I care for two small missions. One is so small that half the members serve on the mission committee and all are involved.
The second is larger, with an ASA of around 30. A group of about a dozen do all the work and call the shots. I don’t mean that they ignore the views, wishes, and ideas of the rest: sometimes they would be delighted to hear from them.
Both congregations have representatives at the deanery and diocesan level.
I work in a largely homogeneous diocese (Springfield). We have one parish that some might call progressive, but if it were elsewhere in the Episcopal Church it would be very moderate indeed. Our last diocesan synod came shortly after the 2015 General Convention, which adopted a resolution removing impediments to same-sex marriage, but left it up to diocesan bishops to determine practice in their own diocese: some could allow same-sex marriages in their dioceses, others could forbid them. Our bishop chose the latter.
In doing so he reflected his own views and those of most people in the diocese, but not all. The tensions showed in diocesan synod. Traditionalists called the shots. Progressives “lost.”
However, we are a kind group and so there was no sign of the pain and anger demonstrated at last week’s General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, when it seemed to reject the first reading of a same-sex marriage resolution and then, after discovering a miscount, reversed itself. Perhaps the matter was made worse because a dramatic pastoral response came immediately for progressives when they seemed to lose, but was not immediately given to traditionalists when the vote was reversed. To give him his due, the Canadian primate apologized movingly for such oversight.
If our congregations seem at peace with themselves at the local and diocesan level, it stops there. This has been true of the Diocese of Springfield now for more than half a century. It was therefore heartening for us to hear our fairly new presiding bishop assure us that we have a valued place in the Episcopal Church. I’m sure he means it. Bishop Curry has a large heart. Perhaps it is churlish to wonder what he means by “valued.” One may be valued because one is useful, or has valuable insights. On the other hand, one may be valued rather like an aged relative, a relic of a long gone age, valued like an antique sideboard.
Let me grasp the nettle. In company with many in this diocese, I oppose same-sex marriage. How on earth may I be valued? Surely I must be a hard-hearted bigot, a homophobe of the deepest die? I probably have a statue of Donald Trump next to that of Our Lady.
Have patience with me as I propose why I should be valued: because I am a human being. I’m baptized. Therefore, like you, I belong in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, a.k.a. “the Jesus Movement” in these latter days. How good, bad, or indifferent a Christian I’ve turned out to be remains to be seen.
But I don’t believe people of the same sex can be married. Notice I said can, not may. I don’t believe the matter is one of permission, like divorce, but of possibility, like my being able to climb Mont Blanc. It has nothing to do with whether I like or love someone, or whether I endorse this or that group (I’m not good at belonging to groups.) I don’t doubt the state may permit same-sex marriage. In America, the state is separate from the Church. (I wish it wouldn’t steal the Christian vocabulary, you know, words like marriage and matrimony, but there it is.)
I have a view that I suggest the Church should value. I don’t believe that doctrine should be legislated, period. This was once a fairly common view in Anglican circles. The great shifts in doctrinal emphasis (I prefer emphasis to development) in our tradition have occurred as “voluntary” efforts. Jeremy Taylor, Henry Hammond, John Cosin, out of jobs and influence in Cromwellian England, proposed a Catholic emphasis. The Wesley brothers, George Whitfield, Fletcher, Toplady, met, prayed, preached, wrote hymns, and transformed the church in an evangelical direction. The Tractarians met in a country rectory and wrote Tracts on apostolicity. Their message echoed across the Anglican world. Anglican bishops began to meet at Lambeth, to lead us not by binding and dividing legislation, but by example and counsel.
Since World War Two all this has changed. We’ve made over our synods in the image of national secular legislative assemblies. We’ve created ruling parties, funded lobbies, and adopted all the tricks of secular politics. In the process we’ve won battles and alienated many. We now believe that anything is possible by majority vote.
Now, had the issue of how the Church is to respond to those who are attracted to someone of their own sex been discussed, worked on, and considered in practical ways in our congregations, there would have been passion, division, liturgical confusion, and the common sense of the people of God invoked, in the context of the normal life of the church.
Practical pastoral experience would have informed the debate until, at some time in the future, what emerged would have been accepted, amended, or rejected long after the heat of passion and partisanship dissipated. In both the Evangelical and Catholic revivals there were parishes in which things went on that infuriated bishops and scandalized many. Permitting such lawlessness just couldn’t be tolerated. Where the Church chose power, the right to enforce its will, it made martyrs but effected little else. Where the Church chose to follow Gamaliel, extremism was tempered by wisdom. The Church was able to do much, but at no time did it deny the teachings handed down by the Apostles, simply because it eschewed the legislative option.
Discussion, experimentation, and biblical and theological hard work done in the Church should never focus on individual and corporate rights — for the only claim we have is to mercy — but rather on our duty to our Lord as members of his Body. Far from weakening our claim for justice (and mercy), an emphasis on corporate duty establishes equality. Majoritarianism creates novel and shifting forms of inequality. That our underclass is traditionalist in no way justifies the system.
We cannot keep dividing, purifying ourselves until only the elect remain, and we join the Plymouth Brethren in exclusive isolation.
Fr. Tony Clavier has made the study of Anglicanism his lifelong passion and blogs at Anglican Thoughts: Shreds and Patches. He oversees two mission congregations in the Diocese of Springfield. His Covenant posts are here.