Truthful Language and Orderly Separation

Written by:
Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

The Anglican Communion is currently pursuing a number of activities in response to the acrimonious struggle over sexual teaching and discipline within our churches. These activities have been encouraged by the Communion’s leadership, including at the recent Lambeth Conference. I have, to various degrees, been a supporter of these activities, not least because I have trusted those who have promoted these means towards ecclesial healing. I am increasingly skeptical, however, that the way these activities have been framed – descriptively and practically – represents the true nature of our disputes.

Categories like “moratoria” and “reception” and “listening”, for instance, are now prominent elements in our strategic ecclesial discussions. Unfortunately, they no longer appear to be useful categories, in large part because they do not accurately reflect the actual relationship of expectation and possibility that the disputing parties hold, one to another and with respect to their own commitments. When one party says, while responding to the request for a “moratorium” on specific actions, “yes we will consider it; but there is no going back on our underlying commitments”; and another party says at the same time, “yes we will consider it; but only on the condition that you others give up your practical commitments”, then the very category of “moratorium” functions in very different ways in each case. Similarly, when “reception” is a “process” that seeks to discern the Christian authenticity of an innovative practice, but also does so by the very means of rooting that practice within the life of the church in different areas, the notion that discernment has a possibly restraining role to play seems practically undercut. Or when “listening” presumes an ecclesial practice even as it refuses to evaluate that practice, one is not so much listening as receiving justification ex post facto.

Indeed, the practical logic of the situation we are now in as a Communion has exposed the inadequacy of these categories, and has raised questions about the very nature of “council”, consensus, and decision-making. With this, our churches have been challenged to reconsider from the ground up whether or not we are capable of maintaining the integrity of our common life at all.

The “practical logic of the situation we are in” is one, quite simply, where our Communion, and the churches within it, are beset by radically unequal – or asymmetrical – engagements with the presenting issue of sexuality. It is not simply that the views of gay inclusivists and traditionalists are “incompatible” and “irreconcilable” (although this may be true, theologically). Rather, because the practical asymmetry of these two views’ applications has been ignored and the two engagements have been forced one upon the other incoherently, a dynamic has been set loose that can move in one of only two directions: either the extinguishing of the traditionalist party itself as a vital ecclesial existence, or the dissolution of a church that holds both parties together. This fact has enormous implications for the practical realities of a number of activities that are currently demanding our attention as a Communion. These include the vexed debates over “moral equivalence” between the requested “moratoria”; the process of “reception”; the “listening process”; even the argument over Rowan Williams’ putative hypocrisy (or “mental illness” as one person called it) over having held personal views theoretically “open” to gay inclusion, even while he now firmly promotes ecclesial adherence to the traditionalist teaching of the Church.

How would I describe these unequal engagements? In short: we have reached a situation where it is clear, in the sense that people have stated the conclusion and demonstrated it, that a change of practice is both unexpected and impossible for gay inclusivists, while a change of attitude for conservatives is both expected and theoretically still possible.

I. Impossible change

1. A change of practice for gay inclusivists has become impossible.  This is so because the practice is now thoroughly and extensively embedded in civil and ecclesial communities, and to an extent that renders its reversal relationally unimaginable.  Consider the following well-known realities “on the ground”:

  • there is a large number of partnered gay couples in the West who are active members of our church congregations;
  • there are many ordained clergy who are partnered homosexuals;
  • there is a broad range of leadership positions such lay and ordained gay persons hold (as Vestry members, Standing Committee members, and synodical representatives);
  • many of these persons are leaders within the larger civil community in various capacities
  • an increasing number of  gay partnerships now include children, often conceived through surrogate means;
  • finally, the civil state upholds these partnerships and their familial character through a range of recognitions and legal protections.

Short of a catastrophe, either of a natural or political kind (whereby whole populations simply disappear) it is not possible to conceive of any simple removal of these functioning and recognized partnerships from the midst of our living communities.  And if this is so,   a change of practice among gay-inclusivists within our churches is not only not to be expected, it is pragmatically impossible.

