Skip to comments.Thoughts on the Windsor Report: What Went Wrong?
Posted on 12/31/2005 9:38:58 AM PST by sionnsar
The Report of the Lambeth Commission is flawed fundamentally because it refuses to take up the substantial issue that caused its coming into existence: the issue of homosexuality. "Process" statements will not suffice at this juncture in Anglican church history. Theological "conservatives" can take heart from most of the findings of the Report, although it is deficient in equating the New Hampshire consecration with the crossing of diocesan boundaries on the part of "orthodox" bishops and primates. Two further problems with the Report are its ambiguous use of the Bible in relation to an issue on which the Bible is unambiguous; and in its ultimate result, which papers over the cracks.
There was a headline a few years ago in a college lampoon newspaper that read: "Michael Jackson: What Went Wrong?" It went without saying, something had gone wrong.
I would like to ask the same question concerning the Windsor Report. And this is now after the sixth reading, as Ian Douglas and I recently completed a conversation about the document for Church Publishing. It weighs on me very much, as it seems from my end that the Report went seriously wrong. In this brief essay I would like to outline what I think is missing and unsatisfactory about the Report, then reflect on what it means: what it means for ECUSA, what it means for the Anglican Communion, and what it means for the Anglican project as a whole in the contemporary world.
The Lambeth Commission took a big risk and at the same time ducked one when it decided that its brief did not include the subject of homosexuality in theological perspective. The Report makes that clear in Section A.26 and again in Section B.43: "We repeat that we have not been invited, and are not intending, to comment or make recommendations on the theological and ethical matters concerning the practice of same sex relations and the blessing or ordination or consecration of those who engage in them."
This is the fundamental problem of the Report. The Report fails, by conscious intent, to discuss the issue that brought it to birth. It fails, by deliberate and explicit admission, to give one single word of argument that impinges on the catalytic catastrophe that ignited the worldwide crisis to which the work of the Lambeth Commission was the supposed solution.
It is like the hypothetical failed call in a rector search process. Something basic in the call to the new rector was wrong. Perhaps the bishop was opposed but was afraid to say so. Perhaps a fact was concealed from the vestry that would come out later. Perhaps there was something wrong in the situation from which the new rector was coming. Perhaps members of the search committee had objections that were underreported or were squelched. The implications for what resulted-the tenure of the successful candidate-became enormous. Problems in the call finally scuttled the result.
I feel that is what happened with the Windsor Report. The brief of the Commission was restricted to issues of process, and theologically speaking, to issues of "communion" and therefore ecclesiology. This was too limited a brief. For this reason the answers given by the Report are not enough. They provide nothing like a coherent foundation for discussing the issue as a whole.
The reason for ducking the issue, which is homosexuality, was probably that the Commission supposed the Anglican Communion to be divided on the issue. One persistent, worldly way to avoid division is to avoid discussing what has caused the division. But that is a short-term solution! Ultimately, the whole thing has to be engaged, hammer and tong, root and branch, for anything that is lastingly powerful to be derived. It is like the old illustration of the broken arm that has been poorly set. The arm has to be broken again in order for it to be reset, properly. It is like the wound that has become infected because it was poorly dressed. The dressing has to be removed; the infection cut out, sometimes with excruciating pain; and the cut stitched and re-dressed.
The Commission took the line that its brief included none of this. The Commission claimed that the Communion had already spoken, especially through Lambeth 1998, Resolution 1.10, although it never really acknowledged the arguments for or against that controversial finding. The Commission also envisioned the possibility that the Communion might come to a different "consensus" later on (Section D.134). The whole line of the Commission s approach was to view the issue in terms of a process of containing difference rather than a process of exploring difference. What went wrong? It was a failure in its mandate, a failure in its brief.
Personally, I can only report the exact same phenomenon having taken place in connection with the Inter-Anglican Theology and Doctrine Commission, on which I have served since 2001. I am certain that Archbishop George Carey appointed us with the idea that we would come to some kind of discussion regarding homosexuality in Communion perspective, with special, stated reference to a proposed document written by Maurice Sinclair and Drexel Gomez entitled "Mending the Net." This discussion never happened! Every time I brought up the contentious but utterly central issue of homosexuality in the church, that topic was nixed. It was stated again and again that our brief was solely to examine process. Says who? I asked. Even the Sinclair/Gomez document was put on the shelf repeatedly until the Bishop of Chile simply could no longer stay silent and insisted that we be true to our first stated brief. Very late in the day, and in a thoroughly unthorough manner, the document was briefly, fleetingly discussed.
