Bishop Selby tells it like it is: Resist the Anglican Covenant.
Church Times is reporting on a lecture delivered by Bishop Peter Selby titled, "When the Word on the Street is RESIST." The lecture text was embargoed until October 7th, and here at Preludium things were more or less shut down since Executive Council was in the process of discussing its report on the fourth section of the Ridley Cambridge Draft of the Covenant. (See HERE for ENS report and a link to the EC document.) Now I am honored to be able to post his lecture here.
As with almost anything Bishop Selby writes, this essay deserves to be read completely through. I am reproducing the advanced text in its entirety. READ IT. If there is a revised text based on the actual lecture, I will replace this with that. Here it is.... Read!
When the Word on the Street is RESIST
Inclusive Church Conference – The Word on the Street – Swanwick – 7 October 2009
We all know about typos that are more accurate than what was meant to be written, to the point where you wonder whether it is a not a typo at all; such was my experience of a pew-sheet recently in which the opening words of the guidance on communion during the swine flu outbreak came out not as ‘In the current pandemic ...’ but ‘In the current panic ...’ That seemed to sum up our response not just to swine flu but to other things too. Our response to a pervasive fear is to avoid contact, and to stay clear of each other; for ‘the other’ becomes dangerous, hygiene becomes a matter not of the health of the body but of self-preservation.
The analogy with current goings on in society and church is inescapable: we live in times of increasing fear, and out of that come desperate measures, for example, to control immigration – which means of course controlling immigrants, at whatever cost to their physical and mental health. But it also means trying to shore up the defences of our communion against the incoming tides that threaten; some of the things that are said about TEC lead me to think it has acquired in some minds some of the characteristics of a virus, to be warded off at all costs. Alongside ‘café church’ and ‘messy church’ we now have ‘hygienic church’, a place where we can be sure that the taints and errors of others will not harm us. The difference is, of course, that whereas initiatives like ‘café church’ and ‘messy church’ are pioneer ventures alongside mainstream church activity, ‘hygienic church’ is presented as an aspiration that will benefit us all. It is not – at least not yet – being suggested that we exclude from membership those with whom we disagree, only that we find ways to make it clear who the proper members are and who may speak for us or in our name. The Covenant proposal if accepted – I should perhaps say ‘when accepted’ since people tend to go to what they have been told is the only show in town if they are told that often enough – will have that effect even if not everyone who supports it has that intention.
This address and the request for your hospitality in being allowed to deliver it here have been provoked in the main by the reflections the Archbishop of Canterbury has produced following the 2009 General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the USA, under the title Communion, Covenant and our Anglican Future. I have also been affected by the paper The Anglican Covenant: Shared Discernment Recognized by All by four American writers, signed also by the Bishop of Durham. I ought to say at the outset that I fear the thoughts that the Archbishop has provoked in me are not very new, and what I say here I have mostly said before, even as far back as 1991 when I published BeLonging: Challenge to a Tribal Church, a book which is much more relevant to the current crisis in the Anglican Communion than I would wish it to be. But if these thoughts are not new, I do feel that the present stage in our debates, and the Archbishop’s latest intervention in particular, require them to be stated again and perhaps more sharply, and with some suggestions about how those who find in these ideas anything that resonates with their own might respond with the force that the situation demands. I write in the knowledge that the Archbishop speaks and acts as he does out of a profound concern for the unity and mission of the Anglican Communion, and that he acts as he does in the belief that his role as its principal Primate and ‘instru¬ment of unity’ demands that he does. I sadly believe that his good purposes have been and are being subverted.
Before considering the Archbishop’s paper in any detail, there are three general points I want to make about the way the debates about sexuality and the advocacy of the Covenant have been conducted in the Church of England. They are not new points, and it is sad, and unexpected, to find myself having to make them in relation to the Archbishop’s paper.
