THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 111
Eliminating the gay affirming churches
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Eliminating the gay affirming churches from full membership of the Anglican Communion is now the proposal by the Archbishop of Canterbury, following the recommendations of the Windsor Report. How come?
The Windsor Report tried to suggest a way forward to deal with discord between sections of the worldwide Anglican Communion. It did that, essentially, by suggesting a system whereby the majority would decide what they thought was the right policy and practice for the whole Communion, and would then enact rules that forced all the national churches to toe the line. The alternative would be for them to have an associate role, distinct from and subsidiary to the decision making role of the full member.
That was the only way the writers of the Windsor Report could suggest to solve the deep divide between different national churches. No doubt they hoped and perhaps even expected that, threatened with expulsion, divergent national churches would come back into line with the majority. They were also concerned to avoid similar problems arising in future.
This is one way to hold the international Communion together. Except, of course that it wouldn’t hold it together, because those churches that differed from the majority might decide to stay out of line! Having taken adventuresome steps in the belief that they were led by the Holy Spirit - to go back on that would be to accept that they were misled in what they thought accorded with the spirit of the bible and of Jesus. When you expel such members you can hardly call it ‘holding them together’!
So, if the whole exercise now appears to have been a long winded attempt to get some national churches to retreat from what they were doing and come into line with the others, it didn’t work.
The only justification for such a stringently coercive policy per Windsor would be that everybody felt a complete assurance that the majority were always right. The principle in play here is that wisdom is to be found in the majority.
But of course that is not true in life (think slavery) and never has been the way that the advance of Christianity has worked over the centuries. Always there have been valiant men and women who have perceived that the Holy Spirit was leading in a new direction, and by following their insight they have, in time, brought the rest of the Christian Community with them. This fact is so obvious that it seems unnecessary to give examples.
The principle that the majority knows best could perhaps be best exemplified by the Roman Catholic Church, which, through the centuries, has insisted that they were the holders of the truth and that new ideas were suspect. This is the same principle in operation - courtesy of Windsor. Beware of new ideas and new directions! Keep to the old ways, they are safer. They are traditional. This is why the Roman Catholic Church has had an Inquisition.
So does the Archbishop of Canterbury think the majority is always right? Did the writers of the Windsor Report think there was no alternative to abiding by a majority vote? Is it a matter of guarding tradition because it is the best route to truth? Maybe we should ask what sub plots there are in the background.
Well, there are probably a number of sub plots, although you must decide for yourself what they are. For my money I think that there is only one really important sub plot and it concerns the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is to preserve the unity of the worldwide Communion at any cost. He sees this as an immensely important role laid upon him by virtue of his office. He sees any parting of the ways among the churches that make up the Anglican Communion as being a severely retrograde step.
I believe that the Archbishop at this time is pursing the elimination of the gay affirming churches because that is the only way he sees as possibly preserving the world wide communion. The question at the present time is not the rightness or wrongness of being gay affirming.
Let me restate this point. I believe that what is now directing our way forward (via the archbishop) is the adoption of a procedural method to preserve unity. It has nothing to do with what is right or wrong in the situation.
It is obvious, of course, that, as regards homosexuality, there is an enormous dispute going on about what the Holy Spirit is showing us! The conservative evangelicals think that He is showing us the importance of following the bible - the word of God - much more closely, and the liberals think that the Holy Spirit is showing us that we must be an inclusive church. But where does this get us? Only that the leading by the Archbishop is turning out to be crucially important!
So what is ‘right’? The issue of homosexuality is in such dispute that it cannot give any ground for agreement. Neither can the issue of inclusivity, for this too is hotly debated. The one area that provides common ground is the ancient principle of Christian brothers showing love and forbearance to each other and being one in Christ.
Now we all come at this in different ways, but I find the idea of worldwide unity less important than the idea that we should always follow what we think the Holy Spirit shows us. And one thing that the Spirit has indubitably shown us all over the centuries is that brotherly love and forbearance are key factors between brothers and sisters in Christ.
I think that this an aspect of the whole affair that has been almost ignored until now. In this situation we should focus on the need for toleration, love and forbearance between the Christians most concerned in the disagreement. The need is to allow the Holy Spirit to lead and guide, over decades if necessary, until the right way forward for the whole Communion becomes obvious to all.
When you have two warring factions how do you proceed? One way is to change the rules so that one side comes out on top - and, hey presto, problem solved! That is the Windsor Report way.
This focus s what now needs addressing. Surely what matters is what is right, not what is expedient. Expediency - even in support of a good cause like unity - comes way down the list.
