Wednesday, August 13, 2008

For Generosity to Result in Sacrifice (Updated)

A long time ago, when I was a young priest, I was heavily involved in working with youth. I was especially involved when the Diocese of West Tennessee separated from the Diocese of Tennessee.

At that time, there were a number of young people who had been active at the diocesan level, in a diocese that had encompassed the whole state. They felt closely connected to other kids across the diocese, sometimes more than to other kids in their own parishes. When the new diocese was formed, many of them felt things would go on as before. They wanted to share their new diocese, but they wanted to share it by inviting kids from across the state to events in the new diocese.

Several of us priests who were working with the kids talked among ourselves, and made a different decision. We instead cancelled events for a season, from the time General Convention approved the new diocese until after the first bishop had been elected. Essentially, we stopped things for the better part of an academic year. A number of the young people were furious, but we felt this was important. For the new youth community to form for the new diocese, the old had to end. There had to be a death of sorts so that there could be new life.

I have been contemplating the Lambeth Conference, and all that has been said and written. Two matters have hung with me. One has been the reports of bishops in other parts of the world telling our bishops that our decision for full participation of lesbian and gay Christians in the life of the Church, including both the election, confirmation, and ordination of Bishop Robinson and also seeking to acknowledge the capacity of same sex couples to demonstrate in their relationships the fruits of the Spirit, has brought sibling Anglicans into disrepute and sometimes to physical harm in their own cultures. We have often said in essence, “Surely we are not so important that anyone outside our own family will know or care.” We have despaired of the association in other parts of the world of American Episcopalians with the unpopular foreign policy decisions of the United States. The message we have heard from some places in the Communion is that, like it or not, people outside the family do notice and care, and do associate us with our elected officials, and Anglican siblings, not to mention Anglican mission, suffer.

The second matter has been discussion of “generosity” that would lead to “sacrifice.” These have been loaded words. The questions have been articulated clearly in a number of places: who should sacrifice; and what should they sacrifice? By the end of Lambeth, the central examples were the three moratoria, referenced back to the Windsor Report but repeated so often since: a moratorium on ordaining as bishops partnered homosexual clergy; a moratorium on blessing the commitments of same sex couples (whether formally or informally); and a moratorium on one bishop crossing into the diocese of another to “rescue” without consent of the diocesan. In one sense, each of these is an institutional decision. However, each also represents individual Christians, clergy and lay, seeking to make faithful decisions, and finding in one moratorium or another disparaging of their experience of life in Christ.

In many ways, this continues my reflection, published elsewhere, on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Second Presidential Address. In it he raised the concept of generosity in seeking to understand two voices:

Two sets of feelings and perceptions, two appeals for generosity. For the first speaker, the cost of generosity may be accusation of compromise : you’ve been bought, you’ve been deceived by airy talk into tolerating unscriptural and unfaithful policies. For the second speaker, the cost of generosity may be accusations of sacrificing the needs of an oppressed group for the sake of a false or delusional unity, giving up a precious Anglican principle for the sake of a dangerous centralisation. But there is the challenge. If both were able to hear and to respond generously, perhaps we could have something more like a conversation of equals — even something more like a Church.

With that in mind, this was how he ended that address:

At the moment, we seem often to be threatening death to each other, not offering life. What some see as confused or reckless innovation in some provinces is felt as a body-blow to the integrity of mission and a matter of literal physical risk to Christians. The reaction to this is in turn felt as an annihilating judgement on a whole local church, undermining its legitimacy and pouring scorn on its witness. We need to speak life to each other; and that means change. I’ve made no secret of what I think that change should be — a Covenant that recognizes the need to grow towards each other (and also recognizes that not all may choose that way). I find it hard at present to see another way forward that would avoid further disintegration. But whatever your views on this, at least ask the question : ‘Having heard the other person, the other group, as fully and fairly as I can, what generous initiative can I take to break through into a new and transformed relation of communion in Christ?’

In my earlier reflection on this, I noted that “The most important “facts on the ground” were created by God. They are the men and women whom we might serve, to whom we might reach out, and whom we might invite into our midst.” I stand by this. With that in mind, I cannot simply discount the news that, in opposition to us, some would do harm to our Anglican siblings. I won’t go so far as to say their blood is on our hands; but neither can we ignore that they experience risk from association with us.

By the same token, I cannot discount the real risk to lesbian and gay persons in our midst, in these United States and elsewhere. I cannot discount the real harm done by some persons calling themselves Christians who speak at best dismissively of, and at worst inciting harm to, the lives lesbian and gay persons. We are criticized for seeing their inclusion in our life together as an expression in our generation of the prophets’ call for justice, and of Jesus’ call for service to “the least of these my siblings.” Even Archbishop Williams noted that “welcome” and not “inclusion” was the critical Gospel virtue. However, “welcome” exceeds “inclusion” as “acceptance” exceeds “tolerance.” We are less than welcoming unless and until we are ready to share with them the best of our life, as Abraham did with three strangers.

