"As I mused, the fire burned"

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St Michael Report – Critical Comments

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Since it appears we have a resolution on same-sex blessings coming up at the Edmonton Anglican Diocese Synod in a few weeks, a review of the St Michael report from February 2006.  (The Windsor Report is a very well-written document, unlike the St Michael report, and worth a read as well…portions were written by Bishop NT Wright).  I wrote this in February 2006, and haven’t changed my thought much in the 6 years since my review.

I made a presentation to the Prayer Book Society on this topic, and outlined how the St Michael report had created a ‘legal loophole’ that General Synod (GS) could drive a bus through – that since same-sex blessings are doctrinal, but not core doctrine, GS would not be bound to pass a resolution on same-sex blessings to the usual 2/3 majority as is required by the canons of GS.  A senior theologian wrote a paper in reply and called my opinion ill-informed.  Well, that’s exactly what happened.

Resolution A185 called for a vote of at least 60% to pass resolutions A186 and A187.  That resolution was defeated, which means A186 and A187 were both voted on under a simple majority (50% +1), even though A186 clearly involves a declaration on a matter of doctrine, “That this General Synod resolves that the blessing of same-sex unions is consistent with the core doctrine of The Anglican Church of Canada.”  The subsequent motion, to permit diocese to locally opt to perform same-sex blessings, A187, was defeated by the vote of one bishop (that is, a simple majority was lost by one person’s vote).  A186 passed on a simple majority in the House of Bishops…it would not have passed if the 2/3 rule was in effect (as it should have been).

From a legislative point of view, resolutions A186 and A187 should have prevented any diocese from going ahead with same-sex blessings (although there are a number that decided to go ahead on their own initiative).  The reason?  A186 merely makes a declaration as to the place of same-sex blessings on the spectrum of doctrine described by the St Michael report.  A187 clearly stated the will of General Synod, that dioceses should not have the ability to locally opt in.  Why have they gone ahead and done it anyway?  I don’t believe people (here meaning the bishops) pay any attention to ecclesiology or polity, that is, making decisions within their authority to do so.

A186: That this General Synod resolves that the blessing of same-sex unions is not in conflict with the core doctrine (in the sense of being creedal) of The Anglican Church of Canada.  CARRIED AS AMENDED  Act 42

Order In Favour Opposed
Clergy/Laity
152
97
Bishops
21
19

Comments on the “St Michael Report” Produced by the Primate’s Theological Commission
On the issue of Same-sex Blessings

The base conclusion of this report, that the blessing of same-sex unions is a matter of doctrine, is certainly reasonable and well-founded. A second comment that identifies any such blessing as “analogous to a marriage” is equally welcomed. Both of these thoughts provide a level of clarity to this dialogue that will be very helpful, by bringing a theological focus to what has been a primarily emotion and experience-centered debate in the Anglican Church of Canada.

The following comments need to be taken in light of this acceptance of two of the most significant recommendations from the Commission. At first glance the report seems to provide a clear answer; however, what follows these two recommendations is at times troubling and seems to be structured to ultimately avoid treating this as a fully doctrinal matter. There seem to be some ahistorical applications of concepts that are of questionable pedigree. Rather than being a balanced report there are overtones throughout that suggest an ulterior motive behind the text.

Scripture

While there are a plethora of Scriptural references in this report there is no attempt made to provide a theological interpretation of the biblical texts often used to argue for or against same-sex blessings. This is certainly a deficiency for any theological examination of the issue and the use of Biblical theology would have been an appropriate contribution.

The Commission provides some discourse around changing values that have historically been experienced by the church such as slavery and civil rights. These are all true; however, these are not cases where the historic church was living out the gospel message. Slavery in the European or American context never even met the Hebraic guidelines for the treatment of slaves, making this a case where the church was failing to meet even what might be seen as a biblical minimum standard of behaviour (cf. Exodus 21).

Even with this objection, it is true that the established church underwent a watershed transition when it came to recognize its own behaviour as sinful. This illustration would have been far more relevant if there had been some Scriptural witness that explicitly prohibited slavery which the church had previously disregarded. The presenting issue is suggesting a change to church praxis which would be contrary to some Scriptural references, which makes this a different situation.

A thorough theological discourse with this issue needs to engage both the Hebrew and New Testament sources that on the face prohibit male homosexual activity. This is requisite to make a theological case for a dramatic change in church practice, for the scholarship on these passages is far from unified.

Prophetic Tradition

“…the radicalness (sic) of the prophetic traditions and their challenge to conventionalized religion and social mores” (paragraph 7).