This is why the notion, advanced by some inclusivists, that there is such a thing as “incarnational” discernment within the church in the case of gay partnerships, marriages, and families is at best an illusion, at worst a disingenuous strategic ploy.  For short of also saying that one may well “discern” that partnerships, marriages, and families already constituted, not only by civil law but by long-term experience and emotional ties, ought in fact to be dissolved, there are no practical alternatives among which to “discern”.  Once one has established “facts on the ground” in this area of life, by definition discernment is terminated in any concrete and immediate sense.

2. Traditionalists, by contrast, are expected to “listen” and “learn” with an eye to altering their attitudes on questions of sexuality.  This is both a hope on the part of inclusivists, but also a practical and reasonable expectation in some cases, because “sensitivity” to the relational dynamics involved in the constructed irreversibility of homosexual partnerships and families can indeed be predicted to mitigate opposition.

Furthermore, it is theologically possible that traditionalist opposition to gay inclusion could be transformed.  Because, generally speaking, traditionalists take either the Scriptures or the Tradition (or both, in certain varying relationships) as authority, it is theoretically possible that a change in authoritative interpretation – e.g. through pope, patriarch, Lambeth, consensual scholarship, etc. – could challenge past individual and local understandings of Scripture and Tradition.  This was the case, mutatis mutandis, on the matters of married clergy or slavery or other matters.  Inclusivists, understanding that traditionalists generally argue as “those under authority”, are well aware that a shift in authoritative direction can change the direction of traditionalists’ understanding.   In this case, while a (traditionalist) individual might not be convinced wholly by such a shift, the sense of “deferring to authority” would permit an openness to such change.  And, furthermore, a change in attitude by traditionalists on the matter of homosexual families, for instance, does not require of them the relational costs that dissolution of such families, from the other side, would impose upon gay couples and their children.  The pragmatic character of change is very different from each perspective.

The point is, change is expected, logically, only from one “side” of the current argument.   Ironically, the traditionalists seem far more “pragmatically open” than do the inclusivists.  This is not a matter of who is “more tolerant”, but of what kinds of practices are coherently admitted within certain forms of life.   Rules of evidence and persuasion still obtain for the traditionalistsr, however distantly at times, while they do not for inclusivists.  At the same time, it needs to be said that traditionalists have, through a kind of practical response to the character of inclusivist logic, increasingly given up a willingness to learn; and, in the face especially of an American culture of autonomous individual conscience, have in any case been less and less willing to follow their own logics of learning through authorities, a drift that has led instead to fragmenting assertions and decision-making.

(As an aside: in theory, the area of “boundary-crossing” is also a much more amenable to reversal than the social-family-leadership matrix of homosexual unions within the church.  It requires the re-ordering of episcopal relationships among persons who [again, in theory] already exist within a common network of responsibility apart from such episcopal oversight.  Having said this, however, it should be obvious that the longer the “crossing” relationships live themselves out, and where they are uncontested legally, the social-leadership matrix will embed itself within the life of those churches involved, and become increasingly difficult to reform.  Nonetheless, the very fact that the element of “family” is not at issue in the border-crossings means that a significant stake that might contribute to the immovability of the practice is not present.)

II. The dilemma of a traditional Christian church

The asymmetrical and unequal character of inclusivist and traditionalist engagements with the question of sexuality is important to grasp. And, to traditionalists, it raises even more long-term questions about the future of their ecclesiology.  In many countries of the West now, gay marriages, donor inseminations and conceptions, and adoptions are now permitted and protected by civil law.  Given this civil embeddedness, the issue of how the Christian community can stand, both legally and in terms of social cohesion, apart from and even opposed to such practices presents clear challenges of formulation and practice.  And these are not just challenges faced by Anglicans, as we know from the increasing confrontation of Roman Catholic commitments within secular societies.  How shall such a “traditional” Christian community be ordered as a “church” in such a context, especially one that is supportive of the political pluralism that has both (up until now) protected churches’ freedoms as well as furthered certain Christian commitments regarding peaceableness?