The first point is that it is customary, and that paper is no exception, to preface statements of the Church’s ‘traditional teaching’ and the dangers of authorising blessings of same-sex unions or ordaining partnered gay people with strong denunciations of homophobic behaviour or attitudes of any kind. In making such denunciations, I suggest, it is necessary, as well as being passionate, also to be honest. For in that paper these denunci¬ations of homophobia are made without any reference to the fact that the Archbishop was personally responsible for a decision – I refer of course to his requiring Jeffrey John’s withdrawal from his acceptance of the see of Reading – that was personally hugely painful and damaging. While I don’t know any gay person who doubts Archbishop Rowan’s personal sincerity in making those statements against homophobia, I know many who say that their situation in the Church is far worse than it was during his predecessor’s time, something para¬doxical to say the least, but for which he surely needs to own some responsibility. Express¬ing horror at overt homophobic acts is only a part of what we need to do; we also have a responsibility to acknowledge the distress that is being inflicted on LGBT people by the teaching that is being proclaimed and the characteristic style of the debate.
In particular, when the Archbishop says that there must be no questioning of LGBT people’s human or civil rights or of their membership of the Body of Christ, it needs to be said that what he is questioning has serious implications for both; I shall not forget the occasion when a bishop who is unmarried wrote to me after the article I wrote dissociating myself from the statement of the House of Bishops made on civil partnerships, ‘Being celibate doesn’t make you acceptable’.
There is another difficulty about the ‘I am totally opposed to homophobia, but ...’ line of argument. It is that the evidence is so strong as to leave no room for doubt that homosexuality is the battleground chosen by ‘tradition¬al¬ists’ seeking to halt what they see as liberal control of Anglicanism (rather than, say, the ordination of women or marriage after divorce) precisely because of the visceral responses which homosexuality arouses and the energies they allow to be tapped. If homophobia is contrary to the intentions of those advocating the traditionalist cause, it has been allowed to provide a good deal of the fuel for the debate, and the Archbishop’s personal opposition to homophobia does not exempt him from complicity in the way that energy is being used.
My second general point refers to the way in which TEC is referred to in these debates. When the Bishop of Durham first advocated the Covenant at the General Synod, an experience to be likened to sitting under a verbal power shower, I said then, as passionately if not quite as quickly, that I thought it was very unlikely that TEC would make a positive response given the total lack of empathy that was shown towards it in documents and speeches. By ‘empathy’ I am not meaning some kind of emotional sympathy, but a real understanding of the political and constitutional history, distant and recent, which provide the cultural context within which American Christians generally and Episcopalians in particular live out and express their faith. I speak with the passion of someone whose theological formation happened in the USA, remembering well being taught that Cardinal Spellman, the then leader of US Roman Catholics, was essentially an American Protestant, whether he liked it or not, such is the character of the American religious inheritance. To say that does not at all commit me to supporting every bizarre theological utterance of every bishop in TEC, or every aspect of the way TEC has handled controversial questions; it is to say that unless there is some evidence that we really think the presence of Americans of all views in our Communion is an enrichment giving grounds for thanks¬giving it is hardly likely that our demands on them will be received positively. The Archbishop’s opening warm comments on TEC carry little weight if most of his thoughts are actually directed against it. It needs to be said also that, as is shown by the strong American critique of TEC in the paper I mentioned above, The Anglican Covenant: Shared Discernment Recognized by All, opinion within TEC is deeply divided, and it is that division within TEC which, arguably, has been projected outwards into the Anglican Communion.
That brings me to my third observation, another feature of the Arch¬bishop’s paper which echoes a characteristic way in which we are conducting ourselves in the CofE in these debates. That characteristic – and I say this about the Archbishop only with fear and trembling – is what can only be called a massive lack of cultural self-awareness. The fact is that we who criticise TEC for collusion with its surrounding culture represent one of the most successfully enculturated churches in Christen¬dom. Specifically, those of us who are bishops – or archbishops – speak in the manner of the Queen’s bishops and archbishops that we actually are. We speak in that way, think in that way, behave in that way, and have very successfully (with the exception of the case of the USA) exported those thoughts, and ways of speaking and behaving, to other parts of the world. I am not ashamed of being the Englishman that I am, only laying upon myself and others the requirement that I notice, and learn from the impressions of others, the ways in which I conform to type. The fact is that the way in which we are behaving and seeking to get others to behave in the matters in dispute is not different from what Brits have always sought to do. It’s been the secret of much of our national and missionary success, but there are glaring shortcomings in all of that, one of which is that we are not very comfortable with ideologies that have emerged in opposition to centuries of European monarchical history – and of course that history has conditioned many of the assumptions behind dialogue with Rome too, something that has a very high priority in these times.
