Lambeth 2008 – Moving Forward

So the big shin-dig at the campus of the University of Kent is over. Bishops are either returning home or taking the opportunity to spend a few days having a look round this Sceptered Isle.  The Reflections Document has been issued, Rowan has had his final say, and as we all pause to consider the events of the past few weeks, our thoughts turn to one question – what happens next?

For what it’s worth, the Archbishop’s final address is a master-piece in providing a glimpse of what the way forward might look like. Anybody who knows Rowan Williams knows that his style of leadership is to suggest what the path might be and then to step back and let those on the ground decide whether that is the path that want to take. While many might think that such an approach lacks the firm hand that is needed right now, it is right to applaud Rowan for his unwillingness to attempt to impose a solution on the Communion that will simply be rejected. If the Spirit is at work amongst us (and He is), then he doesn’t need to do that – we will all, on genuine, heart-searching reflection come to the mind of Christ.

When discussing previous Lambeths, Rowan had this to say:

The Resolution of Lambeth ’98 was an attempt to say both ‘We need understanding and shared discernment on a hugely complex topic,’ and ‘We as the bishops in council together are not persuaded that the new thoughts offered to us can be reconciled with our shared loyalty to Scripture.’ Perhaps we should read that Resolution – forgetting for a moment the bitterness and confusion around the debate and acknowledging that it remains where our Communion as a global community stands – as an attempt to define what a healthy Church might need – space for study and free discussion without pressure, pastoral patience and respect, unwillingness to change what has been received in faith from Scripture and tradition. And this is not by any means to say that a traditional understanding and a new one are just two equal options, like items on the supermarket shelf : the practice and public language of the Church act always as a reminder that the onus of proof is on those who seek a new understanding. To say that the would-be innovator must be heard gratefully and respectfully is simply to acknowledge the debt we always owe to those who ask unfamiliar questions, because they prompt us to explore our tradition more deeply.

One of the points of fracture at the moment in the Communion is that different parts of the church have taken ’98 1:10 and read the bits that they wanted and ignored the bits that they didn’t like. So naturally, Conservatives get utterly frustrated by revisionists who insist upon the "listening process" being adhered to yet seem to ride very roughly over the other parts of the statement that draw an absolute "no-no" (at this time) for in any way endorsing same-sex practice, let alone seeing same-sex unions as holy.

But conversely, there is huge frustration amongst revisionists that many parts of the conservative elements of the church simply haven’t bothered to engage with listening, even five years after the ACC in Nottingham and ten years after Lambeth 1998. When they hear statements such as "We do not have homosexuality in our country", what they hear is a refusal to even engage with the issue at hand. It is blatantly clear to all those with just a smidgeon of anthropological and sociological understanding that homosexualities exist in every single part of the world. The refusal to admit as much is not to take a clear moral stand on the issue, but rather is a pastoral failure of the highest order, because it is evidence of an unwillingness to engage with people where they are at.

(As an aside, often when I speak on this issue I get people to listen to Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy. If you don’t know the song, click on the link now and spend five minutes listening to Jimmy Sommerville articulate what it is like growing up knowing you are gay, in a society that looks down upon homosexuality. Put aside your moral judgements for a few seconds and just hear what he says and how he says it, the emotion involved in articulating not just the rejection he experiences but also his perceived inability to talk to his nearest and dearest about this most initimate part of his life.)

Listening though is more about just hearing stories. It is also to do with, once having listened, building and affirming relationships. What is so often disappointing in the past few years is the failure of those who have had the opportunity to influence, who have had the public ear, to use that privilege to affirm the humanity and dignity of those they disagree with theologically. We all know the websites that refer to "polysexual sodomites", but it is not just the cruder forms of language in this discourse that are a sign of no real intent to listen and build relationships. Despite the fact that there exist texts like Goddard and Walker’s "True Union in the Body" which attempt to engage with the best arguments in favour of monogamous gay unions, some conservatives insist on producing writing that condemns not the best examples of gay life, but the worse. Do we need chapters of books denigrating the promiscuous lifestyle of some, when our opponents are actually those who believe very strongly in "Permanent, Stable, Faithful"? Do we need to concentrate on the way that some in our western society want a "plasticisation" of sexuality and cross-generational affection, when the leadership of Integrity and the like are joined with us in condemning paedophilic and ebophilic relationships of any form, consensual or otherwise?

Unless we as the conservative church are willing to admit that we have sometimes (often?) failed in the call of the Lambeth ’98 resolution to listen to the experience of gay and lesbian people (and post-gay and post-lesbian, for the conservative church is still shockingly ignorant in how to deal pastorally in this area) then we have no right to ask those whom we disagree with to take such resolutions seriously themselves. What we need at this point then is a serious, critical self-examination. Can we truly say that in all cases we are the ones sinned against? Can we really stand clean in front of the Lord and argue that we have not ourselves sinned in this conflict?

