By Ephraim Radner
After several months of reflection and discernment, Bishop William Love of Albany has decided not to accept this summer’s General Convention resolution that mandates availability of same-sex marriage rites in every diocese of the Episcopal Church. Resolution 2018-B012 aims to avoid forcing individual clergy to preside at such marriages or perhaps even to permit them within their congregations, but it requires bishops to allow for such marriages in their dioceses should local congregations desire them (within the parameters of a certain process of decision-making).
Bishop Love believes the resolution improperly undermines and distorts his episcopal responsibilities, both in his accountabilities to the Christian faith and to the church’s ordered life. Bishops are, after all, subject to authorities that lie outside local ecclesiastical structures — and that includes General Convention, whose authority, canonically and evangelically, is arguably highly limited. His Pastoral Letter outlines his position with theological and ecclesiological arguments — arguments I agree with — that, while simple and without much nuance, are straightforwardly pointed and on target.
At the same time, however much one might admire and agree with Bishop Love, his strong public stance of resistance could reignite the great civil wars of the Episcopal Church that, in the past 15 years, have helped reduce our membership by a third and atrophy our communal vigor and witness (a few local exceptions notwithstanding).
These wars are hardly over, as substantive and agonizing litigation and its consequences still grip South Carolina and parts of Texas. But the bitter and hostile energies of the past have mostly subsided, and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has brought a new spirit of charity and peace to his office. Yet if the past is any indication of the future, Bishop Love’s public concerns and disavowal of B012, along with the public outcry of anger already articulated in response, could easily lead once again to disciplinary proceedings against him, turmoil in the diocese, property disputes, resources thrown to the wind, and the collapse of another diocese of the Episcopal Church.
Resolution B012 was meant to avoid such further ecclesial self-mutilation. Originally crafted as a compromise approach by traditionalist bishops and more moderate progressives in the House of Bishops, it was aimed at creating some kind of space within especially traditionalist dioceses, where individual same-sex marriages could happen without hindering the teaching and general commitments of the local bishop and other clergy. For this to happen, much depends on the good will of various parties and their patience with a process B012 left rather vague. Neither good will nor patience, of course, has marked the personal resources of most Episcopal leaders over the past two decades. But the hope here was to maintain some kind of space for traditionalist Episcopalians in which to get along with their ministry and witness and, in God’s grace, to flourish.
I always supported these as hopes and goals. Survival is often a grace and not a sell-out (even if sometimes it is the latter). In a recent study of 1 Peter, Shively T.J. Smith argues that survival of the Christian community in the midst of a hostile culture is precisely what the theological vision of the epistle is about (Strangers to Family: Diaspora and 1 Peter’s Invention of God’s Household [Baylor University Press, 2016]). Smith is a young African-American scholar who wonders how a letter that commends the endurance of slavery could possibly make sense to people of her experience and history. But in her analysis of various ways that Jewish communities understood their existence as diaspora, she shows that Peter’s non-revolutionary valuing of survival, with all of its concomitant Christian gifts and centering in God’s life, was both realistic and hopeful. There are times and places where this kind of survival is redemptive.
The 2020 Lambeth Conference is now planning to have 1 Peter as the central text of its scriptural study among bishops and other participants. It is intriguing to imagine how Anglicanism’s common life might be informed by arguments like Smith’s. In any case, North American Anglicanism exists in a different context than that of 1 Peter. For now the hostile culture within which we seek an enduring survival is just as often coextensive with the larger church. (This is true, not just for TEC, but for many other churches also.)
B012 speaks, not to a church seeking a clear identity in the face of its enemies, but to a church in which Christian identity is contested (and fought over) among Christians. While there are certainly scriptural examples of, arguably, analogous situations — 2 Samuel, Jeremiah, even the first chapters of Revelation — these constitute extraordinarily confused and morally (as well as physically) painful situations. There are things we might wish to learn from studying not only 1 Peter but these other texts. Still, they are likely to trouble us, rather than provide clear guidance.
Lining up stark positions of moral resistance over against prudential hopes for survival and flourishing is probably a recipe for ecclesial disintegration, and we could transfer these alternative and sometimes conflicting positions to the progressive side of the aisle. As the smoldering embers of disaffection over B012 now flame up again, my recommendation — to the presiding bishop and other executive authorities in our church — is to do what Anglicans have often done, and sometimes even done well: leave it all alone, as far as possible, and move on. To do so will certainly leave supporters of same-sex marriage in the Diocese of Albany feeling excluded, as well they might. But there are no doubt various ad hoc ways to mitigate this, just as Anglicans have found ad-hoc paths through all kinds of conflictive thickets in their midst in the past. While such an approach cannot usually work in the long-term, it too can provide the space necessary for discerning the deeper virtues of endurance that we all need to learn in the coming epoch.