By Richard Helmer
Doubtless, much of the media coverage of the House of Bishops meeting this week will be prefaced with the same sound bites we’ve been hearing these past four years. We will hear the words “gay, sex, schism, and lawsuits” in reference to The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. This places before the House of Bishops and the Archbishop of Canterbury an important, if not monumental task of leadership as they meet together: a battle with distraction.
The flurry of recent consecrations for the Anglican missionary organizations recently planted in this country by other Provinces, even under protest from the Archbishop of Canterbury, underscores the simple fact that a schismatic conflict within the Anglican Communion has now taken on a life of its own. To some degree, the way this will play out has been pre-determined by those who are willing to break Communion in the name of their purity of belief. Not even the Dar Es Salaam Primate Communiqué’s September 30th “deadline” seems worth waiting for. Threats from self-declared Global South bishops and Primates not to attend next year’s Lambeth Conference, a growing rejection of Canterbury as a focus of unity, four diocesan conventions exploring resolutions that would effectively remove them from The Episcopal Church, and dissenting bishops skipping out on substantial portions of the September House meeting only serve to round out a clear sentence: We are watching the unfolding of self-fulfilling prophecy. Some sort of realignment, some sort of “alternative Communion” is about to be birthed, and it is probably too late to turn back the clock.
Our House of Bishops confronts the additional challenge, then, of avoiding getting caught in the deception that their response to the Primates’ Communiqué, regardless of what form it ultimately takes, will appreciably affect the forces already hell-bent on division.
While many, including Rowan Williams himself, seem to remain convinced that the Windsor Report and its accompanying processes are the only game in town for the Anglican Communion going forward, the credibility of the Windsor process itself and, indeed, the ostensible neutrality of the resulting draft Anglican Covenant have been severely undermined by the Network and Global South leadership in recent months. Most notable was the active participation of Archbishop Drexel Gomez of the West Indies in the consecration of two American priests as bishops for the Church of Kenya’s oversight of former Episcopal parishes in the United States. (Try re-reading that last sentence out loud. By itself, it demonstrates how convoluted, confusing, and distracting the situation has become.) These types of consecration are expressly condemned by the Windsor Report – the same one Archbishop Gomez helped to author; the same one he and others then appealed to as a measure of The Episcopal Church’s fidelity in Communion.
The Dar Es Salaam Communiqué itself devotes no fewer than 21 of its 37 sections plus an appendix to addressing the complaints and pastoral needs of a handful of leaders in The Episcopal Church, upset over the confirmation and consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson and then hanging upon that one event a host of long-standing resentments and reason to foment division. The enormous weight of time and energy the Primates have taken on focusing on a relatively small group represents the clear distortions in perspective, if nothing else, from which we suffer as a Communion.
The most important leadership our bishops the Archbishop of Canterbury can offer us at this time may well be an intentional effort to put, at every available opportunity, the current disagreements over human sexuality and the over-wrought voices of division in the life of the Church back into their proper perspective. Some have already started doing this, not least of whom is our Presiding Bishop. So too have a significant number of our Diocesan bishops, a number of whom fall on markedly opposing sides of the human sexuality question. Indeed, part of the March “Mind of the House” statement was a declaration that our bishops, as a whole, would not engage in a losing proposition: the setting aside of the dignity of some of our sisters and brothers and the violation of our internal integrity for the sake of a dubious unity built on threats, distortions, and fear of difference. Instead, they argued that, differences over human sexuality notwithstanding, the substantive Christian tasks ahead revolved around the needs of forging common mission to carry the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a world crying out with need. We need not look very hard to find evidence that a large portion of the Anglican Communion, regardless of where they stand on sexuality, agrees with that proposition.
But reframing the conversation this way at this time remains a monumental task. Much of the engine driving the rhetoric and actions of some of our most vituperative detractors is the simple fact that the combination of sex, the Bible, and lawsuits grabs emotional attention and headlines. Seeking reconciliation and willingness to hold disagreement honestly in community doesn’t.
The Network and Global South can publicly leverage deeply seated prejudices around which to rally otherwise disparate factions. The sad thing is that as the Network, the Global South Primates, and their ecclesiastical allies continue to press their media advantage this way, they risk falling into a very small publicity bed of their own making: a distracted gospel centered on the question of homosexuality…a stunted nub of tradition revolving around a handful of biblical injunctions devoid of context and vulnerable to the exaggeration of fear… an ugly, narrow, flimsy caricature of a great faith. That is not much upon which to build a Christian Communion, alternative, realigned, or otherwise.
Then the danger for those remaining in the greater Anglican Communion is also clear. So long as The Episcopal Church and the broader Church continue to engage the argument on these terms, we are at constant risk of falling into this very same bed.
The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion and, indeed the world as a whole, need the Gospel of Jesus Christ: A Gospel that brings justice to the hungry, dignity to the impoverished, healing to the sick, peace to the war-ravaged, and a powerful message of hope and redemption to a Creation groaning under considerable stress.
Declaring this Gospel in the face of easier sells is a tall order for our House of Bishops and the Archbishop of Canterbury to meet this fall. But by meeting in New Orleans, highlighting a city whose people continue to climb out of a dreadful natural and humanitarian disaster, they have made a definite start.
Prayers be with them all as they battle with distraction for the sake of the Gospel.
The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. He has served in interfaith, ecumenical, diocesan, and national church organizations, including Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries. His sermons have been published at Sermons that Work, and he blogs regularly at Caught by the Light.