This article was written in June 2003. It was originally commissioned by The Tablet, but was then overrun by events. I am substantially re-working it for a booklet to be edited by Huw Spanner for Ekklesia. It was penned before Canon Jeffrey John’s enforced withdrawal from the C of E Bishopric of Reading (though that outcome was, sadly, what I anticipated), and also before the furore over the election of Canon Gene Robinson to be the ECUSA Bishop of New Hampshire. My good wishes and prayers go to both of them. I am publishing this piece, which was privately circulated in July, at the suggestion of several friends and colleagues, and in a spirit of encouraging open discourse. Readers may also like to visit InclusiveChurch.Net, and my earlier piece on sexuality, Towards Communion. I would describe the article below (along with a number I have written recently) as ‘theological journalism’ rather than journalism or theology as such. This genre has evident weaknesses, but I hope it contributes fruitfully to a difficult (and often bitter) discussion.The piece has now been widely circulated in Australia and the US.
What shape will the Anglican Communion and the Church of England be in after the anger and division surrounding the nomination of Canon Dr Jeffrey John as suffragan Bishop of Reading in the Diocese of Oxford? And what is the significance of this crisis, if such it is, for the wider Christian community? No one involved in or witnessing the current dispute over what is badly referred to as ‘the gay bishop affair’ (The Mirror) can seriously doubt that the repercussions will be long and deep. But is there any hope to be found?
Calmer voices among the Archbishop of Canterbury’s staff at Lambeth Palace, and at Church House, the Church of England’s administrative headquarters, are not unaware of the immediate distorting impact of intense press media coverage. But they also know that, even when the more lurid headlines and superficial journalistic analyses have receded, public scrutiny remains. In an inescapably information-driven society, the media’s hall of mirrors will continue to exert pressure upon what many would still prefer to be private griefs and resentments. So there is no running away.
At present official Church policy is one of restraint and containment. But this cannot be more than a stopgap, and in some respects (as with the current attempt to keep ‘the homosexual issue’ off the agenda at the forthcoming General Synod meeting in York) it may well prove counter-productive. That which people seek to avoid or delay frequently has a habit of revisiting them in even less ‘controllable’ guises. This is especially so in an environment where those denied a voice in the open counsels of the Church will discover a ready pulpit in the following morning’s paper, particularly if they are tempted to sensationalise or simplify enough.
The measured, thoughtful and prayerful tones of Archbishop Rowan Williams are naturally a great asset at a time when disturbance and overreaction is widespread. But Dr Williams knows that his own position, and that of his office, continues to be deeply and unenviably conflicted. If he intervenes directly there will be upset within one tendency or another inside the Church. If he does not intervene those who wish to use his office’s substantial influence to resolve the situation may accuse him of vacillation. This in spite of the fact that the bishopric of Reading is, strictly speaking (and whether we like it or not), a matter between the Bishop of Oxford and the Queen.
Dr Williams is also aware that many among the significant minority who object to Canon John’s appointment are only grudgingly accommodated to his own tenure in the See of Canterbury. Attempts to distinguish between his official role as guardian of the Church’s unity and teaching and his personal opinions on the legitimacy of reconciling faithful gay and lesbian relationships within the traditions and texts of the Church are, for those most bitterly opposed to such a possibility, barely satisfactory.
A small minority even contemplate that the present dispute will escalate to a point of conflict that could dislodge Dr Williams himself. This may appear astonishing to those outside the Church of England for whom the Archbishop is a moderate, imaginative and attractive figure. But it is, sadly, hard to underestimate the level of vituperation present in some quarters of the Church at the moment. This is a reality which, though largely unnoticed where the anger is hottest, perhaps constitutes an even greater threat to the appeal and integrity of the Gospel in the world than the theological matters it purports to be about.
It is hard to see that there is any way of squaring these particular circles procedurally or administratively. And that may be a peculiar but essential blessing, for two major reasons. First, because of the hopeful irony that, in the absence of any absolute mechanism for imposing control within the 70 million strong Anglican Communion, Dr Williams’ personal and manifest integrity, learning and humility are – in spite of, or perhaps because of, their political vulnerability – among the most potent resources for helping the Church to face up to itself.
Second, because any long-term attempt to manoeuvre or legislate dissent and argument away would constitute a deeply unhelpful avoidance of the underlying issues that the current conflict partly reveals and substantially disguises. These issues are about culture, identity and security; the use of scripture and tradition in the Church; the question of authority in Anglicanism; the overall impact of the globalisation of faith; the nature of ecumenical and interfaith relationships, and the integrity of the Church in the world.
If we look at these in turn we will also see that one way or another, they each concern the overall relationship of Anglican theology, mission and pastoral practice to contemporary thought in a plural, fast-changing world. Put another way, they are about the very meaning and coherence of Anglicanism. No wonder the genie will not go back into the bottle!
For those most convinced that it is core theological truth that is centrally at stake in the matter of whether the Church of England authorises high-level ministry for persons deemed ‘practicing homosexuals’ (or indeed for those who advocate acceptance of faithful lesbian and gay relationships as a Christian lifestyle), ‘culture, identity and security’ would not be top of the list of concerns. But they might turn out to be a key part of the foundations.
Without necessarily reducing different opinions to a mere by-product of personal experience, it is clearly important to recognise that sexuality is the domain in which human vulnerabilities, joys, anxieties, desires, confusions and delights are most puzzlingly, wonderfully and threateningly conjoined. We live in a highly sexualised public society, yet paradoxically this erodes our capacity to speak with honesty, tenderness and compassion about sex.
In the Church of England and in other churches the wounds associated with the commodification and hubris surrounding sexuality in consumer culture are intensified by the way in which prescriptions designed to reinforce patterns of faithfulness that model the Gospel are caught up both in the theological debates about appropriate forms of relating, and in an ‘internal’ culture of secrecy, evasion and blame. Though the religious and cultural issues look very different in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Pacific, Latin America, the Caribbean, similar patterns of pressures exist in the churches there too – arguably even more intensely.
The specific prevailing atmosphere within the Church of England is something that is most difficult to speak about openly and honestly. Yet it impacts all concerned. For example, many who sympathise with Archbishop Williams’ personal belief that the question about whether and how the tradition of the Church might support a legitimate modification of its historic positions on homosexuality feel unable to say so openly. Some who take a different view feel that they are being harried by what they perceive as ‘political correctness’. Others who publicly condemn lesbian and gay partnerships privately tolerate or overlook other kinds of ‘extra-marital relationship’ for cultural and pragmatic reasons, but rarely admit it.
By the same token, Episcopal policies vary in practice, whatever is said at an institutional level. And, for primarily political reasons, people on both sides of the argument about the Bishop of Reading make public statements that sometimes seem to be rather contrived versions of what they actually believe themselves. There is a danger here of what John Kenneth Galbraith has called ‘institutional truth’ displacing personal integrity.
As for Canon John: he has been forced by circumstances (and those who engineer them, knowingly and otherwise) into personal revelations and statements which would be regarded as little short of barbaric in most other walks of life. For it is hardly a normal feature of recruitment to public office in the world today that people should have to declare when they last had sex, to promise that they will never be intimate with a life-long partner again, and to disavow the tenor of past writings.
The fact that such inconsistencies and humiliations can be justified with reference to the uniqueness of Episcopal office, standards of behaviour, the distinction between the private and public realms, or the norms of the ecclesial culture in which they are deployed, does not in itself make them right, healthy or helpful – let alone Christian. At the very least there is material for serious soul-searching here.
It is perhaps unfair to put yet further expectations on the already overburdened Archbishop of Canterbury. But he is a person of psychological as well as theological insight, and he may yet be able to help the Church of England (and the wider Communion) to hold up a mirror to itself so that it might perceive some features of its own present identity which are frankly unpalatable. A further way of doing this might be a revisiting of key themes in the Church of England’s own report on families and relationships, Something to Celebrate.
This is not a purely pragmatic prescription. It also relates to the core of faith. When Jesus reminded his followers that ‘the truth will set you free’, he undoubtedly had in mind something more than a simple facing of facts. But no truth, let alone that of the Word made flesh, can transform us unless we are able to take that particular step as part of a process of ongoing change into the likeness and will of Christ.
Here is an important bridge that links the questions of personal security, identity and culture to the more formal issues stated or implied by current arguments about sexuality: one that suggests the need to look at familiar problems in a radically new light.
Authority, for example, is not primarily about the ability to impose upon the Church doctrinally defined resolutions to ethical dilemmas. God’s revelation in Christ is personal (and personally vulnerable) before it is encoded in formulas. The grammar of faith embedded in tradition is vital in sustaining the continuity and transmission of faith, but it is never the final word. Its function is to point towards the Word, not to subsume it. That is why, within the search for true catholicity, the Anglican Communion has continued to emphasise its provisionality and to decline authoritarianism.
Likewise, while the Bible remains foundational within Anglicanism, it has always been interpreted differently. This is not just a product of varying contexts (Christianity, being about God’s incarnation is always contextual but never exhausted by context); it is a product of the diversity of scripture itself. The reason the homosexuality debate tests the functioning and interpretation of the Bible to its limits right now is that the boundary between what is given and what is negotiable in all this is itself subject to disagreement, and because incompatible interpretative methods (some of which do not even see themselves as methods, but simply as ‘what the Bible says’) are being deployed. It may be that the only longer term ‘solution’ here is the creation of a global dialogue on the use of scripture in the contemporary world.