Now to the Archbishop’s paper, and I shall concern myself with his two principal arguments, in shorthand the need for trans-communion recognisability and the need for representational congruity.
His first key contention is that if Anglicans are to be a communion they need to set out what are the patterns and convictions that make them recognisable as such in a form to which the various provinces can sign up; and they need restraints – self-restraint principally but if need be imposed restraints – to prevent provinces from doing things which would make them unrecognisable to others.
There are several difficulties about this way of arguing, one of which I regard as fundamental. One might ask whether the history of the church bears out such a notion as having operated in the decision-making of churches over issues of considerable importance; and in particular one might ask whether the history of Anglicanism supports requiring that way of undertaking and then sanctioning developments. Is it the case that provinces have not acted on new ideas until they had consulted with other provinces and taken the teaching of ecumenical partners into account? Is it not rather the case that quite controversial decisions have been taken because they seemed to be right, and it has taken time for it to become clear whether they were legitimate developments or not?
But there’s a more serious difficulty about the requirement of recognis¬ability, and that is an unavoidable biblical strand (unavoidable certainly to those who take theologians such as Bonhoeffer, Stringfellow and Moltmann as seriously as the Archbishop certainly does) which raises the question, ‘recognisable to whom?’ In Moltmann’s terms this question has to do with the ‘church of the least of the brothers and sisters’ in Matthew 25, where recognisability seems to depend rather little on working in accordance with procedures of the kind the Archbishop now has in mind. There is no doubt that the decisions and actions of numerous provinces other than TEC – the bullying, the threats, the withdrawal of communion, the unilateral invasions of others’ territories – have made Anglicanism quite unrecognisable to a significant number of people.
And many will think that the suggestion that what threatens recognisability will be something of ‘intensity, substance and extent’ such that restraint is necessary seems, for all its appearance of theological seriousness, to give far too much weight to those issues that people happen to get worked up about, whether or not their anxiety is justified. There was a time, and it was not that long ago, when divorce and further marriage were thought to be a first order issue about which we had not the freedom to change our practice – and when we did it was (whatever arguments were advanced) at the point when a sufficient critical mass of members of the General Synod had personal and family experiences which made their previously firm convictions become much more wobbly. And when the CofE changed its practice in this matter we did not wait to decide the principle until we had consulted with other provinces; we did not await ecumenical consensus; and we did not wait until we had agreed on a general change of practice before deciding that the practice around ordination of those involved in further marriages needed to be changed.
And – and this is my key point – we made these decisions, and have historic¬ally made many such, because the need for recognisability cuts in more than one direction. It would be good if Anglican provinces could agree, and it would be good if people did not do things which led other provinces to declare them unrecognisable. But more often we are in a tension between what will make us recognisable as Church to one group and what will make us recognisable as such to another. Specifically, a missionary church will have concerns about its recognisability outside its own boundaries which it may judge – or some of its members may judge – exceed in importance the need to remain recognisable to fellow-Christians. There are many health warnings to be put against the evangelistic imperative, none of which should blunt its force; but the most important of them is that it has nearly always been divisive, as Christians have disagreed, sometimes fundamentally, over whether particular initiatives were in accordance with faith and practice as traditionally received. The greatest difficulty with the American paper lies in the assumptions behind its subtitle, Shared Discernment Recognized by All: the authors’ ‘all’ is in fact selected ‘insiders’, certainly not the least of the brothers and sisters.
It is this same two-edged character that can be seen in the Archbishop’s other key requirement, that of congruity of representation. What he says is that it would be seriously incongruous for a person who has a ‘lifestyle’ (I fear the choice of that word to describe gay partnerships is something of a giveaway) that is at variance with what the Church teaches to be acting (through ordination, particularly ordination as a bishop) as a representative charged with commending the Church’s teaching. That was of course the argument once applied to the matter of divorce also, and industrial missions (for example) were disproportionately staffed by people who had been through divorce because it was thought that this would avoid the incongruity of a parish priest who had been through divorce teaching about lifelong marriage. You will not find many defending that position now.
