The Marriage Taskforce and the Balkan Solution

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Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

In what follows I do not intend to respond to the Taskforce on Marriage’s theological papers. The papers deserve such a response, but not here. Rather, I wish to respond to the Taskforce Report on basis of its canonical proposal and its implied approach to the Church’s decision-making, both of which I believe are seriously deficient and potentially harmful to our church’s common life and future witness. I will argue that the Taskforce not only avoids the deep disagreement within the church over the matter of marriage, but stokes that disagreement. And I will conclude that General Convention should reject the Taskforce’s proposal, and do so on the basis of seeking a more generalized and negotiated “peace” within the church.

First, I need to say why I believe that Taskforce’s proposal will stoke division, rather than heal it. While I do not wish to evaluate the theological essays of the Report, I do need to say something about Theology at this point. But that is only in order to get to the question of the canonical proposal itself, and its form within a conflicted church such as ours.

And our church is conflicted, precisely on the matter of sexuality and marriage. The Taskforce Report seems to demonstrate no interest in this reality. Most significant for my argument here is the fact that there is little to no engagement in the essays with classical views on marriage and sexuality. Such classical views are held by many, if perhaps not a majority (as in the church’s long history) within TEC; it is fair to say they are held by most in the Anglican Communion. These classical views, furthermore, have generated a fair amount of scholarly and popular discussion. Oliver O’Donovan? Christopher Roberts? Scholars like these are simply not engaged. The Taskforce’s Report, that is, represents a fundamentally single point of view.

While I am decidedly critical of this, I am also well aware of the strategic attractiveness of having such a single point of view inform the Report. The last time the House of Bishops tried to get a commission to talk about sexuality – not that long ago, in fact (2011) – it issued in two reports, not one. That is, there was no agreement within the commission. In this, the House of Bishops Theology Committee was more representative of the church, both today and in time. But the result was that there was no common recommendation for TEC to follow. The Commission’s work was thus impractical.

And as things stand, such a bifurcated report was inevitable. There are today, after all, two decisively different theological presuppositions at work regarding Scripture that inform our views about sexuality and marriage. I will call them the “historicist” and “classical” approaches. The Taskforce adopts a historicist reading of Scripture. Classical interpretation, in comparison, has not made historicism its fundamental lens in reading Scripture, but has relied instead primarily on categories like the Word of God, canon, unity, tradition, scope, end and purpose.

The historicist reflex at work in the Report is most evident in – not surprisingly – the Taskforce essay on “the history of marriage”. In that essay, the approach made to Scripture is one that mirrors its approach to cultural practices: it focuses on change, cultural diversity and so on, with the implied hermeneutic of difference and inevitable development. (A classical reader of the Bible might respond to this by saying: compare, by contrast, the scriptures’ own account of history in the movement across Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, where the reality of “development” is problematic at best; or in the ebbing and flowing of church history itself.) Although the Taskforce essay on the Bible does not deal directly with these matters, the historicist presuppositions are at work, and largely rule out a discussion of those texts that the classical tradition generally engages. One need only ask the question: would the essay on scripture and marriage written by the Taskforce be even vaguely comprehensible, let alone acceptable, to any Jew or Christian between the year 0 and 1960?

The answer is surely “no”. That is because, until recently, the meanings of these texts were not open to the developmentalism of interpretation the Taskforce writers reflexively assume. Instead, until only recently, these texts were interpreted within what interpreters would have said is a stable set of coherent meanings. These include the realities of sexual difference, generation, homosexual behavior, and the rest that are in fact dealt with in the Bible, but are left out of extended discussion by the Taskforce due to its historicist assumptions (e.g. they are relics of a past practice, historical data to be mined archaeologically, or subject to the testimony of new local experience in the West and so on.) Thus, demotion by the Taskforce of procreation as an “essential” element of marriage (let alone assuming that marriage and ethics are not a “core” aspect of Christian truth), is something that could not be suggested except within an historicist outlook: what once was essential and core, no longer is; the times have changed.

