from The Windsor Report: A Liberal Response, ed. Jonathan Clatworthy and David Taylor (O Books, Winchester & New York, 2005)
by Jonathan Clatworthy [other Modern Church responses]
The Windsor Report has announced its recommendations and explained its reasons. At the time of writing it is up to the various parts of the Anglican Communion to decide what to make of it.
From a liberal point of view it is inviting the church to move in the wrong direction. This book has described the reasons: it seeks to make Anglicanism more centralized and authoritarian, less tolerant and diverse. It takes for granted that homosexuality is morally wrong and that the actions of New Westminster and New Hampshire were out of order.
It begins by emphasizing the importance of unity. What it means by unity, we gradually discover, is a uniformity out of character with the past history of the church. In practice, though, unity is best maintained when diversity of belief and practice is permitted; when it is not, those who disagree have no option but to separate. The only satisfactory solution to the present disagreement, we believe, is for those who oppose homosexuality to accept that other Christians, equally committed to their faith and equally theologically informed, have a different view and have just as much right to be Anglicans. Those who refuse to accept this diversity of views must face the fact that their views on diversity and inclusiveness are are at odds with Anglicanism; if they are determined to impose their views on others, they should do so outside the Anglican Communion.
In the interests of centralization the Report proposes an increase in the powers of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the introduction of a 'communion law' and a 'common Anglican covenant' as communion-wide authorities. The purpose of these changes is to reduce the freedoms of provinces and bishops in order to prevent a repetition of the innovations which took place at New Westminster and New Hampshire. Liberals believe it would be better to retain or even increase them. The history of most institutions, including the church, shows that the best methods for developing successful innovations are bottom-up, not top-down.
An additional problem is that the proposals are so restrictive that it would be very difficult for any innovations to be introduced at all; in effect the Anglican Communion would become static, stuck in a time-warp. This can be seen from its discussion of adiaphora , matters which are not essential to the Communion as a whole and can therefore be decided by the provinces for themselves. Questions concerning the whole Communion, it decrees, need to involve the whole Communion in their decision-making. This sounds fine: but it has nothing to do with the present debate as Gene Robinson is Bishop only of New Hampshire and the same-sex blessing rite is available only in New Westminster.
The Report gets round this problem by excluding from the category of adiaphora any matters which 'a sufficient number of other Christians will find scandalous and offensive, either in the sense that they will be led into acting against their own consciences or that they will be forced, for conscience's sake, to break fellowship with those who go ahead'. This criterion has not previously been part of Anglican ecclesiology. To liberals it looks as though it has been framed precisely in order to justify rejecting the same-sex blessings and Robinson's consecration. As a working principle it is clearly unsatisfactory. Christians vary widely in their judgements of what would count as scandalous or offensive. Many bishops - probably most - engage in at least one activity which is considered scandalous or offensive by some people somewhere in the world-wide Anglican Communion, whether it be drinking alcohol, supporting the armed forces, supporting or opposing abortion, or engaging in usury by holding an account in a building society. If this criterion is formally incorporated into Anglican decision-making, liberals will have little or no use for it as they prefer the church to be inclusive. Its primary - probably its only - use will be by intolerant minorities determined to impose their views on the church as a whole.
The 'sufficient number' would need to be precisely defined. Once defined, it would set a target for the petition-signing of campaigning organizations. Any organization which achieved the figure would then be in a position to veto any change, or the appointment of any bishop, provided only that they claimed it offended their consciences. Gentle souls may, perhaps, feel that no self-respecting Christian organization would stoop so low as to be so unscrupulous. Liberals reply that this is precisely what is happening now.
To discuss the ethics of homosexuality was outside the Report's remit, but it worked on the basis that the Anglican Communion considers homosexuality immoral. The main reasons given are the biblical condemnations and the 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution.
Liberals question both these reasons. People who oppose homosexuality on the basis of Scripture are invariably selective in their use of it. There are over six hundred commands in the Bible, the majority of which are ignored by Christians today. Lambeth Conference resolutions are not binding. The 1998 resolution in particular is hedged with question marks, as an unusually large number of African bishops attended that conference and there have been suspicions - not denied, let alone refuted - that some of them were paid to attend, with the specific purpose of voting in favour of it. If it had been an Act of Parliament, at the very least it would have been challenged in the courts.
