When the triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church meets this week in Columbus, Ohio, its House of Deputies and House of Bishops will consider 11 key resolutions that will have a direct impact on the relationship between the Episcopal Church and the 38 other provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
These resolutions have been proposed by a Special Commission on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion appointed by the two heads of General Convention, the president of the House of Deputies, George L.W. Werner, and the presiding bishop, Frank Griswold. One draft resolution expresses “our own deep regret for the pain that others have experienced with respect to our actions at the General Convention of 2003 and we offer our sincerest apology and repentance for having breached the bonds of affection in the Anglican Communion by any failure to consult adequately with our Anglican partners before taking these actions.” Another counsels those responsible at various stages of the election process for new bishops “to exercise very considerable caution” in electing “bishops whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.” A third resolution recommends against the authorization of “public Rites of Blessing for same-sex unions, until some broader consensus in the Anglican Communion emerges.”
Other resolutions concern the integrity of diocesan boundaries, pastoral care of conservative dissenting parishes on the one hand and gay and lesbian Christians on the other, and various other recommendations intended to strengthen communion, such as including international representatives with voice but not vote on decision-making bodies in the national church, and committing the Episcopal Church to exploring whether an “Anglican Covenant,” recommended by the Windsor Report, might be developed as a way of heading off future crises.
The question on many peoples’ minds is: Even if these resolutions are passed by General Convention in their current form, would they be enough to satisfy the Episcopal Church’s domestic and international critics, thereby forestalling a major split in the Anglican Communion? Some conservative critics assert that the resolutions give the appearance of conformity while having merely the effect of slowing, not stopping, a liberal agenda that the Episcopal Church has given no signals it is willing to reconsider, let alone “repent” of. According to these critics, by apologizing for “any failure to consult” rather than “failure to consult,” in counseling “caution” rather than a moratorium on electing gay bishops, and in tacitly assuming that “some broader consensus” on same-sex unions will emerge in the wider Anglican Communion different from the conservative stance, these resolutions fall far short of the mark.
Conservatives have thus not expressed much optimism that these resolutions will make a substantive difference in the current crisis, and are predicting that nothing short of a complete about-face on the part of General Convention will avert a split both in the Anglican Communion and within the Episcopal Church itself.
Liberal critics, meanwhile, see no reason to apologize for taking actions that, according to them, are simply in keeping with Jesus’ gospel of inclusion and justice. While perhaps sympathetic to the pain such actions have necessarily caused those on the opposite side on these issues, they do not regard the actions themselves as in any way contrary to what faithful Christians are required to do, pointing out that following Christ is a costly proposition, and that refraining from proclaiming and living the gospel for the sake of a false unity would be a breach of integrity.
Moderates, meanwhile, who hold a variety of viewpoints on these questions, feel that they are being forced to choose not between a pure church or a false unity, but between two false notions of church. At least three types of moderate positions have emerged from this debate, each having some overlap with the other:
One position is that unity is based not primarily on agreement in doctrine or morals, but on having a relationship with God through Jesus Christ that calls us into relationship with those who are different from us. God is the final arbiter, and our job is to maintain faithful relationships with God and each other even in the midst of ambiguity and conflict.
A second position is that diversity and tolerance are gospel values, which include conservatives just as much as liberals. Those who hold this position are grieved that a split in the church would cause a loss of evangelical vitality on the one hand, and a passion for social action on the other. They see the conflict as the willful impoverishment of the church by each side’s unwillingness to listen to and respect the other.
A third position is that co-existing in a church with those who are clearly wrong is simply another way that God challenges all of us to deeper conversion and repentance, to holiness of life and faithful witness to the truth, in the hope that God’s Holy Spirit would guide the whole church into communion with the Trinity through the Incarnate Word that no one can possess, but which possesses us.
All three moderate positions see the limited nature of the truth claims of the extremes, and wonder how the structure of General Convention can be used as a vehicle for discernment.
As a committed moderate myself, I wonder how many of our bishops and deputies are actually asking themselves, “How might we discern the will of God?” No one, whether deputy or bishop or theologian, seems to have an answer. And even if someone did, would General Convention be able to hear and act on it? Only time will tell.