THE EPISCOPAL DIOCESE OF FORT WORTH
meeting in convention
Friday and Saturday, Nov. 5 & 6, 2004
at St. Vincent's Cathedral Church and School, Bedford

 
Bringing Forth Life and Giving Growth

 

An Address by
the Rev. Dr. Kendall Harmon

 

May I start by telling you what I propose to do, which it to speak to you about the current crisis we are facing and the way in which it presents an opportunity and a challenge for the Diocese of Fort Worth.

I take it as a given that the Episcopal Church specifically, and the Anglican Communion more generally, is in the midst of a great crisis. Unfortunately many bishops, priests, and laypeople remain in a state of denial about this fact.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has described it as a huge crisis. I was present at the press conference when Archbishop Robin Eames presented the Windsor Report, and he repeatedly used the word "crisis" to describe our current situation.

But you do not need even to take their word for it. "The dispute over Bishop Ingham's decision to bless same-sex unions is dangerously close to producing a worldwide schism," said Stephen A. Kent, a sociologist of religion at the University of Alberta to the New York Times in 2002, "reminiscent of the original Anglican schism from Catholicism in the 1500s as a reaction to issues involving marriage, divorce, blessed unions and authority." Even a sociologist recognizes the seriousness of this Anglican crisis.

If one were to guess based on the bulk of the media coverage of this event over the last year and a quarter, one would think this is a controversy about sex. Perhaps you know the saying, ‘Americans have sex on the brain – what a strange place to have it‘; so such a focus in this culture on that topic would not be considered surprising. And of course superficially it is about sex since the question in dispute is: Should people in non-celibate non-marital relationships be considered wholesome examples who can be ordained as Christian leaders?

I want to suggest that this dispute is not primarily about sex, but about four other things. If you want an image for what I am saying, you can think of sex as the tip of the iceberg, but I believe the controversy is really mostly about what is underneath the water.

At the initial level under the water, this is a debate about the interpretation and authority of Scripture. During their once-a-decade meeting in 1998 at Lambeth, the vast majority of Anglican bishops worldwide rejected "homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture."

At issue are not just a few individual passages, as is often alleged, but the broad structure of the biblical narrative which flows from the primordial couple in the Garden of Eden on through the Song of Solomon (which I am still waiting to hear my first Episcopal sermon on). From there it moves from the celebration of an undefiled marriage bed in the book of Hebrews all the way through to the marriage supper of the Lamb in the book of Revelation. The Bible's positive teaching on marriage is that it is intended by God to be a "one flesh" union which embraces the complementarity of the two sexes. Based on this positive teaching, the Scriptures are also very clear that homosexual behavior is a violation of God's purpose for sex. Even Walter Wink of Auburn Theological Seminary, who favors altering the church's teaching in the area of sexual morality, admits this: "Efforts to twist the text to mean what it clearly does not say are deplorable. Simply put, the Bible is negative toward same-sex behavior, and there is no getting around it."

Can I remind you of a reference in the Windsor Report on this subject when it says in paragraph 53: "Within Anglicanism, scripture has always been recognised as the Church's supreme authority, and as such ought to be seen as a focus and means of unity." Yet given that the Bible’s clear teaching is against sanctioning this behavior, the Episcopal Church approved of its practice in its highest office, that of bishop. This is seen as the act of a church which is standing over Scripture and rebelling against its authority and direction, and that is very serious.

At the next level under the water, this is a dispute about marriage. Traditionally, marriage was understood to have four purposes, communion (joy shared is doubled, sorrow is halved), union (the two shall become one flesh), procreation (be fruitful and multiply), and prevention (marriage was actually understood to prevent sin – When was the last sermon you heard on THAT one?). A same-sex union cannot be unitive, because physically the bodies do not fit together in their design, and it is unable to be procreative.

So whatever else you can say about the relationship Mr. Robinson of the Diocese of New Hampshire is now involved in, it is not marriage. Yet the church has always understood that the only proper context for the expression of sexual intimacy is between a man and a woman who are married to each other. So what, it must be asked, are those claiming the necessity for change asking for? Among themselves there are actually three positions. Some say marriage needs to be shifted, some say we need a new category which is like marriage in some ways but unlike it in others, and others say we need to encourage friendships which may develop a physical side and see what God's spirit will do.