My point is: Can we expect a lasting solution to an extremely important and damaging problem if we are unwilling from the starting gate to go into the "thorny wood" of the problem itself? I don't think so. Or rather, I cannot see how. Can you? Is there anything like intellectual honesty in a process that never goes to the root of the problem? Whether you are "conservative" or "liberal" on the subject itself, whether you are Gene Robinson or Peter Akinola, what hope is there of some authentic reconciliation if the chief point of difference is not brought out into the open? I feel almost certain that most members of the gay community would agree with this. We have got to look at this with a genuinely open heart and Bible and church. It is just possible that something in the way of reconciliation can and could happen.
Did Luther wish to discuss matters of "communion" with Cardinal Cajetan? No. All Luther asked for was a forum to discuss the gospel issues on his mind. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, kept trying to pole-vault over the arguments themselves by simply asking Luther whether he had written the books that were published with his name. Luther replied, to his great credit: "Tell me where I am wrong in terms of the Scriptures. Go with me into the place of contention. Walk with me, and disagree with me, if you will, in terms of the ideas themselves." The church tried to silence Luther with process. The analogy is correct because the Reformers asked only one thing from their adversaries: the chance to discuss the core and not the subsidiary issues of Christianity.
The Windsor Report is a massive lost opportunity because it restricts its brief way too much.
Now, a closer look at the actual findings of the Report:
When I first read the Report of the Lambeth Commission, I was encouraged. Writing as a theological conservative, I was encouraged by the note of scriptural confidence and authority that is sounded in Section A. I was encouraged by the reliance on the Communion documents that have already spoken to the subject of homosexuality. In ECUSA context, I was encouraged by the strength of the invitationan enjoining, really-in Section D, that the Episcopal Church express its "regret" for having "breached the bonds of affection" that should characterize Christian communion on any account. I liked, as well, the similar enjoining concerning the blessing of same-sex unions. Like many others, I wished that a stronger verb had been used than "regret." Realizing that "repent" might sound overly strong to some ears, I could conceive of other expressions closer to the word we traditionalists wanted. Maybe "personal remorse" or "heartfelt sorrow."
Like most others of the so-called "orthodox," I was troubled by the last recommendation in section D concerning the care of dissenting minorities. It seemed to me that the Commission was backing the proposal concerning delegated episcopal pastoral oversight (DEPO) that the ECUSA House of Bishops had offered in March 2003. Many of us had felt chilly towards this proposal because it was conceived and prepared not by the "losers," or the ones who requested it and believe they really needed it, but rather by the "victors." Very little imput from the losers! Therefore the House of Bishops' proposal failed to gain the trust of the losing side, from which it would have to have originated in order to succeed in practice.
Now the Windsor Report backs this very proposal, the proposal of ECUSA's House of Bishops dated March 2003. This remains a huge stumbling block for conservatives. Similarly, the Report equates the crossing of geographical boundaries, which some overseas bishops and primates have done to protect and support dissenting Episcopal parishes in the USA and in Canada, with the trespass, in Gene Robinson's consecration, to which that crossing was the response.
The "orthodox" don't see it this way at all! We never will. To us, the crossing of boundaries, while regrettable, is in no way on a par with the departure from faith and morals represented by the consecration of a gay bishop. The former is not good, the latter is catastrophic. So we felt-and I think you would find this across the board among "conservatives"-that the Report did not sustain us in any real way. There even seemed to be a slap, specifically, at Network bishops in ECUSA, when they were portrayed as being "dismissive" of the Communion they had pledged to uphold.
Thus the last part of Section D, on the care of dissenting minorities-which is the key section for us-fell short of what we had hoped for. I would say that the Report fell about twenty percent short of what we had hoped for. Like the last strikeout in the close of the ninth inning, that twenty percent makes all the difference.
Those were my initial thoughts on the findings of the Report. And I think they were and are held quite widely by people on the "traditional" side of the Communion. But after reading and rereading the work of the Commission again and again in recent months, I think the problem is deeper than simply the last section. The problem relates to the Anglican project as a whole, a project to which I still feel committed and one which many of us, "liberals" and "conservatives" alike, have served for decades now.
There are two serious concerns I continue to have with the Windsor Report. These concerns have deepened with time and reflection.
