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The Grammar of Communion

The following essay is excerpted from a chapter in When Churches in Communion Disagree, ed. Robert Heaney, Christopher Wells, and Pierre Whalon (Living Church Books, forthcoming this spring). 

There are seasons in the Church’s life, as in all things living, and those seasons may be long and admixed with silence. In the Anglican corner of the Body of Christ, The Windsor Report of 2004 has enjoyed a brief season of conversation, debate, and testing; but has now entered into that season of silence, a quiet passing over of its insights, recommendations, and urgent warnings. As with any living being under the Lordship of Christ, the Church exemplifies complex reasons for its speech and for its silence; I do not want to neglect or pass over these matters with an impatient hand. But I think it may be time for our Communion to take up Windsor with fresh ears, to listen for a fresh word about the path forward for us all — a path that is not a highway, clear and laid straight.

I wish to commend The Windsor Report for its concision, the precision and scope of its theological judgements, and the structures it proposes for our way forward. I especially want to commend it for its plain speaking.

It seems that many of us in the North American branch of the Communion are no longer able to bear straight-forward discussion of homosexuality. We are inclined to act or to believe it is “all behind us,” as is often said, or too personal, too intimate, too deeply integrated into the mystery of the human person, to be debated or discussed or regulated. Teaching in a U.S. seminary, I have real sympathy for this position. I have listened to my students wrestle with homosexuality and with the place of partnered gay people in the Church and its offices since I joined the faculty in 2002. For each of them, this is a fresh question, a fresh struggle, a fresh intimacy to be exposed or judged; but not for me! Always there is need for fresh teaching, fresh exegesis, fresh ecclesiology in the midst of all that seems old, or worn, or painfully neuralgic, including for those of us here locally who lived through the divisions that tore the heart of the Diocese of Virginia.

The truth is that The Windsor Report is right — or so it seems to me — that the matter of homosexuality is not closed, not behind us, not settled, and most certainly not forgotten in the Communion to which we belong. The report points out the sharp distinction to be drawn with debates over order, a matter also not settled in the Anglican Communion. The contrast between women’s orders, even to the episcopal office, and those of partnered gay people, cannot be easily reduced to single factors. The matter of sexuality will always be more explosive, more intimate, more tactile than will be gender. It can be hidden in ways not readily available to gendered or ethnic human bodies. Indeed our culture still (though less than many others) treasures a reserve and restraint about sexual matters, and the tangled depths of our sexual desires is a history we hope can remain private. Sexuality will transgress borders and it will shock. Freud’s warm recommendation of sublimation is testimony to the volcanic power of the sexual drive, even for one as expert in this terrain as was Freud (see esp. his late work, Civilization and its Discontents). There are elements that emerge out of contemporary U.S. culture, itself a fractured and decidedly unintegrated polity when it comes to practices, norms, and ideals of human sexuality, including homosexuality. To marry all of this with religious piety is perhaps a more explosive mixture than any of us envisioned.

But The Windsor Report considers one critical element in the case of ordaining women to the priesthood: consultation across the Communion. The report holds that the Province of Hong Kong and the North American churches consulted the Archbishop of Canterbury and the primates in several ways and over several decades. The very great patience shown by the innovating provinces — and by the women whose vocation was under debate — is extraordinary, and should be laid to heart. Generations of women greeted that promise from afar but did not enter into it. I who have been given this unshadowed honor of ordination can only be grateful for such long faithfulness and stubborn courage.

I think something like this grace-filled and demanding patience is required for us now about homosexuality. It is hard for many in the United States to remember how brief this revolution in practice and endorsement has been. In my own lifetime (even at this age, not so very long!) the U.S. culture has moved, not altogether and not without deep resistance, from Stonewall to Marriage Equality. This is a heartbeat in the struggle for emancipatory causes, a mere moment in the long march toward race equality or the dignity of native peoples. The debate about homosexuality — its probity; its health or injury; its relation to Holy Scripture; its inwardness and embodied characteristics; its place as exemplar or as warning: all these have had only the beginnings of theological reflection, were we to measure by the generations-long record of feminist and abolitionist argument.

