The Windsor Report - Part Four
As we approach the February meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion it is noticeable that some people are recommending what the way forward should be. Articles are beginning to appear in the newspapers pointing out the significance of the meeting. It is usually seen as a decisive moment for the future of the Anglican Communion - and indeed for the Church of England.
One topic which preoccupies commentators is what will happen to the American and Canadian Churches after their courageous stand over accepting gay Christians as entirely normal and equal with other Christians. While this is obviously of prime importance, it seems to me that far too little attention is being given to the position of gay people both generally and vis a vis the Church of England once a decision has been made regarding the present crisis.
Let us assume that the meeting of Primates (or some extension of the meeting) decides to discipline the American (and possibly Canadian) Church for the position they have taken on the whole gay issue in advance of agreement from the rest of the Anglican Communion. Let us examine what some of the repercussions of that would be for the Anglican Communion and for the Church of England.
It might be thought that the situation can revert to where it was before there was the fluttering in the dovecotes caused by ECUSA and Canada. But can it?
Several years ago - before all the present turmoil arose - the situation was that the conservative evangelical wing in England and those who were pro-gay lived in separate compartments of the Church - they might meet at various services and their paths might cross in other ways - but by and large there were two very different church communities living within the one organisation. As regards gay ordinands, there was a policy of ‘don’t ask - don’t tell’ operating - some Bishops apparently knew very well that the candidates they were ordaining were gay - and perhaps that they were actively so - but the issue was not mentioned.
So there were three barriers to contentious dispute between those holding opposite viewpoints on the subject of homosexuality: partial separation of the church parties who differed, then there was the ‘don’t ask - don’t tell’ policy, and thirdly there was toleration by various Bishops of the gay aspect of their congregations and clergy.
Now however, due to the furore raised by the more fundamentalist sections of the Anglican Communion - or at least the anti-gay element - there is a changed situation and it is probably going to be much more difficult for Bishops to ordain gay clergy. Perhaps an ‘ask and find out’ policy is going to replace ‘don’t ask - don’t tell’ policy that has been maintained until now.
A decision that the ECUSA position on homosexuality is wrong - as distinct from a decision that they went ahead without consultation - would affect the practice of the Church of England henceforth. So it seems that unless the disciplining is done in a certain way, it will not be possible for the Church of England to revert to the old system. If the Anglican Communion decides to legislate that homosexuality is wrong before God, then the Church of England is not going to be permissive and tolerant of gays in the ordained clergy in the future. It would also seem that before long the prevailing view of the conservative evangelicals will come to the fore in other areas of the Church as well - for example as regards the laity. What is the conservative evangelical view? It is that gay people are either evil, demonised, sick or in grave error.
It is therefore fairly clear that it will only be a question of time before that attitude will be imported and adopted as the official line on homosexuality in England. It will also be adopted by the various other Provinces through the worldwide Anglican Communion. Presumably the same attitude will be extended to the laity as to the ordained clergy.
Is that being pessimistic or unrealistic? How can evangelicals or anyone else maintain that being gay is gravely wrong for clergy but not for their ordinary members of congregation? It is a contradiction that no one can maintain. It was a device to serve the ‘two party’ set up. It was a contradiction we tolerated for years - but now it is surely blown out of the water. We know that many evangelicals believe that all homosexuality is a sin before God.
It is therefore clear that the church no longer has the option of reverting to the indistinct and woolly position it was in before this subject was made an issue by the African churches and others.
It is clear that at least some of the African Bishops are deeply homophobic - they have called homosexuals ‘worse than animals’ for example. If you consider for a moment where that attitude is leading the church it is surely time to pause and reconsider what the church should do in this situation.
The rush to judgement of ECUSA and the Canadian Church is precipitating the whole Anglican Communion into committing itself to an anti-gay stance and it is very difficult to see how anyone who knows the Church at all can pretend any longer that there is now a true moratorium, while the subject is explored further among all its members. Instead the various national churches - in the person of their Bishops and their Primates - are, if they discipline ECUSA for the tolerance of homosexuality, in effect deciding the attitude the whole church should take henceforth towards homosexuality.
When one lets the enormity of what is afoot sink in one realises that the Anglican Church is indeed going to face break up or total loss of credibility. It become crucial to see on what grounds the Primates Meeting discipline UCUSA and Canada. Either way the repercussions throughout all the church, and far beyond the Anglican Communion, will be immense.
