Let’s be honest, it is all a bit of a mess; the Anglican Communion, I mean. Mind you the C of E is also a bit messy at present.
But, here’s some good news, or at least, a point of reference that may give some hope:
The Church, in all its dysfunctionality, is not too different from families up and down the land, for, as all involved in funeral ministry know, the notion of the perfectly functional family, where every member relates to the other in perfect harmony, is a romantic myth. Even, whisper it beneath your breath, in ‘nice families.’
Every minister will be aware that when planning funerals family members may have significantly different interpretations of the reality of family life and, the character of the deceased. Often, sadly, the dominant interpretation will depend on the power dynamics in the family. Power, does not of course, necessarily equate to truth.
The various ‘power groups’ in the Anglican Communion seem to be interpreting the ACC meeting’s response to the Primates Communique differently. Who knows what the ‘truth’ of the matter is?
In fact the disagreement is not limited simply to interpretation of the communique. No, in many ways it is far more basic than that, for the entire legitimacy of the Primates response to the Episcopal Church has also been called into question. The argument goes that the Primates have attempted to fashion themselves as an Anglican Magisterium and in so doing have, without consultation, sought to change the nature of our ‘family life.’
The counter argument is of course that the Episcopal Church (of the USA) had no rite (pun!) to change their marriage canon unilaterally. So the Primates ‘had’ to act.
A third interpretation may be, as someone at a church lunch put to me yesterday, that two wrongs don’t make a right. My friend, who is an ordinary member of the congregation, believes that the Episcopal Church was wrong, both in its intention (to broaden the traditional definition of marriage) and its praxis (he believes that some form of liturgical affirmation would be appropriate – we didn’t discuss blessings), but that the Primates were also wrong in their reaction, despite all the pious language embedded in the communique.
He warned of the dire consequences that follow when a powerful group seeks to assume powers that are not rightfully theirs, or to amend the ‘constitution’ without prior consultation.
Getting back to funerals! Frequently, there is a third group of mourners; those who don’t get to express their view, perhaps simply because their view is more subtle and nuanced; less dramatic and somehow distanced from, or drowned out by, those who intent on keeping hold of the megaphone.
This group also tends to be less dogmatic, and because their analysis isn’t headline grabbing their views are seldom sought. After all a eulogy which stresses that Fred or Sue (whoever) was a mixture of the good and the bad stuff, they did their best, sometimes achieving what they set out to but frequently just drifting along doesn’t really do it!
This group perceives ‘the truth of the matter’ to reside between the two extremes, not in some soggy relativism but rather, in a spirit of ‘holy pragmatism.’ And, this group exists big time in the Church, just like it does in each and every family and community. And, lets not deceive ourselves; this group does think things through, reflectively and, ‘theologically.’ And yet, we never ask their opinion (we think we do, and we argue that their views are represented through the synodical processes but sometimes we need to get beyond such processes, or dig deeper).
The line that that they don’t have the expertise and authority to make a contribution, which is sometimes deployed, doesn’t really, in my view, pass muster. It is the rhetoric of the anti liberationist and a clericalism that refuses to take seriously that most unnerving of principles; subsidiarity.
Before everyone in a position of power and authority gets hot under the collar, please note that I have used the word ‘contribution.’ Surely a healthy church should make some sort of effort to find out what its members really think (or believe)? What other mechanism exists for inaugurating a mature conversation? Or even for teaching and admonishing?
So, it is bizarre that we never put before them (our members) a range of options and ask how they would rank them. Put simply, despite protestations, that the majority of members of the C of E ‘think’ that the status quo should be either retained or amended, we don’t know what our members really think, and one of the problems with those who speak from a position of power or authority is that they tend towards a preference for making sweeping assumptions. We, the C of E, should rigorously and systematically test our assumptions (mine included!) Asking the broadest possible franchise to rank a range of possible outcomes wouldn’t, in all probability, provide a definitive outcome but it would give an accurate insight into the general direction of beliefs and sympathies.
There is however a problem that needs to be acknowledged by those in leadership: Not knowing can be infinitely more comfortable than knowing! Assumption can be the ‘epistemological best friend’ of the powerful.
