(From the Rector provides a forum through which St. John’s Rector will occasionally publish his rambling thoughts for all to read… hmmmm.)
77th General Convention
What it Looks Like From Here
The news out of the 77th triennial General Convention this past month was (mostly) bad. Who expected anything else? By now many of you will have heard of the passage of a resolution (A049) authorizing for trial use a rite for blessing same-sex partnerships. Although no surprise, the resolution further degrades the already confused teaching and practice of Christian marriage among Episcopalians and contradicts the commitment of the Episcopal Church to uphold and propagate the historic Faith and Order of the Church Catholic within the fellowship of the Anglican Communion.
There are some mitigating factors. First, though in principle in favour of some kind of same-sex blessings, the Bishop of Georgia criticized the measure as “problematic, poorly written, and confusing”, and voted against it, as did the majority of the diocesan delegates (3-1). Second, as a trial rite, it requires the diocesan’s explicit permission before it may be used – whether he will do so or not is a decision he has said he will announce in the fall. Third, the resolution comes with explicit protection of conscience: it commits the General Convention to “honor the theological diversity of this church in regard to matters of human sexuality, and that no bishop, priest, deacon or lay person should be coerced or penalized in any manner, nor suffer any canonical disabilities, as a result of his or her conscientious objection to or support for … the Blessing of Same-Sex Relationships”. The Bishop of Georgia also has said that no parish or priest would be required to use it, and I think we may take him at his word.
So the immediate practical impact of this measure on St. John’s and even on the Diocese of Georgia may well be limited for the foreseeable future. But a foothold has now been established for the theological principle – and who knows how long the “foreseeable future” will last? The supporters of this measure will probably agitate to extend its provisions much further, and the commitment “to honor theological diversity” will come under increasing pressure. “Local option” on same-sex blessings sounds like a solution to many – but its effects are not merely local.
Almost equally dismaying was another resolution (C029) on Access to Baptism and Communion, which would have tacitly authorized “open communion” – that is, permission for the unbaptized (not merely the unconfirmed) to receive communion – a practice, current in some parts of the Episcopal Church, that runs against biblical, ancient, Anglican, and ecumenical precedent. Thanks in part to focused and effective action by the bishop and delegates of the Diocese of Georgia, this resolution was replaced by a much stronger affirmation of baptism as “the ancient and normative entry point to receiving Holy Communion” and of the Church’s mission “to go into the world and baptize all peoples”. So disaster was avoided; and we owe a debt of thanks to the Georgia delegation for helping to avoid it; but the margin of safety seems uncomfortably narrow. I fear that we have not seen the last of “open communion”.
We are told (by the chief operating officer of the Episcopal Church, in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, July 20th) that the Episcopal Church has been “liberating itself” from its former “captivity to the dominant culture”. Its innovations are both “counter-cultural” and “profoundly traditional”, because they follow the example of Jesus in “standing by those [whom] society marginalizes”. As an apologia for the innovations of the last forty years, this beggars belief. What ‘progressive’ cultural bandwagon of this time has the Episcopal Church not leaped upon? In almost every innovation it has moved in lockstep with the changing moral and religious views of the social elites it serves – and in almost every case (black, or African-American, civil rights being the honourable exception) at the expense of historic Faith and Order. Is this “liberation from the dominant culture”, or just the expedient transfer of allegiance to the new cultural establishment (in many cases, the same people with updated opinions)? Big business corporations are doing the same with diversity policies in employment and marketing. Is that really what the COO calls ‘risk-taking radical faithfulness to the church’s tradition’?
That is not what liberal (socially progressive) Christianity used to be. As Ross Douthat pointed out in the New York Times (July 14), “the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic [i.e. doctrinal] than present-day liberal faith. (…) Its leaders … argued for progressive reform in the context of ‘a personal transcendent God … the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption, and the importance of Christian missions’. Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church … often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.”
So is there any good news? First, that this too must pass. Downsizing of General Convention is under serious discussion. The generation that was formed in the 1960′s and still believes the mythology of that time is giving way to others. Despite the real failings of the Episcopal Church (and not just of its liberals), God continues to raise up faithful men and women in it, open to the Word of God and the historic Faith and Order as sometimes their elders are not. As conservative and traditional Episcopalians, our vocation in our time and place is to be faithful, to submit ourselves in patience and repentance to God’s just judgments, and to hand on unimpaired to our posterity the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as we have received them.
The Rev. Gavin G. Dunbar