Monday, August 24, 2009

Love in a Time of Impasse

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is the latest to make news in the sexuality wars, and I am quite happy to let them have the limelight for a while. It was a little eerie to follow the story, as they were meeting at the Minneapolis Convention Center, where General Convention pulled the switch on Anglicanland's ongoing roller-coaster ride in 2003. I was there then, so I could picture the environment in my mind's eye. It is also eerie to read first reports of how the ELCA's decision is playing among those Lutherans who dissent from the majority position of their Churchwide Assembly. The refrains are all too familiar.

We are at an impasse. At certain levels, of course, the majority has spoken clearly and, as they say, "elections have consequences." But if we either zoom in or zoom out from either the Churhwide Assembly or the General Convention, the picture is murkier. One of the "consequences" of General Convention's "election" looks increasingly likely to be some degree of marginalization for the Episcopal Church in the councils of Anglicanism--the Archbishop's two-tier/two-track scenario--and an attendant effort by the minority within TEC to remain in Tier/Track One even while the church as a whole is consigned to Tier/Track Two. These consquences may strike many as abstract, far-removed and slow-moving. But they are quite real, and their effects at the level of "here and now" are already being felt. Communities of Christians--Episcopalians--who have an investment in one another--a history together, networks of deep friendships, shared joys and sorrows, godparents to one another's children--find themselves riven, on opposite sides of the Great Divide. They don't have the luxury, in any sense--nor, frankly, the desire, the stomach for it--of going separate ways. Yet, convictions are held very deeply, and whatever capacity there may once have been for pretending that the differences don't exist is evaporating very quickly.

To complicate matters even further, there is another dimension of disagreement that cuts obliquely and jaggedly across the scene. Is the Issue at Hand--i.e. the place of same-sex relationships in the discipline and sacramental life of the Church--an appropriate "ditch" in which to "die"? This is not a liberal-conservative split, but a question that divides liberals from liberals and conservatives from conservatives. We have seen this so far most clearly and painfully among conservatives ("reasserters," to use Kendall Harmon's helpful taxonomy). The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) is filled with reasserters who answer the "ditch" question in the affirmative; anyone who advocates for anything other than heterosexual marriage as an acceptable ethical context for sexual activity has stepped out of bounds, and there is no imperative to remain in communion with such people. The Communion Partners (bishops and rectors) represent those reasserters who do not believe it is necessarily a church-dividng issue, and who thus seek to stay in relationship (albeit a differentiated one) with the Episcopal Church, fully within the structure of its constitution and canons.

But the self-styled "progressives" ("reappraisers" in Harmon's parlance), are not immune from this dimension of the conflict. There are those within dioceses and/or parishes that tilt in a reasserter direction who are immensely troubled, and who wonder whether they are providing "aid and comfort to the enemy"--cooperating with the purveyors of injustice and bigotry--by their mere continued presence and participation in ministry and mission. Some have withdrawn altogether; others have pulled back from positions of leadership. Still other reppraisers who are at odds with their parochial and diocesan contexts have found themselves able to "suck it up and soldier on," believing that there is still more that unites us than there is that divides us.

Of course, both reasserters who remain in TEC and reappraisers who remain in cooperative relationships with reasserting leaders do so at the cost of some credibility among those with whom they are in fundamental agreement on The Issue.

So we are at an impasse. How then shall we live?

I suppose I have to acknowledge at the outset that any answers I might propose to this question are addressed only to those on either side of the Great Divide who have decided that it is neither necessary nor desirable to unchurch (or unchurch themselves from) those with whom they disagree. I'm not going to argue that prior question here. I'm speaking to that set of Episcopalians who want to keep the bridges in good repair even in the midst of our profound disagreements over issues that skirt perilously close to the boundary between adiaphora ("matter indifferent") and core doctrine.

No one likes to be at an impasse. But the first step in the direction of getting us out of this undesirable place is counterintuitive, and that is to accept it; indeed, to make friends with it, to learn to see this time of tension as a channel of grace. This means, of course, laying aside any expectation of persuading "them" to accept "our" correct point of view. Reappraisers tend to assume that time and momentum are on their side, and that if they're just patient, reasserters will quit reasserting what is demonstrably false and "come around" in due course. This attitude is, as a British diplomat might say, "unhelpful." But so any corresponding expectation among reasserters that any honest and thorough appraisal of scriptural and theological evidence can only lead to a conclusion that affirms the traditional understanding of sexual morality, and that we should therefore drop the question entirely. So I'm not suggesting that we should stop the converssation about sexuality; quite the opposite, we should keep talking. But "progress in negotiations" should not be an implicit condition for continued sacramental and ecclesial communion.

Thinking at the same time more tactically and more spiritually (ascetically?), I’m increasingly aware of our need to cultivate the habit of mutual generosity. This means, among other things, bending over backwards to give one another the benefit of the doubt as to motives and intentions, to resolve to jump to the best possible conclusion about another’s words and actions, rather than the worst. It means forgiving our brother or sister, not seven times, but, per Jesus, seventy times seven. It means learning to ask ourselves what in our “opponent’s” position we can learn from? How are they are gift to the whole? How are we all richer and more blessed because they and their views are among us? How are we challenged and called to stretch?