It is vital that we look not simply at the issue in hand but at the larger picture. Does the Anglican Church in England really want to take the position that all gay people are evil, demonised, sick or gravely in error? That is the conclusion that will be drawn unless, in the disciplining now possibly to be undertaken, it is made abundantly clear that the only ‘sin’ of ECUSA and the Canadian Church was to move in advance of the main body of the church.
After all, that is what a lot of the criticism has been ostensibly based upon. Over and over again what has been said has been said on the basis that the erring churches should have referred the matter to the other Primates before moving ahead. Their fault is that they jumped the gun and did their own thing without reference to the others.
For that failure there has already been a partial apology. ECUSA has said that they are sorry the manner of their going ahead has caused the trouble it has. In this they have been completely correct. It was, indeed, their manner of proceeding that has been the cause of the trouble.
However the homophobic attitude of some clerics has been revealed as being so virulent that homosexuality itself has become the focus. In other words the trouble was seen by them to be, not that ECUSA moved ahead in advance of the others, but that they dared to tolerate homosexuality in their midst.
This very fact may open up a way out of the present impasse. Gay people - in laity and clergy - are not going to change. They are made that way and they believe it is God who wants them that way. The problem is not going to go away. But what is ‘the problem’? It is not that some people are gay, but rather that some Christians have rooted objections to homosexuality. That is the problem. That does not prejudge the issue - it still leaves everything open. But it does clarify what has to be done. Somehow we have to deal with a rooted objection to homosexuality.
If the Anglican Communion wants to stay together they have somehow to tread the delicate path between condemning gay Christians and fully and finally approving of them. What is needed is a middle way - how often that is our need in all manner of disputes! In this case we need to be able to allow gay people to be fully accepted members of those Provinces and churches that wish to, while leaving open a final decision on the Christian attitude to homosexuality.
Even if that way is found, the Provinces and churches that disapprove of homosexuality are unlikely to accept it as a viable way forward. Their intolerance of homosexuality is total.
If a middle way is to succeed, it will need time - lots of time. How can the church find this middle way in the midst of the present heated atmosphere? This is where the ability of the leaders - and particularly the Archbishop of Canterbury - will be tested. Somehow they have to manoeuvre the position to buy time. This, however, is what has been tried already - and failed. It seems too much like prevaricating. But the only way forward which honours the convictions of those opposed to homosexuality but, equally, does not demonise and evict gay people, is one where there is willingness by all to live in peaceful coexistence for a time, so that further clarity and understanding can be obtained.
But the African Churches and others have got the bit between their teeth and are, apparently not going to be satisfied with anything less than repentance by ECUSA. Not apology for going ahead too quickly, but repentance for the sin of actually accepting homosexuality as God-given. That apology will probably not be forthcoming. For the American and Canadian churches to give it would be for them to go back on their own integrity. So a disciplining - or a split - will result.
This dispute is not going to be ‘worked out’ because there is no argument in the world which will convince a committed anti-gay conservative Christian. And the gay Christians cannot change their own nature. They are gay and they know they are gay. Society has accepted that gay people are normal people. Gay Christians are not going to go along with the idea that they are evil, demonised, sick or gravely in error.
It is a sobering thought that the outside world is watching the churches in this situation. They are watching to see how the various Christians conduct themselves . They are watching to see how the Spirit of Christ permeates (or does not permeate) the whole discussion. They are looking to see love in action - what all Christians everywhere are supposed to believe in and live out in their lives.
If the Anglican Communion does go further than merely disciplining ECUSA and Canada for precipitate action, then that will be taken by everyone as a clear indication that the Church of England and its sister Churches refuse to face reality. They will be seen as unable to adjust to a contemporary understanding of life today - as unable to come into the twenty first century. That means they will be seen more and more as irrelevant to the real world.
If however the Anglican Communion stops short of pronouncing on homosexuality itself - recognising that we are in a period of transition - then many outsiders may well look with renewed interest at their local Parish Church.
Unfortunately, such an approach - refusing to baldly condemn homosexuality - may well trigger the separation of some Provinces in the worldwide Anglican Communion. Those in the February Meeting will need great grace and not a little inspiration to get over the hurdles. Perhaps we shall have to accept that it is better that we all walk with integrity rather than pretend to a unity which is false - a sham? Maybe we will have to learn to walk side by side but separately, if love cannot prevail over dogma.