Incredibly, which of these three positions is actually being argued for, and what exactly we are doing, has not yet been spelled out. These are relationships in search of a theology, and the doctrine of marriage is at stake. This, too, is serious.

At a third level under the water this dispute is about authority in the church, about who gets to make decisions and how those decisions are made. As is sometimes said, the Anglican Church understands itself as a bridge church, a via media between Roman Catholicism and free Church Protestantism.

As such our way of making decisions differs from theirs. Free Church Protestantism tends to place a great deal of authority in the individual parish for making decisions, and has as a danger a tendency to fall into individualism. Roman Catholicism places a great deal of teaching authority by contrast in the hierarchy and in particular in something called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Roman Catholicism has a danger of falling into authoritarianism.

Anglicanism’s way of making decisions is conciliar, that is, it is focused on councils, whether vestries, or diocesan conventions, or General Conventions, or Lambeth meetings, or Primates’ meetings. The Anglican theologian Richard Hooker believed that a council’s purpose was to promote peace and stablity, and argued their authority was related to their conformity to the teaching of Holy Scripture and the decisions of previous councils, as well as to the degree to which their decisions were more widely accepted over time.

For a conciliar church, the more important the decision, the more widely you consult. And with regard to the decision in Minneapolis, all four Anglican instruments of unity — the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primates’ meeting, the Lambeth meeting, and the Anglican Consultative Council – said that this decision should not be made. Yet we not only made it, but we did so without consulting them, as we promised in our 1991 General Convention to do.

Thus the decision made is widely perceived as a unilateral and arrogant act of American imperialism, and this, also, is serious.

At the deepest level underneath the iceberg, this debate is really about the Gospel itself, about the message Jesus asked his followers to bring to the world. At Minneapolis, the will of the Father to draw all people to himself through the cross of his Son, get this now, was replaced with a new and different gospel where a therapeutic Jesus embraces people where they are. This significant change represented a embrace of a gospel of affirmation, which replaced the biblical Gospel of salvation and transformation (for example, consider the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8, in which jesus tells her not simply "I include you," but "go and sin no more").

To change the Christian message is not simply serious, it is fatal.

So are you all with me to this point? We believe that this is a dispute about Scripture, about marriage, about the Church’s authority, and about the Gospel itself. No wonder the contentiousness has been so widespread.

Now, where is the opportunity and where is the challenge for the Diocese of Fort Worth in the midst of this? The opportunity is here: Now more than ever, we need an affirmation of the catholicity of the church, and an affirmation that Anglicans understand themselves to be part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Listen again to the Windsor Report: "It is an ancient canonical principle that what touches all should be decided by all" (paragraph 51), or "What touches all should be approved by all" (proposed article 20 of the new Anglican covenant). It is vital that the Diocese of Fort Worth live out its catholicity and witness to the importance of that catholicity in your common life and ministry together.

The challenge comes in the ominous paragraph 157 of the Windsor Report cited by Bishop Iker in his address, in which the clear choice is presented as to whether the Episcopal Church wishes to be part of the Anglican Communion or to "walk apart." While Fort Worth may be confident that you are part of the Anglican Communion, this is not enough; we need to challenge the rest of the Episcopal Church to choose between walking alone themselves or walking forward together as part of the Anglican Communion. We need to ask the Episcopal Church to turn around before February 2005, and the resolution you are considering later may help you do that. We also need to pray mightily that the House of Bishops in January will signal that a new day is dawning, and that a different future will be forthcoming as many other bishops and dioceses dare to make similar decisions.

Remember, Jesus is Lord, and every crisis is also an opportunity; the word ‘crisis’ is the word from which we get our word to decide. May we decide to go forward in catholic confidence and Christian hope.


The Rev. Dr. Kendall Harmon is Canon Theologian
of the Diocese of South Carolina and editor of the Anglican Digest.