The key to this attitude of generosity is that it is indeed mutual—reciprocal, working both ways. It can’t just be something that we expect “them” to do. Times of conflict can turn into great opportunities for growth—indeed, times of blessing—if we can abandon a Win-Lose mentality. For what it’s worth, I am persuaded that, generations from now, neither “side” in the present conflict over sexuality will be proven “right.” Rather, I suspect that both sides will have been shown to be wrong. What our descendants will recognize as “right” will probably be something we are not now imagining. If we are who we say we are as the Church of Jesus Christ, and if the Gospel is what we believe it to be, we will persevere in humble generosity in anticipation of that day.


The bisectional vocalist said...

I admire the 'reappraisers' who 'suck it up and soldier on'. I think they are setting the example for all of us. Meaning...the diocese/parish should accept TEC's vote and move on. Trying to be part of, yet separate, doesn't set a good example for the rest of us. Maybe that's why some 'reappraisers' have stepped down from leadership positions. We'll continue on, yet we will differentite ourselves in some way. There aren't many options for those at the parish level who disagree with leadership decisions regarding this issue.

Fr. J said...

As usual, Fr. Martins, a fair and insightful commentary. I agree entirely. My only quibble would be with the idea that we won't convince each other on "the Issue." I grant that it is next to impossible for us to hear each other in this conversation, which makes it next to impossible for anyone to have a changed mind or a changed heart. But if we can indeed learn to foster the kind of reciprocal openness and humility that you mention, change can happen. I say this as one whose own views have changed from strongly reappraiser to reasserter over the last six years simply by listening carefully to "the other side" and actually being open to seeing the possibility of change. It may seem nearly impossible, but it also seems nearly impossible that some people will ever come to know Jesus, until they do. But if we really want to change hearts and minds we have to be willing to risk having our hearts and minds changed as well. That's what's been absent from so much of this debate.

Dan Martins said...

BisecVoc, you have certainly shined a light on the complexity of what we face. Can you explain, however, how your proposal doesn't just perpetuate a Win-Lose dynamic (even if the winners are gracious and losers are never sore)? Does not the gospel call us into something deeper? Something like being truly compassionate (literally, "suffering with")--rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep (per St Paul). What would it look like for us to really *wait* for one another (I Cor. 10), with no winners and no losers. The principal problem with most churchs' polity, especially ones based on democratic processes, is that they inherently create winners and losers.

I might also suggest that your comments fail to recognize how critically important full Anglican identity is to ... well, those to whom it IS important. I realize it may not be so for you and many others. "Sucking it up and soldiering on" doesn't address that concern. What would you recommend?

Fr J, I accept your criticism, and want to be clear that I am not precluding the possibility of minds being changed. I've seen it happen, so I know it's possible. As a near and mid-term tactic, however, I AM suggesting that we lay aside expectations of persuading *others* (while ourselves remaining open to being persuaded BY others). The sort of dialogue that changes minds is only possible when there is freedom from fear of coercion or manipulation.

Bob G+ said...

This statement of yours, to me, sums up what drew me to Anglicanism in the first place, out of American-Pentecostalism/Evangelicalism and into the Episcopal Church:

"For what it’s worth, I am persuaded that, generations from now, neither “side” in the present conflict over sexuality will be proven “right.” Rather, I suspect that both sides will have been shown to be wrong. What our descendants will recognize as “right” will probably be something we are not now imagining. If we are who we say we are as the Church of Jesus Christ, and if the Gospel is what we believe it to be, we will persevere in humble generosity in anticipation of that day."

The bisectional vocalist said...

How can we rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep when we 'distance' ourselves from each other? That is what is happening with the two tract proposal. Parallel lines do not intersect. I think that TEC was very accomodating in allowing each diocese to proceed as they felt called. There are still many parts of the Anglican Communion that do not ordain women but we all move our own pace...not as a big clump, but as a line, intersecting and diverging, but all headed in the same direction, toward the same goal (a simple paraphrase, of a much more eloquent statement,from someone I admire). So, I would rather see us stick together as a National Church...all on the same tract, if that's the way it must be, but that doesn't work for those who put Anglicanism at the top of the list. I really don't think God has a prioritized list of denominations, but if you see Anglicanism as 'second best', Catholic being first, then I haven't got an answer for you. I do wish that if you have the great need to remain in the Anglican Communion that you'd do it as an individual. Why would you want to force people to 'go with you'? You'd be creating the same situation for others that you yourself are trying to 'escape' from.

Dale Matson said...

"Is the Issue at Hand--i.e. the place of same-sex relationships in the discipline and sacramental life of the Church--an appropriate "ditch" in which to "die"?"
Fr. Dan, It appears to me as I read this that you are slip, slipping away. What are you going to do when TEC develops marriage rites for the BCP? (answer, "Nothing".)It was not that long ago that you were predicting that B033 would not be repealed.