John Richardson on an apology for a report
A LMOST a month to the day before the Windsor Report was published, I undertook a risky exercise. In an e-mail to those on the Chelmsford Anglican Mainstream circulation list, I made thirteen predictions about what it would and would not contain. So there was a certain holding of breath when high noon on October 18th finally arrived.
Prophecy, as I said in my e-mail, is always a dangerous business. In the event, though, out of my thirteen predictions, nine were spot on and the remaining four were near enough. I won’t bore the reader with the details since, by this stage, anyone who cares will have read the Report for themselves. Suffice to say, as predicted, it focuses on the failure of the governing bodies of the North American Church to take sufficient regard of the views, and above all the feelings, of other parts of the Anglican Communion, but in keeping with its brief, it says little about the actual content of those decisions. And whilst it underlines the existing ‘Instruments of Unity’ and suggests four more, it rejects any more radical changes in Anglican structures.
So much for the literally predictable content, but what have we got to look forward to in the next months of ‘process’ and ‘dialogue’? Earlier this year, the Bishop of Willesden, Pete Broadbent, was quoted in the Church of England Newspaper as saying, ‘We need more than just slapped wrists. We need some degree of acknowledgement that the Episcopal Church has gone beyond what is acceptable.’ Bishop Pete is a relatively late participant in the popular Anglican game of ‘Lines in the Sand’, but precisely for this reason his statement is a useful benchmark against which to test the Report. If an outspoken opponent of ‘extremists’ like Reform can nevertheless make such plain demands, then it is reasonable to assume that this is what many in the Church would similarly expect.
So to what extent does the Report acknowledge that ECUSA and the Church in Canada have ‘gone beyond what is acceptable’? And in what shape or form does it deliver ‘more than just slapped wrists’?
The answer to the first question depends on what you mean by ‘going beyond’. And here is the Report’s first difficulty for, as it reminds readers, the Commission was not invited, and therefore never intended, ‘to comment or make recommendations on the theological and ethical matters concerning the practice of same sex relations and the blessing or ordination or consecration of those who engage in them’ (pan 43, italics original).
Nevertheless, it was inevitable that the North American Provinces should, and indeed (to have any chance of keeping the Africans on board) had to, come in for some criticisms. But if they could not be criticized for the content of their decisions, in what could they be said to have transgressed? The answer was always obvious: in the manner of their decision making.
Thus, according to the Report, the governing bodies of ECUSA and Canada have indeed ‘gone beyond what is acceptable’ in failing ‘to offer an explanation to, or consult meaningfully with, the Communion as a whole’ (para 33), in failing to go through ‘procedures which might have made it possible for the church to hold together across differences of belief and practice’ (para 35), in deciding that these were matters ‘upon which Christians might have legitimate difference, while large numbers of other Anglicans around the world did not regard them in this way’ (para 37), and in assuming that ‘they were free to take decisions on matters which many in the rest of the Communion believe can and should be decided only at the Communion-wide level’ (pan 39).
In other words, the North Americans have transgressed in the decision making process which, if they had followed the proper procedures, might still have had the same outcome but wouldn’t t have upset everyone – just as happened with women’s ordination and their consecration as bishops.
No, you are not dreaming. Paragraphs 12 to 21 of this Report seriously present the story of the ordination and consecration of women as an example of how ‘decision-making in the Communion on serious and contentious issues has been, and can be, carried out without division, despite a measure of impairment’ (para 21). ‘But hang on,’ I hear you saying, ‘Wasn’t the ordination of women brought in by a series of illegal and unilateral decisions, often by individual bishops, with the law-making bodies of the Communion in a constant state of being outflanked and then catching up?’ Apparently not. Apparently it was all done ‘decently and in order’; in fact just the way the present issue ought to be handled from now on!
So the Americans should apologize for what they did. Well, they are asked to apologize. Well, they are asked to think about apologizing. Well, no, actually, to be precise, they are ‘invited to express … regret that the proper constraints of the bonds of affection’ were breached by them in consecrating Gene Robinson and in authorizing public Rites of Blessing of same sex unions.
But what if they don’t? Well then, they can expect trouble. Well no, actually they are ‘invited to consider in all conscience whether they should withdraw themselves from representative functions in the Anglican Communion’ (paras 134 and 144).
So they don’t have to apologize for what they did, but they ought to express regret for the hurt they caused. And if they don’t, then they should think really hard about not turning up to the next jamboree. But what if they don’t express regret, and what if, having thought about it, they turn up anyway? Read the ‘small print’ of paragraph 134:
We advise that in the formation of their consciences those involved consider the common good of the Anglican Communion, and seek advice through their primate and the Archbishop of Canterbury. We urge all members of the Communion to accord appropriate respect to such conscientious decisions.’ (Italics added.)
In other words, whatever they decide, the rest of us should accept it! And there is much more in the same vein. There should be a moratorium on authorizing ‘public Rites of Blessing for same sex unions’ (para 143). But what about private practice? Bishops who have alienated some parishes by their actions should offer them ‘delegated pastoral oversight’, but only by bringing in ‘retired bishops’, and meanwhile ‘there must also be a mutually agreed commitment to effecting reconciliation’ (para 151) on the part of the dissenting parish.
A slapped wrist? It is scarcely even a wagged finger. And, just to rub salt in the wound, the bishops who have intervened to offer help to dissenting parishes in North America receive the same admonition as (indeed a clearer slap than) those who have caused the dissent.
Of course, the Report is destined for the dustbin of history. Indeed, it is already outflanked by ongoing developments and rendered impotent by the delay between now and the meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council after the Primates’ meeting next year. The Anglican Communion is like an incompetent parent with an out-of-control toddler. Cries of ‘If you do that again, I’ll kill you!’ are greeted with not even a flicker of hesitation.
Perhaps we should remind ourselves: nobody in the world outside the Lambeth Commission cares how the North Americans reached their decisions; the only thing anyone really cares about were what decisions were reached. Insofar as the Windsor Report fails to address this issue, to that extent it is an irrelevance and, worse, a distraction.
John P Richardson works near Stansted Airport.