Reconciling the Irreconcilable

[Cross-posted from my personal blog. This post is a bit long. The first section gives historical background information on divisions within Anglicanism. If you consider yourself up to speed on those things, you may wish to scroll down to the section labeled “Getting to It” … or even further to “Really Getting to It.”]

For as long as I have been an Anglican Christian and a member of the Episcopal Church, which exceeds four decades now, my ecclesial environment has never been free of dramatic conflict. The first General Convention that I paid attention to in real time (1976) dealt with the twin quagmires of Prayer Book revision and women’s ordination. Every three years thereafter, the rhetorical decibel level has spiked.

In 2003, however, the baseline level of underlying conflict escalated not just incrementally, but exponentially. There has, since then, been a “new normal” in the way we engage one another over areas about which we are in fundamental disagreement. A relative trickle of Episcopalians departed in the 1970s over issues of liturgy and sacraments, forming what became a dizzying array of “alphabet soup” ecclesial entities. (Of course, there had been a notable schism a century before that over sacramental theology, resulting in the formation of the Reformed Episcopal Church.) But these ruptures were mere blips, wrinkles, compared with with the departures that ensued in the wake of 2003. Solid (indeed, in all but one case, overwhelming) majorities in the conventions of five dioceses voted to separate themselves from the General Convention. Tens of thousands of Episcopalians and former Episcopalians have either engaged in protracted litigation, or walked away from buildings and financial assets, or both. A new generation of ecclesial acronyms has appeared, and multiplied, and been culled. Out of that soup, the Anglican Church in North America has emerged as an entity that appears to have some staying power, having made what looks like a successful transition from the first to the second generation of top leadership.

Of course, in our shrinking world, turmoil in North America creates waves for Anglicans in other regions. In recent decades, while TEC has been growing precipitously smaller, Anglican Christianity has been growing markedly larger, both numerically and in vitality, in Africa and Asia, in provinces that have become known as the Global South. These provinces, many of which are on a frontier with militant Islam, tend to be much more conservative on issues of sexual morality and marriage than their developed world counterparts. Most of them find the notion of condoning, via blessing, same-sex partnerships (let alone “marriage”) to be unimaginable, a violation of core precepts of the Christian faith as revealed by God. Many (most?) within the Global South have made various alliances with Episcopalians and former Episcopalians in the U.S. who share their assessment of how the dominant thinking has evolved in TEC around sexuality and marriage.

The question that arises, then, is, Are these extramural Anglican entities in North America actually … Anglican? And that, in turn, raises the question, What defines “Anglican”? The classic answer to the latter question, which would have been widely agreed to before the post-2003 fissiparation, is that “Anglican” denotes full sacramental communion with and recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury. By that standard, ACNA, despite the first ‘A’ in its acronym, is not Anglican, because Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is on record that he does not consider them a province of the Anglican Communion. On the other hand, the Diocese of South Carolina, which separated from the Episcopal Church late in 2012, and is not part of ACNA, has been given a foster home by the Global South under the provisions of an agreement developed by the primates of the whole Anglican Communion (reportedly including TEC’s Presiding Bishop) in Dromantine, Ireland in 2005 and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 2007. This is arguably an official mechanism, endorsed by two of the four of the Anglican Communion’s Instruments of Unity, and, I have it on good authority, is precisely why South Carolina chose to go that route rather than join ACNA.

Yet, there is another coalition within the Global South that muddies the waters. This is the Global Anglican Futures Conference, known widely by the acronym GAFCON. GAFCON does fully recognize ACNA as part of the Anglican fellowship, and for the most part withholds such recognition from the Episcopal Church, and while its leaders profess reverence for the historic role that the See of Canterbury has played as a sign of Anglican unity, they have at times seemed to proffer a narrative that Anglicanism could, in concept and if necessary, legitimately exist apart from a relationship with that ancient See. I think it can be safely said that the provinces and dioceses represented by GAFCON comprise a solid majority of those around the world who can currently claim to be Anglican even by the classical standard. So … it’s complicated, with lots of eddies and tide pools and countervaiing forces.

Getting to It
Such is the maelstrom that Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby inherited when he assumed office at the beginning of 2013. Early on, he identified reconciliation as his top priority as a steward of the Anglican Communion, and appointed David Porter as his special assistant to that end; Canon Porter, an Ulsterman, cut his teeth on the endemic conflict in Northern Ireland. Dr Welby resolved to personally visit all 39 provinces of the communion, a goal he has now accomplished. The signs of his efforts are manifest in such projects as Continuing Indaba and more recently, a book promulgated by the Anglican Communion Office entitled Living Reconciliation (released last September) and they are founded on the presumption that the “reconciliation of those who are at variance and enmity” (Collect for St James of Jerusalem) is at the core of the gospel, articulated most compellingly by St Paul in II Corinthians 5.

In recent weeks, the Archbishop’s vision for reconciliation has been sharply criticized from the direction of GAFCON. This is perhaps seen most clearly in a letter, published last December, from four GAFCON primates (who are also part of the Global South movement) in Africa to Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi of Rwanda. Archbishop Bernard had participated in an October meeting in New York, along with some other African bishops and some bishops from the Episcopal Church, under the auspices of Continuing Indaba. This communique was issued by the meeting. The GAFCON primates take the project severely to task:

  • The theologically superficial approach of the “Friendship Communiqué” attempts to effect reconciliation without repentance.
  • We reject the process of “Indaba” as it is being implemented. Rather than seeking true resolution, it has been consistently manipulated only to recruit people to unbiblical positions. “Indaba” as currently practiced, is a fiction advancing human desires that are not informed by Gospel truth.
  • The meeting uncritically proposes “Mission,” without recognising that there must be theological agreement about what purpose the mission pursues, as opposed to Biblical Mission which furthers the redemptive love of Christ through repentance and conversion.