The classical tradition, to be sure, is also aware of historical change and difference; and would agree that the Taskforce is certainly right to point out varieties of marriage practice in this or that place and culture. But, in contrast with the Taskforce’s approach, classical Christian readers of the Bible have instead suggested that the Scriptural accounts, as much in their silences about current topics as in their positive statements, will always form a stable touchstone of accountability to these diverse practices and movements we see in history. The contingent elements of this diverse practice must always be judged by just that touchstone, whatever their seeming acceptance for this or that period. The process of applying this touchstone has, of course, been contested here and there. But rarely – except perhaps in the Jovinian controversy of the 4th century, and with lamentable results – have such debates revealed the vast chasms of opinion that we see today. That is largely because there was indeed a stable set of meanings that were attributed to Scripture’s discussion of marriage, and these were viewed as divinely organized and so trans-historical. And the stability of these meanings was a feature of Scripture as a divine “oracle”, as many described it. The oracular character of Scripture – and I deliberately use a somewhat provocative word here, at least for modern ears – would have prevented the kinds of interpretations of Genesis 1 and 2 that the Taskforce takes up, largely because the gendered figures of Adam and Eve were seen as, in themselves, revelatory of “essential” human purpose, rather than as symbols open to changing historical and cultural referents. Even the modernist term ‘myth’ rising up within the welter of historicism at least sought to hold on to a frame of reference open to eternity and transcendent truth through time.

I am not evaluating these two presuppositions, although I am obviously oriented by the classical tradition, and value it more than its alternative. But my purpose is to underline the fact that the historicist and classical assumptions are antithetical, at least in their broad approach: each says “reality works this way”, but the two ways are not congruent. The classical approach simply has a very different account of history altogether.

So here we come to my main question: What to do with a church that has within its membership (and leadership) such incongruent approaches to a deeply contested issue? Kevin Ward, in his response to the 2011 House of Bishops report explicitly raised this question. Curiously, the Taskforce gives little attention to it. And, in fact, churches as a whole have, in the past, had little to say about such challenges, outside of embracing the dynamics of power politics. But if not with respect to churches, there has nonetheless been much attention given to the question of vying basic commitments within political and social contexts. Over the last century especially, indeed in just the last few decades, political challenges dealing with divided groups, including nations, have taken up enormous energies, study, and practice. The church can learn from this body of experience and research. I wish it would.

There are various responses that political leaders have taken to incongruent beliefs within a single society. I will list four of the major ones.

  1. Negotiation: The two “incongruent” sides engage in an arbitrated process of ongoing negotiation that respects and protects each set of beliefs, but requires some kind of interlocking activity in order to move forward. This kind of negotiation, which includes some form of dialogue, but also deliberative decision-making, is usually time-limited, though rarely rushed. It generally requires someone leading or facilitating the conversation, who has the authority to press the conversation in this or that direction, shuttle between parties when discussion becomes difficult, and offer proposals for going forward. More importantly, such negotiation has a goal, even if its form is not predetermined: living together without open conflict or confrontation. This kind of negotiation is well-known from the Arusha peace-process for Burundi, in Africa. (It is worth considering, however, why an earlier Agreement for Rwanda failed disastrously. It has to do with the parties’ actual motives.)
  2. Dialogue: The two sides talk face to face until something changes. This has tended to be the model used when there is no pressing need to arrest destructive dynamics, or where there is little hope of immediate change within those dynamics. There are different views about how such dialogue should proceed. One emerging judgment, with which I agree, is that “agonistic” dialogue is, where it can be pursued, preferable to a consensus-seeking project, which often tends to have one group coopted by the other. “Agonistic” dialogue assumes that the hardest questions and passions will be laid on the table, engaged, and gone after openly and with whatever stress this might imply, short of conflict. But there can be no pre-determined end game to this kind of dialogue. It requires open-ended time available. Thus, it is usually deployed successfully only after some kind of negotiated form of life is put in place. In South Africa, these kinds of dialogues follow after certain political agreements have been reached.
  3. Amicable separation. A good example of this is the Czecho-Slovakian solution to the tensions of remaining a single or federated state after the fall of Communism. Intense negotiations were held throughout 1992, at different stages, to make this possible. There were numerous differences between the Czech and Slovak peoples and their history, economy, and commitments (including religious commitments). Once it was decided to separate, the issue was how to make this happen peacefully. But the latter negotiations were driven by the common commitment to peaceful separation. It worked precisely because of these common goals.
  4. Enforced unity. We could call this the Balkan solution. Instead of any of the three paths noted above, the Balkan solution insists on maintaining a given common social entity – e.g. Yugoslavia or Greater Serbia – even as this goal overrides the very different commitments (religious, national, economic, political, etc.) of many within the common social space. This insistence on unity, upheld by sanctions of various kinds, leads to war, exile, or migration – i.e. conflict or exit. We are all too familiar with the Balkan solution in this regard.

