Comments on the Windsor Report - Number One
The Eames Report, officially named the Windsor Report, was published this week and its initial reception has been rather mixed. It is of course early days for a Report that will need lengthy careful examination - as much for its longterm consequences as for its immediate impact. There have been those who have welcomed it, and those who have condemned it out of hand as ineffective. One cleric has called it patronising. Some have called it too little, too late. It is certainly a report that will need time for study, reflection, discussion and prayer by Christians worldwide as it covers many important aspects and outlines a way forward.
What is the essence of this dispute? It is precisely here that there is a difficulty, because it is a complex matter touching a number of issues. Indeed the dispute accesses very deep beliefs, ideas and feelings in people. The problems are not easily summarised or answered. Those unthinking people who, on the one side, say it is all about homophobia in the church, or, on the other side, who say it is all about gay Christians adjusting the Christian message to conform to society, reveal a superficial attitude to the whole matter.
In this article I want to touch on and explore one important aspect arising from the Windsor Report. In the coming days we shall all need to unpack many of the issues, and only then shall we be able to discern the best way forward. Events, however, may overtake us as the initial response by some Provinces seem uncompromising. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has been pleading throughout - we all need time to stand back and think, discuss and pray. The time for hurling brickbats is long gone. Now is the time for responsible discussion.
The Windsor Report (Sections 87 to 95) refers to the New Testament word 'adiaphora', which is defined as ‘things which do not make a difference‘. That is - matters of doctrine or practice which are regarded as inessential and about which Christians should be able to disagree without dividing the church. Of course, in one sense, this is what the whole dispute is about. Some think that homosexuality is a matter that should divide the church; others think that it is a non-essential matter that should not divide the church. So in one sense the very examination of the word opens up the whole debate in all its complexity.
I think that it might be useful to examine the concept of ‘adiaphoria’ on its own initially. The Windsor Report refers to the classic statements of the principle in Romans 14.1 to 15.13 and 1 Corinthians 8 to 10. Far be it from me to set up as a biblical scholar, especially in view of the heavyweights on the Eames Commission, but some comment on the meaning of the text may be useful from a non-expert viewpoint. Doubtless others, more fitted than I, will examine these passages in depth in due course.
Let us, in parallel with the Windsor Report, first dispose of the idea that differences about essentials and inessentials between Christians don't matter. That is clearly wrong because, in every day and age, Christians have boundaries to what is permissible and what is not permissible in how they live their lives. It is not good enough to say that 'anything goes'. It clearly doesn't. The example given in the Report - that incest is obviously wrong (1 Corinthians 5) - carries weight for all Christians. It is important for Christians to be in dialogue with each other continuously to check and confirm the soundness of their ideas about the boundaries to their lives.
However, we have to recognize, that although there are some boundaries (e.g. incest) beyond which Christians should not go, other boundaries are continually changing. They are not fixed in concrete. They change because humankind is moving and changing and consequently, for example, what was seen as an appropriate Christian boundary in the year 1404 may no longer felt to be so in 2004.
A small example: at one time most Christians would have held Sunday as a sacred day when one should not do work nor engage in other than religious duties. Not many years ago children were not allowed to ride a bicycle on Sundays! What a world away that attitude is today! Christians have changed their ideas about that particular boundary. Much more is now permissible on Sunday. That is a changed boundary - one that has changed in the short period of one lifetime. Over the generations and centuries there have been many changes of boundaries. The point does not need further illustration.
So Christians have boundaries, but these are to some extent fluid and change through the new knowledge and attitudes of Christians as decade follows decade and century follows century. There are certain things (e.g. incest) that we consider to be important boundaries - what may be termed 'fixed' boundaries. Other boundaries are more fluid. A religious newspaper this week reported that Forward in Faith had decided to obtain a legal opinion about the ownership of church property. If it came to court it would not be the first time Christians have battled with each other in law. Indeed, I seem to recall that such legal wrangles have already happened in the USA in the present dispute.
The point is that such legal battles in secular courts were prohibited by St Paul (1 Corinthians 6) - see Section 89 of the Windsor Report. If this clear boundary - that Christians should not go to court against each other - is being breached (as it is), can we not recognize that boundaries do shift and change over time? It might be said that such breaches are illustrations of our failure but the reality is that they are accepted practice.
So are there any boundaries that are fixed for all time? Well, yes! Incest seems to be one example. But most boundaries are moveable, especially if we define a boundary as the peripheral point at which some action become unacceptable for Christians. For an example, lets take divorce. At one time that was completely unacceptable for Christians. Now, although still deplored as less than ideal, it is accepted among Christians. Let us take another example: the killing of other people - murder. In the early church Christians were not allowed to become soldiers because that meant that they would inevitably be called upon to take life. Nowadays Christians can use bombs or even worse weapons without Christian censure.
So I would suggest that it is too facile an answer to suggest that the way society has regarded sexuality for centuries is a fixed immutable boundary. Apart from boundaries, there are fixed values and principles - for example: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul and mind, and thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’. But specific moral boundaries do change over time. If we agree that our moralities therefore need constant review in order to keep them in line with what most Christians currently believe is right and wrong, then we are back into the middle of the homosexuality debate. Is homosexuality one of those changing boundaries - is it a fixed or an ’inessential’ boundary?
In these circumstances the next question posed in the Windsor Report (Section 90) then becomes all important: 'how do we decide what it 'adiaphora' - a non-essential matter that must be decided by local Christians by reference to the bible, the society in which they live, their reason and the guidance of the Holy Spirit?’ This is at the crux of the present debate. And it is because of disagreement between Christians that an overall authority and a mechanism for settling disputes is now suggested. Once such an authority is accepted by everyone (if it ever is!) as the key regulator of orthodoxy, any church that dissents would have to leave the group - and would be labelled as the ‘rebel‘. What effect this would have on subsequent disputes about church property is not clear - but it is conceivable that it might be material between warring Christian in a lawsuit.