It is not a straightforward answer to say that the “sectarian” social option is the obvious one for traditionalists to choose, given both the historical commitments of decision-making that most “catholic”–oriented churches have adopted, as well as the oppositions towards certain forms of life, inquiry, and relationship associated with catholic sensibilities that sectarian organizations tend to pose.  In short, the social demands of being a Christian “sect” may be in conflict with the ecclesial virtues of Catholicism in terms of its creedal meaning.

Noting this challenge, however, only emphasizes the problem of trying to exist as a church that has embedded within its life, in a real way, the civilly-upheld and practiced relationships of homosexual partnership, family, and pastoral leadership:  it is not clear how traditional Christian ecclesiology has a future that can be logically linked to inclusivist ecclesial existence within a pluralistic democracy.  Inclusivists, from their side, have shown little interest in trying  to explain to traditionalists how this might be possible.   Within the Anglican Communion, this failure has proven, perhaps more than anything, to be the basis for the practical and profound mistrust that traditionalists hold for inclusivists.

III. Rethinking debates

In light of these asymmetrical forms of engagement with the debated issue of sexual behavior by gay-inclusivists and traditionalists, several categories now in play within the Anglican Communion have become clearly problematic:

a.  Moratoria:

What exactly is a “moratorium”?  The word itself is based on a root that means “delay”. The word was always bound, in modern usage, to the notion of “postponement” for some purpose, usually for the resolution of a presenting problem.  In short, moratoria often imply the resumption of a practice in better times, although they need not always.

However, in the present case of asymmetrical engagements, it is obvious that a moratorium can only mean, or can at best mean a delay with the presumption of resuming a practice, since in this case, as I am arguing, the practice of gay partnerships is not logically removable from its currently rooted locale.   Although I have myself encouraged the use of the term “moratorium” around these matters over 15 years ago, I no longer believe the term is honestly practical.  At best, under the present circumstances, those traditionalist churches of the Communion who wish to articulate the actual meaning of their commitments must use the term “cessation”, in its straight-forward sense.  Otherwise, we are misleading one another.

b. “Moral Equivalence”:

This phrase has come up frequently in the current debate over moratoria of gay-inclusion on the one hand, and moratoria of cross-boundary episcopal oversight.  It is applied to the practices with respect to which the moratoria are applied:  are gay inclusion and boundary crossing “morally equivalent”, in the sense of “just as bad”?  Unfortunately, given the asymmetrical character of engagements at work, and reflected in the respective promotion of each of the practices involved, the use of this term is unhelpful.

For what has now become apparent is that one of the major elements that is at issue in the current debate is the “possibility of transformation” on the part of each party in the debate.  And because this is not equivalent, on each side, practically speaking, the notion of moratorium is not equivalent in the case of same-sex partnerships and boundary-crossing:  the one will never be extricated from the life of certain parts of the Communion, and the other is dependent on just such extrication.  Morality – degrees of goodness and badness — has nothing to do with the difference here, except in a very distant way.  It is a question of the practical referents of the terms in use with respect to “moratorium”:  one will never happen; the other might, but is linked to the impossibility of the first.

c. “Reception”:

It is by now clear that in the case of gay partnerships, families, and ordinations, “reception” of such practices as affirmable by the church would mean “rooting” them within the life of the Church. But in many parts of the Anglican Communion, due to ecclesial and civil activism and protection, these practices are already rooted. By contrast, then, non-reception would have to mean “uprooting” these already-rooted practices, which is an impossibility in the case of churches in Western societies.

One must indeed wonder whether there are a range of cases, therefore, where “reception” is really equivalent to “initiation and implementation” of a given practice, rather than a process of shared discernment.  It is possible, that is, that reception is a practically meaningful term only for certain categories of contested questions, but that it is inappropriate for other categories as a whole.   What might distinguish such categories?  The Windsor Report has provided a general discussion of this (par. 68-69) in terms of a local “development” that is, gradually over time, tested by the larger church so as to be seen or not as an “authentic” development “of the faith”. But it seems that this discussion is not sufficient:    Those Anglicans who do not accept the validity of women’s ordination would probably agree that, once initiated in one part of the Communion as taking place within a “process of reception”, women’s ordination has become, like gay partnerships in certain contexts, ineradicable – and that therefore it is not a proper object for “reception”.   To be sure, some ordained Anglican women have given up their orders in the midst of current discernment, but very few.  In any case, I am not aware of partnered gay family-members who have dissolved these relationships as a result of ecclesial discernment.

