Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lambeth: Two Visions from the Two/Thirds World

The bishops of the Anglican Communion continue their decennial Lambeth Conference this week at Canterbury. As the UK Guardian described the assemblage of bishops and hangers-on, “The Anglican communion has never been stranger…Itchy evangelicals, loyal liberals and holy hypocrisy – it's just another day at the Lambeth Conference” Increasingly it becomes clear to most observers not making the trip to see and be seen at Canterbury that what exists in fact today is not a single Communion in which everyone is an equal member sharing the same essential vision but a collection of Anglican churches with disparate visions of who we are, what we’re about and where we need to go.

Of course, the current conference is missing almost 200 bishops (of 800+ total) who boycotted Lambeth, most of them from Africa and other corners of the two/thirds world though a handful of wealthy American conservatives who have long funded this conservative cabal have also opted not to attend. It is from the two/thirds world bishops who did attend – and the majority are present – that two distinctly visions of Anglicanism were articulated this week.

The bishops had just come out of a series of meetings Wednesday, some of them designed to provide a forum to talk about the divisive issue of LBGT people in the church. Not satisfied to simply talk about his concerns in meetings with other bishops, Daniel Deng Bul, the archbishop of the Church of the Sudan called a press conference in which he called for the resignation of his fellow Bishop of New Hampshire, Gene Robinson, declaring in the statement released ahead of the press conference that he had come to the Lambeth Conference “to take the necessary steps to safeguard the precious unity of the Church.” The archbishop was asked about ministering to the gays and lesbians in his province. He declared that he did not think there were any homosexuals in the Sudan as “none had come forward.” And when queried about his position on the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate he said he “believed in women priests and bishops because they are human” – leaving listeners to wonder if the inference was that homosexuals are not. (from Lambeth Witness, Issue 2, July 22, 2008)

One of Einstein’s most famous quotes simply observed “You cannot simultaneously prepare for and prevent war.” The same problem of mutually exclusive goals is evident in Archbishop Bul’s statement: You cannot simultaneously defend unity of the church and seek to exclude some of its members. Unity means one. It means all. The archbishop cannot have it both ways. If he means “the elect who agree with my theology,” he should be honest enough with himself and others to say so.

Ironically, it is precisely this kind of sectarian thinking which most endangers any hopes of Anglican unity. If the archbishop is truly concerned about unity, he either needs to learn to live and let live with his fellow bishops who do not share his vision or perhaps it is he who should resign.

A contrasting vision of Anglicanism is offered by Martín Barahona Bishop of the Anglican Church of El Salvador. In a statement prepared for the Conference last month, Barahona began with the recognition of the very problem Einstein was noting: “We cannot contemplate Jesus if we exclude our neighbor.” A church which holds as its second Great Commandment that human beings should “love your neighbor as yourself” - a commandment that Anglican liturgies have long recognized as the basis upon which “all the law and the prophets” hangs – cannot simultaneously love its neighbors as itself and exclude them from their rightful place at the communion table.

Barahona knows only too well the truth of the destructive politics of marginality. His country, El Salvador, was the site of some of the worst human rights violations in human history at the hands of a Latin American style fascist regime supported by the Reagan Administration in its war on anyone who opposed its global corporatist regime. Under the rubric of fighting communism, fellow (Roman Catholic) Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot down at the altar in the middle of the eucharist, the most visible victim in a war on the poor that took thousands of victims. Many of their partially dismembered bodies were dumped on the highway to the airport as a warning, without respect even in death. Thousands more simply “disappeared.”

Speaking as “a Latin American bishop, knowledgeable of the huge social gaps which are true problems that kill…” Barahona recognized the root problem in the politics of death and dehumanization in his own country as present in the sectarian politics of Anglicanism:

I can see that marginality shines in this decision (to exclude Bishop Robinson from Lambeth); we should ask ourselves “How would Jesus see this?” From this region of the world we pray that these wounds may heal and we have hope that some day we shall be able to see Christ in our neighbor, regardless of race, sexual preference, financial or cultural situation. When we are able to do this, then we will really be inclusive and truly the Body of Christ.

At least two of the Anglican churches represented at Lambeth are evident in these two contrasting visions. Probably a much larger membership could be found in the Church of the Self-Satisfied, an amorphous middle disinclined toward anything remotely political, simply wanting to focus on liturgy, music, a sermon which doesn’t rock the boat much and getting out in time for lunch. And it is precisely the addiction to comfort and the aversion to conflict which many have seen as their own gospel that has brought the Anglican Communion to its current place.

I would like to believe that the vision of Barahona will be the winner at the end of the day in Anglicanism. As Giles Fraser, Vicar of Putney, UK, and President of Inclusive Church, says, “A Church in which all are welcome is a Church worth believing in and worth fighting for. This is the Church of traditional Anglicanism where the good news of Jesus Christ is offered as good news for everyone. At this time of tension and division, may we all be transformed by God's reconciling Spirit.” A spiritual big tent is indeed a good thing for liberals, even radicals like myself. And while it may well represent the latitudinarian history of Anglicanism’s via media, I wonder how accurately it represents the status quo of Anglicanism today.

The problem is that the looseness of doctrine, the lack of mechanisms of compulsion to force obedience to authority and the far too frequent disdain with which liberals tend to view their less evolved evangelical kin – myself included - probably does not bode well for the future of the status quo in Anglicanism. The tee shirt spotted at the Lambeth “fringe events” says much: “God is an equal opportunity employer. Pity about the Church.”

The liberal big tent simply does not offer enough security to conservatives who perceive the need for well defined doctrine, uniformity of thought and the means of punishing those who do not conform. There aren’t a lot of corners in which to rest under a big tent. My guess is that this will become increasingly unbearable for conservatives. I’d also guess that as a result the days of an Anglican Communion with claims to worldwide status comparable to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are probably limited.

If unity of the church means an ongoing diet of the homophobia confused with religion fostered under the last Archbishop of Canterbury at the immedialy preceding Lambeth, then the tee-shirt probably has it right: "Pity about the Church." The question in my mind is simply what will evolve out of this paradigm shift and whether it will be, as Fraser so well puts it, “a Church worth believing in.”

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


No comments: