By Brandt Montgomery
Richard Kearney in Strangers, Gods, and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness demonstrates how the modern nation-state “excludes those who do not conform … to its identity logic.” But in doing so, it often ignores what is demanded by justice: “unconditional hospitality to the alien” (p. 68).
Every nation-state’s exclusionists believe they have the right to expunge those with whom they disagree and deem incompatible with the dominant society. Their arrogance comes from not appreciating the other’s experiences nor the place from which they come. Kearney implores exclusionists to consider how the other’s unique individualism relates to them as fellow beings within the larger society; members of the larger society, in turn, can also relate and accept the other for who they are.
His observations put in context what Paul says:
We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves; let each of us please our neighbor for the good, for building up. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you fall upon me.” (Rom. 15:1-3)
Exclusionists should thus be agents of hospitality, not casting the other aside but embracing fellow citizens of the nation-state. The other is thereby de-alienated and each citizen recognizes another “as a self capable of recognition and esteem” (Kearney, Strangers, Gods, and Monsters, p .80).
Kearney’s observations pose essential questions for the Episcopal Church, particularly its progressive majority: Is mutual flourishing possible? Can the progressive majority recognize and esteem the conservative minority, in the spirit of hospitality?
They are questions worth considering, for the church’s discourse on human sexuality, same-sex marriage, and biblical authority these past 15 years has caused strong emotions and continues to provoke fresh wounds of division.
I ask also personally — in part from stories I have heard of conservative clergy and parishes feeling outcast and of nominees, postulants, and candidates for Holy Orders sensing they have been “red flagged,” given extra hurdles by progressive-leaning dioceses. It causes one to wonder if the classically liberal ideal of allowing all viewpoints to thrive, except those advocating persecution, is still the case.
Some progressives no doubt consider conservatives’ beliefs to be direct and obvious forms of persecution. Conservatives disagree, reaffirming Resolution I.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, that
we commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and … wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptized, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ.
The conference called “on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals.”
Conservatives’ belief — with the Anglican Communion’s majority — that marriage by God’s design is and should remain the union of one man and one woman has brought feelings of “otherness.” And in line with the Supreme Court’s recent opinion regarding the original judgment against Denver baker Jack Phillips in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, many conservatives have been made to feel that their stance is “despicable” and that there is inconsistent application of our church’s best-known invitation, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.”
All this raises concerns for the conservative minority: Will the progressive majority allow for our flourishing?
If the church is serious, if it welcomes all people, then discernment, understanding, and a future marked by reciprocity and mutuality is necessary. Such a path would respect both the majority’s and the minority’s theological consciences. For wherever we go, it should be together, united in the one faith and baptism of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We might find here a model in the Church of England’s House of Bishops’ Declaration:
Reciprocity means that everyone, notwithstanding differences of conviction … will accept that they can rejoice in each other’s partnership in the Gospel and cooperate to the maximum possible extent in mission and ministry. There will need to be an acknowledgment that the differences of view which persist stem from an underlying divergence of theological conviction. …
Mutuality reflects [a] wider commitment to sustaining diversity. It means that those of differing conviction will be committed to making it possible for each other to flourish.” (House of Bishops’ Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests, p. 3)
The Anglican Covenant suggested such a process and, in my view, is a tool that deserves (re)consultation. The Covenant Design Group’s 2005 report Towards an Anglican Covenant centered on how a covenant could feasibly be put into practice. It asserted that a covenant could serve a “relational end” for the Anglican Communion as a global family of interdependent yet autonomous churches and provide a basis for cooperation and action with one another and in relation to the whole Communion. The Anglican Covenant was conceived as a means by which Anglicanism would serve the great promises of God in Christ rather than simply as an exchange of promises between its constituent provinces (Norman Doe, An Anglican Covenant: Theological and Legal Considerations for a Global Debate [Canterbury Press Norwich, 2008], pp. 23, 54.)
But just as the Anglican Covenant incited progressive fears of the Episcopal Church’s exclusion from the Anglican Communion, perhaps talk of conservative flourishing may bring concerns that conservatives will once again multiply and become numerous. From such fears may arise feelings for the need to keep conservatives in check and control their increase (cf. Exod. 1:9-10).
A similar motivation was at work in March 2017 when Philip North, the Suffragan Bishop of Burnley in the Diocese of Blackburn (opposed to women’s ordination in the Church of England), withdrew his nomination as Bishop of Sheffield due to “the highly individualized nature of the attacks” against him by C of E progressives, particularly Martyn Percy, the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. An underlying cause was the Church of England’s failure to fully educate its members on what its 2014 Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests would mean in actual practice. Instead of ensuring “that senior leadership roles within dioceses continue to be filled by people from across the range of traditions,” progressives saw North’s nomination as a threat. Their exclusive acts eroded his nomination. The Archbishop of York admonished English Anglicans, “It [is] now time for the Church to … [reflect] upon whether it [is] serious about its commitment to ‘loving one another and to mutual flourishing within the Body of Christ.’”
Episcopalians have an opportunity to engage in a similar process regarding same-sex marriage. We may learn from the English and possibly prevent the same mistake among us by envisioning how such a process could most effectively work. Regarding the specifics of such process, I am intentionally leaving that question open; it will no doubt be difficult and must be full of safeguards, if the situation in the C of E is any guide.
How we proceed should involve conversation together. But however it happens, we must be grounded in a commitment to maintaining the bonds of peace and affection amid issues on which we disagree. And crucial to mutual flourishing’s success would be the casting out of fear: conservative fears of exclusion by the progressive majority, and progressive fears of conservatives somehow rising again and forcing them back into silence. Fear and exclusion must not be allowed to fracture our unity.
As the Bishop of Springfield said in his most recent post:
We [conservatives] have been defeated. We understand that. The Episcopal Church celebrates same-sex marriage. That will not change in any future that is plausibly foreseeable. We are as desirous of moving on from a consumption of sex and gender as anyone else, and we don’t wish to be thought of as threatening by anyone.
Conservatives simply want to be allowed to flourish. We still wish to remain Episcopalians but have the freedom to follow what we believe of our Lord Jesus Christ in faith. We want to keep alive the Christian spirit of conciliation and love for each other.
Mutual flourishing reminds us that there is more we have in common than those things that divide us. It keeps open the ways for all of us together to build up Christ’s body and proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom (House of Bishops’ Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests, p. 1).
In it is embodied the Summary of the Law: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Summary of the Law, Holy Eucharist: Rite One, The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 324).
In mutual flourishing is love and, as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says, “If it’s not about love, then it’s not about God.”