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IN A WORD

It was George Bernard Shaw who said that the British and Americans are divided by a common language. As my friend Bishop Whalon points out “scheme” means something quite different to an American than to a Briton. One might say that we are all divided by our pre-conceived notions concerning what lies behind the use of words placed together to convey or perhaps obfuscate meaning.

These considerations are very much to the fore as we seek to evaluate the answers our bishops recently provided to the primates particularly on the subject of who may or who may not be elected and consecrated a bishop and whether priests may bless same-sex couples. In a real sense these are “new” concerns about ideas our parents or grandparents never considered. They never considered such issues because few people if any thought about either subject. It is not that they perhaps held strong religious convictions on these subjects. Asking my grandfather whether two people of the same gender might be married would have been on the order of asking him whether he was in favor of the internet or blogs! Knowing my grandfathers, or at least one of them, asking whether a person who habitually had sex with someone to whom he was not married might be appointed a bishop would have elicited rude remarks about his doubts about the sexual nature of clergy. He probably subscribed to the three sex theory: there are three sexes, men, women and clergy.

Now mere novelty is no ground for rejection, although given the conservative nature of a goodly proportion of human beings, it is a natural reaction in those who are born “a little conservatIVE,” rather than “a little liberal,” as W.S. Gilbert reminded us: yes the chap with Sullivan. Novelty can also mean some idea which is recent and has yet to be tested fully. A blog run by people who do not head my fan club recently posted a poll asking whether they would change their minds on the above subjects if the Anglican Communion came out in favor of both, or if, in twenty years the three major branches of Christendom so did. Might even a doubter say yes? Similar questions were posed to those opposed to the ordination of women when the matter came to the vote in TEC thirty years ago. Many hedged their bets by suggesting that if a General Council of the whole Chuch approved the ordination of women they would obey. The likelihood of such a Council is so remote that the question is safe. Not in my lifetime but perhaps in God’s lifetime; or not?

In such contexts Anglicanism in pursuit of its destiny to comprehend often seeks ways to remain old-fashioned while giving a glimmer of hope to those who style themselves “progressive.” Framing such a policy often demands a good deal of verbal dexterity of the sort which produces a frisson of horror among the precise, who hate compromise as the policy of the devil in hell, and who are certain they are on the Lord’s side. Anglicanism has never been a comfortable place fo the rigorists unless they were able to huddle in a party ghetto and forget that the rest of the church existed.

Even so I find myself uneasy with two linguistic devices used by the bishops in seeking to frame a response to the Primates which would be satisfactory and yet preserve the hope of progressives, those who believe that not only doctrine develops but so do our bedroom habits.

On the matter of the ordination and consecration of bishops the text, following the earlier reply from GC 2006 urges bishops to “exercise restraint” in not giving consent to the election of persons whose lifestyles are controversial, and in a commentary, those who are gay and lesbian living in non celibate unions are specifically mentioned. Now what does “exercise renstraint” mean? Does it mean, as the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates judges, that the bishops will restrain themselves by not giving consent or does it mean that the bishops will restrain themselves by not giving consent to perhaps most elections of this sort? Why were the words “exercise restraint” used? Is it a pat on the back saying, look how disciplined we are going to be?, or is it a loophole? Or does it merely act as a code to say to gay and lesbian people, look we still love you?

Again, what does it mean when the bishops say that they will not authorize “public” liturgies and blessings for same-sex unions? Does it mean that they will not authorize same sex-blessings of an ad hoc nature at which extempore prayer is used, or will not authorize same sex blessings at which are used authorized liturgical texts (but there are no such texts so they can’t mean that) or that they will permit “private” rites using a liturgical text approved by the Ordinary but not by the church, but are any religious rites “private”? Are the bishops saying that they will not permit clergy in their dioceses to perform same sex blessings, period? Is the language merely clumsy, awkward, intended to disallow while giving hope and comfort to gay and lesbian parishioners or does it merely mean what it says, whatever it says?

One realizes that facilty in language isn’t a modern virtue. We may indeed live in an age which does not value precision, except in science and medicine, and which seeks to avoid absolutes. Perhaps the American language as it is evolving or developing encourages obfuscation. Perhaps it was designed by politicians? One has enormous sympathy for the plight of those Anglicans who seek to perpetuate comprehension and to make space for all who wish to avail themselves of our altars. Yet hitherto this was done not by obfuscation of language but by tolerance of diversity in the context of doctrinal clarity in matters essential and those other matters which stem from core doctrine. When our bishops issue statements they do so both to the city, that is their own constituency, and to the world. They owe both winsomeness in expression and clarity in words. By clarity I do not mean the sort of bullying “orthodoxy” espoused by those whose confidence in their virtue enables them to sniff out and expose heretics of every sort. After all we are all invited to eat with publicans and sinners. To be clear does not mean to be “in your face”, rude or arrogant. Our Lord is the example of humble clarity, always pointing to that which is good. He reserved his judgment for religious bigots and religious humbugs, the sure and the evasive while warning that compromise may be deadly. Indeed it was perhaps his association with sinners and certainly the clarity of his claims which unleashed the frightening power of religious and political establishmentarianism. Judging by the text of the New Orleans statement, our bishops are in no danger from either front.

5 Responses

  1. I’ve felt for some time that we could learn a thing or two from the early church when it comes to choosing and ordaining our bishops. All Anglican provinces seem to do things in different ways up to the point of the ordination.

    In the primitive church, bishops of surrounding churches took part in the ordination not least to signify their recognition of the one chosen. This survives in Anglican practice, but we seem to make a habit of inviting only bishops from the same province to take part. In these days wouldn’t it make sense to have co-consecrators from a wide spread of provinces on every occasion, which would have the advantage of every province “owning” a share in each bishop. Occasionally someone might decline on the grounds that the candidate is not, in their estimation, a worthy one. Better to face such issues up front rather than be threatened with schism afterwards. In these days of easy global travel the Communion really ought to be thinking about it.

  2. Consider the doctrine of the real presence of Christ. It seems to me that the writers of the various prayer books over the years have found wonderfully ambiguous ways to express the doctrine of the real presence of Christ without actually coming out and saying what it means precisely. And therein lies the genius of the prayer book and Anglicanism itself.

  3. Consider the doctrine of the real presence of Christ. It seems to me that the writers of the various prayer books over the years have found wonderfully ambiguous ways to express the doctrine of the real presence of Christ without actually coming out and saying what it means precisely. And therein lies the genius of the prayer book and Anglicanism itself.

  4. On the issue of SSBs, it is understood among many that blessings are being performed in England. And that the Archbishop when questioned about it replied something on the order “but they are private.” If this is true, perhaps he should explain to the rest of the Communion what makes these blessings “private” and permissible, but any form of a local option here or in Canada not.

    Of course, it is very hard as a gay person to hear those who claim they do not have gay persons in their provinces, as many of the GS have, resolve that any “blessing” as a form of pastoral care for gay congregants, who in some cases are not only legally married, but have children for whom they have legal responsibility as a couple, is not permissible.

  5. When I was ordained (in England, almost 40 years ago) it was unusual for any service of any kind to be held to celebrate a second marriage after divorce. Though it was legal for a priest to take such a wedding, the bishops had effectively forbidden it. A few brave souls conducted services of blessing more or less publicly. My first vicar (who later got a DD from Sewannee, and became a bishop) took the line that no one can lay down what prayers a priest may say privately with a parishioner, and therefore would do a blessing attended by the couple and a few close relatives. I imagine that this is precisely the reasoning being alluded to by the Archbishop.

    JLM

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