The Windsor Report - Part Three
The American Anglican Church (E C U S A) has made its decision ahead of the February meeting of all the Primates from around the world. Apparently it has decided that all it wants to do is sincerely apologise that its actions have caused the world crisis in Anglicanism - but its holds to what it did as right, and is going to take more time to examine the position. Let us just recall exactly what those convictions are. The Americans consider that gay people are as normal in God’s kingdom as heterosexual people. They believe this so strongly that they also see absolutely no reason why gay people should not be accepted into all areas of the church, including the higher clerical positions. They think a gay bishop is a good thing and spells out the right message to the outside world. They feel they must follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and cannot go back on their previous decision to consecrate a Gay Bishop and their blessing of gay unions. They would like more time to think about the Windsor Report, but they go into the February meeting in Ireland unrepentant of their approach to the Bible and their understanding of where God is leading them.
This is to be expected. Did anyone think that ECUSA was so weak and wishy-washy that it would just reverse direction because African and other Provinces of the Anglican Communion didn’t agree with it? Did what it was doing mean so little to it? It is led by committed Christians of deep spirituality. They are no more going to reverse direction that the African churches are.
So we are going to go into the February meeting with irreversible divisions within the world wide Anglican Communion - and the question now arises about the way forward in this situation.
Obviously, there are three broad ways forward. The first is that the meeting will use choose some arrangement to gain more time so that there can be more discussion and consultation. Essentially this is the ’buy more time’ approach. The second is that, in effect, ECUSA will be booted out of full membership in some way - either quickly or slowly - and to some degree (i.e. full or partial exclusion). The third broad way forward is that the conservative churches will exit the world wide Communion. Lets examine those a little more carefully, but first lets look at the overall situation.
That there is a very deep clash is not doubted by anyone. But what is that clash about? There are two issues that are irrevocably linked. The first is about homosexuality. Christians hold diametrically opposite views about it. Some think it evil and wrong. Some think it acceptable and the way forward. No one thinks that the two sides are to be reconciled on that. No clever formula is to be found that will enable the two sides to recognize each other. The second issue is what degree of unity is to be enforced by the majority of members on the others. Because, frankly, that is what all the proposals about covenants and committees are about. The desired united front - and the mechanics to eject any Province that won’t toe the line along with the other Provinces.
What is at issue in February is therefore very important. It will affect the future of world wide Anglicanism for the foreseeable future. It will perhaps have a deeper significance than is even apparent already.
Before we examine these three ways forward more closely we perhaps need to ask one further question: how important is it that all thirty eight Provinces stay united? And its corollary: what degree of unity is needed?
To the general public, outside the Church, in Britain there is supreme indifference to what world wide Anglicanism does with itself. It can curl up and die as far as most people in the street are concerned. The general public - and many people in the pews too - fail to see the reasons for staying in such close relationship. Perhaps those clerics for whom international meetings, visits abroad, conferences abroad, international contact etc are all important are more seized of the necessity for world wide unity between the thirty eight Provinces. For the person in the pew the whole idea of it being essential to maintain the world wide Communion on the present basis is a mystery. It seems to be somewhat of a mirage. He asks what harm there would be in a looser federation-type association in future.
Of course there are those who talk mystically about being ‘united’ by which they mean some form of organic unity - perhaps after the fashion of the R C church which is ‘united’ under one Pope. One might ask just how united the Roman Catholic Church is at this time - there seems to be some dissent growing in various parts of the world. But that is theoretical talk. Perhaps the desire to hold the world wide Communion together stems from something in St Johns gospel chapter 17, verse 21, where Jesus prays that his followers may be one. In in my opinion it is a misunderstanding of his prayer to think that all Christians should be in one vast organisation. I do not believe that Jesus ever laid down that we should be one organisationally. One in the Spirit, yes. One in open hearted love, yes. One in cooperation to serve the needy. But one organisation? Never!
So why else should the world wide Anglican church stay together organisationally? Put it another way: what can they do if they are one organisation that they cannot do when they are separate Provinces but joined in a less binding and restrictive way? The need is less than clear! There is nothing they cannot do just as easily - perhaps even better - if they are joined by association and not by organisation. What degree of unity is necessary? Not the degree of unity which the Windsor Report wants the Provinces to move towards, making majority decisions that are to be binding on everybody.
