Friday, July 17, 2009

A Conversation Waiting to Begin

I spent the last couple of days of my vacation reading Oliver O'Donovan's A Conversation Waiting to Begin: The churches and the gay controversy (London: SCM Press, 2009). The book has sat on my shelf for several months, but this was a good time for me to digest O'Donovan's words, applying his insights to the circumstances in which I am living.

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church of the USA was meeting as I was reading, and each day my spirits were further dampened by the actions the Convention was taking, decisions that are surely moving it beyond the fringes of the Anglican Communion, and perhaps beyond a generous catholic Christianity. These were decisions which the good professor was, I think, hoping to head off with a thoughtful and carefully argued discussion.

I was also reading it following something that had happened in our own family recently, something that was not on my mind when I purchased the book. During this time one of my nearest and dearest came out of the closet and admitted to being actively gay. While I had long suspected this, knowing something for certain tends to color perceptions and raise a whole series of questions. This latest admission probably means that within my immediate family there are statistically actually more homosexual persons than in most others.

The actions of the church and circumstances like these have forced me on several occasions during the last decade to ask substantial questions about human sexuality. I have found myself wondering if there is something that I have missed. My understanding of human sexuality has been very traditional, but I have felt for the sake of honestly that I must go back and examine not only my presuppositions, but also the evidence being presented to me both by current scholarship and the substance of the Bible. Neither in my exploring have I stuck to those writers and thinkers who echo what has been my own position, but have roamed far and wide and, among other things, have been looking to see if there are insights that I have overlooked, misunderstood, or misinterpreted.

I guess you can say that within my own limits I have sought to be as open and as honest as is possible. The exercises have been fruitful, because each time this has occurred I have gained new and constructive insights into the human condition in general, as well as this particular aspect of being human. As I have approached this topic again, among others I have had Oliver O'Donovan as a helpful companion, and for this I have been grateful.

However, this time I have brought a different set of questions to the dilemma the contemporary approach to human sexuality presents because this whole business comes impossibly close to home for me. My questions have been informed by the fact that this is something I am likely to have to deal with face-to-face most days for the rest of my life. The overriding query I have made of myself is how I might do this.

My internal landscape during this last ten or fifteen years of battling over sexuality, both in the church and in wider society, has probably experienced most of the same ups and downs as so many others. Fury, fear, confusion, and now a kind of stoic fatalism have flavored my responses. At times raw anger has led me to say and do things which I have subsequently regretted, at others I have worked hard to find some kind of modus vivendi with those whose convictions have not matched my own. It has seemed to me more and more that we have been presented with a fete accomplis rather than being able to participate in a conversation both whose substance and whose outcome have been far from clear.

Oliver O'Donovan's book was published in the USA as Church in Crisis: the Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion. With all due respects to the American publisher, I believe the British title, A Conversation Waiting to Begin, is a much better description of the book's essence. Yes, the starting point of these ten dozen pages is the crisis in the Anglican Communion that caught light in 2003 with the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, but having alighted from that point it ranges over far wider territory much as any intelligent conversation would.

Rather than pontificating, he graciously nudges us to look at issue within the context of the changed realities with which we live in an evolving culture. Each relatively short chapter asks us to come at the topic using tools of ethical and theological scholarship, Scripture, hermeneutics, and measuring these against the substantial doctrines of creation and redemption. Sometimes he speaks overtly about being logical and reasonable in our quest, but on almost every page he is whispering this as if between the lines.

Why is it, he asks, that this one little thing has proved so explosive and divisive? Well, comes back the answer, it depends what you mean by 'one little thing?' How little actually is this? In the fourth century the church as it went through the exercise of creed-making seemed to be riven over one little iota, but in reality that discussion was about a great deal more because at stake was affirming a truthful understanding of the nature of God or one that is idolatrous. Are we, he asks, in a similar situation here?

While never exactly giving a definitive answer to such a question, by leading us along a number of different pathways as we approach the topic he leaves us nodding and saying, "Yes, there is an enormous amount at stake here of which differing understandings of human sexuality are merely the trigger."

Part of what is being said is that we have probably not given as much attention as we should to the changing social climate of the world in which we now live. Certainly since the nineteenth century, and especially within Anglicanism, there has existed a 'liberalism' that has modulated disagreement and enabled diversity to exist within the context of a generous unity. This underlying liberalism has been able to step back, untangle the skein, reconcile conflicting views, tone down exaggerated positions, forge coalitions, square circles, and in the process find a commonsense way through (page 5).