Let us be clear what the Taskforce’s approach entails in political terms: it is (d.), the Balkan Solution. The erasure of alternative views, and the proposal for a canonical change that will demand church-wide acceptance in dioceses, is one of enforced unity.

To be sure, the Taskforce does not speak explicitly to any of this. But the change of canon – the only concrete element in the Report – seeks to define (rather arbitrarily and counter-intuitively, in my view) the meaning of specific words in the Book of Common Prayer (and hence of Scripture itself, which the Prayer Book cites). The words “man and woman” and “husband and wife”, which will remain in both Scripture and Prayer Book, will now signify to Episcopalians “two people” or “two persons”.

First, this represents an imposition of linguistic transformation by fiat, demanding that very particular words that mean one thing in customary usage and traditional interpretive habit, will now mean another. (The change is very different, in this regard, from the understanding of “man” as including “male and female”, something that biblical usage itself engages, let alone normal English usage.) Second, this change deliberately opens the door to church-wide same-sex marriage rites; that is the stated purpose of the canonical change. Third, the change will as well open the door to the potential for attempts at nullifying diocesan and episcopal jurisdiction on the matter, and will significantly alter traditional notions of episcopal authority. Fourth, given that one conscience clause allowing priests to refuse to marry a couple on the basis of their individual views of the matter is left in “tension” with another existing canon that forbids discrimination on the basis of sexuality, the canonical change also opens the door to disciplinary and perhaps legal challenge to individual clergy who maintain classical views about Christian marriage. Finally, the proposal dispenses with the notions of consultation or mutual decision-making, especially at the Communion level: the proposal has not been shared systematically with Anglican bishops around the world, or with other representatives from international Anglican or ecumenical partners, and the few months that remain before GC cannot come close to providing an adequate time for response to the Report now released. Whatever “Christian communion” might have meant in the past, the Taskforce has made a decision about TEC autonomy that is decisive: we will simply go forward in the face of Anglican and ecumenical opposition elsewhere.

I believe that we need to be clear about the trajectory of this approach to divided views. Within the church, the Balkan solution has consequences that are analogous to those experienced by political societies where it has been adopted: conflict, litigation, disciplinary disputes, and exit. This is not idle speculation. In fact, each of these elements is already well-established in TEC’s profile over the past 15 years, a period in which litigation, disputed discipline, significant exit of membership, estrangement of relations with many other Anglican churches, and finally a general contraction of resources has piled up. In this respect, the Taskforce is expressing an established habit of thinking and acting, rather than pondering it critically. It is reflecting the past, not the future. And its Balkan solution must be seen as potentially another push in the direction of our church’s conflicted dissolution.

Are there alternatives? Personally, I believe that (a.) is a more productive line to pursue at this point: arbitrated and formalized negotiation between estranged groups within the church, and between TEC and other Anglican churches. This kind of path was sought in the Dar es Salaam agreement of 2007, followed by the Windsor Continuation Group’s work. But neither the agreement nor the follow-up were well-explained, promoted, or supported, and the proposal had obvious holes. But it is time for Canterbury and others – like General Convention itself — to step up to the plate, drawing into negotiated engagement TEC leadership from within, and then moving from TEC to ACNA and Gafcon from without. These are complicated tasks. But if they can be accomplished by secular entities as at Arusha, they can surely be accomplished among Christians (!).

Meanwhile, I would hope that General Convention, in its two houses, will reject the Taskforce’s proposal, and instead consider keeping the “provisional” status of those rites it now has on paper, which I recognize are not simply going to disappear, while pressing for the kind of negotiations from within and without that I have suggested. That seems both reasonable and fair, given our currently incongruent beliefs. As for the Taskforce itself? I encourage it to rethink its approach, if not formally since its Report is already out, then as individuals capable of admitting to the serious limitations of its work and proposals.

February 11 2015 09:23 am | Articles