From September 20 to 25, the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church met and passed a resolution that gave its considered response to the requests made of it by the Primates who met at Dar es Salaam from last February.
I will not review the history, either of the last few years or of the last few weeks, that produced these documents and a great many others, beginning with the Windsor Report in the fall of 2005 and including the Communiqué issued by the Primates at Dar es Salaam last February. Those who wish to catch up may do so by going either to TitusOneNine and reading forward from September 18 to today, September 29, or similarly at StandFirm. It’s a lot. I have read many of the responses to the resolution, from individual bishops to organizations such as the American Anglican Council, reponses pro, con, and neutral. I offer here, not so much an analysis of the resolution of the House of Bishops of TEC, as a series of propositions concerning its real import, six theses if you will. In doing so, I invite debate, particularly as I believe that some of my views run a bit contrary to those expressed by many conservative Anglicans.
Thesis 1: The HoB response to the Primates was indeed weak and unsatisfactory; however, that is in large part because the documents to which they were responding, from the Windsor Report (hereinafter ‘Windsor’) to the Dar es Salaam Communiqué (hereinafter ‘Dar’), were themselves weak and unsatisfactory to begin with.
I will not repeat my criticisms of Windsor; readers may find them filed at the left under ‘Windsor Report.’ It will suffice for now to say that Windsor, with its fake history, bad scholarship, and ambivalent ecclesiology, was so flawed that those who declared it “the only game in town” were bound to be disappointed. It was a misleading, not to say dishonest, document that made extremely weak requests of the Episcopal Church. Evidently those who wrote it must have believed that those who read it in the Episcopal Church would regard it as a definitive set of requests rather than the starting point of negotiations. If so, its authors were hopelessly naïve.
However, even Windsor quickly fell apart, as everyone knows. Somehow it morphed into a mysterious entity dubbed ‘the Windsor process,’ of which I never saw a clear definition. From ‘Windsor process’ we went to ‘Windsor bishops’ to ‘Camp Allen bishops’ to . . . well, to a complete collapse of any effort to resist the tide of death that has rolled over the Episcopal Church and that threatens to engulf the Anglican Communion.
When it became clear at the last General Convention that Windsor would not do what its supporters hoped it would do, a Communiqué was issued by the Primates at Dar es Salaam, which placed a supposed September 30 deadline for the Episcopal Church, and in particular the House of Bishops, to comply with a set of demands. The creation of a deadline and the somewhat firmer tone of the Communiqué raised hopes. Oddly enough, the apparent rejection of that Communiqué by the House of Bishops already back in March raised those hopes further: first because the rejection was unusually (for the House of Bishops) clear, and second that it prompted the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Primates’ Standing Committee to the meeting of the House of Bishops in New Orleans this past week. Surely, it was thought, the bishops will realize what is what this time.
However, the authors of Dar made two crucial mistakes. The first was the belief that they would be taken at their word. Instead, of course, the Dar Communiqué was simply treated by the House of Bishops as, yet again, the starting point of negotiations, not an end, a view that was only aided by the declaration of the Archbishop of Canterbury that the September 30 deadline of the Communiqué was not an “ultimatum.” Second, Dar itself famously declared
In particular, the Primates request, through the Presiding Bishop, that the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church 1. make an unequivocal common covenant that the bishops will not authorise any Rite of Blessing for same-sex unions in their dioceses or through General Convention (cf TWR, §143, 144); and 2. confirm that the passing of Resolution B033 of the 75th General Convention means that a candidate for episcopal orders living in a same-sex union shall not receive the necessary consent (cf TWR, §134); unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the Communion (cf TWR, §134).
Fr. Geoffrey Kirk argued that this last clause—unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the Communion (which was itself based upon the flawed Windsor Report)—was fatal, an indication that the Primates were arguing based on current convictions and not unalterable truth. I argued in turn that it did not need to be read that way—but is anyone surprised that the House of Bishops nevertheless did just that? As should be evident to anyone but the most willfully blind, the attitude of the Episcopal Church, including the House of Bishops, to discussions between it and the rest of the communion over controverted matters is essentially the same as that attributed to the Soviet Union in the good ol’ days of arms talks in the Cold War: “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is negotiable.” Give these people the slightest hint that there might be just ever so little leeway, and they will assume that this means the door is wide open. Period.
In any case, neither Windsor nor Dar were much concerned with truth. Rather, these documents were at best concerned with finding truth, and at worst with a process aimed at achieving a consensus, which is not the same thing as settling a truth claim. Since so many on both sides of the issue believed that matters of truth had already been settled and it was merely a question of persuading the other side to see the light, there was no way the House of Bishops would come up with anything pleasing to those committed to the biblical view of human sexuality.