It has been stated in similar words by those arguing for same-sex blessings that the church is in a new prophetic era that demands radical new approaches. This quotation suggests that the Commission is thinking along these same lines. The prophetic tradition here is referred to in highly simplistic terms. The question to address is: did the prophets speak out against conventionalized religion and social mores merely because they were dominant, or because it had departed from God? Consider the Davidic monarchy which met with prophetic approval except when a transgression had occurred. This was certainly a case where the conventional power was not a target simply because it was dominant.

First, it is apparent that the prophets, when they appear, almost always spoke out against the establishment of their day. David, when not engaged in transgression, is a significant exception to any generalization. Also, to suggest that the same would be automatically true today is not supportable. A simple read-forward of prophetic tradition (or any Scriptural tradition) can not be done without grievous harm to the text. It is not correct to immediately assign a negative prophetic view of the ascendant paradigm in any era as Scripture (and our God) is more subtle than this.

Second, I would argue that same-sex issues are themselves rapidly becoming conventionalized. Our national Parliament has redefined marriage federally, seven provinces have already made such legislative redefinitions law and more are certain to follow. At least four regularly scheduled television productions feature openly gay men and women. Uttering hatred concerning sexual orientation is now defined as a hate crime under Canadian law. In Canada there is little doubt that this issue is already main-stream, a part of the accepted social mores. So, if the prophets always challenged social mores, in a modern context this could form an argument against same-sex blessings.

Finally, this is a huge oversimplification of the prophetic message. While prophets often condemned the conventional religion and mores of their day it was never to call forth a whole new creation. The prophetic voice is usually a voice of recall to forgotten or ignored tradition and religious practice. When entirely new things are brought about it is through direct commandment from God (to Moses, making a distinction between the canon of prophets and Torah). One might also ask where are those modern prophets who are telling us, ‘Thus saith the Lord God of Israel…’? To establish a relevancy of the prophetic message in our era requires prophets, and not our own wishes.

What can be concluded from the prophetic tradition and read forward to the present day is this: you can never be too sure what God is up to, and you can’t put anything past him (cf. Reynolds Price).

Adiaphora

The Commission presents the concept of adiaphora in a manner that I have never before seen. It seems that the Commission is misquoting the Windsor Report. “It should be noted that while adiaphora are distinguished from core doctrines they are nevertheless doctrines.” (paragraph 8). The Windsor Report (WR) says no such thing about adiaphora and only identifies that the concept of adiaphora is in itself a doctrine. The referenced text of the WR states (WR, para 36):

“…the vital doctrine of adiaphora…”
“…Anglicans have always recognised a key distinction between core doctrines of the church…and those upon which disagreement can be tolerated without endangering unity.”

The WR identifies adiaphora as a “vital doctrine” and makes a distinction between core doctrines and doctrines upon which disagreement can be tolerated. However, no where does the WR identify the adiaphora themselves as containing items of doctrine. Commonly used examples of adiaphora are vestment colour, order in processions or the exact content of the Eucharistic anamnesis which are all clearly non-doctrinal issues. (e.g. we have a doctrine concerning baptism, but water is not a doctrine itself, although integral to the baptism ritual)

This use of the term adiaphora is troubling since it presents a possible way of bypassing the Commission’s doctrinal assertion. The Canons of General Synod are clear that, “All Canons dealing with doctrine…shall require to be passed…in each Order voting at two successive sessions of the General Synod” (11.c.i). However, the issue of “adiaphoric doctrines” is not considered. Is this a new category of doctrine that may not require two Synods voting?

If something is a part of the adiaphora then it may be reasonably dispensed with: “But as regards genuine adiaphora, or matters of indifference … we believe, teach, and confess that such ceremonies, in and of themselves, are no worship of God, nor any part of it…” (The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, paragraph 7). This Lutheran definition clarifies what has traditionally been the use of the word, to define things that are a matter of indifference. If same-sex blessings are a portion of the adiaphora, even as a type of some new ‘adiaphoric doctrine’, then the church can adopt or reject them with no fear of harm or violence.

Paragraph 31 of the Formula of Concord states,

“Thus [according to this doctrine of adiaphora] the churches will not condemn one another because of dissimilarity of ceremonies when, in Christian liberty, one has less or more of them, provided they are otherwise agreed with one another in the doctrine and all its articles, also in the right use of the holy Sacraments…”.

This descriptive passage tells two things of significance: first that adiaphora are not matters of doctrine (of any kind) since the church can accept disagreement around adiaphora as long as there is doctrinal agreement; second, that if churches are condemning one another (as we have experienced so much today) the matter at hand is, prima facia, not something that can be considered adiaphora.