Practically, the categories of women’s ordination and gay-inclusion may not be equivalent (I do not think they are); but  this is debatable.  Still, the question as a whole is sufficiently open that I have begun to wonder if the category of “reception” in the present context of Anglicanism is now proving unhelpful.

d.  “Listening process”:

The phrase “listening process” derives from a portion of the notorious 1998 Lambeth Resolution I. 10 that asserted the Conference’s refusal to approve of homosexual partnerships, yet encouraged the church’s “listening” to the experience of homosexual people and church members.  Subsequent to this resolution, an official Communion attempt to order such a “listening process” was eventually put into play.

The official description of the Listening Process of the Communion (taken from the Anglican Communion Office website), says this:

“A listening process is an open commitment to engage actively in the world and thought of the person or people to whom you are listening and a corresponding commitment on the part of the other person or people to enter into yours. It does not presume agreement or disagreement; it presumes a striving for empathy.”  Argument and persuasion is explicitly ruled out in a “listening process”.  But where does such a process therefore lead?

It is not made clear immediately what the purpose or benefit of “empathy” is.  However, there is the assumption that some kind of “change” is likely to emerge from such listening-for-the-sake-of-empathy.  For instance, the official document goes on to say that “listening to the experience of gay and lesbian people is not primarily about shaping our theology but it may influence our theology and will change the way we proclaim the message of God’s love for the world.”  Furthermore, such listening will leave the church a different entity: it will “enrich” common life and “enable” common “mission”.

So, there is change, but no persuasion; empowerment but no conviction.  Minds are left as they are – perhaps, and certainly otherwise only by accident – but the church is “changed”.

There are obvious inherent tensions in this description. They move to a certain resolution, however, if we can bear in mind more honestly the asymmetrical engagement of the listening parties for whom the process seems aimed.  Changing one’s mind is not at issue here; arguments are not central;  there is nothing substantive, in the first instance, that needs to be learned for oneself.  Rather, “change” takes place as a by-product, and could go in all kinds of directions.  The “listening process”, then, is not a pragmatist forum for getting closer somehow to a consensual, if contingent, truth.  It is about emotional sympathy more than anything.

And that is fine, as long as it is understood as such.  The inclusivist “facts on the ground” are not up for grabs in “listening”, because no learning is presumed by the process that could overturn these facts.  Rather, all we can hope for is that we should be more adept at feeling the other person’s experience.  And to what end?  To make interaction less troubled.  More positively, perhaps, to learn to love more.

And this is a worthy, indeed a deeply worthy, goal.  It is so precisely because the current debate has devolved, too often and in a prolonged way now, into postures of hostility that sully the face of Christ. But if learning to love more deeply is the goal of the Listening Process, and if persuasion, argument, openness to learning and change of conviction are not the goal, we must wonder if talking and reports and (frankly argumentative) published essays of different viewpoints themselves are but an ancillary element in a broader imperative:  to love each other more, we must engage one another, live with and for each other.  Indeed, it could be argued that a listening process that presumes that the asymmetrical logics of inclusivists and traditionalists must simply stand side by side, as acceptable “facts” of ecclesial existence is exactly a recipe for an unbalanced discussion, since its presumption is one that accepts a dynamic that must move only in one direction.

Frankly, the Listening Process thus far has had its power to teach love constricted from the start, not perhaps of its own steam but because it is embedded in a set of ecclesial relationships that themselves are embedded as unequal adversaries of engagement.   Indeed, it is a fact that the failure to prosecute or receive the Listening Process is a topic that inclusivists constantly return to as an accusation against traditionalists,  a proof used against them that they are in fact recalcitrant hypocrites who refuse to learn anything new despite being urged  by Lambeth (so inclusivsits argue)  to do so.  The very nature of “talking” has been rendered incoherent at an ecclesial level in this context.

