Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Reflection on a Reflection

The first in a series of reflections
on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s reflection

In his reflections upon the recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury writes:

“...the issue is not simply about civil liberties or human dignity or even about pastoral sensitivity to the freedom of individual Christians to form their consciences on this matter. It is about whether the Church is free to recognise same-sex unions by means of public blessings that are seen as being, at the very least, analogous to Christian marriage.”

I will frame my reflections on his reflection, by moving toward an answer to his question: Is the Church free to recognize same-sex unions by means of public blessings?

Williams believes that in

“the light of the way in which the Church has consistently read the Bible for the last two thousand years, it is clear that a positive answer to this question would have to be based on the most painstaking biblical exegesis and on a wide acceptance of the results within the Communion, with due account taken of the teachings of ecumenical partners also. A major change naturally needs a strong level of consensus and solid theological grounding.”

A positive answer to the question, he says, needs:

painstaking biblical exegesis
Wide acceptance within the Anglican Communion
Due account taken of the teachings of our ecumenical partners
A strong level of consensus
Solid theological grounding

I agree with his first requirement. And can say that the first has been done. I will, at the end of this reflection, add a short bibliography.

The second is a rather odd requirement and I am afraid I do not understand it. It looks rather straightforward at first, but when you stop to think about it, the requirement is circular. Further, I am unsure why this should be a requirement--the Anglican Communion is not, I remind the Archbishop, the Anglican Church.

Let me say more on the second requirement’s circular nature. Mary-Jane Rubenstein has recently reminded us that toward the end of Three Guineas (1938), Virginia Woolf takes a moment to marvel at the recent findings of the Church of England’s Commission on the Ministry of Women. Although it found no theological support for the position, the Commission continued to bar women from the priesthood because doing so reflected “the mind of the Church” In short, the Commission declared that the church should not ordain women because it did not ordain women. Rubenstein’s suggests that the Anglican Communion cannot accept the blessing of same-sex unions until the Anglican Communion accepts same-sex blessings.

Thus, I am driven to think that the Archbishop must mean something else. Perhaps, he means that the Episcopal Church is not free to recognize same-sex unions until there is widespread acceptance in the Anglican Communion. If this is his meaning, then I think he is mistaken. First, canonically speaking, the Episcopal Church has not (and is not likely to grant) the Anglican Communion such power. Second, within the history of the Anglican Communion, such a requirement would have meant that women’s ordination could not be recognized by the Episcopal Church (thank you Virginia Woolf for reminding me of that reality).

Whether he means the first or the second, matters not. Both are wrong-headed. The first possible meaning circular and the second factually mistaken.

Let me, then, suggest a third possibility and if he means this third possible reading, then let me be the first to say “I agree.” If the Episcopal Church recognizes same-sex unions by means of public blessings, it does not mean that the Anglican Communion recognizes same-sex unions by means of public blessings. The Episcopal Church does not “speak” for the whole of the Anglican Communion. Just because the Episcopal Church ordains women priests it does not mean that the Anglican Communion endorses the ordination of women to be priests. Just because the Episcopal Church consecrates an openly gay man to be bishop, does not mean that the Anglican Communion consecrates openly gay men to be bishops.

Since I do not like to think of the Archbishop as wrong-headed (I deeply admire his work as a theologian), I am inclined to prefer this third possible reading of his second requirement. Further, the context of his second requirement may suggest not widespread acceptance of blessings for same-sex unions, but just the biblical scholarship that would form the basis for such a decision (though one would like to think acceptance of the dictates of Holy Writ would naturally lead to conforming action by all Christians). If so, then the proverb “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” comes to mind. The Biblical scholarship can be provided, but some may refuse to read it. Nonetheless, as a purely descriptive remark, the Archbishop’s second requirement is self-evidently true.

