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The Hollow Call for Further Discernment

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.



  1. One may at times disagree with Radner, but his reasoning skills are excellent and he has a powerful penchant for uncovering valuable realities that are too often overlooked.

  2. Professor Radner,

    Thank you for your reply to my response to your original essay. I would like to address what I take to be your four main points:

    First, what’s the harm in the next Lambeth Conference voting to reaffirm Lambeth 1998 Resolution I.10? As you say, “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?” Well, one of the most provocative claims Stanley Hauerwas makes in his foreword to *The Fate of Communion: The Agony of Anglicanism and the Future of a Global Church* (Eerdmans, 2006), co-authored by you and Philip Turner, is that we should not necessarily think of voting on a topic as the solution to our conflicts. Some of what Hauerwas writes in the relevant paragraphs on page x is somewhat contradictory, saying in one sentence that “Christians in America seem to have forgotten that voting can be a coercive and even violent practice,” while acknowledging in another that “voting is the mechanism used in the hope of encouraging the discussion and debate for a community to discern the goods they have in common.” Your point above seems to endorse this second sentence. But what Hauerwas then goes on to say is that too often “democracies domesticate conflict by establishing allegedly procedural rules of fairness to avoid substantive conflict and debate. When the church adopts such a strategy for her life, Radner and Turner argue, the church will be less than the communion she is called to be.” Now, you may neither agree with Hauerwas’s interpretation of your position here nor share his ambivalence about such procedures, nor think that this claim applies to your current proposal. But what I take away from this is that perhaps there are some topics which we should not seek to settle by vote, or that we should not seek to settle them too quickly.

    Second, you claim that “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…. MacSwain’s call for more ‘thought’ and ‘wrestling,’ at least in North America, frankly rings hollow.” This is surely an important consideration, but even your “at least in North America” caveat doesn’t quite acknowledge the genuine concern that many Global South provinces no longer believe in further discernment either, despite the calls from Lambeth 1978, 1988, and even 1998 to engage in this dialogue. If there is bad faith at work here, there is bad faith on both sides. By definition, true discernment is hindered in countries where homosexuality is criminalized and in cultures in which homosexuality is stigmatized, such that LGBT Christians are afraid to even identify themselves; true discernment is hindered in provinces where opposition to homosexuality is mandatory; and true discernment is hindered without acknowledging that the witness of the New Testament around marriage is ambiguous at best, in which case truly “biblical” teaching would arguably make singleness normative over heterosexual marriage and children. In his book *Backpacking through the Anglican Communion* (Morehouse, 2014), Jesse Zink shares a conversation with a priest in the Church of Nigeria who told him that in his province “being opposed to homosexuality has become a test of whether you believe the Bible or not” and that if “you want to be a faithful Christian and do well in the church, you can’t be in favor of homosexuality” (112-13). In such a context, is further discernment possible? If not, where does that leave us?

    Third, you write that the “free-fall decline of [North American] 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.” Again, I appreciate the qualifying “*prima facie*,” but I thought that the simple “liberal churches shrink / conservative churches grow” theory was now largely discredited. This, after all, was the claim of the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States—until it also started to decline. I think it is more accurate to say that churches are declining numerically in Europe and North America because they are in Europe and North America and that they are growing numerically in African and Asia because they are in Africa and Asia. That is, in addition to the undoubted role of theological and moral positions, there are also vast and overwhelming historical, cultural, and sociological factors at work, including simple population trends. Moreover, if we were concerned primarily with the issue of church growth, none of us would be Anglicans of any sort. One of the key observations of Zink’s book is how charismatic and Pentecostal churches with their prosperity gospel are both challenging and influencing African Anglican provinces such as the Church of Nigeria, citing a Nigerian bishop who told him, “The prosperity gospel is a virus that is taking over our church. Our Anglican church is becoming ‘Anglocostal’” (108), and further observing deep anxiety in Nigeria about the very future of the Church given the current trend away from historic denominations as “the next generation of societal leaders [joined] Pentecostal churches” instead (113). Appeals to numbers are inherently inconclusive and change rapidly, which means that familiar triumphalist narratives should be avoided.

