It is Thursday, the day after Ash Wednesday. The immediate flurry of anxiety, angst, and aghast reactions are beginning to subside and we are all looking around at the landscape. The first thing to say is the landscape appears pretty bleak.
The immediate reason for this has to do with the following sentences in the Key recommendations of the Primates,
"The Primates request that the answer of the House of Bishops is conveyed to the Primates by the Presiding Bishop by 30th September 2007. If the reassurances requested of the House of Bishops cannot in good conscience be given, the relationship between The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion as a whole remains damaged at best, and this has consequences for the full participation of the Church in the life of the Communion."
Quite a wide variety of commentaries on these sentences read the request as the polite form of an ultimatum, and ultimatums do not good neighbors make.
One good friend said today on the phone, "Well, what did you expect? What did you expect from 38 people who have no authority except their own assertion of authority? When they demand answers, give them one - 'You have no authority here.'"
Deeper, and not so much deeper actually, lies the core bleakness.
The Primates Meeting asserted again that Lambeth 1998, Resolution 1.10 is the "standard of teaching," but the one that sticks and is quoted in the Communiqué is that the Conference, "cannot advise the legitimizing or blessing of same sex unions." (Primates Communiqué, 2007, para 22) They conveniently downplayed other sections. The so called Listening Process got one paragraph (13), and cites research. I am unaware that research is at all like "listening to the experience of homosexual persons."
Of the things that Lambeth 1.10 said, here are the ones that have made it through the memory filter of the Primates. I have deleted the sentences that have been discounted in the intervening years. Here is what is left:
"In view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage;"
"…rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture."
"Cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions."
The deep bleakness is in what has been collectively remembered about this so called "standard of teaching" and appears once again in the Primates Communiqué. Part of Lambeth 1.10 has become a litmus test for moral correctness: No sex except in marriage; no sex for homosexual persons because Scripture is against it; no blessings of any sort for those in such relationships. All of this seems non-negotiable. No wonder the other parts of Lambeth 1.10 are simply dismissed as sops to political correctness.
The core of the bleakness here is clear: this ossified "standard of teaching" dooms any conversation, any change, any hope. Gone are the platitudes that this isn't about gay people, but about biblically based Christianity. This stuff is anti-gay.
These three remaining statements from Lambeth are touted as absolute moral teachings. Hogwash! This is a mess of straw. And so long as we cannot readdress or even discuss these "standards of teaching" there is little to commend "full participation of the (Episcopal) Church in the (Anglican) Communion." This is pretty bleak.
The Bleakness of the Task:
The Communiqué ultimatum, disguised as a "request", to be "conveyed through the Presiding Bishop" to the House of Bishops is what is now on the table. It is bleak fare, cold and uneatable porridge. But at least the Primates got something right in all this: They can only make a request, and that request is that the Presiding Bishop bring the matters to the House of Bishops. Those matters being: (1) "an unequivocal common covenant that the bishops will not authorize any rite of Blessing for same sex unions in their dioceses or through General Convention, and (2) confirm that the passing of Resolution B033 of the 75th General Convention means that a candidate for Episcopal orders living in a same-sex union shall not receive the necessary consent…"
In the Anglican Journal, the newspaper of the Anglican Church of Canada, Archbishop Andrew Hutchison is reported to have said, "the prescriptions offered to The Episcopal Church 'and the willingness of the presiding bishop to take that proposal back to the House of Bishops' was what 'saved the day.'" My sense is the Archbishop is right.
So the day was saved, and now we can look at what it took to save it. The answer is, not much. Bringing the matters back home buys time for US to discuss it all, which is right and proper and indeed absolutely necessary. At the Primates Meeting, after all her protests, some of which are recorded in the Communique itself, Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori could do no more than say she would bring the matter home. She could do no less.
But now it is coming home. There is no way that the House of Bishops can speak for the General Convention and its actions in future meetings. So part two of the first request is simply impossible for the House of Bishops to make covenant about. They might covenant to block legislation there, but they cannot promise to deliver.
On the first proposition, concerning "an unequivocal common covenant," this would provoke a crisis in the Episcopal Church of remarkable proportions. I am not sure, as some are, that this would be a constitutional crisis, but I am sure it would be a political one. IF the Bishops could indeed agree on a "common covenant" that in turn would block an action by the whole of Convention in a permanent way, it would spell the end of this particular noble experiment in church governance. Remembering that the bishops too must one day return home to constituencies made up almost entirely of persons NOT bishops, persons who in turn exercise considerable constraints on the ministries and conveniences of the bishops themselves, I would be surprised if such exercise of Episcopal power would be allowed to go unrewarded.
And, of course, there is the problem that it is already clear from bishops' statements that there is not going to be "an unequivocal common covenant."
On the second point, the Bishops can meet all day and all night and make any statements they want about what they think B033 means and how it is to be interpreted, but should they "confirm" that it means something more than what it says, there is no reason to think that their "confirmed" reading would not be challenged in practice and in trial.
What a bleak business.
The Presiding Bishop is getting considerable criticism for "signing off" on the Communiqué. I think that criticism is misplaced. The Communiqué is in all likelihood a fairly accurate recounting of the discussions the Primates had. Its "Key Recommendations" are what the majority of the group seem to have come to, with Lord knows how much pressure. The discussion and results are what they are. The Presiding Bishop was asked to bring the request to the House of Bishops. I am sure she will.
The Bishops could affirm or deny the requests, and deal with the consequences. But why must they? Suppose the requests were determined to be misplaced – that they belonged not to the House of Bishops but to the whole deliberative assembly of Synod (General Convention)? Suppose, even better, that the forced choice between conscience and communion was rejected? Suppose the Bishops said, we choose a better way – conscience and communion?
Then again, who gave the Primates the power to make such requests with such veiled threats concerning consequences? Whatever happened to the Anglican Consultative Council that at least has a constitution and membership?
The light, good friends, is not in the bleak run that is before us. We have other things to do, ones that are of the light, and they will shine into this darkness and illuminate these troubled times.
The bad news is we now have to deal with this mess. The good news is WE have to deal with it.
On a personal note (as if these opinions were not personal enough), I was interviewed by Alan Cooperman of the Washington Post and the one thing I said that made it into the article ws this: "part of the courage needed for he future is to stand by what we believe is right, and stand by the consequences." I think that is true.
On further reflection, I think the Episcopal Church will be just fine. Sorry about the broken dishes.