So, if we are to consider what sacrifice we might accept to demonstrate our generosity, I cannot see how we can sacrifice those most important “facts on the ground,” those Christian souls at risk. I cannot imagine sacrificing the lives either of our GLBT siblings or of our Anglican siblings in other places who are threatened because of our radical Gospel welcome. We Episcopalians are asked to sacrifice from our life together, not as individuals, but as a whole Church; and the response, the generous gift, has to be a sacrifice of the whole Church.

Therefore, I think we need to consider by our own choice how we might sacrifice our position in the Anglican Communion. I don’t mean by that simply declaring ourselves out of communion with Canterbury and walking away. I do mean, however, acknowledging that it is because of our full participation in the Anglican Communion that brothers and sisters are at risk, whether at home or abroad, and proposing some alteration in that relationship. Some have worried about discussions of a “two-tier” Communion, once again dating back to the Windsor Report. Many have worried that the Covenant process so dear to Archbishop Williams will have that result at best. At the same time, making an effort to describe such a “second-tier” status, and embracing it as an expression of our generosity, would seem to me a reasonable consideration.

What might that mean? Perhaps continued “observer” status with the Anglican Consultative Council; perhaps choosing to limit our participation in such bodies as the Covenant Drafting Group, or in ecumenical discussions. I’m honestly not sure what ultimately such a position might look like, but I think we can offer ways in which we might be visible and listening, without asserting rights or power.

I think it would also be important to offer this out of our generosity, instead of as an expression of penance. However little attention some may have paid, we have expressed publicly and privately our sorrow that our decision, made in the best faith we had, has caused such division and even risk within the Communion. Moreover, I think those critics are right who say that we aren’t penitent of the decision itself. How shall we repent of a decision that so many of us consider rooted in the Gospel?

Last year several different voices, mine included, suggested that American bishops might choose not to attend this Lambeth Conference. That several different folks from several different places in these discussions each independently had this thought seemed to me to make it worth considering. One reason I made that suggestion was much like my reason for my suggestion today: “It would include our understanding that this was not rejection of the Communion, that we were choosing to ‘fast for a season,’ and not to ‘walk apart.’” Others might also think of this suggestion, for reasons of their own. If so, let’s talk about it.

I think we as the Episcopal Church can and should consider how indeed we might sacrifice to demonstrate our generosity (I’ll let Canadians consider whether this might or might not make sense for them.). That is certainly grounded in Scripture. I don’t quite know what that might look like. I do, however, believe strongly that whatever we might sacrifice, it can’t be the persons at risk, whether at home or abroad.

UPDATE, 8/14/08: Today at Preludium Mark Harris notes, among other things, that in her presentation last year to the House of Bishops on the work of the Covenant Design Group Professor Katherine Grieb proposed "a five-year period of fasting from full participation in the Anglican Communion to give us all time to think and to listen more carefully to one another." While I didn't have this particularly in mind, I do imagine I did read this then, and I'm happy to give credit (and thanks to Mark for the reminder). This was, of course, before Lambeth. I think the actual events and outcomes of Lambeth do make this worth considering again.


(Kathy) said...

Marshall - these are thoughtful reflections and match with what I have been thinking. It may be that we'll have to face that the practices we choose in order to serve what we see as a gospel vision of full inclusion will give offense to others in the Communion. I think it's important to acknowledge that offense, and perhaps we haven't done so enough, thinking it won't matter to people, as you say, when it turns out that it does. But that doesn't mean we give up our practices or stop developing the theology that goes with them. This is a matter of conscience for us (it seemed to me that the Archbishop acknowledged somewhere that this might be so). I also think it means we cannot leave the table, even when conversations are painful - and if we are asked to sit further away from the head of the table, well then maybe that's the sacrifice that's asked of us in the church as it now stands- a lower "status" or "tier" -- We balk at that but that may be our witness in this generation of the Church -if some sort of "lesser status" is the price exacted for solidarity with our GLBT members and clergy then don't we need to accept it, while NOT withdrawing in anger or protest? I agree that it would be important to be clear about our theology, that we are not accepting punishment or penance, but rather accepting, with some grief, that our brothers & sisters in the Anglican communion cannot accept what we think are fundamentally gospel-based practices.
I live in a congregation that really reflects the face of the Anglican communion and a variety of opinions regarding GLBT clergy and bishops. But a lot of agreement on a lot of other things about what it means to be church. Interestingly, the congregation has had NO interest in what has been going on at Lambeth. The work of staying together and staying engaged and worshipping together is how we do church and are formed by being church. It seems to me this is a more "Anglican" vision of "being a Church" than the idea of agreement to a set of precepts ssuggested by the Archbishop's idea of being "more like a Church." Forcing agreement is more divisive than acknowledging brokenness. I find that I am grieving, more than anything else, that this issue should divide the Communion, when there is so much more to being church. But I don't think we should leave, and I doubt that we'll be "kicked out." A lot of strength and clarity is going to be required but we have to stick to the inclusive vision we have embraced, and there is a cost, sometimes, to this kind of witness.