When I talk with men and women who struggle with same-sex attraction, or indeed any form of sexual or emotional brokeness, what we often discuss is the web of sin that encompasses our lives. The picture for so many is the same – first we are sinned against, and then in our brokeness and woundedness we sin in response. While healing is found by allowing Jesus to send the Spirit into our wounds, that is only part of the journey towards wholeness. At the same time there is an accompanying need for confession and admittance of guilt. Even in those situations where our sinful response was beyond our control, we still need to accept culpability for acting in a manner that God didn’t create us to. In order to move forward we need not just healing for our wounds, but the will to die to the sinful self that seeks its own glorification and satisfaction rather than God’s.

Here’s Rowan again:

It’s worth adding, too, that the call for a moratorium on interventions across provinces belongs in the same theological framework. Such interventions often imply that nothing within a province, no provision made or pastoral care offered, can be recognizably and adequately Christian; and this is a claim not lightly to be made by any Christian community regarding any other without grave breach of charity. And it seems to be widely agreed in this Conference that internal pastoral and liturgical care, strengthened by arrangements like the suggested Communion Partners initiative in the USA and the proposed Pastoral Forum we have been discussing, are the way we should go if we want to avoid further ecclesial confusion.

Do you see how that links in with what I’ve just been saying? Cross-boundary interventions are often seen as the only possiblity in some circumstances, but they themselves become acts of sin in response to sin. If we truly believe that the Spirit was at work in the Ecumenical Councils of the first millenium, then we have to see these violations of the Nicene principle of diocesan integrity as serious breaches of catholicity. They may themselves be the result of other serious breaches of catholicity (false teaching), but we need to accept that one sin does not somehow validate the second that comes in response.

So we need brutal honesty in ourselves at this point. We need to have a moment of clear examination of our consciences. Whether we believe ourselves to be in Egypt, in the Wilderness, in the Promised Land or in Babylon, all these occasions call for a genuine and sincere engagement with where we as the conservative part of the chuch have sinned.

And let us be clear on one thing. Confession in Scripture is never on the basis of "I will confess if my enemy will". You simply won’t find such a concept. Jesus calls us very clearly to first examine our own eye before commenting on the speck in our friend’s. The plank doesn’t come out at the same time as the speck – it is only in realising that we have a plank and first doing something about it that we gain any ability, morally or practically, to address the specks in others.

Here then is perhaps one road forward for the Conservatives. GAFCON and the Global South should call an immediate moratorium on border-crossing. Yes, that will be painful for many. It will explicitly involve the dying to self that I spoke about above, for in the short term it will leave many abused and attacked in liberal dioceses, believing that they have been abandoned by those who said they would provide rescue. It would also implicitly involve confessing that the act of crossing diocesan boundaries was wrong, for we there would be no need to have a moratorium if crossing boundaries was seen by all as acceptable. But beyond these two things, it would at the same time indicate that we are serious about holding the Communion together, and what it would also do is give TEC, Canada (and Scotland now it appears) a very clear opportunity to also engage in the moratoria that they have been asked to impose, on same-sex blessings and ordaining and consecrating those in sexual relationships outside of marriage. There is a US House of Bishops meeting in September followed by Diocesan Conventions throughout the Autumn, easily enough time for all the necessary bodies in TEC to have come to a clear and unequivocal decision before the Primates’ Meeting in early 2009 on whether they want to take the path advocated by Rowan.

That is one road forward. The other road, which I fear is what may yet happen, is that we will continue to maintain the absolute moral high-ground, that schism will formally happen, and though we will have been vindicated theologically by the applause that comes from Rome and Moscow for our stand, we will have spiritually failed to deal with the real issue that Jesus wants us to deal with – the need for us to be brutally honest about the mistakes we have made on the journey to such a conclusion.

I’ll leave the (almost) last words to Rowan:

And as we come to the conclusion of our Conference, we very rightly and understandably bring all our thoughts, our reflections, our memories, our frustrations and our hopes into a liturgy in which what we do is precisely to tell the story that makes something happen.  We tell the story of how the Word of God made flesh, living in our midst, on the night before he offered himself so that we might live, took bread, and broke it, and shared it.  We tell that story and something happens, something that enables us to recognize, yet again, that the deepest thing in us is that which God invites to share his table, to share his company, to lay close to his heart.  That thing in us which God invites and longs for, drawn to him to be next to him, ‘next to the Father’s heart’, in the gospel’s phrase.  Here, at this Eucharist, we experience—each one of us—what it is for a story to be told that makes something happen; that changes not just bread and wine and believer, but the whole world:  because here, in our midst is the beginning of the end, the realization of the hope of all creation, all people, all reality, drawn together in the broken bread and the shared wine.  

That is our story and our song, at this and every Eucharist.  And strengthened by the resurrection life that is there given, we go out to tell the story afresh, we go out in the confidence that when we speak from that heart of reality, which is the broken bread of Jesus’ truth and Jesus’ love, recognition will happen.  The springs will be unblocked, the deserts will blossom, the Spirit will overflow.  

God give us grace to tell that story.  May God pour out his Spirit on each of us in all our words and deeds of witness so that something will happen, and that something will be the Holy Spirit of God.  Amen

If we fail at this last moment to truly speak from the heart of reality, to be honest and open about how we, corporately and individually, have sinned and where we need to repent, we will have lost everything. May Jesus give us the grace to die to ourselves and to see him rise in glory.

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