This position is analogous to the one taken by the Windsor Report authors where in paragraph 93 they write,

Second, if it is indeed ‘adiaphora’, is it something that, nevertheless, a sufficient number of other Christians will find scandalous and offensive, either in the sense that they will be led into acting against their own consciences or that they will be forced, for conscience’s sake, to break fellowship with those who go ahead? If the answer to the latter question is ‘yes’, the biblical guidelines insist that those who have no scruples about the proposed action should nevertheless refrain from going ahead.

While the WR does not state these cases are excluded from the adiaphora in name, they are excluded from this grouping in practice since they are no longer ‘matters of indifference’.

The Commission concludes that “the depth of feeling that exists in the Communion on this matter indicates how important it has become” (paragraph 44). This admitted depth of feeling negates the Commission’s assertion that the issue of same-sex blessings is a part of the redefined adiaphora. The Windsor Report and the historic Lutheran witness both indicate that cases that involve potential division of the church, even if they are over adiaphora, are no longer matters indifferent.

Adiaphora and Human Sexuality

One troubling aspect of this report is the implication that human sexuality and gender are a part of this redefined adiaphora. In seeking to re-examine marriage as a union of complimentary genders the Commission seems to be suggesting that this is a part of their adiaphora. It is confusing how something identified as an integral part of the creation of humans could be considered a part of adiaphora. The division of humanity into genders in the creation accounts suggests strongly that it should not be considered a matter indifferent. Our gender is an integral part of who we are and to suggest it is a part of matters indifferent is to deconstruct a part of God’s good creation.

Christian Community

The Commission identifies in numerous places the importance of the Christian community (paragraphs 32, 37). If we are meant to live in community and the Christian community “has replaced family, tribe and nation” does this not call us out of our Canadian context and into a truly global context with all Anglicans? Our global village of Anglicans is something St Paul may not have anticipated but it is our present context. If we are serious about the import of community then we must be serious about the witness of all Anglicans. This is the bold inclusivity Scripture charges us to live out, to not stay within our own comfort zone of tribe or nation but to embrace the Samaritan as a true brother…even when we find that Samaritan repulsive. Such a line of reasoning applies as equally to our gay and lesbian family as to our African and Asian.

Core Doctrines / bene esse / adiaphora

The report identifies a continuum that has “core doctrines” at one extreme and adiaphora at the other. Between these points, “many teachings appear to occupy a place” (paragraph 9). There is no definition of what goes where on the continuum except that the three creeds are identified as core doctrine and appear to be the only core doctrine the report mentions. Even other central Christian doctrines such as salvation (soteriology), the Incarnation, while identified as doctrines, are not explicitly identified as core doctrines.

The Commission identifies that core doctrines are creedal as in contained in one of the three creeds (paragraph 10) and that Anglican liturgical patterns are the normative framework for interpreting the Scriptures (paragraph 5). The creeds may very well be Christian core doctrine, but the report is specifically engaging the Anglican context. It is, at times, difficult to identify that the St Michael’s report is describing an Anglican context and not just a generic Christian context.

Given that the adiaphora as defined by the St Michael’s report encompass a huge amount of thought and material it is difficult to see where dividing lines might be drawn. What is critical adiaphora and what may be dispensed with? It is easy to see that the colour of a chasuble falls to one extreme, but where might our understanding of absolution lie?

Lutheran thought would add a middle category to this continuum: that of the bene esse, things that while not salvific in nature (i.e. core) are still essential for the well being of the church. This category of material is likely where large portions of traditional Anglican thought would rest. As such the classic formularies (Solemn Declaration, 39 Articles, Book of Common Prayer and Lambeth Quadrilateral) are things that form a part of Anglican core doctrine and the Anglican bene esse. Rather then just referents to the creedal or core doctrines these are essential parts of Anglicanism, and without them we would be Anglican only in title.

Developing Doctrine

While doctrines develop, a more interesting question to consider concerns the presence of underlying immutable truths upon which that mutable doctrine is based. Upon what foundation do we base our doctrine? If it is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the Father of Jesus the Christ, an immutable God, then there must be an unchanging foundation there someplace. To speak of mutable, developing doctrine is fine, but this must as well acknowledge the fallible human element in the process.

The Commission writes (paragraph 15), “…conservation of the old is not necessarily the best way to preserve the truth…”. This is certain an acceptable statement as an old book has no intrinsic value that makes it more of an authority than a new book. How, one might ask, do you decouple human desires, frailty and sinfulness from the process of finding new truth? The real value of tradition and orthodox thought is that it has survived a test of time where the rejected doctrines have waned and the accepted have been maintained through many generations of thinkers (cf. Arianism). Orthodoxy forms an anchor that helps keep our present thought, very much caught up in the momentary concerns and immediacy of our lives and culture, from straying too far. Orthodoxy does not mean never changing, but means that one proposing a radical break bears upon themselves the burden of proof (this is classic thought after Richard Hooker).

