Mystique, Politique and Sexualité;
A reflection on the outcome of the 2003 Anglican Primates' meeting in Lambeth
- and what on earth it has to do with frail humanity and keeping Jesus' company.
In a recent sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury quoted the (un-named) French philosopher Charles Peguy's cryptic observation that "everything begins in mystique and ends in politique." Part commendation of political responsibility, part critique of reductive politicisation - and maintaining the same healthy balance in regard to the romanticism of the mystical - Peguy might these days be forced to admit that "all appears to originate in dogma and degenerate into irresolvable arguments about sexuality." Then again, appearances can be deceptive.
Whatever he might have thought about the slightly absurd fracas going on within the Anglican Communion right now, Peguy, the visionary Catholic, would not have failed to notice that the carefully calculated political statement coming out of the Primates meeting yesterday was, within a matter of hours, swiftly unravelled by the stated intent of the Diocese of New Hampshire that it will move ahead with the ordination of Canon Gene Robinson as their new Bishop on 2 November 2003. This declaration has about it neither the naked semblance of mysticism nor politics. Instead it is a cry for hope.
All that still leaves plenty of time for more posturing, name-calling and pious manoeuvring, of course. But Canon Robinson's elevation may, surprisingly, turn out to be a small (if highly contested) victory for vulnerable grace over the politics of unassailable rightness. The economy of God may end up disarming its proudest proponents in an altogether unexpected way. But such a theological outcome is (whatever our huffing and puffing) beyond our present prediction. We are not in control, whatever our pretensions to the contrary. That too was Peguy's drift.
In purely diplomatic terms Dr Williams and his colleagues played a good, multi-layered hand. They condemned the US Episcopal Church for acting outside the majority consensus about how the Christian tradition and scripture should be read on this matter, and asked them to reconsider their position. They affirmed the autonomy of Provinces as well as their mutual interdependence. They took the first steps towards provincial Episcopal visitors ('flying bishops') for anti-gay churches in affirming dioceses. They set up a year long Commission to explore the nature of ecclesial communion and authority in the midst of deep division. And they agreed that none should act precipitately in a dangerous situation.
It would be churlish not to see both principle and honest compromise in this, given the extraordinary distance between some of the key protagonists. But it would also be naíve not to view it as precisely the kind of political fix doomed to endless machinations. Indeed, the cracks are gaping even as the foundations are freshly laid for the long-term game the Archbishop is seeking to play.
This, briefly, is what will happen. When Canon Robinson is consecrated this action will be interpreted as 'precipitate' by conservatives (even though it has been carefully agreed by a very clear majority through an open and prayerful process in ECUSA.) More threats will be issued. No-one will formally leave the Anglican Communion, but a number will declare themselves 'out of communion' with the US Church. Everyone will try to figure out what this means. Many will pontificate. Dr Williams will embark on a fresh diplomatic round.
The argument will then begin (if it has not begun already) about the composition of the Commission, which will be seen as stacked towards the 'conservatives' (I greatly dislike these labels, but we are all dragged into using them even as we try to redefine the territory upon which they are coined). 'Liberals' will reason that some of the less inherently rejectionist members of the Commission are likely to be swayed by deeper investigation and conversation over a longer period, and this indeed will happen, leading to recriminations within the self-styled 'traditionalist' camp. The idea that everyone is born 'a little liberal or a little conservative' will turn out to be what Gilbert & Sullivan always thought it was - a colourful exaggeration.
Meanwhile 'flying bishops' will prove as unsatisfactory and unhelpful as they have been in relation to the ordination of women question, and church leaderships will try to keep them to a minimum. The fabric of the Communion will remain intact for the time being, but certain relations within it will become more distant. Others will remain in spite of surface rhetoric to the contrary in the media. The world will look on amazed as church spokespersons choose to dress up recrimination, unpleasantness and backbiting as a 'triumph for unity' and a sign of what the Gospel can achieve.
Dr Williams, a man of real integrity and prayer, will continue to behave honourably. But he has already bought far too deeply into the idea that 'unity' is the overarching, saving function of the church (defined far too temporally, in accord with a certain Anglican temptation), so he will be forced into unpleasant (human) sacrifices. He will gain admirers and lose friends simultaneously. He may also increasingly lose sight of the fact that many of those he is trying to appease will go on pushing behind the scenes to have him replaced by a hard-liner, while those with most affinity to his intelligent, faithful vision for Christianity in the twenty-first century may well drift away disillusioned at the rancour and mean-spiritedness of it all. But the Archbishops' advisers will tell him he is being wise and holy. The pretence that African Anglicanism can be aggregated into an uncomplicated moral majority will continue to haunt his attempts at nuance. And the media will commend his rather unworldly way of holding together an army of malcontents that would try the patience of a sinner, let alone a saint.
