LETTER FROM AMERICA

"He is not better; he is much the same"

 

ONE DOESN'T OFTEN get a chance to say "I told you so," so I want to note that I predicted before the Lambeth Conference (in the June 1998 "Letter from America") that its rulings would not change the Episcopal Church.

As I noted then, to the doctrinal and moral innovators the traditional moral teaching is not only wrong but oppressively, viciously so. They cannot retreat or even pause in the march to liberation, and they cannot keep more than a strategic peace with the forces of reaction (patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia, etc.), a peace to be broken when advantageous, as it was when the last General Convention demanded that everyone support the ordination of women.

Besides the dioceses who rejected Lambeth's vote on sexual matters, either by their convention voting to reject it or their bishop's ordaining the sort of person the majority at Lambeth said he should not ordain, a surprising number went out of their way to ignore it. One conservative bishop wrote in his diocesan newspaper a lengthy "Lambeth Diary" and an official letter from the bishop without once mentioning the issue of sexuality, an act of brazen ambiguity one has to admire.

And so we arrived at the primates' meeting in Oporto, and I will predict now that the equivocal statement they issued at the end -- I agree with the judgment of the bishops of Sydney -- will have no effect on American behavior whatsoever. The reason is, that as far as I can tell, very few American bishops actually believe in the Anglican Communion.

A worldwide communion

I know you will hear from American bishops lots of talk about "the worldwide Anglican communion" and "the bonds that unite us" and "our unity in diversity and diversity in unity," and that Americans of all theological positions will get soppy-eyed when they say that the typical Anglican is now a young mother in Nigeria, and that nearly everyone will proudly lay claim to Desmond Tutu.

But I don't think anyone actually believes that the Communion has any authority to tell them what to do or that they have a relation with their conservative African and Asian brethren stronger than the vaporous "bonds of affection" Abp Runcie once made popular. It has no religious authority, as far as most Americans are concerned, in the sense that even a decision made by a crushing majority (526 to 70, say) would automatically be obeyed.

I don't know what actual consequence would make the moral and doctrinal innovators among the Episcopal bishops stop or make their brethren (centrist and conservative) do anything about them. The only threat I am sure would make them hesitate is the threat to retract their invitations to the Lambeth Conference -- it's a free vacation in England and a chance to "do important work" - but that wouldn't work now because the next conference is eight years away.

Even the Singapore consecrations did not stop the innovators from continuing to innovate. Invading what the average bishop has come to think of as his kingdom and threatening his monopoly on the Anglican brand name, irritates them but it does not make them stop or change their ways.

Had the primates in Oporto sent our presiding bishop home and told him not to come back until the Episcopal Church obeyed Lambeth, I am not sure how many bishops would have minded, other than those with positions on international committees. Sudden isolation might have jarred the innovators back into conformity with the tradition, but I have my doubts.

The liberals are not alone in this. Had the Lambeth Conference ruled as heavily against the American conservatives, they would have ignored the vote as well. I don't mean to sound too grumpy, but you should know this.

New commandments

A few days ago I got a press release for the New Commandment Task Force, led by a centrist priest named Brian Cox and the homosexualist leader Louie Crew. The group developed from a meeting last November of 22 Episcopalians on both sides of the sexuality issues to work on "Searching For Solutions To Potential Schism."

According to the press release, "the Seattle 22 experience convinced the participants that better ways of dealing with serious disagreements were possible, because Episcopalians have far more in common than what is in dispute." Schism here can only mean an institutional break, which is about as likely as my playing goalie for Arsenal.

They will hold four four-day regional meetings this year to "craft guidelines for all members of the Episcopal Church to follow in debates and discussions of potentially contentious topics" and to "craft proposed legislation which will provide a safe place in the Church for those of differing theological persuasions, without compromising the direction given in Jesus's New Commandment."

One doesn't want to oppose "love," of course, but would just note that the men Jesus left in charge of His Church spoke very clearly on the ways that love was to be practiced. They would not have founded a task force with a man who has led a long crusade against the instructions St. Paul gave to the Roman church at the beginning of his letter to them.

Great friction

Anyway, something of the same sort was held in the Diocese of Texas in early April to "to discuss ordaining practicing homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions, two issues that continue to cause great friction in many denominations today," according to the Episcopal News Service.

The Bishop of Maryland made the standard speech of the moral innovators, claiming that Scripture is complex, and the culture back then was very different, and people that appeal to Scripture do it selectively, and Jesus hung out with sinners, and St. Paul condoned slavery, and . . . well, the usual, including the admission that he was once insensitive to homosexual people but through his pastoral experience has come to value . . . as I said, the usual.

He included what has become the standard appeal in these matters, to love and to mission, without defining either word. "Jesus was intent on proclaiming a new ethic which he speaks in the Great Commandment . . . to love others as you love me." This love "transforms lives. . .builds up community . . . and becomes the guiding principle for Christians." (The ellipses are in the ENS story.)

Most participants, reported the ENS story, "agreed that the format had worked well and provided a safe place for people to come together and talk, a place where their stories were honoured. There was a clear consensus for continuing the dialogue."

Now, close your eyes real tight and try real hard to imagine St. Paul sitting there all day sharing his story and then voting to "continue the dialogue."

I couldn't either.

David Mills, a senior editor of Touchstone, is editor of The Pilgrim's Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness (Eerdmans).

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