Of course the Archbishop is correct when he said in his recent statement that Christians differ irreconcilably on the matter of homosexuality. That is beyond question. But all Christians know in their hearts that they should have love and forbearance towards other brothers and sisters in Christ. This deeper principle of bearing with fellow Christians even when disagreeing with them is never raised in discussions about these matters.
I believe that this is where the nub of the matter lies. No one seems able to address the apparent inability of the conservative evangelicals to live alongside brothers and sisters in Christ who hold a different opinion about homosexuality. Surely all churches should be called to show the Christian love and forbearance while prayerfully waiting to discern where the truth lies?
Perhaps in the meantime conservative evangelicals need to recognise that gay affirming churches are not just going along with social trends in their country. Popular opinion is denigrated by the conservative evangelicals. They see the acceptance of gay Christians by churches as cultural acquiescence. They say that the liberals are just pandering to what is fashionable in their country. Liberals point to a much deeper reading of the gospels that indicates that the love of Christ extends to all, and that all should be welcomed in, and that it is the Holy Spirit who convicts of sin and provides the strength to move out of bondage to it.
In the same vein, perhaps Liberals need to recognise that not all anti-gay statements by conservative evangelicals spring from homophobia.
We are all surrounded by witnesses. The general public has a deep perception of the reality behind recent developments in sexual understanding. This consists of a recognition that each person should be treated as a full human being. That each person has a right to be treated equally with everybody else. That there should not be discrimination on the grounds of race, gender or sexual orientation. That each of us is equal before the law. The constitution of America and the laws of many other countries assert the rights of the individual to be treated in this way before the law. The public has already decided that gay people should be accepted everywhere.
So what is to be done?
Firstly the point needs to be driven home to everyone who will listen that eliminating gay affirming churches is not going to solve the problems and therefore the idea of a covenant should be dropped. The majority (of conservative evangelical churches) will not be content to just exclude several national churches from their midst - they will want to go on to outlaw homosexuality which, according to some of them, is bestial.
So excluding gay affirming churches will not solve the problem about homosexuality. Western civilised countries largely accept that homosexuality is an orientation not a disease or a sin, and acceptance of gay people is bound to grow in the coming decades.
Expelling gay affirming national churches will also not solve the problem of disputes between churches because within each national church there are some who believe that we should be gay affirming just as there are some who don’t accept that point of view. The rift is not just between several national churches - but is within national churches - a point made recently by the Archbishop. In fact, of course, the difference of opinion also extends to within the local churches!
Eliminating gay affirming churches by the Anglican Communion is a retrograde step for the Communion - a step back into a the past, not forward into the future.
Secondly, it needs to be recognised that we must decide these and similar matters (or hold them in an agreed unresolved tension for a time) on the basis of what is right, not on the desire to preserve unity at all costs. This is not to advocate a fudge but rather a full and open recognition by all of the different viewpoints.
Thirdly, the conservative evangelical churches must be brought to see that staying in an international Communion is preferable to splitting off completely from relationships with other Anglican Churches. If they wish they may draw certain lines in the sand about no-go areas. Liberals would understand this need of conservative Anglican churches. After all we are all doing the same sort of thing for churches that cannot accept women priests. But a link between all the Anglican Churches of the world is important. Preserving that link - however tenuous it may be - is better than breaking it or eliminating gay affirming churches.
But if the conservatives will not even countenance being in the same church as the liberals then I believe that the true parting of the ways has arrived and they must go their own way. It would be folly to try to preserve a false ‘unity’ (leading to the elimination of some churches from full membership) in the hope of some illusory future unity.
And finally, the problem that African (and other) national churches have with feeling that they are being dominated by English/American/Western ideas and leaders must be addressed properly and fully. This is a far more serious problem than many commentators will acknowledge and it must be addressed. It is simply not good enough to hope that Christian love will overcome the problem - it obviously has not so far! A Conference needs to be set up, chaired by an African perhaps, to air all the aspects of this problem so that it can be properly dealt with and steps taken to allay fears and doubts. Contrition by the Western churches may be called for. Maybe this is where real love can break into the situation and start the healing process between men and women all of whom affirm that Jesus is Lord.
There is no doubt that vast forces across the world have been stirred into action by the events following Bishop Gene Robinson becoming a bishop. We need to address all those pressures and opinions by strong lead from Canterbury. Of course we all accept that Canterbury has no power to make anyone do anything. Of course we all totally accept and agree with the sentiment recently expressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury as to his role in this matter. That is not the issue. The truly vital question is whether the Archbishop can hold out a vision not of unity - which is clearly impossible in the present circumstances - but of sustained fellowship (even at arm’s length) in a Communion that has much tradition behind it and clearly still has much to contribute to the world.