Moving on now to his third requirement: the concept of “due account” is rather ambiguous. Mary Ann Case has remarked on the teachings of one of our ecumenical partners,

“...Pope Benedict XVI, has been quite clear and direct in linking his Church’s recent teachings on homosexuality, on the ordination of women, and on heterosexual marriage in a theological anthropology of essential sex and gender differences.  Benedict analogized what he saw as the growing disregard for the essential “nature of the human being as man and woman” to the destruction of the rainforest in his December 22, 2008 address to the members of the Roman Curia.  Given the historical exclusion of women from decision-making in the Church, Rowan Williams’s invocation of the “venerable principle” that “what affects the communion of all should be decided by all” (”Quod Omnes Tangit”) as a brake on change in the direction of freedom and equality in matters of sex and gender is, as one of Boccaccio’s heroines suggested on Day Six of the Decameron, deeply problematic.”

Deeply problematic indeed. Unless, “due account” simply means accurately recording our ecumenical partners dissenting opinions on the subject. Again, I am going to suggest that this must be exactly what he means--otherwise the Anglican Communion’s teaching on a host of subjects--the authority of the Pope, the use of contraceptives, the role of women in the Church (to name but a few)--would be called into question. In fact, if he means anything stronger--the very existence of the Anglican Communion is called into question, as is all of the Christian tradition formed by the Reformation. Or for that matter, the whole of Christianity post the great schism of East from West.

No, he must mean something more modest. He must mean simply duly noting their dissenting opinions. Easy enough to accomplish. We can assign the job to Bishop Epting’s office. I am sure a “due account” could be provided in short order.

His forth requirement looks and sounds a great deal like his second, but lacks the second’s specificity. I am left wondering as to what body be believes must form a consensus. As I ponder the various possibilities, I am drawn to the belief that he means the body of Christ--the Church universal. The Church, across time and space, cannot be said to recognize the same-sex unions by means of public blessings, until a consensus (answering the question in the affirmative) within the Church is found to have been formed.

Again, one cannot properly say the Church recognizes same-sex unions just because the Episcopal Church recognizes same-sex unions. Furthermore, should the time come that the Anglican Communion were to recognize same-sex unions (don’t hold your breath on that one), one still could not properly say that the Church Universal recognizes same-sex unions. If this is his meaning, then let me say “I agree.” It is a rather obvious thing to say, but I can find no fault in saying it.

His fifth requirement is perhaps the most interesting--a solid theological grounding. Much work has been done in this regard. I would want to begin, however, with the Archbishop’s own solid theological grounding of the issue in his 1989 essay “The Body’s Grace.” To my reading, he has supplied his fifth requirement himself.

Alternatively, his fourth and fifth requirements may simply be a summary and reiteration of his first three requirements--if so, then see above. I need not repeat myself just because he does.

In conclusion, the Archbishop’s question (Is the Church free to recognize same-sex unions by means of public blessings?) is of limited (if any) immediate consequence. Given his requirements for a positive answer (which seem rather self-evident), the answer is “no.” It is the same answer one would have to give for any number of similar questions. We can substitute “papal authority” for “same-sex…” and be driven to the same “no.” We can substitute “the legitimate use of contraceptives” for “same-sex…” and be driven to the same “no.” Virginia Woolf could have asked “Is the Church free to recognize the ordination of women?” and have been driven to the same answer--”no.”

The answer is of no immediate consequence, for the question on everyone’s mind is not this rather academic question--but rather the very practical question “Should the Episcopal Church recognize same-sex unions by means of public blessings?” Followed by the question “If the Episcopal Church does recognize same-sex unions by means of public blessings, what will be the response of the Archbishop of Canterbury?” On these questions, the Archbishop is silent.

I suspect the Archbishop must then be addressing the Anglican Communion and reassuring those opposed to the actions of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church that whatever the Episcopal Church does, it does not speak for the whole of the Anglican Communion. Furthermore, I suspect the Archbishop must also be addressing those ecumenical partners of which he speaks and reassuring them that whatever the Episcopal Church does it does not speak on behalf of the whole of the Anglican Communion. If I am correct in this reading, then this one paragraph of his reflection, at least, is descriptive, not proscriptive. He is not indicating how he believes it should be, only trying to accurately describe how it is. If this is indeed his meaning, then I find no fault in it. If, however, I am wrong and he did indeed intend these requirements to be proscriptive, then his argument is seriously flawed (see above).

Next essay--why I may be wrong and the Archbishop may be proscribing requirements for action.

1 comment:

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks for drawing my attention to this fine "reflection on a reflection." Well said.