A plea: return to discerning the truth

14 October 2009

Dr Williams needs to get back to using his gifts of wisdom about sexuality, argues Peter Selby

“False consciousness”: the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose approach to Anglican unity “will stunt our discernment”, Dr Selby says

“False consciousness”: the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose approach to Anglican unity “will stunt our discernment”, Dr Selby says

I GAVE an extended assessment in a lecture last week of the way in which the debates about sexuality and the Covenant were being conducted. I ended with these reflections on what has happened to the part played by the Arch­bishop of Canterbury.

There is a revealing sentence near the beginning of the Archbishop’s paper after the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States (News, 31 July): “There are two points which I believe need to be re­iterated and thought through further, and it seems to fall to the Archbishop of Canterbury to try and articulate them” (my italics).

Why does it “seem to fall” in that direction? If the two points he wishes to make are true (and I have serious questions about them), then could not anyone be making them? What is hap­pening to the office and person of the Archbishop is a question that cannot be avoided, and is far from being just his responsibility.

The Archbishop denies more than once in his paper that the Covenant and his response to the General Con­vention are manifestations of centrali­sa­tion, but why would he need to deny this? The sad reality is that the Archbishop has removed himself from his natural area of thought in the matter of sexuality, which is his remarkable capacity to bring a godly wis­dom to bear on secular develop­ments.

This is a gift that we need more than any other in attempting to work out how to assess current develop­ments in human attitudes and behaviour in matters sexual. Instead, the issues that surround sexuality are now treated by him only as ecclesiastical problems, to be resolved as such.

When Dr Williams was appoin­ted, my hope was that his gift of con­necting with people and issues out of a deep and prayerful theological mind might assist all of us, whichever “side” we were on — not to win an argument, but to move to a larger per­ception of this complex reality. From that movement, I hoped, might eventually come a new para­digm of thinking, which would change and unite us all in ways we cannot now see. It might help us find ways of speaking which do not cause so much hurt to those over whose bodies and lives we are arguing.

Instead, from the pressures of others and his own choice has come a near-total abrogation of any attempt to help us to think freshly about sexuality, in the way that he assists us remarkably to think freshly about a wide range of other issues, such as climate change and the financial crisis.

Instead, when it comes to sexuality, he has taken on an exclusive concern with finding ecclesio-political solu­tions to the current panic. Out of the systemic malaise we seem to inhabit has come an apparently overwhelming false consciousness: a place where the thoughts he thinks arise from the part pressed on him by others, and which he has accepted.

Here, our self-preservation as a Com­munion is our overriding con­cern. Thus we are deprived of his ministry of discernment about the issues in dispute.

I remember the moment at the 1998 Lambeth Conference when I walked out desolately at the end of the plenary session on sexuality, side by side with Dr Williams.

He re­marked philosophically: “I suppose that’s where the Communion is.”

That was then, and is now, all too simple a statement of a very complex reality. There are many different choreo­graphies to be seen in the behaviour of this body called the Anglican Communion, and it is our business to insist that all their variety is honoured.

Our reason for so insisting is not primarily that, for all its struggles, we still see the Episcopal Church in the United States as a vital part of our Communion, though we do. It is not even primarily that we care deeply about the indig­nities to which our LGBT brothers and sisters are subjected in the name of “traditional teaching”, though we do. Moreover, we are again and again as­tonished that, even so, their faith, their sense of vocation, their ministries, and their care for the Church remain in­tact.

Our main concern has to be that what is being proposed is no way to discern the truth about the matters in dispute. We must be sure to make that point clear at every opportunity, not least to the Archbishop.

Above all, what we need is to keep our eye on the main issue: that of the treatment to be accorded to LGBT people, and the ways in which they have sought to live lives obedient to the gospel, within cultures in which we all, sexual majorities and minorities alike, seek to do just that.

To leave that issue behind, in favour of the worthy but secondary issue of how to keep the Anglican Com­munion together, will stunt our discernment — and not keep the Anglican Com­munion together, either.

The Archbishop says the enterprise is “becoming the Church God wants us to be, for the better proclaiming of the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ”. Yet that means engaging in the search for the truth together, not settling for the stalemate that his paper after the General Convention advo­cates.

What is at stake is our faith that God’s truth will be discovered. We shall learn which of the faltering steps we all take in living holy lives with our bodies and our passions will form part of the choreography of promise — the one that will prepare us for the mar­riage supper of the Lamb. There, all our human loving will be trans­formed and celebrated. Towards that vision we look; and nothing less will do.

Dr Peter Selby is a retired Bishop of Worcester. This article is based on part of a lecture given to an Inclusive Church conference last week. The full text is at www.inclusivechurch2.net


Dr Peter Selby is a retired Bishop of Worcester. This article is based on part of a lecture given to an Inclusive Church conference last week. The full text is at www.inclusivechurch2.net


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