It may seem to many in my church, the Episcopal Church, that this scholarly and ecclesial debate has been nearly everlasting and has consumed several decades of our synodical life. I do not deny the level of textual, historical, and ecclesial research that has been produced in North America — it is important, essential work. I do want to underscore the unfinished work that remains. This scholarship needs to be brought into the heart of the Communion; into face to face, patient work with dissenting groups in the Episcopal Church and beyond; and into inter-religious dialogue. We must reason together. We need to have the whole debate in fresh ways that build on The Windsor Report, in an unexpected fashion.

We should not forget Windsor’s recommendation that the Anglican Communion explore an avenue of more formal unity, either through a common canon law or a Covenant. While the latter option was pursued, it did not prove workable, at least for the time being. Archbishop Welby has made clear that he is not attracted to this solution, but The Windsor Report holds several other proposals, perhaps in quiet reserve, that may be fruitful in the midst of division. Folded into the careful discussion of “Section B: Fundamental Principles” are reflections upon two forms of ecclesial distinction that may serve us well today: subsidiarity and matters adiaphora. Each has deep theological and ecclesial grounding: one in the work leading up to the Second Vatican Council and the other in the churches of the magisterial Reformation.

I want to focus on the structural relation that The Windsor Report uncovers between the two. Windsor says that subsidiarity and matters adiaphora are paired, such that the closer the decision is to the local church, the stronger its decisions may be considered matters indifferent to broader networks of communion. The report mentions flowers arrangements on parish altars — not the subject-matter of primatial attention or Lambeth reports. More significantly, Windsor refers to the Ceremonies Paragraph of the 1662 prayer book, where local use in liturgical custom and native habit are held to be discretionary to the worship and obedience of the Church Catholic. The force of this section, though never fully articulated, suggests that some members of the U.S. and Canadian churches have treated homosexuality as a matter indifferent, and subject to local custom, determination, and culture. The pronounced autonomy of my church and the Canadian church in developing marriage rites or services of blessing for homosexual couples seems to illustrate this natural pairing, assumed but not argued for, between adiaphora and local control. We have made this move in our culture, the decisions seemed to say, and we are acting on them.

It would be well worth exploring historically and ecclesiologically whether this analysis holds good. But quite apart from its argumentative soundness, Windsor objects strongly to it. The matter of homosexuality, The Windsor Report says, is far from indifferent; it has fractured the Communion in ways sharper and more alienating than any of the other debates across the global Church. Windsor holds that the place of homosexual persons in the offices of the Church must be brought to the highest levels of communal debate — to doctrinal commissions, primates’ gatherings, the archbishop’s office, and, of course, to the Lambeth Conference. The notion of provincial autonomy, Windsor warns, can be understood ecclesially only as a matter of agency within a larger whole, a distinction and difference that can be held only within a larger unity and coherence.

We stand now on the other side of these decisions and The Windsor Report. What might we propose as an avenue forward that listens still to this report and its warnings?

I suggest that we consider another distinction that has aided the Roman Catholic Church: the ecclesial idea of a “difference of schools.” This distinction differs from matters indifferent in that it touches profound theological matters, central to the entire Church. Yet it implies an abiding difference that does not fracture unity. The “difference of schools” came into its own in the Tridentine era of the Catholic Reformation, beginning with the debate among Spanish theologians over the delicate matter of divine knowledge of future contingent events. This debate embroiled some of Rome’s most skilled dialecticians: Bañaz the Thomist, Molina the Jesuit, Cardinal Bellarmine, and two sophisticated papal theologians, Clement VIII and Paul V. The debates over middle knowledge, future contingents, effective grace, and omniscience and human freedom stretched over decades. Councils were called; pamphlets released in 16th-century style, like bullet fusillades; then Vatican hearings; and finally, oral debates before two popes, in a kind of Supreme Court briefing that ran generations. It has been called the most conceptually sophisticated ecclesial debate in the history of the Church, and, in my view, rivals the delicate christological debates of the post-Cyrillian age, under Justinian and Maximus.

In the aftermath of this debate, no resolution was reached. This is well worth pondering, as it was hardly a theologoumenon — merely adiaphora. These theologians debated the very nature of God, the scopus and perfection of his knowledge, the workings of his victorious grace, and the freedom of his creatures as they looked into a world filled with duties, with ambiguities and possibilities, and an impenetrable veil drawn across the future. At this level of doctrinal seriousness, no final verdict was reached. The painful calumnies, the calls for inquisition and condemnation, the relentless polemics, personal and ecclesial: these had to stop. But the explosive argument between Thomists and Molinists — or, perhaps better, between two ways of receiving the heritage of the sainted doctor — needed now be regarded as a “difference of the schools.” The phrase bespeaks an insoluble difference in the midst of unity.