Even more recently, GAFCON has taken aim at the book Living Reconciliation itself,promoting a negative review by Church of England theologian Martin Davie. Among Dr Davie’s critiques:

There seems to be no limit on what [tolerable] differences may be. The book assumes that the deeply divisive teaching of such Anglican Churches as the Episcopal Church of the United States on same-sex sexual relationships are within the bounds of what is acceptable within a fellowship of Churches.

Really Getting to It
Full disclosure (though no news flash if you know me at all): On the underlying issues of moral theology and hermeneutical stance toward the tradition of scripture and church teaching, I am in league with the Global South and GAFCON. I believe we, as Christians in the 21st century, are the heirs of a consistent and compelling witness that the end (telos) of human sexuality is coherently realized only in an intentionally lifelong covenant between one man and one woman, which is to say, marriage. Any manifestation of sexual relations apart from such a context falls short of God’s designs and purposes.

That said, I am also resolutely a member of the Episcopal Church, and by the providential sufferance of Almighty God, a bishop therein. I attempt to lead and care for a diocese, and I attempt to dutifully take my share in “the councils of the church,” per my ordination vows. And as I go about my life and work, I rub shoulders with, and pray with, and collaborate with, and eat and drink and laugh and cry with, and sometimes make common cause with, Episcopalians whose words and actions with respect to the moral theology of sexuality I find to be gravely and tragically mistaken, who consciously, albeit without malevolent intent, abet the infestation of our ecclesial “system” with the equivalent of a malicious virus injected into the internet, a virus that will eventually cause massive harm and end up killing its host.

There are many–probably from within TEC, though most of the ones I have in mind are outside it–who would pose the stark question: Why? The moral legitimation of same-sex sexual relationships is effectively a “done deal” in the Episcopal Church, and we are on a pretty clear glide path toward the imminent redefinition of marriage to embrace such relationships. I can hear the voices from within my own church (well, more like thoughts–few would actually give voice to these notions yet) saying, “Why don’t you move on to a church home that is more congenial to your traditionalism and let us proceed peacefully in the direction we’re headed?” And I can hear voices from outside my church, many of them the voices of beloved friends and former co-laborers, who say, “How can you live and work alongside–indeed, be reconciled with–those who are contributing to the death of souls for whom Christ died? How can light be reconciled with darkness? How can life be reconciled with death?” And I find those voices sobering. I find them nearly convicting. Almost.

But not quite. And here’s why: Reconciliation is a non-negotiable gospel imperative. It’s not just “nice if you can get it.” It’s not adiaphora; it is essential. I am not suggesting that light should or can be reconciled with darkness, or death with life. What I am contending is that those who have been clothed with Christ in the waters of baptism, those who name Jesus as Lord, are constitutionally and irrevocably of one blood, one family. And in a family, you don’t get to choose your siblings. You may not like them. You make think they’re off the rails. You may find them insufferably boorish and be embarrassed by them. But you don’t get to deny them. When they knock on your door, you suck it up and invite them in and fix them something to eat and drink.

And here, perhaps, lies the clue to going about reconciling the irreconcilable. Cognizant of an element of irony in doing so, I would point to Martin Davie’s most salient point in his review of Living Reconciliation:

The New Testament’s emphasis is not on people learning to live with what divides then, but learning to live out what unites them

Those colleagues and friends of mine who are desperately wrong about the moral theology of sex? Most of them–not all, but most of them–say the Nicene Creed every Sunday without crossing their fingers. Most of them–not all, but most–will sing full-throatedly this Easter about Jesus rising from the dead and walking away from his tomb, and really mean it. Really. Most of them–not all, but most–sincerely believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the word of God (and, of course, to contain all things necessary to salvation). Most of them–not all, but most–desire and intend to follow Jesus the Christ, the Risen One, as Savior and Lord, to be his faithful disciples. They get one very important thing very wrong. But they get a whole bunch of equally or more important things very right. I cannot in good conscience presume to unchurch them, nor allow them to presume to unchurch me. Rather, I am obligated as a disciple of Jesus to “live out what unites” me to them, which is none other than the blood of Christ and the water of baptism.

So I will accept part of the critique from my GAFCON brothers and sisters toward the model of reconciliation put forward by Archbishop Justin, in that merely learning to live with what divides us as Anglican Christians (or any division among Christians, for that matter) is too meager an aspiration.  We need to set our sights higher. But neither, in the meantime, may we set them any lower, and this is where Continuing Indaba and related projects are of value: they keep us at the same table, in the same room, even while we faithfully hold our sharply irreconcilable differences. Nobody is talking about compromising, meeting each other halfway, splitting the difference. Nothing of the sort. We hold on to our convictions. But we do so in a space where the Holy Spirit has some room to act, to (in the words of the Nashotah  House Prayer) “melt the heart of sinners to the love of [God].” Maybe my “team” is right, and will prevail in the end. I hope and expect so. Maybe my opponents are right and will be shown to be so as history unfolds. I doubt it, and expect it not. But the greater likelihood is that neither “side” is entirely correct, and that both are to some extent holding on to idols of their own making. We can’t know in the present moment. I will probably no longer be in this world when that verdict is read. But I believe it my duty in the meantime to “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14), to remain in communion with all who are marked by the sign of the cross and labor under that banner, even in the midst of very deep divergences. Jesus deserves no less. The gospel deserves no less. The life of the world deserves no less.

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