The guide to behaviour suggested in the Report is that those who take the 'strong' position (that is, are permissive of an activity that other Christians do not permit) must have regard to the ‘weak’ (Section 92). The Report suggests asking two questions. The first question is whether the action contemplated is truly inessential or whether it touches on something vital, and the second question is whether, when it is something that other Christians cannot accept, those proposing the 'strong' line of action should refrain from pursuing what they believe to be right for the sake of their ‘weaker’ brethren.
The Report comes down against what has happened in the American Church (ECUSA hereafter) on the grounds that the matter does touch on something vital. In other words the concern of other Christians worldwide on the subject of homosexuality is important. The Report goes on to assert that, because in their opinion it would ’offend’ other Christians worldwide, ECUSA should have not proceeded.
These views come out of what the Commission sees as the teaching in the two bible passages quoted above. Whether one accepts these views as setting out the whole of what Paul is saying and, consequently, whether ECUSA should therefore not have ‘offended’ other churches worldwide, is open to question. It is also uncertain whether the idea of not hurting ‘weaker’ brethren, as suggested by the Commission, can be elevated to the status of an inflexible principle to be followed by all Anglicans.
Better scholars than I will examine in detail the ideas of Paul about these propositions - that the strong must have regard for the weak, and that only a vote by all Anglican Provinces (majority or unanimous?) will permit new departures. Perhaps I may be allowed to make one comment in this respect.
It is interesting that we have in scripture, I think, a parallel of this very thing happening. In Galatians 2.11- 21 we have an account of Peter visiting the young church at Antioch. After eating with the Christian Gentiles, Peter saw that the Jewish Christians, who were visiting from Jerusalem, drew back from eating with them. Peter himself then drew back from eating with the Christian Gentiles. Clearly the consciences of the Christian Jews (and apparently Peter) were offended by the idea of Jews eating with Gentiles - even when they were all Christians. What did Paul do? Did he refrain from eating with the Gentiles, like the Jewish Christians and Peter - not wanting to hurt or offend the Jewish Christians? No! He went on completely the opposite tack. He told Peter and the Jewish Christians in no uncertain terms that they were wrong. He maintained his view of the gospel of Christ, which was that all were equal before God and that there was therefore no reason why Jewish Christians should not eat with Gentile Christians. Presumably Paul himself went on eating with the Gentile Christians.
Thus we see clearly that Paul, as an individual, did not follow the course of action recommended in the Windsor Report, based on the verses in Roman and Corinthians. He did not refrain from proceeding simply because weaker brethren disagreed with his stance. To my mind this shows that the inference from the two passages quoted in the Report may have been stretched too far. It seems the case for supporting the actions of ECUSA has strong parallels with the story in Galatians 2. It is interesting that in both the Antioch case and in the present dispute the acceptability of a minority is the issue at stake. (To the Jewish Christians at that time the Gentile Christians must have been considered a minority).
The conclusion I draw is that the strong must not simply defer to the weak - they have a duty to follow the truth as the Holy Spirit reveals it to them. Of course they must have due regard for their weaker brethren and attempt to love and help them in every way. I expand on this aspect below.
In addition, I believe that an examination of how the Christian faith has come down to us through the centuries is in direct contravention of this 'principle' suggested by the Windsor Report. If it had been followed (that is, if strong brethren had always held back, waiting for their weaker brothers to change their minds) I suggest that Christians would still be stuck in the thinking of the Middle Ages, if not before! It is the courage of those Christians who launch out when they receive new insight from the Holy Spirit that we owe so many great advances in our thinking. To go back to an old illustration - if Galileo had kept quiet because of the weaker Christian brethren (comprising most of the clergy) we would still think the earth the centre of the universe!
Perhaps what Paul was getting at in the two passages quoted was a principle which might be expressed in this way: Christians who are moving in new directions must have regard to the sensibilities of their 'weaker' brethren - that is, they must show consideration and try to explain and reassure their weaker brethren that the new ideas are not contrary to the Spirit of Christ. They also perhaps need to show that they are still committed to the Lordship of Christ both in their own lives and in the life of the world. They must be prepared to listen and talk and to be very patient as their ‘weaker’ brethren struggle to accommodate new ideas and concepts.
In the present case this means that Christians who accept that God includes gays equally with heterosexual people as part of his plan and purpose must bend over backwards to explain and reassure those of their weaker brethren who cannot yet accommodate the new ideas. This is one area where ECUSA has perhaps failed - maybe they did not give enough explanation and justification in Christian terms to their worldwide brethren before they forged ahead.
If, however, the conservative Christians cannot accommodate the new ideas and attempt to block the forward thrusting life of that part of the church that has received and welcomed the new insights from the Holy Spirit, then clearly those ECUSA Christians must quietly go ahead and live in the light that has been shed on their path. Paul would not brook opposition to what he clearly saw as the right way forward.
Of course Christians who are at the edge of new thinking and insight should always be in a state of love and caring for their ‘weaker’ brethren. Of course they must lean over backwards as far as possible to accommodate their reservations. But eventually they must follow the Spirit as he leads into new areas, even if it discomforts more traditional Christians.
These rather lengthy thoughts, arising out of the use of the word ‘adiaphora’, may be of some value to some who perhaps have not yet thought about this aspect of the debate. I hope to look at other aspects of the Report in due course, before finally looking at the Report as a whole. But we all have some reading, discussing and praying to do before then.