The difficulty here is that this requirement of representational congruity, like that of recognisability, also cuts in more than one direction. If in making representative appointments the Church must avoid incongruity, what is to be said about representative rejections? There is no doubt that the decision not to allow the appointment of a gay person as a bishop is seen also as a representative action, giving a message far wider than one about the admissibility of a particular individual. I’ve not seen the point more sharply made than in the comment with which Jan, my wife, opened her letter to the Church Times following the 1987 debate on sexuality, that ‘the outcome of the debate will confirm to those with whom I work – children excluded from school for bad behaviour and other problems – that the Church has nothing to offer them.’ Protestations of our opposition to homophobia will count for little in an environment where our representative actions speak far louder than our words.
There is no doubt that if the Covenant becomes the governing text of the Anglican communion and if, as is surely intended, membership of the communion (or of ‘track A’ in the communion) will in some way be made dependent on conformity to that text, a message about recognisability and congruity will be sent, and it may not be the one the Archbishop may be wanting to send. And for us here the question will then arise, painful for an organisation within the church bearing the name Inclusive, how shall we make it clear that we do not wish to be included in that message? I shall turn to the strategies we may wish to pursue later.
First, though, a story: a colleague and his partner were to register their partnership, and a number of us were invited. There was no suggestion that there would be a blessing of this union, or anything else that might cause incongruity or unrecognisability. But it did so happen that the ceremony was arranged to take place closely after the usual time of the eucharist in the local Church, to which the guests were also invited. Not surprisingly prayers were offered for the pair, and the eucharist proceeded as usual – or not quite.
When time came for the distribution of the Sacrament, nothing had been said about what was to happen. But the congregation knew what was to happen: they remained in their seats until the pair whose partnership was to be registered had received together. Where was this unscripted choreo¬graphy learned? Obviously through the attendance of many in the congregation at wedding eucharists. But this was not of course a wedding – or was it? Might not this event in the distribution of the Sacrament have been a picture of what at an earlier time the Archbishop would have called ‘The Body’s Grace’, the mediation of truth through the liturgical actions of the people, while the official Church was still struggling to avoid an affirmation it was unwilling to make.
I tell the story not to argue against those others who have decided simply to disobey the rules. I tell it rather to show that while the Primates of our Communion labour at the question of incongruity, a different perception of the truth is being recognised in the actions of the people. Nor am I telling the story to suggest that actions of that kind can serve as a substitute for a just and faithful resolution of a conflict which has hurt too many and lasted too long. I tell the story because even as hierarchies struggle to maintain rigidities in place, even as persons are hurt and their ministries denied, something else is going on, namely the emergence of the hidden wisdom of God’s people, a choreography of promise, a recognition which the official Church will surely have to take seriously. That will not be (as the Archbishop quite wrongly suggests) because the Church will have ended up conforming to social mores rather than critiqued them; it will be because truth has been discovered precisely in the context of biblical and theological reflection and acted out in worship; and what the pew sheet I quoted accurately called ‘the current panic’ will not outlast the God whose message is not to be afraid.
We shall of course have to take stronger action than simply to notice what is happening among us. Among the most sinister implications of the Archbishop’s paper is the suggestion that ecumenical discussions will on the Anglican side only have participants who are ‘signed up’ to the Covenant and whose provinces adhere to its provisions. If that kind of provision is implemented we shall have to take steps to notify ecumenical partners that ‘Anglicanism’ is not represented by the Anglicans they meet. We shall have to find ways, that is to say, of saying as some of us have had to say about other, political, decisions, ‘not in my name’. That is not – we must be clear – because we do not recognise those members of our churches who are nominated to such commissions as Anglicans; we leave such excluding to the official church. But we do need to find ways of making clear that an Anglican representation that excludes those who have come to different conclusions about sexuality is not fully Anglican and does not represent us. That will need to be done every time there is a significant ecumenical dialogue so that the voice of the unrepresented Anglicans is heard. That action will be important for another reason too: ecumenical dialogues have been – however slow their progress – places where what is difficult to discuss within denominations could with the possibility of real mutual learning be discussed between and among them; an Anglican representation filtered by its conformity to the criteria of the Covenant will greatly impoverish ecumenical conversation, to the detriment of all participants.