How might some modest, but valuable, engagement in learning to love more deeply through common engagement take place that goes beyond the distrust that words have now so broadly engendered in our Communion?  I suggest a simple goal, one that also coheres with pertinent Lambeth resolutions and subsequent Communion commitments:  that for the moment the “listening process” seek one end only, viz. learning of homosexual needs in face of civil violence and mistreatment in concrete instances and responding to such mistreatment as a church.  Clearly there is a sense that this is needed in many places within the Communion, and this goal requires steady work. (It should be noted, however, that even this goal is now fraught with potential misunderstandings, since civil “mistreatment” in the eyes of many inclusivists involves refusal to affirm and protect homosexual marriage, adoption, and families as a legal norm, something that traditionalists themselves understand as contributory to the church’s present disintegration.)

But if this, or some such concrete engagement is to be the goal of listening, it should be stated as such and the process should not be allowed to press for other ends that mislead, then disappoint, and finally contribute to anger, cynicism, and further hostility.  In fact, if “listening” is presented as an unproblematic engagement of parties within the church whose commitments and practices are somehow a “given”, then the sheer inequality of their postures in this matter must inevitably overwhelm the balance required for actual communication.

e.  Public/private teaching:

Asymmetrical logics here have made it difficult to gauge the integrity of those whose openness to discussion and learning does not fit the demands of inclusivist immovability.  Indeed, the very character of openness is now viewed by all as intrinsically traitorous of moral virtue. The example of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who can entertain questions and probing ideas, but wishes to uphold the actual public teaching and discipline of the church, has become paradigmatic:  it now assumed that such a balancing of views must indicate hyposcrisy, cowardice, or both.  The assumption, however, is quite wrong:  it is precisely because he knows that the rooting of gay inclusion in the practice of the church ossifies positions, first and primarily among gay inclusivists, and second, in reaction and through rejection on the part of traditionalists, that he is unwilling simply to allow space for “incarnational discernment”.  Once rooted, discussion is destroyed.

IV. Orderly Separation?

Asymmetrical and unequal logics are deeply pernicious, and are in themselves destructive of the Church.  They undermine catholic diversities, even for those who value them.  Certainly, they ruin the coherence of shared language, practice, and public formation and, through all these things, of Christian witness.

But the asymmetrical engagements and practical logics of gay inclusivists and traditionalists within the Anglican Communion are now a matter of record, and plain for all to see.  Furthermore, this very asymmetry of logics, as it is embraced by churches, is contributing to the incoherence of traditional ecclesial existence.  Can an Anglican Communion that has in fact affirmed itself as a “traditional” ecclesial entity in its teaching, discipline, and witness over matters of sexual and family life maintain this affirmation in the face of such an embrace of incoherence?

The Bishop of Winchester, the Rt. Rev. Michael Scott-Joynt, recently aroused comment when he suggested that, post-Lambeth Conference, the means for an “orderly separation” betweem Anglican churches who stand opposed to the practice of gay inclusion who do not, be devised and pursued:  “I continue to see a negotiated ‘orderly separation’ as the best and most fruitful way forward for the Anglican Communion. The experience of this Lambeth Conference […] has again convinced me that the Anglican Communion cannot hold in tension convictions and practices that are incompatible, and so not patent of ‘reconciliation’, without continuing seriously to damage the life and witness of Anglican Churches”.    It was this reference to “orderly separation” that struck many as significant, coming as it did, not from the bigoted reactionary that some have wrongly made him out to be, but from a bishop who has steadfastly stood for and offered witness on behalf of the imperative and blessings of ecclesial Communion among Anglicans.  His admission that such an “orderly separation” may be necessary at this time is significant because, in fact, he has worked hard for unity and believes in it.  It is this kind of admission that should spur us to hard thinking.

Indeed, I do not want such a separation. I pray against it’s demand.  It is not something that I think our Lord confronts, in his own heart, with anything but sorrow.  But I agree that the sheer practical dynamics of the situation we are now in may well uphold Bp. Scott-Joynt’s views.  It is not so much that the Lord will weep, but that even now He is weeping.

