Archive for February, 2004

Talking Past Each Other, Part One

February 6, 2004

At the Episcopal Church Foundation Fellows Forum, “Reconstructing Anglican Comprehensiveness”, held 5-6 February 2004 at Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama, the very Rev. Paul Zahl, Dean of the Cathedral, gave an excellent opening address, “Last Signal to the Carpathia.” ( In it, he outlined some of the theological consequences of the consecration of Gene Robinson and the blessing of same-sex “unions.” From there, he went on to make a plea for what the NACDP is calling “Adequate Episcopal Oversight” and to lament the generally hostile response that those who opposed the consecration of Gene Robinson have received, something that has separated him from old friends and other people he respected:

We are talking about Grace, or love, here. In relationships with people you love, you often do what they want to do simply because they want to do it. If my wife has an interest that I regard as dumb – let’ s just imagine! – I still need to make it, at least somehow, my interest. Not because of the interest itself – not at all – but because of my love for her. The ECUSA bishops need to give us what we so obviously, urgently, and desperately need, out of love. Not because of anything else. It has been astonishing to me, after almost 30 years ordained service in the Episcopal Church, that almost none of my old friends who are now Episcopal bishops or leaders on the ascendant side have reached out, personally. Ian Douglas is a significant exception.

The material principle behind the formal concept of Alternative Episcopal Oversight is, simply put, love.

I think it is fair to say that hostility has been exhibited by both sides in this debate (though not, I hasten to say, by Paul Zahl), but this anger has apparently puzzled some people, whether among the supporters of Gene Robinson (see the letter of Robert Schneider below) or among opponents such as Paul Zahl.

This is a phenomenon I call “talking past each other,” and I want to explore it a bit, because I don’t believe that any real “dialogue” is possible until we realize from where the other side is coming. I don’t think I’m saying anything new here when I suggest that one reason for talking past each other is because each side has in mind a different model of the church. Put another way, the word “church” seems to mean two different things to two different groups of people, even when they use the same terminology: body of Christ, fellowship of all faithful people, et cetera.

Part of my childhood was spent in the south, at the time when the civil rights movement was in full swing. My family was personally involved in this struggle (at some cost), but it remains in my mind a time when the church needed to, and did, speak to entrenched power in the face of obvious injustice.

Now, forty years later, I again live in the south, and the change is obvious. It would be silly to declare that racism is defeated in our society or that our culture is truly color-blind. Yet only a blind man or a fool would deny that enormous change—the sort of change that, in another time and place, might have taken centuries—has taken place in the space of a single generation. I see young, white southern college students who, although perhaps dimly aware that segregation was part of their parents’ lives, are shocked when shown an exhibit that graphically demonstrates just what Jim Crow really meant. Indeed, perhaps the chief problem now in southern race relations is not obvious evil, but complacency in the face of the vestiges of a past hatred and the pockets of racism that persist in our society.

Now I have written in previous posts about two things that I believe characterize many of the supporters of Gene Robsinson (though whether or not this includes the old friends of Paul Zahl I do not know): their stated belief in the so-called “Gamaliel principle,” and the impact of the civil rights and antiwar movements on the consciousness of a generation of church leadership.

The “Gamaliel principle” holds that, if something is of God, it will prosper, and if not it will wither and die. It was used to justify the ordination of women and has been used again to justify the consecration of Gene Robinson and the blessing of same-sex “unions.” And yet, as we have seen, those who have resisted these innovations, particularly the latter, have been treated in many cases with anger and contempt, as both Paul Zahl and Kendall Harmon have testified. Why? If the supporters of the innovations are so confident of their changes in the doctrine and discipline of the Episcopal Church, then why are they not willing to let time and tolerance be the judge? Why not grant Adequate Episcopal Oversight?

The answer is because, in fact, the supporters of Gene Robinson and same-sex “unions” do not really believe in the “Gamaliel principle.” Their model for change in the church, as in society, remains the civil rights movement.

Let’s remember just what the civil rights movement entailed. Although nobly fought in numerous local acts of resistance all across the south (often forgotten today), the movement also required the force of the federal government to enact change. Whether it was Brown vs. Board of Education, or the national guard in Alabama, or the Voting Rights act, decisions were made and laws enacted that brought the pressure of legal force to create change.

So also, I strongly suspect, in the minds of many of the supporters of same-sex “unions,” the change in the church must be forced, forced by the bishops in the face of what is, to them, an obvious evil, the discrimination against homosexuals. To these people, we are all George Wallaces or Bull Connors. Hence the casual use of terms like “fascist” to describe us. A friendly chat over tea about fair treatment is just not possible. Supporters of NACDP appealing to the love of the victors in Minneapolis for their fellow church members in order to create Adequate Episcopal Oversight is, to these victors, a bit like the Klu Klux Klan appealing for just a little space, somewhere, somehow, to continue to separate races and live by a double standard. (The fact that so many of those resisting the innovations of Minneapolis speak with a southern accent may also feed into this.) Over time, the victors believe, they will achieve a transgender equality like unto racial equality, and in a generation people will shake their heads and wonder what all the fuss was about.

They are, of course, wrong, and it is the height of irony that an appeal for tolerance of what had been orthodoxy in the Episcopal Church just a short while ago should come from the Harvard educated dean of the cathedral in Birmingham, Alabama, or that the loudest voices in opposition to Gene Robinson should come from Africa. Such are the twists and turns of history. But if there is any hope of having a real conversation across this divide, those of us on “our side” had better wake up to how we are seen by those on “their side” (to use Paul Zahl’s terms). We are appealing for tolerance from people who think we are intolerant, and so far nothing seems to have changed their minds. “Justice issues” are not negotiable.

What may make it so difficult for the revisionists to hear us is that, with this model of the church, they get to have it both ways—as the majority in ECUSA, they get to be the equivalent of the federal government, forcing needed change, and as the minority in the Anglican Communion, they get to be civil rights martyrs as communion is severed and they are denounced by the Global South. This double satisfaction—both the power and the martyrdom—feeds into a self-righteousness that is almost impermeable to reason.

I believe that these people not only need our prayers, but they need our prayers perhaps even more than many of have thought they did. They are caught in an internal cycle of self-justification and self-verification that only the power of God can break.


Say what?

February 2, 2004

Bishop Peter Lee of Virginia has astounded the world by saying to his diocesan convention that “heresy is better than schism.” His reasoning? Heresy is only “wrong opinion” (as opposed to wrong belief, I guess).

What astounds me is not that he said something so foolish. It is that he said something, well, so . . . stupid.

Let’s think about this. If you define heresy as “wrong opinion,” then to say that heresy is better than schism is circular nonense.

After all, if you say, “I always lie,” the follow that up with “I’m lying,” then the second statement must be true, or false, or true, or false, or . . . you get the idea.

So, if heresy is “wrong opinion,” then if I say “schism is better than heresy,” Peter Lee would presumably reply, “that opinion is wrong,” which would mean that I am a heretic, which would mean that I am better than a schismatic, which would mean . . . you get the idea. The statement refutes itself and is logically meaningless.

Of such people are bishops made? This just goes to show how, in their efforts to square the circle, the leadership of ECUSA is tying itself in knots.