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Episcopalian Crisis: Authority, Homosexuality & the Future of Anglicanism, Part II

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

By Jay Seltser

The views and opinions expressed in this essay do not necessarily reflect those of the creator of this blog and are the sole responsibility of the author. Essays expressing opinions similar to and counter to those of the creator of this blog are strictly for diversity and to start thoughtful and meaningful discussion.

This the second part of a slightly edited essay that appeared in the May 19, 2006 issue of Commonweal, an independent Catholic journal of opinion edited and managed by lay Catholics.

I know many Catholics ask the same questions about their church’s teachings on contraception and other disputed issues. Autobiography is crucial here. My own views are shaped in part by the Jewish tradition I lived in for most of my life, before I became a Christian sixteen years ago. As I experienced and loved it, Judaism is a tradition steeped in a text but also committed at its core to interpretation and adaptation. The structure of the key Jewish sources through which the Bible is read is inherently dialogical; rabbinic figures debate with one another over the meaning of particular biblical verses, citing alternative verses or different meanings of the same words, different analogies, or diverse human experiences. The goal is seldom theoretical understanding for its own sake, but rather practical understanding to allow the community to remain faithful to a long-standing covenant while living in very different historical circumstances. The Jewish tradition has its own liberal/conservative continuum, but the center of the tradition is one of a continually changing and creative interaction of a community with its authorizing texts. This set of experiences and my personal commitment to open intellectual discussion and debate leave me very uncomfortable with the idea that specific biblical passages are always the determining or sole source of divine guidance or inspiration.

My own journey into Christianity was not motivated by rejection of Judaism but rather by a growing appreciation-aesthetic as well as intellectual, emotional as well as doctrinal-of the Christian story, Christian symbols, and Christian worship. Much to my surprise, I found the central story of Jesus’ incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection to reflect much of what I believed about who God is and how he acts. I found the cross to be a symbol of both redemptive suffering and the interaction between human sinfulness and divine compassion. And in the language of Christian worship, I discovered a voice and an idiom that seemed to express my deepest longings for prayer.

I began to attend Episcopal services while I was engaged to a woman studying to become a priest. It was the language and liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, with its soaring Elizabethan prose and its broad incorporation of both Catholic and Protestant sensibilities, that led me to the baptismal font and to confirmation in the Episcopal Church. This is not unusual, because Episcopalians are frequently more likely to define themselves in terms of the Book of Common Prayer than in terms of adherence to particular doctrinal statements.

In addition to the liturgical and symbolic power of Episcopal worship, I was drawn to the intellectual power of the tradition, as reflected particularly in the writings and continuing influence of the sixteenth-century figure Richard Hooker. His massive work, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, is a brilliant effort to define how the Church of England can protect itself from what he saw as the twin threats of Roman Catholic authoritarianism and domination on one hand, and Puritan narrow-mindedness and self-righteousness on the other. A few observations about Hooker’s approach will underscore what is both attractive yet admittedly problematic about the church that continues to be so indebted to his vision.

Hooker looked for positions and principles that could unite diverse individuals, and he tried to distinguish the essential elements that are worth fighting over from the nonessentials that are not. He was uncomfortable assuming bad motives by his opponents, in part because he recognized the gray areas of human life. He wrote that “Our end ought always to be the same, our ways and means thereunto not so.” Hooker saw in the Church of England a sign of “a course more calm and moderate,” providing a model for the other churches that were immersed in “mutual combustions bloodsheds and wastes.”

The substance of his position is reflected in the way he argued his case. The structure of the Laws proceeds by presenting long quotations from key Puritan writers, acknowledging what was reasonable in their position, and then stating the areas of disagreement and trying to indicate why the Puritan view was wrong. He tried to find a position both sides could agree on. And Hooker was not so sure of the truth of his own position that he demonized his opponents, nor did he draw the lines so firmly that those on the other side were viewed as outside the realm of redemption or the true church. Hooker went so far as to believe that Roman Catholics could go to heaven, a highly unpopular position a few decades after the reign of the Protestant-persecuting Queen Mary and around the time of the Spanish Armada.

It is partly from Hooker that Anglicans (including Episcopalians) inherit their long-standing view that Christian authority derives from the interaction of Scripture, the tradition of the church, and human reason and experience. Hooker began with the authority of Scripture, and believed that it was normative when it provided clear guidance. But the Christian tradition’s centuries of reflection on Scripture, and the reasoned consensus and consideration of the contemporary community, are essential once we recognize that the Bible does not provide an unambiguous set of answers to contemporary questions. This tripartite approach is necessary and complex, both because none of these sources is univocal or self-disclosing without extensive interpretation, and because the sources can and do conflict when applied to complex problems. (Even the seemingly unambiguous condemnations of homosexual behavior need to account for the very different meaning of the key terms in much earlier and different cultural contexts, and the difficulties of imagining how the writers may have responded to a different set of potential relationships offered in a different historical situation.)

I was drawn to this broad and somewhat ambiguous view of authority, partly because it reminded me of the exciting and playful element of interpretation that I had so loved in the Jewish tradition, but also because of a temperamental and moral distrust of certainty. My own religious experiences were not unequivocal or overpowering revelations of a Christian God who crowded out or eliminated all other options; my journey into the Christian community was not a story of sudden enlightenment or joyous salvation but rather a long process of exploration, doubt, and subtle but revealing suggestions of a God who had done amazing things and who seemed able to be revealed through mundane and mixed human lives. It was this vision, with all its ambiguity and halting movements, that was embodied in an Anglican tradition and an Episcopal Church that struggled explicitly with the tension between faith and reason, certainty and doubt, unity and diversity.

