THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 125
Shamed by the women
(Archived material can be found at tonycrosscolumn.org.uk)
There is a very heartening piece of news that has just surfaced and it concerns a group of Christian women who are delegates to the 2007 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The group comprises more than eighty women - all Christian Anglicans - from thirty four countries in the worldwide Anglican Communion, and what they have to say echoes what many of us have felt and believed - and in my case written about (see article number 112). What they focus on is the severance of fellowship between Christians.
Referring to the tensions within the worldwide Anglican Communion they have said that they refuse to accept that there is any one issue of difference or contention which can or, indeed, which could ever cause them to break the unity as represented by their common baptism.
This is a very clear example by Christians of the solidarity of their faith. Despite their differences of view about this or that - including homosexuality and gay partnerships - they refuse to let those differences override their common commitment to each other.
In an article entitled ‘The difference between fudge and compromise’ (number 112, July 2006) I suggested that the breaking of fellowship between fellow Christians - in this case between Christians who belong to the same world wide church - was wrong and should never happen. No matter how much we differ and no matter how deeply we feel the difference to be, the fact is that we are brothers and sisters in Christ. That fact should and must remain paramount between us.
There are always means by which differences can be worked out. And if they cannot, then there are decades of time in which something can be worked out. But to break off relations with other committed Christians is deeply wrong. It is amazing that, when weighing up whether it was worse to break fellowship or to tolerate difference while something is worked out, the Nigerian Archbishop and others have opted for breaking fellowship. In fact it is almost beyond belief that they should take that path in view of all that is said in the New Testament about this very thing.
The crucial wrongness of the disruptive action of the group is shown by the fact that they would not even join the Archbishop of Canterbury at communion. This is as gross an insult and separation as any Christian can give to another Christian. To withdraw from the Lord’s Table just because you disagree with another Christian is in my opinion the gravest action one can take.
The group of Anglican Women go on to say that they would never consider severing the deep and abiding bonds of affection which characterize their relationship together as Anglican Women. So what does the withdrawal of senior church leaders from sharing communion with their fellow church leaders signify? It speaks of a withdrawal of affection. It speaks of a breakdown of love. It is the very thing that Jesus and St Paul spoke so vehemently against.
Finally the group of Anglican women said that a sisterhood of suffering was at the heart of their theology and their commitment to transforming the whole world through peace and justice. Is there not a potent lesson here for those church leaders who withdraw from fellowship with their fellow Anglicans? Where is the evidence that they are willing to embrace suffering as part of their commitment to transform the world? Instead they are trying to force a schism - force other Christians in the same world wide communion to leave that communion - or at least to take a minor role in its future work.
At one stage I noticed that the Global South churches made great play of the fact that it was the American Church that was walking away from the others, and not the African and other churches that was separating itself. That is not true. The real act of division comes when Christian leaders refuse to fellowship with other Christian leaders. The complaint that it was the American Church that was walking away was to mask what they themselves were doing - refusing fellowship to other Christians - with some of whom they disagreed,
The Global South churches have been shamed by this small group of eighty Christian women from thirty-four different countries. The action of some Primates in refusing to fellowship with those other Christians - in the same communion - with whom they disagree has been shown up for what it is - a basic contravention of the gospel of Jesus Christ. No matter how much they stand on their theology and their condemnations of the American Church - and no matter how wrong the American church may or may not be - the fact is that the Global South Churches have taken a wrong turn in refusing to continue to have fellowship. They have contravened the basic rules of Christian behaviour.
Indeed it can be seen from the example of the life of Christ itself. He not only talked with, healed and generally accepted those who were living lives that directly contradicted his teaching - he also went with them socially (for a meal) and, we may infer, enjoyed the occasions. How can one possibly draw from that any justification for what the Global South Churches have done? By their decision to refuse to continue in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the others they have also so disrupted the ordinary give and take of Communion life that deep rifts have appeared. They have much to answer for in what can only be called an unchristian action.
It is reported that in the view of the Anglican women in this case, the recent warning given to the Episcopal Church (of America) at the Tanzania conference - that the relationship between the American Church and the rest of the Communion remains damaged and may have consequences for the full participation of that church in the life of the Communion - is wrong. They think, apparently, that this warning is inconsistent with the Christian mission of reconciliation and compassionate ministry. They think it is a decidedly male approach to the management of difference!
It is reported that the women are outraged about the way that a small group of leaders should insist that issues of sexuality should preoccupy everyone in the Communion. Indeed they see the whole issue in terms of male power play and the desire to have ownership of space - whether physical or theological. They say that the women’s ways forward have to do with working for the welfare of creation and the full flourishing of mankind.
What we see here is one of the benefits of moving away from an all male approach! No doubt the theologians and leaders of some churches may descry what the women are saying. They will no doubt suggest that they do not realise the true issues involved. And all of that.
But what we have here is surely the voice of reason striking through all the rhetoric. What we have here is a welcome douche of cold water on the fevered arguments about homosexuality that have been going on. All of this leads us to see that the discussions between the world leaders of the Anglican Churches have gone horribly wrong.
So what is to be done? Probably very little. A world wide rising up of the women in the Anglican Communion saying to the men "for heaven’s sake get real! We all have huge problems - hunger, homelessness, sickness and a hundred other troubles and here you are arguing about homosexuality. Have some sense of balance. It is not that in important. If, as so many think, being gay is blessed by God then let it ride and see what happens. If it is of God then it will be seen to be right eventually. Meantime what can you be thinking of to cut yourself off from other Christians who love the Lord and want to serve you? You are doing this just because they think differently from you about sex? Beware! - suppose God is in it? You may be fighting against God!"
Probably the leaders of the Global South Churches have gone too far down their chosen path of walking alone to be able to get back on the main highway again now. Probably they are too committed to their point of view. Probably they have said too much, gone too far, separated themselves too radically to be able to backtrack.
If that is the case then of course there is nothing for it but that there will have to be a schism. But at least lets get the terms of the schism right. It should not be that any one church - Nigerian or American or any other is demoted when compared with the other churches. It should be that an accommodation is found within the system for them to be separate entities insofar as that is possible.
Can that be done? I don't know. However it does occur to me that if the churches which felt deeply about this issue were separately answerable to the Archbishop of Canterbury then that might perhaps permit sufficient separateness for them to satisfy themselves that they are no longer contaminated with each other.