Editorial note: As the Lambeth Conference approaches, The Living Church has and will be publishing in print and online a series of posts on the state of the Anglican Communion and on issues related to the Conference, including a series of “Lambeth Conversations” like this one. See our prior Lambeth 2020 posts here.
By Ephraim Radner
Robert MacSwain is helpful in pointing out that by no means does everyone agree with the position articulated in Lambeth 1998, Resolution I.10. That is not a surprise, of course. The disagreement lies behind our current conflicts and the original resolution’s formulation. Furthermore, as he points out, even the passage of Lambeth I.10 took place in the midst of difficult debate and diverse judgments. I would certainly not assert that the resolution represents the views of all Anglicans, nor that reaffirming it would garner the support of all. But it is not conflict I am trying to deny. It is conflict I am suggesting we try to articulate clearly, gauge responsibly, and from which and on the basis of which we then move on.
There are two important points about this conflict that MacSwain does not address. First, does Lambeth I.10 in fact represent the views of most Anglicans in the Communion? I think it does — as do many others — but the point of my suggestion is to test that assumption. If the assumption is false, then the notion that the Communion is simply of many minds still awaiting discernment and resolution on this matter makes sense. At that point all bets are off about whether folks can stick together in the Communion on a wide basis, but at least we will get this widespread uncertainty on the table.
But if in fact the majority of the Communion’s bishops still support the teaching in Lambeth I.10, that is important to know. They overwhelmingly voted in favor of the resolution in 1998, despite some dissent. And since then, the resolution has been reaffirmed in numerous Communion-wide consultations, reports, statements, and councils, in a way that contrasts with MacSwain’s picture of a somewhat marginal and contested document. If the support is still there, then it is simply untrue that that the wider Communion is unprepared to proceed together on these matters, and go on to other ones. Knowing this would clean up the playing field at least a little. Why the worries about trying to make this plain, one way or the other?
The worries, however, perhaps go to the second point that MacSwain does not address: several Western Anglican churches — the Episcopal Church, Scotland, Canada — don’t really believe in further discernment, however much MacSwain frames the future in that way. They all quickly moved ahead after 1998, whatever confusions and disagreements there may purportedly have been, with their own commitments on sexual teaching and practice. And they have gone further, with dispatch and focus, to things like same-sex marriage as if indeed it had already been decided and there was nothing more to learn on this score — in the Episcopal Church, to the point of outlawing altogether episcopal opposition to same-sex marriage. MacSwain’s picture of a Communion still in the midst of discernment simply doesn’t fit the facts.
Churches like TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada have made their decisions quite clearly, and done so legislatively and, if TEC is an example, punitively. MacSwain’s call for more “thought” and “wrestling,” at least in North America, frankly rings hollow. The advocates of TEC policies on these matters are simply in no place to argue for “ongoing discernment.” The free-fall decline of these churches, furthermore, renders their witness, at least prima facie, increasingly less compelling to other Anglican churches around the world whose theological views regarding human sexuality and marriage do not comport with the decisive commitments of their rapidly dwindling Western coreligionists.
As a final, more peripheral point: People do change their minds about these matters, and MacSwain is right to point this out. Who knows what people will think about this or that matter of sex in the future? But that people do so because of new advances in knowledge about sexuality, theology, and biblical exegesis strikes me as unlikely.
Someday, far in the future (if anyone is still around to do this), we may learn more about why people did in fact shift their views in this direction or that in the 1990s and 2000s. I, for one, changed my views in a direction opposite to MacSwain’s examples, and I did so in the midst of Berkeley’s and Yale’s open and invigorated discussions, practical experience, and experimentation. Certainly, it was not because I suddenly became blind to the intrinsic worth of other human beings, or that I stopped reading. Many of us know well that other people — gay or straight — are far better people than we are; and we have always known this.
So while I could list reasons for my views, and have done so, they will probably have little traction with those on the other side. The die is cast, not just personally, but in much of the Communion. We have simply drifted to distant continents of cognition, it appears. We may drift yet further. But I wager, once someone figures out this differentiation, that it will have little to do with new information, changes of heart, or deeper thinking, but with a host of other elements tucked away in the cultural psychologies of the era and their swirling personal eddies. Garnering arguments and documentary files for synodical debate may once have been useful; it is no longer.