AUGUST 14, 2003
An Impaired Communion?
Three events related to the ongoing argument over homosexuality in the Anglican (Episcopal) church popped up in recent months, forcing the Anglican communion to take action. The Canadian diocese of New Westminster authorized liturgies for blessing same-sex partnerships in late spring. Jeffrey John, having divulged that he was once in a homosexual relationship, withdrew his appointment as the Bishop of Reading (UK) in early July. And the American church, at its General Convention, ratified Gene Robinson's election as Bishop of New Hampshire, thus ordaining the first openly gay bishop.
Homosexuality still proves to be a polarizing and critical issue in today's world. Western political and legal discourse struggles to find consensus; and now the very notion of Christian communion is threatened. Episcopalians especially hold fast to this concept of communion, in large part because the church's very ecclesiology is built on it: communion with Christ and one another, and communion with the apostolic church.
Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, applauded John's stepping down, saying that his action will, in fact, enhance unity in the Church of England. A group of Anglicans appealed to Williams's arguments for unity, issuing a statement which called the ratification of Robinson "unconstitutional." They affirmed their commitment to their "brothers and sisters in the Anglican communion," most likely indicating African and Asian churches who are staunchly opposed to perceived American liberalism.
In the face of these demands for unity, Frank Griswold, Presiding Bishop of the American church, takes a different tone, issuing a call for Anglicans to understand that communion doesn't always mean getting along. "[M]aintaining communion is a sacred obligation," he wrote. "It is not easy and involves patience with one another, ongoing conversion, and a genuine desire to understand the different ways in which we seek to be faithful to the gospel."
Seemingly theological words are starting to mean very little in the present debate. For either side, talk of unity seems to come at great cost, asking people to sacrifice deeply held beliefs. Christian communion is far more than unity. But the debate which is supposed to work this out is, so far, devoid of the theological and ecclesiological discourse required.
One group opposed to Robinson's ordination makes their case quite literally, citing the ways in which the church has traditionally understood Paul's references to gender roles and sexuality. Presiding Bishop Griswold quotes Corinthians' imperative to live as one body, yet he does not engage the more problematic texts regarding sexuality. Instead, he writes, "[T]here is no such thing as a neutral reading of Scripture[;]…we interpret various passages in different ways."
A recent letter declared a state of "impaired communion" in Anglicanism. No doubt. Jesus called his followers to love God and one another, and Christians are still struggling to find that balance. Today, advocates of these developments in the church say intelligent things and assume prophetic language, yet even the most social-justice-friendly prophets in the Hebrew Bible argued from the received tradition of the Law, something which opponents of these measures see lacking in the current conversation. There are also intriguing references to Paul, one side reading him literally and the other, more contextually. Unless a common set of texts is engaged critically and thoughtfully, however, there will be no conversation, just more talking past one another.
The Christian church is supposed to be the place where we can go to the source of the tradition, engage our neighbor in conversation and love God more fully because of that experience. But until we learn how to do theology with our brothers and sisters, the communion will be, as now, impaired.
Gregory Syler lives in Chicago and teaches theology at The Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School.