It is on these dubious bases that the Report judges the dioceses of New Westminster and New Hampshire to have been at fault. It does not ask them to repent, but it does ask them to regret their actions. In fact, those responsible for the innovations did nothing wrong, either morally or constitutionally. In effect the Report is proposing to change the rules of the Anglican Communion and apply the new rules retrospectively to these actions. Retrospectively applied legislation would certainly contravene accepted constitutional procedures. If the Communion does decide to make the 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution binding on all Anglicans, and expect those who supported Robinson's consecration to withdraw from their representative functions, the matter will not rest there. Inevitably the question will arise about the seventy bishops who voted against it. It will seem only proper that they, too, should be invited to regret their action and withdraw from representative functions.
The Report shows great sympathy for the pain which the actions in New Westminster and New Hampshire caused to those who oppose homosexuality - and not a word concerning the pain caused to homosexuals themselves. This is an astonishing reversal of any credible moral position. If, for example, it showed sympathy for the pain caused to white supremacists, who believed that blacks should be slaves but who were forced by law to treat blacks as equals, it would be clear to all that the pain caused to the white supremacists does not have the same moral right to sympathy as the pain caused to black slaves. Similarly, the pain caused to homosexuals by the current discrimination affects their whole lives and is inescapable; the pain caused to the opponents of homosexuality when a homosexual becomes a bishop is a self-inflicted pain based on a choice to hold, and feel strongly about, a particular opinion. As Gill Cooke says, it is a basic rule in first aid that, when dealing with more than one casualty, one should focus on the silent ones first as they are usually suffering more than the ones making most noise. So it is in this case. The ones making most noise do not suffer discrimination in education and jobs. They do not get beaten up on the street just for being what they are.
The Report presents opposition to homosexuality as the view of the overwhelming majority of Anglicans. Liberals doubt this. Much depends on how we count. What we have witnessed is a highly organized campaign, run by a small number of people and claiming the support of large numbers. Of those large numbers, most simply attend a church, or belong to a diocese, which has an official policy of opposing homosexuality. The individuals being counted may not have a view on the issue, or may even be homosexuals themselves. Indeed, although most of the poorer countries have public ethical norms which oppose homosexuality, they also have homosexuals, and many priests among them.
The nature of that campaign is itself worthy of comment. Clergy and parishes have threatened to refuse to recognize their diocesan bishop, simply on the ground that the bishop supports Gene Robinson's consecration. Parishes have threatened to withdraw their giving if they do not get their way. Threats have been issued to Robinson's life. While declining to comment on these threats, Windsor does note that some bishops have intervened in other provinces to offer 'alternative episcopal oversight'. It asks them to express regret and cease intervening, while sympathising with the fact that they felt a conscientious duty to do so. However there is no suggestion that they should not be invited to future communion-wide events. Nor is there a similar sympathy for ECUSA's sense of conscientious duty. That failure to notice that the innovators conscientiously believe they did the right thing, is a major weakness. It runs through the whole Report, vitiating its attempts to be even-handed.
To summarize, the issues might be described under three headings. Firstly, the Report proposes to give the Anglican Communion a more centralized and hierarchical power structure. We favour decentralization. Usually the best decisions are made at the most local level practicable. African bishops face issues of polygamy which do not trouble their British and North American counterparts; rather than impose our views and practices on them, we leave it to them to judge how best to handle them. In the same way we expect them to leave it to us to handle our issues of homosexuality. This may, of course, lead to relativism, but it does not need to; it can simply be a response to the fact that nobody knows all the answers. Since Christians recognize that truth and divine guidance can come from any source at all, Church leaders should recognize that they cannot control it, and ought not to try, even if - as happened in New Westminster and New Hampshire - it is not what they wanted to hear.
For the same reason church structures should be as democratic as is practicable. It should be made possible for everybody's voice to be heard but nobody's to dominate. A church where everybody feels obliged to believe the same thing is a poor church, where members have little to offer each other. A healthy church is one where divergent voices can be heard and respected. If this means church membership has fuzzy edges, there is no problem in that.
Secondly, the church should accept diversity of belief and practice. The greater uniformity being sought by the Report will, contrary to its intentions, foster greater disunity as people discover that their own views are no longer considered acceptable.
