THE ROAD AHEAD
This Letter is being written on the way back to Australia after a very brief visit to Europe. In both Rome and London we witnessed events which will have a deep impact on the future.
Before and during the Primates’ meeting at Lambeth Palace, Fr David and Rita Moyer (representing FiF North America), Archbishop John Hepworth (representing the Traditional Anglican Communion) and I (representing FiF Australia) networked together with an international cross-section of bishops, priests and lay people seeking to support and resource the so-called conservative primates meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The variety of people involved with us demonstrated just how ‘mainstream Christian’ is the traditional understanding of human sexuality. This needs to be stated at a time when most western media continue to imply that the vast majority of Christians are liberal on homosexual practice, while a small and intellectually lightweight coalition of wealthy evangelicals use their power to persecute those they wish to exclude from church life. The media also give us a picture of ‘primitive’ African and Asian church leaders taking the Bible too seriously as a result of their severe disadvantage of not having been formed in the decadent philosophical and moral relativism of snooty first world Anglican institutions . . . that is, of course, with the exception of Archbishop Ndungane of Capetown, who happens to toe the liberal line.
Because the western media influence western Christians, it is important to restate the simple fact that Archbishop Jensen of Sydney, Pope John Paul II of Rome, and Patriarch Bartholomeos of Constantinople, together with the vast majority of protestant leaders ALL say the same thing on the subject of the ordination of practising homosexuals. In spite of their differences, they find themselves on the same side of this aspect of the debate on the authority of Scripture in the life of the Church. In other words, they are not prepared to accept the ‘new hermeneutic’ even in its most appealing form as expressed, for example, by Archdeacon Cathy Thomson in the 2001 Australian General Synod debate on homosexuality:
… any contemporary study of how texts can be interpreted suggests that it is impossible to give precedence to the text itself, as indeed the text finds expression only in its apprehension by the human intellect; and the text can only realize meaning through its mediation within the context of a community, here – a faith tradition. Biblical interpretation is always attenuated by our human reason and experience, and by the community or faith context within which it is read. We may claim our reading is authoritative, but ultimately it is our reading employing our intellectual response and systems of interpretation, which find a fertile soil within our tradition.
It would be foolish to dismiss all the nuances of Thomson’s argument. But from a Catholic point of view she trivializes the context in which revelational truth was discerned in the life of the early Church, as well as the role of the Church in the development of Christian doctrine. When she speaks of ‘the community of faith context’, Thomson obviously means something rather less than the universal Church, and, in fact, the end result of her reasoning is a theological justification for communities of Christians living in outright dissent from basic Christian truths. In terms of establishing a normative hermeneutical principle, the historical and literary context of Scripture has been downgraded in favour of the cultural context of the reader. This approach was illustrated in the ordination of women debate here in Australia, when one of the leaders of MOW said that ‘… the Word comes to us from above, and our culture rises up to meet the Word, and in that encounter we hear God’s truth for us today!’ (Even that’s now a bit old fashioned now. I don’t think you would catch today’s feminist theologians using so hierarchical an illustration.)
Alarmingly, as bishops and theologians now argue quite openly that having moved ‘beyond’ the plain meaning of Scripture in order to remarry divorced people in church (without reference to whether or not the original marriage was in fact valid from a Christian perspective), and having done so again in order to ordain women to the priesthood, they can do so once more in order to ordain (and consecrate to the episcopate) sexually active homosexuals. Some Anglo-Catholics think that the sexuality debate confuses the debate on Order, but I think it demonstrates the real problem – the widening gulf between those scholars who believe that Scripture really is ‘the Word of the Lord’, and those who accept the presuppositions of the so-called ‘science’ of modernist hermeneutics which skillfully removes any inconvenient challenge to our belief or our behaviour.
On the other hand, during the Primates’ meeting we met a number of American Evangelicals who could not accept that the ordination of sexually active homosexuals is simply the latest manifestation of the new hermeneutic. They have no difficulty with the remarriage of the already validly married, or with the ordination of women. In a recent article Father Sam Edwards accurately described such friends as ‘conservative’ rather than ‘orthodox’.
The transformation of the Anglican Communion into something less than a Communion began with the application of this hermeneutic back in the 1970s. Eucharistic Communion has been shattered by those who for nearly thirty years have purported to ordain women to the priesthood. The ‘orthodox’ clearly see this, and are bemused by those ‘conservatives’ who merely want to turn the clock back to just before Gene Robinson’s election!
Judging by the different and contradictory ways the Primates’ Statement has been interpreted (even by those whose statement it is!) it is itself an hermeneutical minefield. Nevertheless, it clearly speaks of ‘adequate alternative episcopal oversight’ being the right of those who do not believe the new hermeneutic to be of God. Furthermore, this oversight is to be worked out in conjunction with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has already made it clear that whether or not the oversight offered is ‘adequate’ is to be judged not by those (reluctantly) arranging it – the liberals – but those for whom it is intended. This is a breakthrough.
Potentially this could give rise to a re-clustering of Anglicans, defined by common faith and ecclesial relationships rather than postcodes – from the point of view of the ‘orthodox’ rather than the mere ‘conservatives’ a far better scenario than the instant creation of a new North American province. Such a province would have had to begin with ‘impaired communion’ as a conspicuous feature of its life.
The Primates’ Statement also raises questions about Canterbury’s interventionist role (‘an Anglican Pope’!), about the nature of the worldwide Anglican association, and even about the possibility of ‘orthodox’ Anglo-Catholic clusters coalescing with mainstream Continuing Anglicans so as to continue the ecumenical journey to which we have been committed for so long.
History is being made.
David Chislett is Rector of All Saints, Wickham Terrace, Brisbane