But now "the whole stock in trade of a tradition once defined by opposition to enthusiasm of every kind, seems to have been mysteriously wiped off the software. In its place are radical postures, strident denunciations and moralistic confessionalism" (page 5). Because of the tendency of 'liberalism' to ally itself to 'victim' causes that they believe require a moral and just leveling of the playing field, a situation is created which leads to a face-off with conservatism, both political and ecclesiastical.

"For the theological liberal... the substantive content is indeterminate, and what is wrong with conservatism is precisely that it clings to the past, holding back in reserve from the God-destined character of the present cultural moment... the self-validating ethical convictions of modern civilization are the final criterion for judging all else; they are the very image of God that it bears anonymously as its birthright" (pages 9-10).

While I cannot hope to encapsulate a carefully presented discussion in a handful of words, O'Donovan is essentially saying that yesterday's 'liberal' way of resolving things no longer works because the culture has moved on, but what we do not have, to quote the Archbishop of Canterbury, is a "habit of cultural sensitivity and intellectual flexibility that does not seek to close down unexpected questions too quickly" (quoted Page 7).

Having set the discussion up, the rest of the book examines the dilemma using the finely tuned tools of O'Donovan's trade as a world-class theologian, ethicist, cultural observer, and philosopher. All the time he is nudging us toward the final chapter which is entitled "Good News for the Gay Christian?"

Professor O'Donovan does not step back from saying that there is hard news in the gospel for gay Christians (as well as all other Christians) to listen and respond to, we also need to consider Rowan Williams' question, "How does the homosexually inclined person show Christ to the world?" He continues, "For if the gay Christian is to be addressed as a believer and a disciple, a recipient of the good news, he has also to be addressed as a potential evangelist. But we must take this... question further. The good news meant for the human race is meant for the church, too. What good news does the gay Christian have to bring to the church?" (page 103).

O'Donovan demands that instead of making our case with statistics, scientific reports, and so forth, but we should use the words of the evangel for, "if the church speaks not as a witness to God's saving work but as a pundit or a broker of some deal, it speaks out of character... for the gospel must be preached to the gay Christian on precisely the same terms as it is preached to any other person" (Page 110), for homosexuality is NOT the determining factor in any human being's existence -- despite the pressure within the culture to make us think it is such.

Put another way, it seems that what O'Donovan is asking us is as a broken church living in the context of a broken world to speakChrist's righteousness to a shared brokenness, and this inevitably involves our sexuality in all its shapes and forms. In such an environment soft and evasive compromises do not appeal, and neither do they have traction. The touchstone is living the righteousness of Jesus Christ in a world that has presented us with a very different reality. This, he posits, is about friendship, not about "juridical language of justice and rights" (Page 116).

"The gay Christian thus faces in a particular way the choice that constitutes the human situation universally: whether to follow the route of self-justification or to cast oneself hopefully on the creative justification that God himself will work within a community of shared belief" (Page 116). However, if this is to happen not only is friendship a prerequisite, so also is serious patience. The old-style 'liberalism' that used to preside over the church has to give way to something that is differently flavored, friendship and patience being touchstones.

I am only at the beginning of unpacking what this means given my own personal dilemma, but I have to say that it makes a lot more sense than the polarized and polarizing yelling at one another and excluding one another that seems to have been taking place. I have been hurt by what has gone on, and it is likely that I am doing some of the hurting. As I deal with this on a personal level I have been given clues to try to keep the conversation civil and constructive.

On the ecclesial level, it would appear that separation is the only solution being offered by 'liberals' and 'conservatives' alike. Given the gospel of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, neither appears acceptable when tested against the great doctrines of Christianity, catholic ecclesiology, and within a forum where the grace of friendship and the grace of patience surely ought to prevail. "Anyone who thinks that resolutions can be reached in one leap without long mutual exploration, probing, challenge, and clarification has not yet understood the nature of the riddle that the ironic fairy of history has posed for us in our time" (Page 119).

Monday, July 13, 2009

Tired, Postmodern, and a Generally Depressing Convention

We have been back in the States for the last three weeks but will be returning to our ministry in Cambridge, England tomorrow. This means we have been around for the razzmatazz that went with the launch of the Anglican Church of North America, and now for the spectacle of the General Convention. Having been present at most General Conventions since the last Anaheim convention in 1985, I am glad I am not there. I have to say that what looks to be happening is a sad, sad spectacle, and from the deluge of words coming out of Anaheim it is evident that the Convention is in little mood to take seriously historic Christianity, or to honor the worldwide Anglican Communion.