Balance

This report is unbalanced in presentation of a perspective in favour of proceeding with same-sex blessings. For example, paragraph 16 asks a set of apparently balanced questions:

“Is it theologically and doctrinally responsible for one member church of the
Communion to approve a course of action which it has reason to believe may
be destructive of the unity of the Communion?

Is it theologically and doctrinally responsible to accept unity as the value
which transcends all others, and therefore for a member church of the
Communion to refrain from making a decision when it believes it has an
urgent gospel mandate to proceed?”

These questions are not balanced in presentation: the first asks a question about unity while the second grammatically subordinates unity to “an urgent gospel mandate”. The implication is that those ascribing to the first question have only a concern for the physical while those after the second are concerned about the gospel. An implicit value judgement is being presented.

The use of this phrase “an urgent gospel mandate” is itself very unbalanced as it implies a sense of criticalness and time-sensitiveness that is questionable. It also creates a follow-on question: who is it that has identified that there is an urgent gospel mandate that we are not answering in obedience? If this is an assertion, that there is such a mandate, then the burden of the case rests with those making the assertion.

Paragraph 17 presents the issue in the global Anglican Communion as a simple pro versus con situation. Some Anglicans in the world are supportive of this while others treat it as criminal. Such a treatment is highly unbalanced as it ignores the proportion of those global Anglicans that fall into each group. It is becoming more apparent that by far the majority of Anglican Provinces are not supportive of this direction or are at least unwilling to proceed quickly on the change.

“Dignity and Integrity”

The terms dignity and integrity are used frequently in this discussion to speak of how those excluded from Christian ritual are not dealt with in a gospel manner. Introducing this consideration also raises the reciprocal question: are present dealings to change the church praxis equally concerned with the dignity and integrity of those who oppose such change as a matter of salvation? I would boldly suggest that any initiative that truly follows the murmurings of the Spirit and is true to the Gospel witness will allow the dignity and integrity of all parties to be dealt with in a similar fashion. Any movement or argument that merely shifts the marginalization to a different group is not of God.

Human Relationships

Paragraph 31 of the report attempts to decouple having children from holy marital relationships. Without entering into a lengthy discourse on this topic it is sufficient to address one issue of gender “complimentarity” (sic). Although many heterosexual couples choose not to have children they never lose the potential to have children. Any couple that is not living celibate married life, even those with surgical sterilization, still have the potential of children resulting from the relationship. No birth control technique (even tubal ligation) is 100 per cent effective; although it may approach 100 per cent. God is still able to act even through human intervention. Regardless of what the situation may be (and excluding IVF in the case of women) a same-sex couple will never produce off spring. This point may be crude, but it is a necessary observation to answer the facile argument – some heterosexual couples never have children, so their relationship may be analogous to a committed same-sex couple. (I might say tongue-in-cheek that many warships never actually fire a shot in anger, but this makes them none the less warships. One could not say these ships carry people much like luxury cruise ships, and even though they have guns they never use them, so these two cases are more similar than different).

Summary

The definition of core doctrine as creedal has allowed the report’s authors to dispense with other sources of authority which need to be considered: the Lambeth Resolution I.10 from 1998 and the Statement of the Primates from 2003 along with the classic formularies. If we were discussing the issue from a purely Christian perspective this might be acceptable but this report is considering the Anglican response. We must consider the issue as Anglican Christians and not free-church members.

The Commission concludes that “the depth of feeling that exists in the Communion on this matter indicates how important it has become” (paragraph 44). This admitted depth of feeling negates the Commission’s assertion that the issue of same-sex blessings is a part of the redefined adiaphora. The Windsor Report and the historic Lutheran witness both indicate that cases that involve potential division of the church, even if they are over adiaphora, are no longer matters indifferent.

The central place of Christian community, as emphasized by the Commission, means that we must stay in engagement with all Anglicans globally and especially those who disagree with us. This engagement, along with a healthy engagement with traditional thought and teaching, is the only anchor point that provides us any ability to gain some perspective on our own sin and desire.

A foundational question not dealt with is the question of truth. Upon what do we base our doctrines? If the answer decanted to its basic level is cultural context, then there will be no resolution of this question without schism. C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain addresses this, “We cannot therefore know that we are acting at all, or primarily, for God’s sake, unless the material of the action is contrary to our inclinations or (in other words) painful…”.

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Written by sameo416

September 23, 2012 at 1:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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