One of the greatest assets of Anglicanism is its inclusiveness, its 'broad church' character. This has been largely because of the Church of England's perception of itself as the church of the whole nation. Of course it has never fully achieved this status; but it has, at least for much of its time, aimed towards it, and has therefore incorporated many different lifestyles and beliefs. Far from trying to suppress its diversity, we should celebrate and encourage it.
This inclusiveness has in the past enabled Anglicanism to cope with major controversies without splitting, a significant practical advantage compared with more sectarian Protestant groups. What the current controversy has shown, however, is that if the Communion is to remain as it is, we can no longer take its inclusiveness for granted. Now that it is under threat it needs to be protected.
There is an analogy with the moral teaching of Jesus. Jesus was known as a friend of sinners, and did not condemn for their immorality either the woman caught in the act of adultery or dishonest tax collectors or prostitutes. He did, however, condemn the Pharisees, the leading upholders of traditional moral standards. Christians have often reflected on the wisdom of this stance. Moral standards can be used to do more harm than good, when they are used to provide a favoured few with an easy sense of superiority while making others feel second rate. Similarly, Christian churchgoing today can all too easily offer a false sense of superiority by making people feel part of an elect club. The commonest way to justify a sense of superiority is to focus on a single ethical issue to condemn. For Jews at the time of Christ it was the food regulations; for western Christians today it is homosexuality.
Anglicanism, with its traditional willingness to include almost everyone, should help us to resist that danger. When people threaten to split the church or undermine its institutions unless their views are imposed on the church as a whole, the threats constitute an act of aggression against the well-being of the Communion. We suggest that whenever this happens, this is the point at which the leaders of the entire Communion - the instruments of unity - should act decisively and in concert. It is difficult to imagine circumstances where it would be necessary to go so far as to expel the imposers; normally, as in the present situation, it should suffice to make it clear to all that they are exceeding their rights. It may also be necessary to offer protection to those in the affected provinces who may suffer discrimination for resisting the aggressors. Our inclusiveness is a great asset, something which has served Anglicanism well for many centuries. We should not let it be taken away.
Thirdly, the Report suggests that the Anglican Communion has reached a consensus that homosexuality is immoral. If this had been the case, there would have been no remaining controversy, and the Archbishop would not have asked the Commission to produce this Report.
It is true that the 1998 Lambeth conference, and various reports, condemned homosexuality; but these are not the Anglican Communion. The Communion as a whole is quite clearly divided on the matter, and divided we shall remain for the foreseeable future. There is nothing unusual about this; indeed, throughout the history of Christianity there has always been a good supply of controversial issues to keep debate going. It is in the nature of human communities that they never run out of issues needing to be explored.
There are those who feel uncomfortable with this, and want to tie up all the ends once and for all. The Report has been too influenced by them. The church will be far healthier if it willingly accepts the differences of opinion, and the debates, and engages with them, taking them seriously as one of the most common methods by which truths are revealed and God guides us. For those of us who admit that we do not know the whole truth it is an obvious procedure. The church's leadership should willingly accept diversity of opinion. It should encourage open and honest debates, and refrain from trying to control them.
As it engages in these debates, the church should be outward-looking. It should not be too wrapped up in its own internal affairs; it should also engage with its host society, looking for ways the Christian faith can inform, and be informed by, the issues and discoveries of the day. To be concerned about, and engaged with, what concerns the people around us is one of the best forms of evangelism.
It should also be forward-looking. It should not feel trapped in doctrines and official statements inherited from the past. Unfortunately this often happens, and results in a backward-looking ecclesiastical culture so anxious not to contravene a mountain of inherited norms that it never does anything new or exciting. Instead, the church should have the confidence to judge that what was right for the church of the early, or medieval, or Reformation periods is not necessarily right for us today. Divine revelation and guidance are not an eternally valid and unchanging set of doctrines and regulations fixed in the distant past and applicable to all times and places. We draw on our tradition and treat it as authoritative, but we do not need to be imprisoned by it.
Divine revelation and guidance come, in different forms, to each generation. The church should expect new insights in the future; it should look forward to them with excitement; and should be willing to adapt to them, without stacking the odds in favour of the past. This requires a greater willingness to let go of inherited norms and regulations when they no longer express what Christians believe. It may be that today's new revelation is that God does not disapprove, after all, of homosexuality. If so, it will not, as some claim, be the end of the church as we know it. It will just be one more in a long line of discoveries which have overturned the church's previous teaching.
Revd Jonathan Clatworthy is editor of Modern Believing and a former Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.