On the question of unity, there are several fundamental challenges. One is that the unity to which the Anglican Communion is called is not simply with itself, but the unity-in-mission which it needs, with and alongside other Christian traditions, to fulfil the task of witness and service in a world that is divided, diverse and demanding. This means that the significance of what it does is not just a question of its own ecclesiology but has a direct impact on its ecumenical, inter-religious, and missionary engagements.
To put the matter bluntly, some people are asking, “What will evangelicals, Roman Catholics and Muslims say if we appoint a ‘gay Bishop’”. Equally, others ask, “What will our secular neighbours say if we don’t?” Which relations are most important and why is also a disputed matter. It is clear that, whatever it does, the Church cannot ‘win’ in a game of diplomacy. So it would be best not to ‘play’. The matter has to be handled in other ways.
Those who believe that truth is ultimately best served by separation are likely to take that path if things do not go their way, while blaming others for the problem. The Archbishop will no doubt continue to encourage them to stay in communion while arguing their case. He will openly acknowledge that the weight of the tradition, though never static, is with them in some respects – though perhaps less than they think in others. What he cannot finally do is to allow the debate to be derailed or determined by threats from any quarter, or by those who have the most money and power. That would be the most disastrous compromise of the nature of the Gospel.
A further difficult question is the role of the Church of England in the Anglican Communion as a whole. It is, problematically, the only established church within global Anglicanism. It seeks partnership not dependency. In a post-Christendom world it is a minority among minorities in fact, if not in outlook. It cannot and should not act in disregard for others. But, equally, it cannot compromise the degree of autonomy exercised by the different Provinces without imperilling the highly fragile balancing act that constitutes the existence of the Communion in the first place. Nor can it resort to some imperial fix.
The challenge again is to reframe the problem, to use the difficulty as an occasion to re-examine positively the nature of the unity we seek. In reality a Church in which a major central London parish has effectively opted out of diocesan and archepiscopal jurisdiction and in which ‘alternative oversight’ is increasingly readily sought is already divided. The threat, therefore, is not future division but the failure to acknowledge it as part of the present picture.
The ways forward here are perhaps more spiritual and theological in character. That is, they need to be formed in hearts before the right institutional form can be discovered. It would be helpful to be reminded that the Body of Christ is a communion of difference seeking to be formed around the crucified and risen Lord who offers us life but forbids us ownership. Rather than suppressing disagreement (even fundamental disagreement) or splitting off from one another, divided Anglicans might instead ask themselves how this truth can be rediscovered hopefully in the midst of disagreement.
“How will people outside the church know, by the way we disagree, that we are committed to Jesus Christ and to a domination-free kingdom of God that offers hope and life to all?” That is the missionary question that needs to be re-instated at the heart of our conversations and arguments. It is one that the Bishop-elect of Reading and those who wish for another kind of Bishop can and should be part of. It reminds us that, as Church, we belong not to ourselves but to the God who is poured out in Christ and through the Spirit for the healing of a suffering world.
There are those who suggest that the imperative of mission requires that we suspend argument and refuse any action which might further it. But is that not a recipe for fear rather than faith, for inertia rather than mission? Can we expect anyone to take the Gospel of unity seriously if we cannot face up to our divided ourselves and to our divided world without shrinking away?
Equally, can the Anglican communion really accept the account of some in its midst that the question of homosexuality is a uniquely Western problem, that there are no substantial arguments for the legitimate theological development of our thinking in this area which are not merely ‘liberal compromises’, and that the matter can be resolved by a simple majority? The truth is surely more complex, demanding and hopeful than this caricature suggests.
This brings us to the foundational question of how, exactly, the Church should engage the contemporary world, and on what terms defined by whom. One small comment might be helpful on this massive issue, which is perhaps the central theological nerve exposed by the ‘gay argument’.
For too long disagreements throughout the churches have revolved around a profoundly unhelpful dominant paradigm, that of ‘liberal versus conservative’. According to who you believe, this paradigm suggests either that that the Christian world is divided between sane rationalists and fanatical fundamentalists, or else between faithless compromisers and true believers. Such a controlling framework prevents people from looking at other possibilities and often seriously misrepresents the reality it seeks to describe. Its convenience is that it allows those who wish to characterise ‘the division’ in such simplistic terms to continue to get away with it.
But if we can begin to ‘think outside the box’ of our received prejudices, perhaps the ‘homosexuality debate’, or argument, or conversation – it does not have to be one of these alone – is not so hopeless after all. Maybe instead of leading Christians down the paths of control, condemnation and conflict it can enable us to re-examine who we are, what we are and (above all) whose we are? We may feel weary and sceptical. But we must above all dare to know that the living God is as much on the other side of the Rubicon as on this one.
Simon Barrow is an ecumenist and theologian. He is an Anglican writing in a personal capacity.