Ann said...

I don't agree -- in those countries where people are being threatened by association -- gays and lesbians are being killed. Even in CofE - a man was killed for being gay. We all need to stand in solidarity with the least of these.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the adults know what's best for the teens, the men know what's best for the women, the priests know what's best for the laity, and we know what's best for the Communion.

I don't think so.

To absent myself from my family because some might take offense is to discount those family members.

Every Church in the Communion is fully capable of responding as they think best to TEC. To absent ourselves, or to make ourselves separate, is to deny the possibility of reconciliation and redemption.

Come, let us reason together.

Dr. Bryant A. Hudson

Anonymous said...

Marshall - I was there in those earliest of days of WTenn! as a student at Southwestern (I am revealing my age aren't I?). I've been thinking and saying much the same as what you outline here and it feels very liberating to me. I do take it one step farther, however. I think we need to be willing to sacrifice our entire connection to Canterbury, trusting that God is in all of it (even those with whom we disagree). I'm not saying that should be our starting point, but we must be prepared to relinquish the attachment if called to do so.

I continue to be reluctant to accept that TEC is somehow responsible for other Provinces. I'm not doubting their experience but I am rejecting the idea that we are somehow responsible for their context. I keep hearing a therapist teaching a married couple that neither one of them is responsible for how the other one hears them. You can't help what others do with what you say.

That said, I do believe our best response is the one that shows a way forward that preserves everyone's integrity and asks no one to be different than they already are. For me, that's true reconciliation (or at least the beginning of it).

Malcolm+ said...

If "second-tier" status is imposed upon up, so be it. But to embrace it is to cede the contest of ideas to those who believe the Holy Spirit has no more to say.

Bill Carroll said...

I think we need to live out our generosity by showing up when invited, maintaining our integrity and fidelity to the Gospel as we understand it, bearing witness to the truth with our brothers and sisters, and being patient when others try to exclude us. If we do what is right, we will end up on the bottom tier of a two tier process, but this tier really isn't all that different from what we think the Anglican Communion actually should be. I don't think we should voluntarily withdraw from anything. We should accept that to some, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, this step might (mistakenly) appear necessary.

At the same time, we should not attend any events where Rowan imposes a loyalty oath to the Covenant process. This was one of my objections to attending Lambeth (along with Gene's exclusion).

Marshall Scott said...

Thanks for these comments.

Goodness, Dr. Hudson! Well, I don't know about "telling everyone what's best" - but, it is my opinion.

Ann, Dr. Hudson, Malcolm+, Bill: I go back and forth about engagement, and when it's helpful and when it's not. I'm conscious of the Cuban dissidents who felt that President Bush's championing their cause made matters worse by making a cause celebre of resisting American "interference," and so disrupting efforts they felt were working to change their own society. We need to stand with all who are dying over this, and that's a difficult balance.

But, I'm not saying we should go away. We should be present, in silent witness. They will still know we stand with our GLBT siblings here, and pray for them there. Indeed, in my work sacramental presence, the opportunity to reflect the love of God as a visible symbol that God is present, was present already, is commonly more powerful than any words I might say. I don't think we'd lose that in "second tier" status, or I wouldn't have suggested it.

I also think of the family systems model that many have put forth in analyzing our differences. Well, one way to really clarify who has the problem and where is to take the "identified patient" out to pursue his or her own health. That doesn't mean the "identified patient" isn't part of the family anymore - just that the "identified patient" has chosen new and healthy behavior and no longer participates in the disruption. Once again, that becomes a quiet but powerful witness to what health and wholeness - and holiness - can mean.


JimB said...

At one level, I am inclined to agree -- if anyone is to pay the price of the Gospel it should be the entire TEC. Sacrificing our lbgt sisters and brothers is murder (in some cases literal murder!)

But(!) I think it is fair to be somewhat skeptical of the idea that the Islamic world sees our inclusion as a basis for attack. Oh, I am sure those who hate the, "Crusaders" use any tool, but they can always find another tool: they will. In fact it is not a tool: it is an excuse.

I am not suggesting that the central Africans begin ordering gay bishops next week. I am suggesting they read Jesus' description of the judgment and get with the program. These are the least of His brothers and sisters in their diocese. Why are they not defending them?

And there is the problem. If we wont continue to witness for the oppressed, and the churches on the ground or in Canterbury certainly wont, who will? Someone must say that gang raping a lesbian is sin, African churchmen wont, the archbishop of Canterbury seems to be capable of silence. Who will speak if we are silent too?

Nope, I cannot go there. We need to be both present and vocal. The Spirit calls us to love mercy and seek justice.


PseudoPiskie said...

IMNSHO there would be no problems caused by TEC in other provinces had not their clergy caused it. I'm weary of clergy-caused dissension. If TEC is excluded, so be it. In no way should it be voluntary. If TEC is excluded, so should the ACoC and all others who share the lack of prejudice. Perhaps eventually, the excluded will be the larger group as others learn to follow Jesus?