By Christopher Wells
“This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the Church” (Eph. 5:32). Herewith the locus classicus of Scripture on marriage, joined to an ecclesiological claim: the Church and marriage are alike and mutually interpreting. Delve into one and you understand the other, with Christ at the center of both.
A more fitting and urgent subject upon which Episcopalians (and others) might meditate at this moment I cannot conceive. For here is a problem, not mysterious but fraught and complicated: to be a Christian starts with baptism into a Body that may be seen and touched (cf. 1 John 1:2-4), that is therefore public, with a notoriously unusual character. Recall St. Paul’s startling description: “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater respect” (1 Cor. 12:22-23). Of course, appearances can be deceiving, and inter- and intra-ecclesial thoughts conflicting! One party’s “weaker members” are another’s “more respectable” ones — a perpetual puzzle, best solved in the solitude of private prayer and examination of “conscience” (1 Cor. 8:9ff.). But the bottom line of our mutually constituting one another in the common locale of the Body of Christ — our being made one flesh — is unavoidable, and is just the point in Ephesians: “For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the Church, because we are members of his body” (Eph. 5:29-30). Therefore, the text continues, “a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh,” quoting Genesis (Eph. 5:31), as Jesus himself had done (Mark 10:7-8; Matt. 19:5).
In this light, that the Episcopal Church has committed itself to undertake a study of marriage in the next triennium (Resolution A050), while at the same time pausing on the Anglican Covenant rather than racing to a premature conclusion (B005), are important “take aways” from Indianapolis, with which to wrestle alongside our provisional adoption of a rite for same-sex blessings. How can we square these commitments with one another, that is, how shall we move forward faithfully in their wake?
The heart of the challenge before us — Episcopalians, Anglicans, Christians, wherever we may be, settled into various churches and sojourning associations — is simply the command of Ephesians 5:21, in its magnificent multivalence: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Seizing the nuptial image, a relentless mutual service follows, especially on the part of the “husband,” whose love is characterized by complete self-offering — a kind of “crucifixion,” in Lewis’s memorable discussion of eros (Four Loves, p. 105).
How can we understand this ecclesially? — presuming that the nuptial union of Christ and the Church reaches even to our “local” assemblies: not just denominations but dioceses, parishes, and individual souls, gathered into Christ’s “unwearying (never paraded) care” and “inexhaustible forgiveness: forgiveness, not acquiescence,” as Lewis has it. Here, supernaturally, is the Church as Bride, according to Scripture. But following quickly on its heels comes a more homely parsing of the imagery in the nature of the case, the icon of marriage having been “established by God in creation,” as our service says (BCP 1979), that is, classically, “instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency” (BCP 1662).
The Episcopal Church, as a “constituent member” of the Anglican Communion (Resolution D008, citing the Preamble of our Constitution), now has a renewed opportunity to let something of this nuptial call sink in and to respond accordingly — and the same is true for the other churches of our membership, and those beyond it. Provisional rites notwithstanding, a divinely given “bond and covenant of marriage,” in the words of our prayer book, is the instrument of our formation and fruitfulness. “Adorned” by Christ “at a wedding in Cana of Galilee,” “this manner of life” stands as an icon of perfect communion and service, as later proved by our Lord who “loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). Thus the unmarried Jesus is wed, showing forth the normative pattern of union with, and communion in, his Body, “out of reverence for” him (5:21)!
If this seems difficult it surely is, not least in its inescapability for the Christian pilgrim, as also for the pilgrim Church. Let us, however, have the courage to ask ourselves, and our siblings in the Lord, how — mysteriously — we may love one another as we do our own bodies out of reverence for Christ? How, that is, can the weaker, indispensable members among and around us be better served by the more respectable? How can we more fully share in the union God has wrought — Una Sancta Catholica — recognizing that in this case it cannot be torn asunder, though we ourselves, one by one and as churches of varying kinds, may show forth more or less “unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Pet. 3:8)? How, in short, to bless and not curse one another, so that we “might inherit a blessing” (3:9)?
A few suggestions for Episcopalians, of which I am one:
1. To all who agree with D008’s call to “deepen [our] involvement with Communion ministries and networks” and encouragement of “dioceses, congregations and individual Episcopalians to educate themselves about the Communion as well as promote and support the Anglican Communion and its work”: Let us not do this half-heartedly, the more as we “continue to monitor the ongoing developments with respect to the Anglican Covenant and how this church might continue its participation” (B005). In every case, we must say our prayers and do our homework. Would that every bishop and deputy, and every member of a commission, committee, agency, and board, undertake a course of study of the Church in advance of the next General Convention: say, St. John’s gospel, Romans 9-11, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, St. Augustine against the Donatists, a smattering of Richard Hooker, the report from the Toronto Anglican Congress (1963), and the WCC’s landmark Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982). Parish education directors: take note!
2. To the persistently tenacious conservatives among us: Be of good courage! “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful” in his Word, not least through our own continued refashioning by its judgment of “the thoughts and intentions” of our hearts (Heb. 10:23, 4:12). In the apt prologue of Bishop Michael Smith to the Indianapolis Statement: “We struggle to hold together the evangelical faith of the Church, from which we see this Convention as departing, and the catholic order of the Church, which causes us, for the sake of the unity for which Jesus prayed, to resist the temptation to leave this fellowship.” In this spirit, let the Communion Partner dioceses and parishes flourish and multiply across our church, as a devoted movement of unity and renewal. Let us learn and teach the faith ever more confidently, with joy, rooted in affection for and loyalty to our worldwide family and all our brothers and sisters. “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:23-25).
3. To the majority party: We understand 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 77th General Convention’s action,” in order to “honor the theological diversity of this church in regard to matters of human sexuality” (resolution A049): thank you. More is needed, however, namely, a commitment by all our leaders to cultivating lively evangelical and catholic conviction in this church, even of a traditionalist sort, in the recognition that thereby the rule of faith itself will be upheld and passed on to the next generation.
I borrow here from the Rev. Canon George Sumner, principal of Wycliffe College in Toronto, who suggested at TLC’s evening “Conversation” in Indianapolis that the leaders of the Episcopal Church now face a “Mauricean” moment, in which the nature and extent of our diversity will be decided. For F.D. Maurice (1805-72) still exemplifies the best of Anglican liberality — not as a church party but as a posture, given, in Oliver O’Donovan’s description, to a “centripetal” penchant for “stepping back, untangling the skein, reconciling conflicting views, toning down exaggerated positions, forging coalitions, squaring circles, finding commonsense ways through.” Is such a liberalism still to be had in our corner of Ecclesia Anglicana, characterized by cultivated and principled patience, generosity of spirit, and pluralism of practice within the grammatical world of the Gospel? Such virtues are not optional extras; they strike to the heart of Christ’s Church, given in Scripture and sacrament and traditions of commentary and argument: baptized reason, chastened and humbled study, and a Christocentric word of truth that leads to peace. We should all wish to cultivate and preserve such comprehension, and not primarily as an Anglican treasure, since it precedes and follows us. Aquinas and Rahner, Melanchthon and Barth, Nicaea and Vatican II drank from this well, alongside Hooker and Herbert, Simeon and Sykes, Lambeth 1867 and the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission.
Here is a great grace: that God would permit us, with our compatriots around the world and across time (ubique semper ab omnibus), to untangle the skein of the sacrament in which we experience his love for the Church and learn to imitate it in union with one another. Here is a truly radical hospitality, as Christ shares the fruitfulness of the Father’s love since “before the foundation of the world,” so that it “may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:24,23).
The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory: Come let us adore him.