I could go on—there a lots of other instances of this sort of thing in the last few months and years—but why bother? Suffice it to say, Windsor and Dar were thin reeds, and no one should be surprised that they broke.
Thesis 2: The House of Bishops resolution is, in fact, a lot closer to the requests of the Primates than many reasserters want to admit.
Remember the infamous “sub-group report” that was published just before the meeting of the Primates at Dar es Salaam? The amount of cyber-sturm-und-drang that generated was enough to almost declare the Anglican lane of the information superhighway closed for repairs.
There were rumblings that the subgroup report might be resurrected in New Orleans. But in fact it was not. Rather, a resolution was produced that actually inched a bit closer to what the Primate’s asked at Dar. Not all the way, but an inch closer. Of all the analyses I have read, one that I have found particularly helpful is that produced by the American Anglican Council entitled “The Episcopal Church House of Bishops Response to The Dar es Salaam Communiqué.” You may find it here (a PDf file). If you consider objectively the side by side comparison made by the American Anglican Council, you discover that
a) Rites of blessing for same sex unions are not in fact authorized at a local level. American bishops are just turning a blind eye, just as they are in other parts of the communion. Is it really so illogical to consider it unfair to hold the Episcopal Church to a standard that is not observed in, say, Scotland or even the C of E?
b) Resolution B033 was in fact clarified in the manner requested by the Primates. No doubt homosexuals will continue to be nominated for episcopal election. Bishops can’t stop that. But if we take them at their word, they will not consent to the election of an active homosexual. Were this standard in place in 2003, Gene Robinson would not be Bishop of Connecticut.
c) The Presiding “Bishop” came up with yet another plan for alternative episcopal oversight. No, it was not what Dar requested. So what? Again, if you view Dar as another attempt at negotiation, and the deadline of September 30 as only a deadline for a response and not a capitulation, then the House of Bishops simply put forward yet another scheme in a process not unlike talks between GM and the UAW.
d) No, the House of Bishops did not say they would cease litigation against departing congregations. What did anyone expect? In the weeks leading up to meeting, a baker’s dozen of bishops were consecrated in Africa precisely to look after such departing congregations. Who is kidding whom here?
Thesis 3: Despite that, the response still does not quite meet the demands (yes, demands) of the Primates as expressed in Windsor and Dar.
Windsor and Dar have been parsed ad nauseam by too many people to count. In the end, however, the only reasonable interpretation of these documents is that they ask bishops to forbid their clergy from performing any sort of same-sex blessing, and acknowledge publicly that the standard of teaching for the Anglican Communion on human sexuality is Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, even if they wish to privately lobby for a change. This the bishops in New Orleans did not do. If they want to call the rest of the communion hypocrites, fine. Life isn’t fair, and life in the church hasn’t been fair since about, oh, AD 50.
Furthermore, if the bishops did publicly declare that Lambeth 1.10 is the standard of teaching of the communion, and did forbid their clergy from performing same-sex blessings, and did drop their law suits, they would probably find that the impetus to leave would decrease dramatically. That they cannot bring themselves to do those things even for a season—say, until the next General Convention—makes it abundantly clear that, at bottom, the leadership of the Episcopal Church will never, ever back away from their commitment to their understanding of “inclusion.”
Thesis 4: In the end, however, all of this is largely irrelevant, because Windsor and Dar were themselves consensus documents that did not reveal, but rather masked the real divisions among us, and nothing will change those divisions.
It will not matter how many Primates’ meetings, General Conventions, Camp Allen meetings, Lambeth Conferences, et cetera are held and how many documents are produced, so long as those meetings and documents are designed to bridge some sort of gap between reasserters and reappraisers or to hold them together in a single communion without a resolution of fundamental issues (see thesis 5 below).
Thesis 5: The true subjects of division between reasserters and reappraisers—and in some cases, between reasserters and reasserters—are:
a) the very nature of revealed religion, closely tied to the question of religious authority.
b) ecclesiology, or what it means to belong to the Body of Christ, once again closely tied to the question of religious authority.
c) the human condition, including but not limited to human sexuality, particularly as it relates to the first chapters of Genesis as seen through the prism of the New Testament.
Thesis 6: The divisions that are outlined in Thesis 5 are the same as those at the heart of disagreements over the “ordination” of women, and this is not a coincidence.
Since the meeting of the House of Bishops, the Common Cause Partners have met and taken their own first steps towards some sort of new Anglican entity in North America. I will address that in a future post.