The first concern is the manner in which the Report seems to take away with the left hand what it gives with the right. This is especially true in its treatment of biblical hermeneutics or interpretation. On the one hand, the Report treats the Letter to the Ephesians, as well as First Corinthians, in quite exalted fashion. The metaphysical churchmanship of Ephesians and the "Body of Christ" theology in First Corinthians are given forceful expression. At the same time, however, much is made of the distinction between verbal word and Incarnate Word. In other words, the Bible is not allowed to hold the value of binding verbal assertion but is rather the "bearer" of a vital force beyond it. Now I agree with that distinction in principle. (The Reformers made it, so it must be right!) But I fear it can be deployed deleteriously in the case of homosexuality, in order to detach our interest from the overwhelming evidence of a plain case. In the case of homosexuality, the Bible is just too unanimous. It declares itself in too weighted and powerful a way. It cannot be explained or otherwise interpreted. So I am afraid that the awesome view of scriptural weight with which the Report announces itself at the start is weakened considerably, and somewhat special-pleadingly in this context, by the emphasis on "nuance" (that politically correct noun) which follows it.
I kept thinking, the more I read the Report in its function as Bible interpreter: It speaks with a forked tongue.
Now is such doublespeak, which is what I think it adds up to finally, a characteristic of Anglicanism qua Anglicanism? I believe Presbyterians and Methodists and Lutherans, too, would recognize it as part of their baggage. They tell me this all the time. They complain that official "church statements" are constantly crafted to speak to differing constituencies. Therefore they usually say nothing. At the same time, you can sometimes detect such doublespeak in our own prayer book tradition. Is our American 1928 Communion service "protestant" or "catholic"? The answer is, a little bit of both. But is the 1662 Church of England service "catholic" or "protestant"? Clearly "protestant." We are, in other words, capable of speaking with one single voice, or better, one consistent voice, sometimes.
I think the Windsor Report speaks with two voices. Every time one finds oneself almost safely set within its pages, one gets ejected three pages later.
The second concern I have with the Report is the bigger one. This has to do with its intentional and very emphatically stated rejection of what should have been its primary work: theological engagement with the subject of homosexuality in biblical and historical Christian perspective. People tell me all the time: "Don't you realize, the Commission could never, ever have come to one mind on that subject! The only way they could possibly have produced a Report without a minority filing was to say, 'Hands off the big one and focus on the little one.'"
I cannot agree. Such is not honest intellectual practice. Not at all. They could have fissured on the theme but then come together on the communion theme. But they should have dealt with the theme. What happens in the church is that we major in process when we cannot come together on substance. Then the process finally fails, too. Remember what Noam Chomsky said so bitingly about the Israeli/Palestinian "peace process": "It is not a process and it is not about peace." It is invoked precisely to prevent peace! We need to listen to Chomsky when it comes to "process."
If you are a "liberal" reading this, do you not agree? And if you are a "conservative"? Can you really sign up for something that is pasting over the real issue? I think of an episode in Inginar Bergman's heavy television play thirty years ago entitled "Scenes from a Marriage." One of the early episodes was called, "Papering over the Cracks." The Windsor Report, in avoiding by design the issue that caused it to be appointed, has papered over the cracks. That is why it will never decide the questions it addresses. It is founded upon sand. It is the story of "The Emperor's New Clothes."
In conclusion, here is a word of interpretation, or theological and ecclesiological reflection, which arises from this critique of the Windsor Report.
What is the future of Anglicanism? Or at least for our lifetimes, what is the future of Anglicanism? If "facing both ways" is the essence of the project, then it cannot stand. It will not stand. I do not say this because I do not wish it to stand. I say it because the truth-and I am not speaking in the exalted sense of "apostolic truth" or something like that but rather in the simple sense of what is conceptually and also empirically verifiable-has to underwrite whatever a person does. We cannot live out of an evasion. Evasion never stands. Evasion is always submitted to the light, eventually. There are no exceptions to this. You cannot live from a falsehood, or a conscious attempt to short-circuit discussion. Marriages that do this, family relationships that do, falter. Old love letters are discovered, people write memoirs, protagonists "come out." It is also true in the life of the mind. Ernst Kaesemann told me bluntly and passionately when I first saw him in the Spring of 1992, "Herr Zahl, you must follow ideas wherever they lead. It is the first requirement of research that you be prepared never ever to shrink from the implications of the data. If you do, you are bankrupt to your cause." Kaesemann added that this principle holds true in theology as well as in everything else.
I cannot finish with the Windsor Report without remembering Kaesemann's shocking words. No deception, he seems to say. No pandering. No ducking.
W. H. Auden said something like this from a parallel universe: "The truth is catholic; the search for it is protestant." Because the Windsor Report is not "protestant" in its search for truth, the truth it seeks to offer can never be "catholic."
PAUL F. M. ZAHL*
* Paul F. M. Zahl is Dean and President of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. He has served on the Inter-Anglican Theology and Doctrine Commission since 2001.
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