At the same time we shall also need to undermine the certainty with which some speak of a settled position within Anglicanism by making it clear that whatever resolutions are passed or Covenants signed the CofE is in fact divided on sexuality, and those who do not accept the ‘official’ position are determined to be included within it. Otherwise we shall be accepting what we all know is an illusion: the picture of a House of Bishops that speaks honestly of these things, that adheres equally and in every place to one pattern of teaching and discipline and is united on the question. Having attended Bishops’ Meetings of various kinds over more than twenty years I have to say that recent years have brought more mistrust and less openness than at any previous time I can remember. We shall need to speak of these things, because if we are silent what the CofE says will have about it a ring of falsity, a pretence of unity that needs to be confronted for the sake of the integrity of our ecclesial life: the notion that the sexuality issue is decided in the CofE – in fact everywhere except among a few dissidents in TEC and Western Canada – betrays us all.
This brings me towards my conclusion, and it is the hardest bit of this paper to write, and the most personally distressing. I have so far addressed the ‘issues’ in the debate, and taken little account of who it is who is writing about them. But in the end that will not be sufficient to make my point, because the issues are also a reflection of what this debate is doing to persons in general and the Archbishop in particular. Near the beginning of his paper is a very revealing sentence: ‘There are two points which I believe need to be reiterated and thought through further, and it seems to fall to the Archbishop of Canterbury to try and articulate them.’ (my italics). Why does it ‘seem to fall’ in that direction? If the two points he wishes to make are true (and I have sought to suggest they need serious criticism), then could not anyone be making them? What is happening to the role and person of the Archbishop is a question that cannot be avoided and is far from being just his responsibility. It has been pointed out that his paper is addressed to ‘the Bishops, Clergy and Faithful of the Anglican Communion’, a form of address very familiar to readers of papal encyclicals, including the address to ‘the faithful’, a term well known (and not always happily so) to Roman Catholics but not the usual way in which we refer to lay Christians in the Anglican Communion.
The Archbishop denies more than once in his paper that the Covenant and his paper are manifestations of centralisation; but why would he need to deny this? The sad reality is that the Archbishop has removed himself from his natural area of thought in the matter of sexuality, that is his remarkable capacity to bring a godly wisdom to bear on secular developments, a gift we need more than any other in attempting to work out how to assess current developments in human attitudes and behaviour in matters sexual. Instead the issues that surround sexuality are now treated by him only as ecclesiastical problems, to be resolved as such.
I have never held the view that because an Archbishop of Canterbury was chosen who had what were thought of as ‘liberal’ views on sexuality and had been instrumental in setting up the Institute for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality we were on the brink of ‘winning’ the argument for a change of approach; nobody in their right mind would project on to an Archbishop that kind of expectation. But I did hope that his giftedness in connecting with people and issues out of a deep and prayerful theological mind might assist all of us, whichever ‘side’ we were on, to move to a larger perception of this complex reality, and that from that movement might eventually come a new paradigm of thinking which would change us all – and hopefully unite us all – in ways we cannot now see, and would certainly help us to find ways of speaking that do not cause so much hurt to those over whose bodies and lives we are arguing.
Instead, out of the pressures of others and his own choice, has come a near total abrogation of any attempt to help us to think freshly about sexuality, in the way that he assists us remarkably to think freshly about criminal justice, climate change, financial crises and an incredibly wide range of other issues. Instead, when it comes to sexuality, he has taken on an exclusive concern with finding ecclesio-political answers to the current panic. Out of the systemic malaise we seem to inhabit has come an apparently overwhelming false consciousness: a place where the thoughts he thinks arise from the role that has been pressed upon him by others and which he has accepted, where self-preservation as a Communion is our over-riding concern, and where therefore we are deprived of his ministry of discernment about the issues in dispute.