As a bishop friend said to me in a personal email from Anaheim a day or two ago, the trend seems to be for TEC to become a stand-alone American denomination rather than part of the worldwide church. Clearly, the presence and advice of the Archbishop of Canterbury for a few days meant little or nothing to the majority of the House of Deputies. As the same episcopal friend also said, those who are for inclusion do not seem to realize that for a large chunk of us that means exclusion -- although we certainly have no desire to be excluded from catholic Christianity through the Communion.

This whole exercise is not about sexuality or sexual behavior, but is fundamentally about what we believe the Christian faith to mean and be about. When it comes down to it, it is about our attitude toward Jesus as God's Son, the nature of the Trinity, divine revelation, Christian obedience, and holiness of life. The cavalier attitude of the Presiding Bishop to the creeds and their recitation is evidence that she considers the likes of me as pedantic has-beens rather than those who are on the cutting edge -- but the cutting edge of what?

Yet the truth really is, as you look around the world, that those who are pushing this worn out postmodern melange and calling it Christian are increasingly the has-beens. They seem to have tied themselves to the coat tails of the last dribblings of the least attractive side of the Enlightenment, and it is entirely likely that they will disappear down the drain with them. I say this as an Episcopalian who lives in England and now functions as part of the church under great pressure.

The church in England is wrestling to adapt to an altogether more secular and hostile climate than exists in most of the USA, and what is interesting, I don't see postmodern Christianity standing up very well in such an environment. It is a limp and aging rag. The creative scholarship, for example, is coming from a far more theologically orthodox direction (as can be seen from the recent awarding of the Michael Ramsey Prize for theological writing to Richard Bauckham for his extraordinary challenge to scholarship in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses). Healthy progressive liberal and theologically to-the-left congregations are few and far between, while it the theologically more conservative who are creatively evangelistic that have become the majority of stronger centers of the faith.

This isn't to say that the English church doesn't have a belly-load of problems and challenges, some of which it is refusing to address; but it is illustrative that so-called progressive faith is not flourishing well in an environment which affirms and celebrates many of the values and attitudes it endorses. Picking over concrete evidence from Britain and asking what this might mean for the Episcopal Church of the USA, one can only confess that it does not auger well on this side of the ocean. Looking at the hard statistics about the health of the Episcopal Church that have been coming out of Anaheim, the best interpretation of them is that the church is in serious decline -- if not free fall, and those who say otherwise are clearly in denial with their ostrich necks firmly stuck down holes.

All this is happening in the midst of the deepest recession in living memory, and one that promises to impact us for a very long time to come. Looking at the dire financial state of the Episcopal Church after the Great Depression might be a valuable exercise to help us grasp what the circumstances of denomination, dioceses, and congregations could well be like when the world eventually pulls out of this dive. Money is the mother's milk of ministry, and there are huge problems if there is none, or little or none.

The churches in England that are healthiest are those who approach their Christian witness in a missional manner: which means trying to ask and answer how we take the gospel message and enable it to speak in an environment where the church a bit of a joke -- or worse. Some of them are making whopping mistakes, but at least they are trying! The intelligensia in Britain will generally take every opportunity to denigrate religious people of all flavors, the Church of England in particular. There is little or no social or intellectual kudos to be gained from being a believer in England, and the bulk of the general population doesn't have the vaguest notion of what the Christian faith is all about. There are too many uncanny parallels to the 1st Century.

Yet, there are Anglican churches (and varieties of others) that are packed to the doors. There are some fascinatingly creative experiments being undertaken. The theologically orthodox seminaries are the ones enrolling the majority of new students. The House of Bishops is becoming increasingly orthodox (although they may not want to label themselves that way), and so on, and so on. The end product will ultimately be a church that looks very different from the one we have now, and it is likely to be one that the older folks (like myself) will have our struggles with. But what is more important: our understanding of the right way to express the faith and decline, or a whole new generation being renewed and revived by God to take the message to their lost and floundering contemporaries?

As a priest of the Episcopal Church I honor my ordination vows and I stand with those who stand with the historic, catholic, and evangelical formularies of the faith. I recite the creeds with conviction, I believe Scripture is God's Word written, and I cannot and will not walk away from what is happening.

At the beginning of this decade I was part of the 2020 Task Force that posited ideas and plans for the doubling of the Episcopal Church in the first two decades of the 21st Century. The reverse has happened because that agenda was dumped by 2003 in favor of what Paul might describe as 'another gospel.' I suspect that if the Episcopal Church is half the size it was in 2000 by 2020 it will be a miracle if the present course continues to be followed.

This is a tragedy of monumental proportions, but it does not prevent us from standing firm alongside Augustine, Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer, Hooker, Janani Luwum, Festo Kivengere and many other selfless women and men who have gone before us in the faith. Error disrupts and does damage, but in the economy of a God who is truth it does not ultimately win the day.