“Ask Me About Gene!” crowed the lapel buttons worn by liberal delegates to the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in August of 2003. The big issue of that Minneapolis meeting was whether to ratify the election of the bishop of New Hampshire: the divorced, openly gay, and “partnered” Gene Robinson. Well, interested parties did ask about Gene, and were cheerily informed by his supporters about the state of his marriage and his mattress.
This raised the question of whether the teachings of Christ are or are not essential to Christianity—a question to which ecclesiocrats gave one answer and churchgoers another. Brows were furrowed; heads scratched; Task Forces commissioned. For four years the Anglican world has been holding its breath.
And still is. Forced by the approach of next summer’s Lambeth Conference to take decisive action, the archbishop of Canterbury has abandoned delaying tactics and has decided to stall. His Advent Letter announced the formation of a blue-ribbon committee to study the issues (“Ask Me About Gene, Again!”). Dr. Rowan Williams drew on his mastery at splitting onion skins to recast the controversy, as he has invariably done in the past, as a conflict over procedure. He’s very good at it. Take a look at this feint to his right (my emphasis):
The deeper question is about what we believe we are free to do, if we seek to be recognizably faithful to Scripture and the moral tradition of the wider Church, with respect to blessing and sanctioning in the name of the Church certain personal decisions about what constitutes an acceptable Christian lifestyle. [Vague but unexceptionable, right? Read on:] Insofar as there is currently any consensus in the Communion about this, it is not in favor of change in our discipline or our interpretation of the Bible.
See the move? First he seemed to be speaking about a moral tradition and fidelity to Scripture as if they were solid, discrete realities with boundaries. Then it turns about to be a matter of consensus, and this consensus is not a sensus fidelium but a consensus in flux: currently it’s not friendly to a change in discipline (he does not say “doctrine”), but with any luck things might be different come July.
Now watch the next gambit:
This is why the episcopal ordination of a person in a same-sex union or a claim to the freedom to make liturgical declarations about the character of same-sex unions inevitably raises the question of whether a local church is still fully recognizable within the one family of practice and reflection.
Apples and oranges. To ordain a “person in a same-sex union,” like ordaining a polygamist, is to give a positive ecclesial dignity to sin. But the second “claim” is framed as a procedural indiscretion, and would be equally violated by a Nigerian bishop who unilaterally declared same-sex unions invalid. And note the lawyerly equivocations with which the statement is padded: these practices don’t destroy unity; they “raise questions” about whether such unity is “fully” recognizable. You can drive a train through the adverbs. And let’s not forget the usefulness of the family-metaphor:
Where one part of the family makes a decisive move that plainly implies a new understanding of Scripture that has not been received and agreed by the wider Church, it is not surprising that others find a problem in knowing how far they are still speaking the same language.
Once again, this language may be assumed to be aimed at the US Episcopalians who rammed through the Robinson election and the blessing of same-sex unions, but of course gay activists are always pretending that the true novelty is the conservative position (“Where does the Bible say men can’t marry men?”) and that the Lefties are preserving Jesus’ traditional message of openness to all.
Irrespective of who’s the innovator, Williams pretends that the problem is not in the intrinsic wrongness of the innovation but in the language-breakdown that results when you move too fast. In short, the day of reckoning has been postponed yet again. As for the task assigned the primates’ study group, it must be tough to be saddled with an over-abundance of hard facts at the outset, and charged with the duty of vaporizing them by July. That said, is there any doubt where Gene Robinson will be seated in the Lambeth Conference of 2008?
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