What, therefore, shall we do?  I offer the following conclusions – as well as the preceding reflections – not to attack current directions being followed by Communion leaders and offices of various persuasions, but rather to point out the need to face challenges that have become increasingly visible.

At the least:

We must allow our categories of discussion, policy, and strategy as a Communion (and hopefully within member churches) to reflect and respond to the reality we confront:

  • there should be no more use of the term “moratorium”;  instead, clear directives need to be stated
  • “moral equivalence” must disappear as qualifier or anti-qualifier,  in favor of simple descriptive demands that are bound to the realities of each context and approached on their own terms:  the notion that the practices of gay inclusion and boundary-crossing are logically analogous issues is false
  • The ecclesial-theological category of  “reception” should be rethought – not thrown out as a concept, perhaps, but taken back to the drawing board of theological discussion;  it is not ready for full deployment at this time and in relation to same-sex experience
  • the Listening Process should be focused solely on the achievement of civil security for homosexuals in places where this is not yet a reality
  • we should realize and accept the fact that it is possible to hold inquiring views about controverted matters and necessary at the same time to maintain the public teaching of the church with respect to common discipline.

These may seem to be minor points of language.  In fact, however, the right use of language both signals and, as it directs practice, embodies realities whose proper apprehension clarifies calling.

But what shall we say of “orderly separation”?  Such a separation of parties – leaving aside its shape — may be necessary, if the integrity of language, practice, formation and witness is to be maintained, even with clarity of concepts and categories restored.  That separation is not to be prayed for as an end in itself;   but the means needs to be soberly formulated and allowed to be used so that the firm embrace of asymmetrical logics can find its resolution in coherent lives that no longer threaten common dissolution.  In fact, it could be argued that any church needs to have as part of its ecclesial polity some means within it either to resolve such asymmetrical logics or to disentangle them from its common life.

It may be that separation is not to be desired; it may be that it is not inevitable, in the sense that nothing determines its integral imposition upon the Communion, except finally individual and collective desire.  But it now looks as if separation is simply necessary, not historically so much as logically and morally.  A more adequate vocabulary that takes the place of “moratoria,” “reception”, “listening”, and so on makes this logical necessity plain by showing the conditions of coherence.     And the survival of catholic Christianity makes plain the moral necessity of such orderly separation by demonstrating the demands of one logic over the other.  It is separation that preserves Anglicanism as a Catholic form of Christianity.

Some have suggested that the Covenant and the process leading to its adoption would, of itself, if not deliberately at least as a matter of course, provide the “orderliness” by which a separation, if needed, could indeed unfold.  If it is to be the Covenant and its process, this indicates that we must not fear the kind of clarity and accessible steps of implementation that would allow for such differentiation if that is indeed the end towards which the present logics turn out to be moving.  This is a key realization:  for if such fears drive the Covenant process, the destructive dynamics of the present situation will surely prevail.  A Covenant that makes clear that diversity has its limits and attaches consequences for violation of those limits preserves Communion while holding open the possibility of reconciliation.

And if the Covenant is not to allow this, for deliberate reasons as to its purpose and shape, then some other means must be devised if the end is finally proved to be desirable. I believe that this challenge must now be accepted, even among those who have spoken clearly against any Covenant that has the capacity to disentangle our current cross-purposes:   if not this, then what?  If one leaves things as they are, in some belief that “this is how it must be” one has succumbed to a dumb fatalism.  If one insists only on ad hoc adjustments or deals struck between dispersed individual congregations and bishops, this will end in the dissolution of communion as Catholic integrality.  The alternatives of doing nothing or of positively encouraging the current of spontaneous disintegration and dissolution continue to move in the same direction: profound Christian incoherence.  And in Scriptural language this is described in terms of “double-mindedness”, as James puts it, or finally, of the duplicity that comes from the failure to say “yes, yes” and “no, no”.  It is a failure, as Jesus says, that “comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37).

September 09 2008 03:23 pm | Articles