We have had nowhere near the extensive nor sophisticated debate over homosexuality that marked the wars between Thomists and Jesuits. I propose that we have them. I believe there are different schools of argument at work in the Communion as a whole: in exegesis, in Church history, in human anthropology, and in doctrine. We have enunciated these in the modern version of the Reformation pamphlet wars — broadsides designed for supporters to read and cheer — and scholarly articles in journals, especially in North American settings. And certainly there have been ecclesial documents, from the Virginia and Windsor reports, to Lambeth statements, To Set our Hope on Christ (issued by the Episcopal Church in response to Windsor), circular letters, and so forth. But the next step beckons us: to do these kinds of papers, debates, and engagements with members across the Communion, in full view of the Communion, so to speak. We need the conciliar expression of these debates, as the Church has always had in her long history. There are deep, sophisticated, and vital positions to develop on both sides of this issue, and perhaps several more in the interstices. (The current ambiguity about gender in some circles within North American culture tells me that some deeper reflection on sexuality and bodily identity will soon need to come under theological reasoning.)

Perhaps in indirect parallel with the Congregatio de Auxiliis, these modern school debates may take the life of the human creature, its sexuality in the midst of its obedience and disobedience, and examine it in light of God’s knowledge, will, and direction, all in dependence upon Holy Scripture. To Set our Hope on Christ took as its parallel or grounding the Spirit poured out on Gentiles in these last days in order to note the gifts of the Spirit discerned in faithful, partnered, monogamous gay Christians. This need not be an argument from experience, which those schooled by Barth (as I have been) may not find compelling. But how it makes use of human history under the providence of God (another central category in Barth’s thinking) could well be developed, specified, and grounded. Perhaps the positions developed by the visionary ecumenist Margaret O’Gara (see esp. her volume No Turning Back) could be employed in these doctrinal debates. Are there positions that merit condemnation but have now entered into the past? Can a way forward be forged with new communities, free from the same strictures?

The school position that holds homosexual acts to be incompatible with Holy Scripture — still the unrescinded official view of the Anglican Communion — can be developed also in light of the creaturely gifts, callings, and aims of homosexual persons, and the particular vocation that celibacy and self-discipline has offered to Christians over many centuries. The work of Robert Song comes particularly to mind here. I would not want to pre-judge any of the careful theological positions that might be developed. I do believe that they could be held in respect, with intellectual integrity, and above all with Christian charity. There is far too little of any of these virtues in our current debates and in our current silence.

This matter may well mark a difference of schools in the final, obdurate sense. We may never agree. We may be left with baroque Thomists and Molinists who simply cannot countenance each other’s primary commitments. But the aim of this entire distinction is to find a way forward: to see a distinction that abides in unity. We are not there yet. We need very great patience to take up this work. But if accord cannot be reached, we may still come to see that in one Church, and one Communion, a difference of schools can be tolerated, even welcomed.

All this unfolds under the great wing of God’s merciful guidance, and so I can only confess hope and confidence that God is working his purpose out, even with us, even with me. The Windsor Report has given our Anglican Communion many gifts, but perhaps the greatest of them is the call to break our silence and our stubborn hearts, and begin to speak, to write, and to listen.

The Rev. Katherine Sonderegger is William Meade Chair of Systematic Theology at Virginia Theological Seminary.


  1. Thank you for this intelligent and plain essay. I think there is much to consider in the comparison with the Molinist-Thomist controversy (or as you put it, in reality, the reception of Thomas) in the context of our Anglican serious disagreements. (There have been some astute essays on casually throwing around the label ‘Jansenist’ at our present day, which shows just how enduring that controversy remains, unresolved but tolerable now — I am grateful for Radner’s calling my attention to them). And thank you for calling just that, serious disagreements, and for reminding us of their ongoing reality.

    “Archbishop Welby has made clear that he is not attracted to this solution.” If I may, I think there is a good reason for this, and it bedeviled his predecessor. Even were he was attracted–and I will take him at his word–we run straight into the real underlying problem. What “the Communion” may want, and for that matter what Windsor may want, he knows the Church of England does not want, and that includes his own putative brokering of such things.

    Thank you for this substantive and important essay.


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