It has now been three weeks since the Archbishop of Canterbury published his “Reflections” on the outcomes of this year’s General Convention of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America.. There have been all kinds of reaction from the American Church, and from the Church of England, from both traditionalist and reformist viewpoints. I have waited, in vain it appears, for any reaction from anyone in the Anglican Church of Canada, from our national councils, or from anyone, clergy or lay. So far, there has been silence.
So allow me to break this silence.
This statement from the Lambeth Palace does not address only the Episcopal Church of the USA. It confounds many in the Communion, including the Churches of the British Isles. And it repudiates the Anglican Church of Canada, not only for where it might be heading, but also from whence it has come.
We all need to make our reactions known throughout the Canadian Church, and throughout the Communion, in the strongest way possible. This statement cannot be allowed to rest unchallenged.
My comments will be in four principal areas:
1. Holy orders In paragraph 8, the Archbishop writes: “Thus a blessing for a same-sex union cannot have the authority of the Church Catholic, or even of the Communion as a whole. And if this is the case, a person living in such a union is in the same case as a heterosexual person living in a sexual relationship outside the marriage bond; whatever the human respect and pastoral sensitivity such persons must be given, their chosen lifestyle is not one that the Church’s teaching sanctions, and thus it is hard to see how they can act in the necessarily representative role that the ordained ministry, especially the episcopate, requires.”
Hear the sound of thousands of closet doors slamming shut. This is a direct threat to any gay, lesbian or trangendered person serving as ordained clergy (or any “representative function”, without the Archbishop being clear on how broadly this might apply) anywhere in the Anglican Communion. It is noteworthy that the Archbishop does not limit his comments to candidates for the episcopate.
It is also a direct affront to the current practices of the Anglican Church of Canada. One year ago, I was a member of a parish panel reviewing approved candidates for ordained ministry in my parish. We panel members were instructed by our regional archdeacon that we could not ask any candidate about their gender, marital status, or sexual orientation. Such was deemed to be in contravention of the Canadian Church’s policy on “Dignity, Inclusion and Fair Treatment”, a policy approved by General Synod in the year 2000 in all four houses (the fourth being an unusual call for a vote by diocese).
It is worth adding that the Archbishop of Canterbury speaks not only as the primus entre pares of the Archbishops of the Anglican Communion, but also as Primate of the Church of England, a Province which still has not resolved the role of women among the ordained, the episcopate or any “representative function” in the Church of England!
2. “Lifestyle” One of the most unfortunate phrases the Archbishop of Canterbury uses is this, in paragraph 9: “It is that a certain choice of lifestyle has certain consequences.” This use of the word “lifestyle”, without any modifiers to clarify its meaning, implies that the Archbishop and his advisers have understood almost nothing of the debate that has so long preoccupied our churches. The meaning of the word “lifestyle”, clearly used as a pejorative in this sentence, is simply too broad. No right-thinking person would dare think to refer to the “heterosexual lifestyle” in this manner. It is defaming and objectionable.
3. Theological justifications In paragraphs 6 and 7, the Archbishop writes: “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.
“This is not our situation in the Communion. Thus a blessing for a same-sex union cannot have the authority of the Church Catholic, or even of the Communion as a whole. ”
The rationale which the Archbishop puts forward is an argument for theological and doctrinal stasis. The level of consensus called for, not only among Anglicans, but with “the Church Catholic” would effectively end the reformed tradition of Anglicanism. Doctrinal reform would become all but impossible.
This is a direct threat to females in holy orders, for the majority in the Anglican Communion and among our ecumenical partners do not accept women serving “representative” functions.
This being said, and although the statement itself needs to be challenged, the Archbishop makes an argument with which I find myself in agreement: “it is clear that a positive answer to this question would have to be based on the most painstaking biblical exegesis.” As a prelude to this statement, the Archbishop 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.”
This is a question which has bedevilled me in my personal work at the local, national and international levels over recent years. Much of our rhetoric as advocates for GLBT Christians relates to our “experience”; but there is much less attention paid to “tradition” and “Scripture”.
Some of this can be attributed to an institutional “feedback loop” which the Archbishop’s statement only exacerbates. If being identified as gay, lesbian or trangendered can threaten job security for clergy or job prospects for seminarians, fewer in these areas of ministry will choose to do the theological work that would make reform imperative. And yet, this theology needs to be done, and to be communicated within the highest councils of our churches. Are we up to this challenge?
4. Institutional non-sequiturs What I find the most frustrating in the Archbishop’s statement is his crystal-ball gazing. He envisages in this Reflection a two-tier communion comprising those Provinces (or national churches) which might agree to an eventual Anglican Covenant, and those that could not.
What is not at all clear is this: could the Church of England agree to a Covenant? It is unlikely it could sign on to any draft yet seen, for such would put the Church of England under the doctrinal authority of foreigners, which is forbidden by English law. Does Rowan Williams have a “hidden agenda” to disestablish the Church of England? Nothing he has said publicly so far would indicate so.
Not only this, but the Archbishop makes the pernicious suggestion that sub-provincial entities, such as the Anglican Network of Canada (which has severed its ties with the Anglican Church of Canada) might be able to “sign on” as a Tier 1 member of the Communion! If this were to happen, what would prevent a liberal or conservative (take your pick) offshoot of the Church of England doing the same? Could there be two “Churches of England” just as the Archbishop has suggested that there might be two Anglican churches in both the United States and Canada?
And what would this tell our ecumenical partners?
I fear it would tell them that the notion of “reformed Catholicism”, the Anglican ethos, had been irrevocably lost.