So why don’t we simply just ask our members (maybe starting by defining members as those on an electoral role -after all having just completed a round of APCM meetings we know the composition of the franchise) what they think about the issues that divide us. Let’s get below the views of the authority figures. It would be a relatively simple process to arrange.
But, ‘fear not,’ it won’t happen, for one simple reason; presumption is so much easier to deal with, for leaders, than fact.
Of course getting to the heart of the matter won’t erase all, or even most, of our problems. It won’t make the family instantly more functional. In the short term it might actually makes things worse.
There will be a lot of shock and horror from all sides about the nature of the results and findings: ‘how could you believe such and such’ will continue to be a refrain of estranged conservative and liberal cousins on both sides of the theological divide. Those residing in that vast spectrum of belief called ‘the middle ground’ will all all likelihood simply keep their heads down and mournfully ask ‘how has it come to this?’ Unless we pass them the megaphone.
For the sake of the Church of England this group needs to be given its voice.
Bishops, priests and deacons may have to live with the unconformable reality that more diversity exists in their pews than they had hitherto presumed or perceived, and that this will impact (for good) the exercise of leadership in both the diocese and local church and, the way the church evolves its teaching ministry. We will need from our leaders a new maturity.
However, as everyone involved in funeral ministry also knows, funerals can be a catalyst for family reconciliation, and reconciliation begins when we willingly extinguish presuppositions and presumptions and allow heart to speak to heart. This is now the Church of England’s urgent task and we need to engage the widest possible constituency in our discussions and deliberations.
It will be messy. And, it will require courage. But the alternative is even worse; the continuation of a long and painful journey to the funeral parlor.
The owner of Anglican blog ‘TheoreO’ (A. Lightbown) offers his understanding of the current malaise at the heart of the Church of England around many issues, including the status of the just-concluded ‘Conversations on Human Sexuality’. He suggests that not enough attention is being paid – especially on this touchy subject – to the Faithful laity in the Church and their opinions:
“Bishops, priests and deacons may have to live with the unconformable reality that more diversity exists in their pews than they had hitherto presumed or perceived, and that this will impact (for good) the exercise of leadership in both the diocese and local church and, the way the church evolves its teaching ministry. We will need from our leaders a new maturity.”
In other words, while the Leaders of the Church of England may discuss among themselves the issues of human sexuality – including that of how the Church treats the LGBTQI constituency in its midst; and the Church’s reluctance to recognise, or bless, couples within the congregations involved in a civil Same-Sex Marriage – ordinary Churchgoers may, mostly (accepting the fact of the State’s involvement on Same-Sex Marriage) wonder what all the fuss is about.
Where, once, the attitude of the Church was consonant with that of the State in England – in holding Same-Sex activity as criminally liable – the tables have now been turned. The State has decriminalised homosexuality, and has provided a legal way in which people of the same gender who love one another may be joined together in marriage – in a legal state on a par with that of heterosexual marriage.
The fact is, there are and will be more same-sex couples in the Church who will want to undertake what the State provides as the legal provisions of Marriage.
The big question now is, how does the Church look upon such relationships that, despite former prohibition against them, are now considered acceptable and within the law. State-condoned homophobia and its criminal overtones have been overcome by the State. This holds a legitimate challenge for the Church. How will the Church react?
As our own General Synod in Aotearoa/New Zealand and Polynesia comes to discuss these important matters in the life of the Church and in our community; a similar situation has arisen. Now that Same-Sex Marriage has been put on a legal par with Heterosexual Marriage – what will our Church be able to do that will assure homosexual people in our congregations that the Church welcomes their desire to maintain their monogamous, loving relationships now legally binding in a State-sanctioned Marriage?
If we fall short of being able to sanction an actual Wedding Ceremony in our churches, will this General Synod of ACANZP, feel able to move forward on the provision of a Rite of Blessing on a Marriage celebrated by the State? My own hope is that this will be made possible – especially for those loyal members of our Church, who wish to commit & pledge their lives in a life-long marriage relationship to their Same-Sex partner. After all, was it not the dictum of Saint Paul the Apostle: “It is better to marry than burn” ? Of course, he didn’t know anything about S/S Marriage, but the issue is just the same.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand