This reflection is a “part two” of my reflection from yesterday (“Honesty Needs to be the Game We Play…”). It happened that this morning I began my personal Lenten reading, Roman Catholic theologian James Alison’s new book, Undergoing God: Dispatchesfrom the Scene of a Break-in. The following passage in his introduction leapt out at me. “The mess” he refers to is the “double-bind produced by a sacred definition which has not been able to withstand the gradual emergence of truth which sets free, and yet has trapped so much of our [Roman Catholic] clerical structure into a series of contortions.” He goes on:
The only way out of this mess is when people dare to ask what is really true…and stick with their question, however inopportune it seems. But this requires a sense of being undergoers of “Another” other* who is leading us to courage in gently facing down immediate group belonging. Such a sense has been very little in evidence amongst our church leaders so far. I hope …to show both that the emergence of reality need not be as frightening as it seems, and that learning to deal with it is something intrinsic to the very shape of Christianity, and cannot be put off for ever.
* Alison’s name for God as wholly other, not able to be assumed on anyone’s “side,” no matter how obvious it may seem, yet for all.
I believe what the Primates are trying to force on us is not “communion” in any kind of biblical or theological sense. It is “group belonging,’ which must seek to exclude in order to define and defend itself. This is actually, I believe anti-communion in the biblical and theological sense.
There is, of course, no such thing as a purely inclusive community. Anglicanism has striven for it, however, in its principal of “unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity in all things,” which has included the deliberate non-defining of essentials (the closest we have come to such a definition is the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which is itself full of non-definition). The Primates are saying that “homosexual practice being incompatible with Scripture” (from Lambeth 1.10) must be accepted as an essential (and therefore a defining point of unity). It is the Episcopal Church’s vocation to resist this with all its might for the sake of Anglicanism itself.
Canon Kendall Harmon let slip what is really going on here on the Newshour yesterday (2-20):
Well, the crucial difference here is, there are allowances for differences ... but the heart of Anglicanism is: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.
And the problem is … in Anglicanism, there's always been this historic weakness, which is, what's the difference between non-essentials and essentials? And who gets to decide.
Clearly this is about who gets to decide. And less we had any doubt about some broader agenda in that regard, earlier in the interview he said, quite boldly:
And they're[the Primates] also doing it with a significant amount of challenge to the structure of the Episcopal Church in the process, which one could argue is unprecedented in Anglican history. They're making a lot of structural suggestions as to how things here should be different while this final seven-month process is going on.
In other words, the bishops, a singular group, more naturally prone to “group belonging” should decide. That is the very thing from which our Episcopal polity has protected us from the beginning. Not only should we be resisting any change to our own polity, but also the centralizing of authority in the Primates, which seems to be the agenda of the proposed Anglican Covenant. At the very least, the Anglican Consultative Council, with membership from the laity as well as non-episcopal clergy, is a better venue for decision making.
I think we have witnessed the dynamic of “group belonging” this week in the actions of our own Presiding Bishop. I think it is very difficult indeed to get put into that kind of relatively small group, and not have the dynamics change one’s priorities. What will keep this group together becomes the trump card, no matter the exclusive consequence.