There is, naturally, a more apocalyptic scenario - but my instincts tell me that there is little genuinely apocalyptic in Anglicanism.
The problem with all this is not that it involves mess and compromise per se. From its earliest days recorded in Acts 15 (concerning the hugely divisive controversy over how to reconcile the religious visions and experiences of Jews and Gentiles in the emerging faith community) the church has learned to hold difference in tension and to keep revising the minutes. The product is what we call 'scripture', and what keeps it alive is not the unerring words of its human authors but the continued disturbance of a God who, in the person of Jesus, insists on protruding into our tidy instincts in ways that turn out to be gloriously inconvenient to our attempts to finalise whatever resolution we are currently constructing. And, as ever, it is the oddballs and the outsiders who will give us the best clue to the workings of the one whose refusal to accept pre-defined orthodoxy (God's truth is never finished like ours) led to his crucifixion outside the gate.
There is, strangely, something hopeful about the capacity within biblical Christian faith for this mix of incompleteness, compromise (the suspension of ultimate judgement) and radical - we would say divinely inspired - disruption. It is about how we learn to make space for each other's humanity in the unfolding capaciousness of God's love, recognising and absorbing a lot of unsavouriness as we go. Then we look back with hindsight and see it rather differently. As redemption, even.
The real problem is that this biblical vision of a consistently evolving, changing, awkward, unfixed and transforming love among those who foolishly seek the company of Jesus in the world is itself not adequately faced (or understood or shared) by many of those taking part in the attempt to resolve this row over sexuality. Of course it isn't. We're only human. But what this suggests is that, strange as it may seem in a world of politique which can thankfully still respect the ill-fitting mystique of someone like Dr Williams, the real issues which need to be reworked and revisited, time and again, are the theo-logical ones - those destabilising perspectives which ensure that we are not able to let go of God, but at the same time remain unable to fit God neatly into our schemas and orthodoxies.
For example, we could ask: What would a radical sexual ethic (one that took both the tradition and contemporary experience seriously) look like in the reconsidered light of our vocation as people seeking to be re-shaped within the wounded-but-risen Body of Christ? How might we take responsibility for different readings of our foundation documents (rather than expecting the text to agree with us all the time)? How might other people discover from the way we disagree (agreement being the easier part) what it means to seek the kingdom of God? What does it mean to be gifted with a Gospel we cannot own? How can we absorb fresh insights about the love of God in the midst of our divisions? What does it mean to remain faithful in a world that refuses to stand still? What are the consequences of our being forgiven? How can Jesus be rescued from captivity to our latest absolute correctness and/or our carelessness?
These are not abstract evasions; they are opportunities for a degree of thoughtfulness and prayerfulness which is profoundly problematic in a neurotic era. They cannot be answered quickly, with sound bites, slogans or cosy reliance on yesterday's secure formulas. But neither are they amenable to the latest fashion in culture or the latest conveniences in comprehension. They go to the core of the church's identity as both continuous and changing and force us to live with it eschatologically - that is, in the light of the new thing that God is doing.
In many respects it is often an easier option for church people to discuss the politics of power boundaries: at least we have a common language for such arrangements, not to mention vested interests and opinions. But if the new Primates' Commission spends most of its energy doing this, it will miss the God-given chance to be confronted once again by the more serious demands of the Gospel. These are about what (and who) generates healing, hope, love, faithfulness, forgiveness, justice, peace and openness in a divided world. It involves looking away from us and our squabbles and rediscovering Jesus-consciousness (the new God-reality) in places of violence, loss, marginality and surprise. To do this is to stare unsentimentally at a cross that turns out (unexpectedly) to be God's, and a grave that turns out (alarmingly) to be ours. It is to be confronted by the vastly misplaced energies and fruitless antagonisms that all too easily get sucked into an argument over sex which is not insignificant, but is far less incendiary and uncontrollable than what it claims finally to be about. The Gospel.
Simon Barrow is a theologian, writer, adult educator, social activist and consultant. He lives in Exeter, England, and works for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI), the official ecumenical body.