21 March 2007

The bishops and the Body of Christ

Over the past few days, I had been pondering the notion of church unity as it relates to the current "crisis." We're told, most often by conservatives, that schism is being forced upon them (or us, depending) by the situation. The trope is one that the US president likes to use ("either you're with us, or you're against us"), and in church circles you see it coming from the right, and sometimes from the left. This idea, as it applies to church, flatly contradicts 1 Corinthians 12.

I was moved by Susan Russell's post on St. Patrick's Day, in which she moves past the liberation-now-or-be-gone-conservative idea into the idea that LGBT Christians might be called to stay in the church to preach the Gospel of God's radical love:

And here we are in 2007 -- a church continuing to wrestle with whether or not it is going to fulfill its commitment to the "full and equal claim" promised the gay and lesbian baptized since 1976. On this particular St. Patrick's Day I believe asking gay and lesbian Episcopalians to hang in there and continue to take the vision of a Body of Christ that fully includes all the baptized BACK to the church that still holds their vocations and relationships hostage is almost as hard to imagine as asking Patrick to go evangelize the Irish who enslaved him. And yet that's the vision we've been given – that's the call we have received.

Over and against that spirit of self-offering love and costly witness, the day before St. Patrick's Day was the deadline that +Rowan had imposed for nominations for the Pastoral Council that is to oversee the Primatial Vicar. Setting the deadline several days before the House of Bishops could even convene for a discussion was hardly a way to keep the church in conversation. This was a way to say to the deliberative bodies of the Episcopal Church, "I have no need of you."

By coincidence, the last few days also saw the publication of the Panel of Reference report on six Florida parishes, in which boundary crossings were upheld and internal unity was laid aside. Remember, the original objection of the six dissenting parishes was an action by their diocesan bishop. What was that action? Although he voted against the consent of the Bishop of New Hampshire, Bishop Howard of Florida continued to participate in the life of the church. Those six parishes thought he should absent himself from the church -- that is, that he should excommunicate himself from his fellow bishops -- because of disagreement. Though Bishop Howard has steadfastly maintained conservative positions on sexuality, he also sought to keep the church together. He would not say to other bishops, "I have no need of you."

Over the next few days, the Akinolites and Minns-ions will try mightily to get this narrative out there: "The House of Bishops are severing their ties to the communion." But that is, I think, exactly wrong. We progressives, those of us with the vision of a church in which all are welcome, must tell another story.

Our House of Bishops has, in fact, honored the Gospel, hewed closely to St. Paul's understanding of the church, and reminded us of our Anglican identity. We cannot say, whether we are conservative or liberal, man or woman, straight or GLBT, American or African, that we have no need of others. The church is not ours to divide.

Here is part of what the bishops said:

...We do not believe that Jesus leads us to break our relationships. We proclaim the Gospel of what God has done and is doing in Christ, of the dignity of every human being, and of justice, compassion, and peace. We proclaim the Gospel that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no male or female, no slave or free. We proclaim the Gospel that in Christ all God's children, including women, are full and equal participants in the life of Christ's Church. We proclaim the Gospel that in Christ all God's children, including gay and lesbian persons, are full and equal participants in the life of Christ's Church.

And then they've done something that neither Peter Akinola, nor Lambeth Palace, nor the Primates have done. They have spoken about the terrible laws that are now contemplated in Nigeria. "We proclaim the Gospel that stands against any violence, including violence done to women and children as well as those who are persecuted because of their differences, often in the name of God. The Dar es Salaam Communique is distressingly silent on this subject." As Bishop Roskam said in the final press briefing, "While this was not dealt with by resolution, great concern was expressed about human rights violations for gay and lesbians, particularly in Nigeria, and the need for us as Anglicans and Christians to advocate against it." Amen.

Our bishops have also
reminded us that, in fact, our church has welcomed all voices. In contradistinction to the actual persecution of many GLBT persons, we progressives have not sought to exclude anyone from the church because of theological difference: "And, contrary to the way the Anglican Communion Network and the American Anglican Council have represented us, we proclaim a Gospel that welcomes diversity of thought and encourages free and open theological debate as a way of seeking God's truth. If that means that others reject us and communion with us, as some have already done, we must with great regret and sorrow accept their decision."

So, let us tell this story: God invites all people into the fellowship of the church. We believe this, and our bishops are rejecting the artificial choice between church unity and Gospel invitation. We no longer allow a "crisis" to sidetrack our mission as the church. If the so-called Global South primates want to kick us out of the Anglican Communion, or if they want to leave, we will be saddened. But today our bishops said that we will not sacrifice our vision of God's expansive invitation in response to a manufactured crisis.

On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Tonight, I rejoice.


Revd John P Richardson said...

Excuse me commenting from a perspective very different from that of Inclusive Church, but I couldn't help noticing the irony in this part of the statement by the House of Bishops:

"The real cultural phenomenon that threatens the spiritual life of our people, including marriage and family life, is the ease with which we choose to break our relationships and the vows that established them rather than seek the transformative power of the Gospel in them."

Er ... what, then, about Gene Robinson - divorced and now partnered with a man?

Dennis said...

The bishops have spoke with a degree of clarity, charity and courage that I did not expect but am happy to see. I have been worried for some time that they would give in to the threats of the primates. They did not, and I am very proud to be an Episcopalian today.

Lisa said...

A fine and moving statement on the situation, Scott. Thanks for this.

Scott Gunn said...

John, even the AAC agrees that divorce is sometimes the right choice.

Dennis, I agree.

Lisa, thank you for the kind words. And thanks for your work on your blogs.

Weiwen Ng said...

"we progressives have not sought to exclude anyone from the church because of theological difference..."

Unfortunately, some would point out otherwise. We should not be too quick to dismiss the claims of the conservatives that they are being persecuted, and that there is no provision being made for those who hold to traditional or orthodox beliefs. And we should be willing to engage in dialog...

John, the tragedy with Robinson, his wife, and his kids was that he was forced to put on a mask and be something he was not. From what we are told, they handled the divorce very well and have both been great parents to great children. Yes, they did divorce, and that is never a good thing. It seems to me, though, that they made the very best of what is a pretty bad situation for many couples where one partner comes out. You make a good point about the irony, though. :)