Those of us old foggies who oddly can’t accept that the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony may be entered into by two persons of the same sex are frequently accused of resisting the activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. It’s an effective charge in that no one has a way of judging the validity of the accusation. Certainly such an accusation is packed with emotional if not cerebral content. How may Christians and worse still clergy defy the operation of God in the life of the Church? To use a Wolf Blitzerism, it seems “SHOCKING”.  I want to address three aspects of this accusation.

The first is the aspect of chauvinism. Technically a “chauvinist” is an ultra patriot. One hears this sort of thing when conservative American politicians reject universal health care on the grounds that it is “European” along with French Fries (the noble English chip smothered in malt vinegar) or the pernicious “u” in colour. By the way I’d trade the American health “system” for the French version any day. The health care I received in France  was wonderful and instantly available, even though I was a foreigner. The French seemed to have the odd idea that health care was as vital and thus as universally available as education.

Thus for those who believe that “full inclusion” is that which the Holy Spirit is prompting TEC to embrace, “the church” is fully and totally encompassed by what is described as “THE Episcopal Church”..worldwide.  The rest of the Christian Church, unless it agrees with TEC’s “inspiration” doesn’t count. The reason is obvious. No other Christian body is as democratic, a democracy formed by an American identity. That such a self-estimation is entwined with the sort of secular particularism, perhaps the natural popular form of patriotism embraced by Nineteenth Century Americans who crossed the Atlantic “Red Sea” and founded a Promised Land, the “last great hope on earth.”

Now I would not dispute that the American experiment in freedom and liberty is a mighty and salutary example to the secular world. I have neither the space nor time to illustrate this, but certainly in recent times this has produced in many, perhaps unconsciously, the type of chauvinism which concentrates on a superiority of a culture and system with the gifts such a culture may offer to others.

However TEC and by extension its Canadian partner is not THE Church. Perhaps Episcopalians may believe that the present concentration of “including” gay and lesbian Christians in the Church – I leave alone what “inclusion” means – is a gift of insight to be “gifted” to the rest of the Christian world. But to go further and imply that those who doubt the Christian authenticity of the gift are defying the Third Person of the Trinity is a theory which may have no objective proof and which carries with it a arrogance which is breathtaking. (Persons who are “attracted” to persons of the same sex, who are baptized are obviously included in the Church and always have been. Those whose attraction in accompanied by relationships of true and faithful friendship are not and never have been excluded. Further it is rubrical and good Anglican practice that what they do together is no one’s business unless they cause the sort of scandal which is the product of self-advertisement: and by that I do not mean conjecture, gossip, or “outing”. If they thereby sin, and I do not thereby trivialize sin, they are in no worse or better case than the malicious gossips who seek to expose them. Pastoral practice by sinners towards sinners has nothing to do either with the doctrine of Holy Matrimony or who may or may not be a bishop. (Yes, bishops are sinners too. And yes there is a certain hypocrisy about our hope and prayer that a bishop may not place on public display those sins best left unnoticed. Such sins they must deal with, one hopes, in private. What they must not do is give cause for public scandal. The Church has always made such a distinction not because it wishes bishops to hide their sins, but because it is “open and notorious” sins, ones performed on an open stage and frequently without care for the audience, which offends the faithful and harms the Church thereby. The sin may be at base the arrogant action of parading a behavior known to unnecessarily offend merely to advertise ones “freedom.” One supposes that the very fact that the personal lives of prominent Christians in an age of internet and blog are prey to often malicious gossips has made the problem of fallible bishops and clergy more vulnerable. Ironically that a bishop lived with a particular friend a century ago probably went without comment. If he drank too much port it was!! )

None of which has much to do with the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. This leads me to a second point. After a century of conflict over what constitutes a sacrament, in which the number “seven” finally triumphed (perhaps two major and five minor) in the American BCP we are now being asked to accept that the “matter” of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony has developed by the action of the Holy Spirit in the life of tiny North American “particular” churches. It has been suggested that such a developement is in order because, for instance, Anglicans decided a few hundred years ago that married persons could be the proper “matter” of the Sacrament of Holy Order. Yet such “matter” wasn’t radically changed or made more or less “male” then, or if you will “human” by being married. Nor was the idea of a married clergy innovative. It was a return to an earlier tradition.

I will grant that sacramental numerology is eccentric, if a handy way of identifying obvious ways in which the actions of the Church demonstrate an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

We come now to this whole business of the promise that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth. Is this a promise that the Church will be gradually let into Godly ideas which were not “revealed” in earlier days?  John Henry Newman in his famous essay on the development of doctrine argued that seminal concepts undefined or “developed” in earlier days might be defined and “unpacked” or fleshed out by universal ecclesiastical authority. Rome bit dear and often naive Newman by providing such a universal authenticating authority in the shape of an infallible papacy and church.

Anglicans were slow to cotton on to such a theory. Before Newman the assumption was made that as Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life” He is the final “doctrinal development” and the Holy Spirit guided the Church to apprehend this final Revelation as it codified that which was revealed in Scripture. Thus the universally received definitions of the General Councils of the whole Church were “inspired” by the Holy Spirit because they identified that which the Scriptures taught and the task of the Church was then to teach and uphold such doctrine and to translate such teachings into the cultures of the world. (The concept that culture informs doctrine rather than providing a language and a cultural expression for the articulation of doctrine and practice is very modern indeed and seems to turn everything on its head. Which culture and why?)

But if Newman was right, or shall we say that if we may go even beyond Newman and not require some seminal root for development, how may a particular Province, or a family of Provinces claim with confidence that it is the oracle of such a development?  In practical terms what about the re-marriage of divorcees or the ordination of women. Of the first I would only suggest that outside the influence of the Roman Catholic Church the re-marriage of divorcees under penitential terms is not novel nor has ever been. Nor may I say that the inclusion on women in the Sacrament of Baptism is an indifferent “seminality” in defining who may be the “matter” of Holy Orders. There remain cogent arguments on both sides of that issue.

However the union of a man and a woman for the purposes obviously demonstrated by the distinct identity and mutuality of a man and a woman is not the same at all as identifying the common Christian unity and identity of all baptized men and women through baptism into the priesthood of Christ, laying aside all other arguments for and against the ordination of women. Nothing is more “obvious” than the distinction and compatibility of a man and a woman becoming “one flesh”. To discount such obviousness is disingenious and perhaps eccentric.

I must address very simply the objection that a marriage between a man and a woman may fail or result in much harm and that therefore such failures indicate that marriage between a man and a woman is no better (or worse) than that of a same sex couple. An ideal is an ideal because it elevates us to a level beyond our natural capacity. Marriage from a Christian standpoint is an impossible ideal. If it may ascend to a manageable “possibility” by placing before a man and a woman the relationship between Christ and the Church is not to be discounted by the fallibility of the Church but to act as a vision to which the Church is continually called and enabled by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Similarity the union of a man and a woman, Christians have always believed relies on the Presence of Christ continually by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit inspires the Church into all truth by confirming the Faith once delivered to the Church renewed in every age and generation. However right Darwin may well have been, Christian belief and practice is not a matter of the developed survival of the fittest!

One Response

  1. I have recently encountered American particularism in a slightly different context, which I have blogged about here. But I am puzzled by this recent discovery of “inclusion” as the cardinal virtue, and “exclusion” as the cardinal sin. No one who thinks that way bothers to try to justify it or even explain what it means. They seem to take it as an axiom, and to assume that if they describe something as “exclusionary” that there is no possible rebuttal.

    Concerning homosexual marriage, I’ve written something at at the request of my bishop. I’d be interested in any comments you may have.

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