If that abrogation has been the result of over¬whelming pressure, there is also an element of personal choice in it. In Christ on Trial, whether with these divisive issues in his mind or not, Rowan Williams wrote,
I long for the Church to be more truly itself, and for me this involves changing its stance on war, sex, investment and many other difficult matters. I believe in all conscience that my questions and my disagreements are all of God. Yet I must also learn to live in and attend to the Church as it is, to do the prosaic things that can be and must be done now and to work at my relations now with the people who will not listen to me or those like me – because what God asks of me is not to live in the ideal future but to live with honesty and attentiveness in the present, i.e. to be at home. Christ on Trial, p.85f
Such statements evoke sympathy, naturally enough, and many of us know the tensions that come with office – and certainly there are plenty of ‘prosaic things’ that limit what an Archbishop can do. Everyone must surely understand the obligations of his role and the pressures from outside that prevent him engaging in some of the actions for change that he was previously able to undertake. But a belief ‘in all conscience that the questions and disagreements are all of God’ means precisely not allowing the ‘prosaic things’ to condition your patterns of thought: that way lies the false consciousness where it seems he has arrived.
I remember – how could I forget – the moment when the sexuality plenary session at the 1998 Lambeth Conference ended, with 1.10 to show for it. As I walked desolately out of the session I noticed I was walking next to Rowan, who remarked philosophically, ‘I suppose that’s where the Communion is.’ That was then, and is now, all too simple a statement of a very complex reality, not to be witnessed to by dividing us into two tracks, those who sign up and those who don’t. There are different choreographies to be seen in the behaviour of this body called the Anglican Communion, and it is our business to insist that all their variety is honoured.
Our reason for so insisting is not primarily that for all its struggles we still see TEC as a vital part of our Communion, though we do; it is not even primarily that we care deeply about the indignities to which our LGBT brothers and sisters are subjected in the name of ‘traditional teaching’, though we do – and moreover are again and again astonished that even so their faith, their sense of vocation, their ministries and their care for the Church remain intact. Our main concern has to be that what is being proposed is no way to discern the truth about the matters in dispute, and we must be sure to make that point clear at every opportunity.
There are no doubt others who have more than experience than I of enabling dialogue between people of differing views about sexuality; I can only say that after my twenty years of conducting such conversations in various locations as a bishop and since retirement I am sure of four things: that the conversation is possible, that it depends on allowing all voices to be heard in a context where there are no threats of being disadvantaged in ministry, that while both ‘sides’ may believe the debate is settled, and that belief has to be accepted as part of the situation, there is still the possibility of mutual recognition and acceptance and real conversation, and that the change that comes about in such conversations is not something as simple as people just changing their mind on the issue in dispute but other changes at once more subtle and more far-reaching. The Archbishop’s constant insistence that this matter cannot be resolved by creating ‘facts on the ground’ is simply not realistic about this or any other dispute where the ‘facts on the ground’ have been established for reasons of conscience and integrity by both ‘sides’. The ‘facts on the ground’ are what reveal the importance of the matter in hand; to ask that they disappear is to require people of passionate conviction to engage in a debate with no voice.
Above all what we need is not to take our eye off the issue, that of the treatment to be accorded to LGBT people and the ways in which they have – over many generations, not just in the last few decades – sought to live lives obedient to the gospel within the cultures in which we all, sexual majorities and minorities alike, seek to do just that. To leave that issue behind in favour of the worthy but secondary issue of how to keep the Anglican Communion together will stunt our discernment – and not keep the Anglican Communion together either. The Archbishop says the enterprise is ‘becoming the Church God wants us to be, for the better proclaiming of the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ’; but that means engaging in the search for the truth together, not settling for the stalemate which is what his paper actually advocates.
What is at stake is our faith that God’s truth will be discovered. That is, that we shall learn which of the faltering steps we all take in the living of holy lives with our bodies and our passions will form part of the choreography of promise, the one that will prepare us for the marriage supper of the Lamb, where all our human loving will be transformed and celebrated. Towards that vision we look; and nothing less will do.