Gerry O’Brien on the limits of democracy

As the strains of ‘Joy to the world, the Lord has come’, ring out from our churches this Christmas we may pause to ponder the offerings which 50-odd American bishops are bringing to the Christ child. To come to Jesus, who prayed that his people might be one, with gifts of impaired communion, discord and schism may seem a trifle strange. However, as a majority of Anglican primates make plain their profound disagreement with what has happened in New Hampshire, one is left to wonder what exactly will happen here in England, in our own parishes, for instance.

I daresay my own PCC would not need much encouragement to pass a suitably worded motion declaring its opposition to what has happened, but on the ground what difference would it make? Gene Robinson is unlikely to visit our parish, so the question of his exercising episcopal ministry here simply won’t arise. Would there be a blanket ban on ministers licensed by ECUSA taking services in our parish? Well, we haven’t had a visiting preacher from the States for many years, so that would be a bit of an empty gesture.

In practice, we have a fair number of visiting clergy over the year, but we don’t even have a blanket welcome for Church of England clergy. I’m sure our Rector exercises considerable discretion to ensure that no-one is let loose in the pulpit to say things he might not approve of. I daresay that would exclude a fair proportion of local Anglican clergy. On the other hand, we sometimes invite ministers from churches not in communion with the Church of England to preach and teach. Come to that we have a number of lay people, some of whose Anglican pedigree might be a bit contentious, taking their turn in leading services or preaching.

So what would ‘impaired communion’ amount to in practical terms? I know my Anglo-Catholic friends could give me a precise ecclesiastical definition, but I get the impression that my parish, at least, has ‘impaired communion’ with a fair chunk of the Church of England already.

There are over 1,000 women exercising presbyteral ministry in the Church of England – and over 1,000 parishes which have passed Resolution B, saying that they would not accept the appointment of any of these people as their incumbent. That being so, perhaps we should ask whether the Church of England is in full communion with itself.

I was speaking with an Archdeacon from another diocese recently. He told me that his diocese was not prepared to appoint incumbents to A/B parishes. ‘We routinely advertise them as house for duty,’ he said. When I queried how this squared with having two integrities, he told me that the Church had declared its mind ten years ago and his diocese was not in the business of sustaining the opposition. I suppose we are in communion with this charming venerable gentleman, but if some of the readers of this journal should find themselves exchanging the peace with him, I suspect that the ‘peace of the Lord’ that he will be wishing them is the peace of the graveyard.

I remember someone telling me a long time ago that we ought to think of the Church as a hospital for sinners, rather than as a rest home for saints. I think there is an element of truth in that and I hope that on Sundays we attract all sorts of people who recognize that they have ‘erred and strayed from God’s ways’ and come to seek assurance of his forgiveness. However, the “rest home for saints” mentality does persist and I suspect that in many of our churches there are folk who would prefer many categories of people not to be present, in order that they themselves may remain unsullied by the world. Given that Jesus was happy to socialize with all sorts of people – tax collectors, women, Samaritans, adulterers and prostitutes, to name but a few, such attitudes do seem to be starkly at odds with authentic Christianity. The ecclesiastical authorities of his day were scandalized, so much so that they plotted to have Jesus arrested and executed. However, it seems that their descendents are alive and well today, passionately believing that they are being pious and holy.

‘These people’, says God, ‘honour me with their words, but their heart is really far away from me. It is no use for them to worship me, because they teach man-made rules as though they were my laws.’ True Christianity is always a matter of the heart rather than law-keeping per se. So what are we to make of the situation in our communion which gets messier by the day?

Are we fermenting a storm in a teacup? Should we be making a fuss about New Hampshire, New Westminster, Reading and so on? Well, yes we should. We do, after all, have a solemn obligation to pass on the faith delivered to the saints in an authentic and recognizable form. The North American situation presents us with two problems. The first is the strident demand not only to do what has not been deemed permissible for the last two thousand years, but to insist that we are being unchristian if we do not approve of these actions and pronounce them as being right and in accordance with God’s will – something previous generations would have regarded as anathema.

The second problem has to do with democracy. It was put to me that there had been little realistic prospect of Gene Robinson standing down in view of the American belief in democracy and process. Democracy is elevated to the status of religious faith, as we see in America’s commitment to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and replace it with some kind of democratic system.

This means that the expressed views of the electors of the diocese of New Hampshire acquire the status of articles of faith. How could Gene Robinson disregard the electorate and bow to the views of worldwide Anglicanism? Furthermore, his election was the result of due process being followed. If the correct procedures had been followed (as apparently they had) how was any outcome other than a service of consecration of Gene Robinson possible?

I suppose what we are left with is someone who has been consecrated on the authority of the democratically expressed wishes of an electorate, due process having been followed. According to the rules of ECUSA no other outcome was possible. Sadly though, God didn’t actually have a vote in the election. No doubt everyone thought they were casting God’s vote by proxy, but one side or the other can’t have been listening.

In a real church, surely God doesn’t just have a vote – he has a veto, and we do well to have a healthy respect for his wishes, even when privately we would wish to disagree with him.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.