Fr. Tobias Haller, for example, does not read well into any of these three, neither does Derek Olsen, and I can see myself in bits of all three. At best perhaps Anglo-catholic and Latitudinarian, but with a strong underlying streak of the gospel as the first thing–what we might call Evangelisch. I don’t think all American Episcopalians are Latitudinarian and I don’t think that all who are saying blessings should occur speak in that terminology. Fr. Haller’s latest post address such matters through looking at natural law in the Anglican sense, so has Bp. Breidenthal and Charles Hefling and even the St. Michael’s report from the Anglican Canadians is not mere Latitudinarianism. This suggestion is again a reduction of its own not accurate to the discussion that tries to suggest that there are not folks for blessings in locatable within all three supposed trajectories, which I don’t think themselves are able to comprehend our comprehensiveness.
    In my view we Anglicans have become an echo-chamber, and nothing speaks to us or confronts us outside ourselves. All of us have so instantiated the Holy Spirit with the Church that we’re in danger of taking what we think the Spirit is: inclusion for many progressives, unity for many centrists, purity or holiness with many conservatives. Over identification of the Church and God has become our most serious problem; we are not the the hypostatic union of the Holy Spirit. But God speaks outside of us in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We need an external Word at this time more than ever. So what Good Word do we have besides inclusion, unity, or holiness? What promise of God do we preach and proclaim and speak and offer besides unity with Canterbury (our Articles and greatest Divines would say Church is more than this if catholic), inclusion (a detestable word in my view because so very colonial) of gays, and purity that means following the Bible as if a rule book (Hooker would surely object).

  5. Christopher,
    I agree with you that it is more complicated. I was trying to get away from the simplistic conservative vs. liberal polarity. And I agree that not everyone fall into the trap I portrayed. And that Evangelicals and High Church/catholics need not be conservative in the contemporary American sense or necessarily opposed to all innovation. But they need to be persuaded.
    I have read and appreciated Briedenthal and Hefling. I am a fan of Derek’s blog and respect Fr. Haller who I got to chat with at Columbus. I also thought the St. Michaels report was pretty good. There are others who have argued for rethinking the Church’s teaching on sexuality who do not do so from the assumptions of Liberal Protestantism. Rowan Williams is such a one as is my friend, AKMA Adam. Lewis Smedes who taught at (Evangelical) Fuller Seminary is another. Jeffery John’s booklet Faithful, Stable, Permanent is representative. Everything by James Allison is good along these lines, not least his latest collection, Undergoing God. The best extensive treatment from a non-liberal/latitudinarian perspective is Eugene Rogers’ Sexuality and the Christian Body.
    I know that those voices are out there (I made essays by several of the above and others available to my parish in the aftermath of GC 03). But, their approach is not the one that seems to dominate the discussion. And they have yet to “take” among many who are inclined to give the tradition benefit of the doubt. It is hard to argue that case for change as it is most commonly made (at least in TEC) is not dominated by the assumptions of Liberal Protestantism as represented by folk like William Countryman and Marcus Borg. Those voices tend to drown out the others. And as Tobias blogged a while back, many seem to think it is so self-evident as to hardly be necessary to seriously engage the questions and concerns of those who remain unconvinced.
    I really do think that while there will always be some who are unwilling to even consider the possibility of a new interpretation, many others, including some who have left and some who are contemplating leaving, are willing to entertain an argument they can recognize as grounded in a theology they recognize as faithful. Here is a telling link to an exchange between AKMA and Alan Jacobs who teaches at Wheaton College and left TEC for AMIA in 2004:

  6. Honestly, I don’t think that any amount of theological work alone will persuade on this matter. The assumption that it does has not shown itself generally to be true in the debates on this matter. This bias runs deep and is deeply ingrained in the waters of the Church with a feedback loop of theology not easily undone. All I can do, as can most same-sex coupled persons, seek to serve my neighbor and live my life. There’s not a lot I can do about our poisonous waters. And the Church as a whole has not shown itself trustworthy or a space to be where I can see that any amount of listening will do any good, nor is the Anglican Communion I’ve seen capable of recognizing that its own teaching may be what is sinful or capable of assessing the fruits of its teaching in the same-sex affected, and moreso, because we reduce the Spirit to our community and unity.
    All of the folks you list I am familiar with and more besides, so at least I know I’m not far out there. Laurie Jungling should be publishing an interesting take on Augustine and this matter soon.

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