The center of the Anglican tradition has insisted on bringing together a Catholic and Protestant approach to Christian worship, order, and theology. The church is “Catholic” in many respects. Sacraments are central, parish leaders are “priests,” bishops lead dioceses, and Episcopalians try to take seriously the tradition of apostolic succession and the connection of the U.S. church with fellow Anglican churches throughout the world. In these ways, Episcopalians are somewhat more content than many other Protestants to affirm belief in a church that is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”

Yet at the same time, Episcopalians are self-consciously “catholic with a small c,” reflecting the historical refusal to accept the form of organization and authority centered on the bishop of Rome. It is no small matter that the name given to the new church in the United States in 1789 was the “Protestant Episcopal Church.” The form of organization developed along with the formation of the U.S. government, and the church structure reflects the concern for balance of powers, lay influence, and distrust of centralized authority that also define the U.S. Constitution.

As the current crisis exemplifies, the temperamental taste for finding middle ground, for avoiding extremes, and for striving for unity in the midst of diversity, is both the strength and weakness of the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion as a whole. For those seeking a church with room for a wide variety of views, the Episcopal Church can offer a welcoming embrace, a settling calm in the midst of doctrinal storms, a place to learn and talk about how to make sense of our varied perspectives. As long as members of the community maintain Hooker’s distinction between the essential and the nonessential, and view most of the disagreements as being open to serious discussion, a tolerance for different views can be fostered.

But for those seeking a clearer vision of theological truth, the Episcopal Church can be a frustrating place indeed. The drawbacks are obvious in times of significant disagreement, as each portion of the community seems to have the right to draw the line wherever it chooses. Specific disputes cannot be resolved easily by appeal to a central authority; the degree of autonomy of each parish and diocese, and the pluralistic and democratic nature of national decision making, can exacerbate tensions and create the basis for continuing conflicts. Of course, similar tensions exist within Roman Catholicism, as the current upheavals in Boston and elsewhere show. Still, at least to an outsider, Catholic disagreements tend to be either resolved or submerged more effectively, because of the Catholic Church’s embrace of a more unequivocal central authority, one that can set clearer boundaries and even restrict discussion. (Or at least discipline theologians and remove editors!)

One of the most attractive and intriguing aspects of the Episcopal Church is its faith that a democratic religious community that locates control in the individual or the parish can still remain faithful to an ancient tradition of creedal orthodoxy and discipleship. It is not surprising that such a community is likely to be more contentious, disordered, and ambiguous than one with clearer lines of authority or arbiters of orthodoxy. Whether democracy and creedal orthodoxy are compatible is now being sorely tested, and there is much at stake for other religious communities in the outcome.

In a wonderful essay on Hooker, Rowan Williams emphasizes that worship involves God’s ability to transform us in our frailty. Hooker was, in Williams’s words, a “contemplative pragmatist,” struggling to find a way through complex disagreements and insisting on the creation of a community that provides sufficient room for diverse views on all but the most essential matters of faith. Williams suggests that Hooker’s vision of Christian community is of a community that is “dialogical rather than a simple process of instruction.” I imagine that is a vision of the church that many Catholics share.

Archbishop Williams himself is the preeminent Anglican theologian in the world, a brilliant scholar and writer who combines breathtaking intellectual energy and productivity with a deeply spiritual and reflective approach to the nature of the church and Christian life. Although he has staked out liberal positions on many issues, he is also seen as being deeply committed to preserving and handing on the orthodox tradition. It remains unclear whether his sensitivity and intellect will allow him to resolve the conflicts within his church, or whether his role as its most important institutional figure will constrain his ability to develop a creative position that would be viewed as institutionally and theologically acceptable to both sides. His current calls for a moratorium and for more faithful reflection are appropriate but may be insufficient to bridge the chasm between members of opposing parties who are convinced they are hearing and following God’s word.

I remain within the Episcopal Church in part because I want to be a member of a community that allows for diverse views and alternative interpretations, views that force me, along with others in my community, to struggle with what we think God is doing. I would rather be part of a church whose conservatives force me to be informed and guided by Scripture, even when I am inclined to dismiss what seem like anachronistic and even unjust teachings. And I would rather be part of a church whose liberals force me to listen to new voices and perspectives, even when I am inclined to dismiss them as modernist, unorthodox, or faddish.

To my mind, the question of whether an openly and sexually actively gay person can serve as a bishop is not a matter of essential Christian faith, nor is the identity or faithfulness of Episcopalians threatened by such service. I respect those who feel differently, but I think they are confusing the essential with the inessential. I believe the identity and faithfulness of the church are threatened far more by those who think the Gnostic Gospels or The Da Vinci Code has more to teach us than the Nicene Creed or the central texts of the Bible. I wish the ECUSA had waited a bit longer to take the step to ordain a sexually active homosexual person as bishop, and I wish the opponents of that step were more willing to consider whether God may be doing something new in our own time. But I continue to be an Episcopalian because the arguments, the disagreements, and even the threats of schism are all part of a messy and all-too-human way of struggling together to glimpse the nature and actions of an ultimately unknowable and infinitely loving God.

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One Comment
  1. Anonymous permalink
    Monday, January 29, 2007 12:20 am

    Jack,
    Thank you very much for posting this message.You trull have an open and accepting mind to share with others. I can see by what you wrote that you are not willing to give up dialouging with others on very difficult issues within the Episcopal Church. I really apriciate the fact that you stated our history as Epsicopalians while introducing your past within your Jewish up bringing. You have much to offter all faith communities. God Bless you my brother in Christ,
    Val

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