This desire to be united in this way organisationally really must be questioned. It is not attractive if the price is to be conformity to the majority. We are all so different culturally, and so very varied in attitude, needs, doctrine and outlook that trying to achieve one organisation is just a pipe dream. If it happens it will be a drag on progress. In my opinion it would stifle new ideas and initiatives. Everybody would have to go at the speed of the slowest.
So as I see it the case has not yet been made to the person in the pew (or, indeed, to the outside world) as to why it is so important for the worldwide Anglican church to be joined organisationally. There are of course some groups which have agendas. Perhaps those who lean towards the Roman Catholic Church want to preserve the world wide Anglican Communion because it is then easier to join that organisation onto the Roman Catholic Church and ‘all become one’. Which, it seems to me, is another pipe dream and not a consummation that all would wish for by any means!
Then there are the evangelicals, who see in the present situation an opportunity to better unite evangelicals across the world and so promote their view of how the church should move forward. No one can blame them for that.
So we come to the three broad paths forward.
First outcome: time is given for the tangled knot to go on being teased apart in the hope that amity and unity will be forthcoming at the end. Well, it is an option. Jaw jaw is always better than war war or split split! In my opinion there is not much hope of the two sides ever seeing eye to eye - the differences are far too deep for that. It has its roots in one’s whole outlook on life and what you think God in Christ came to do.
The second outcome is where ECUSA is excluded in some way from the worldwide Communion of Anglican Churches. It may be termed temporary. It may be termed permanent. Or, more likely, ‘until they repent’! This would send a powerful message all round the world to non Christian and Christian alike. It would signal that mainstream Christianity cannot yet bring itself into the twenty first century. That it cannot loosen the hold of conservative evangelicals in the world wide Communion on the levers of power and therefore the Churches must remain in a state of denial about the reality of human sexuality in all its diversity. It would be a powerful blow for obfustication because it would of course be wrapped up in all sorts of theological language and a cast iron case for maintaining the status quo.
Exclusion of ECUSA would have all sorts or repercussions. For example, those who are strongly in favour of accepting gays into the church in Britain would be deeply disappointed. That may well mean a further haemorrhaging of members. We must add to this the loss of all those people who would come to Church if we demonstrated an open warm inclusiveness. On the other hand the church will then attract those people who have black and white views on this and other issues. They will feel that at last there is ‘real leadership’ in the Church. There will be leadership - but not of the right sort.
The third broad way forward is that Provinces in world wide Anglicanism - such as the African Church - will break away in some manner. It may be a clear sharp break, or it may be a slow partial break. Either way maybe they are going to say ‘We have had enough of this compromising with sin by the Western Church - we want to go our own way - we refuse to compromise alongside the Western Churches and will stay true to the principles we hold dear. We believe gays are evil, sick or badly misled and in the grip of the evil one.’
Whether they would go as far as setting up another Anglican Communion of Provinces, or whether they simply go off and do their own thing is unclear as yet.
These are the three broad ways forward in my opinion. Basically it is either fudge/buy more time, move to expel ECUSA (and Canada?), or break up. The move to expel ECUSA will probably be masked under the proposal that the world wide Communion adopt a Covenant or similar instrument so that it may become ‘more organised‘, or ‘effective‘, or ‘credible’ or some such word. But what it will amount to is the majority taking the power to impose its will on the minority - in this particular disagreement, a case of freezing out gay Christians from ordination and, possibly, membership of the church.
However, just as the Windsor Report surprised some people it could yet be that we will be surprised at what comes out of this February meeting in Ireland. It is really all rather open. After the time of reflection that everyone has had there must surely be a deeper appreciation that it cannot be right to go the punitive route. One thing is sure - we all want the best for the Kingdom of God and we all should therefore pray regularly for their deliberations. Perhaps we also need to pray for ourselves for a generosity of spirit and openness of mind. Certainly we must all go on working for that heart and spirit unity that Christ told us is essential all those years ago. At the end of the day we are all sinners saved by grace.