    Fourth and finally, I appreciated your closing thoughts on how minds can and do change in both directions on this issue, and I agree that the ebb and flow of thought is complex and difficult to measure. However, I resist your pessimistic view that the “die is cast, not just personally, but in much of the Communion.” Thus, by calling for continuing discernment I am of course hoping to avoid a similar showdown as the one that occurred among United Methodists in St. Louis yesterday. The timing of my essay appearing that same day was coincidental but noted by Professor Seitz in his comments. If in fact Lambeth 1998 I.10 is the Anglican equivalent to the UMC “Traditional Plan,” and if in fact what you want is for Lambeth 2020 to do for the Communion what the 2019 Special Convention did for the UMC, then I would regard that as a tragic mistake, precisely because I agree with the observation from Hauerwas that I cited in my essay: “Just as the early church had to come to terms with the reality that gentiles, who probably should not have been followers of Jesus, were in the church, so we discover that gays are also in the church. Moreover they are there in a manner that would make us less if they were not there. I take that to be a stubborn theological reality that cries out for thought.” For a commentary on the UMC situation that I regard as relevant for us as well, see Dean Jan Love’s statement to the community of Candler School of Theology at Emory University:



    Rob MacSwain

    • Thanks, Rob (if I may), for your ongoing generous but firm engagement with me on these matters. I appreciate it, as I know others do as well. I’ll try to respond, if in a rather scattered way, to your four points, all of which are substantive questions and assertions.
      1. Should we be voting on things in synods? Depends what. Probably not very much. On matters of marriage and family, I have come to the conclusion that we should not vote at all. Families (including marriage) are not objects of political adjudication, because they are neither representable agents nor objects of free manipulation, but metaphysical givens. Turning everything into representable agents or manipulable objects is what the modern state and economy does. That’s too complex of an argument to pursue here. But I think that much of our civic and ecclesial conflict around these matters derives precisely from the modern notion – expanded exponentially in the last 100 years – that families are simply aggregates of voting members, and thus are subject to members’ decisions, like schools and the military and banks and so on. Churches went along with this. There may be lots of laws — over time, culture and religion — that specify this or that about how families deal with challenges (e.g. the Talmud). But that this is such a thing as marriage and family has never been subject to law. And thus, it’s a bad idea to subject families to synodical deliberation and decision. Indeed, it is a kind of metaphysical perversion. So why vote on I.10, not only once but twice? My suggestion was not about engaging in deliberation and decision, but trying to move on from such contorting activities by articulating a “given”. Arguably, that is what I.10 was doing in 1998 as well. Obviously, my presumptions here are conservative to the core. But if it were to turn out that there is no desire on our bishops’ part to “articulate a given” – if, that is, Lambeth were to say “we don’t buy I.10 any longer” — then the views of conservatives like myself are of no use to the church anyway.
      2. I am completely with you on the point regarding decriminalization of homosexuality as a rather key moral issue, and to that degree, a key issue in building trust among churches in different parts of the world. Anglicans need to take the lead on this, and the fact that in some parts of the world they have not – even while promoting their orthodoxy – is a scandal. Things may well be more complicated on the ground in lots of places than the simple calculus of human rights lets on, but leave that aside: your point is utterly important intrinsically. But, of course, Lambeth I.10 – the full resolution — speaks to this reality, and those of us who have taken Lambeth I.10 seriously have also pointed this out and pressed the matter. Which only strengthens the moral character of the resolution.
      3. I may have given the wrong impression with my comment about declining Western churches. I have no idea why, in the end, Western churches (not all, but most) like TEC and Canadian Anglicans have shrunk so drastically, while churches in Africa (not all, but many) have grown in the last few decades. The social scientist David Goodhew suggests some straightforward factors involving active mission, testimony, and enthusiasm. Sounds plausible, but who knows. But I wasn’t suggesting that “conservative churches grow and liberal churches decline”. My point was far more modest, and entailed simple credibility: calls to discernment about novel ideas and practices by rapidly shrinking denominations (like TEC and Canada) are not likely to get much traction with other Christians who find the questions at issue unproblematic and whose churches are not in decline. It’s like Sears inviting Amazon to a conference they are sponsoring to share their new ideas on how to grow a business: it’s a bit of a non-starter. Which doesn’t mean that nothing could be learned at such a conference; only that Amazon is not likely to go, and Sears might want to rethink how it gets anybody to listen to it.
      4. That there are gay people in the church – “gay” in the sense of defining their identities in terms of same-sexual attractions (there are same-sexually attracted persons whose “identity” is differently articulated) – is both obvious and important to underline. We are talking about people, not about ideas. Or are we? It’s both easy and pernicious to get the two confused, and the confusion happens on all sides of this debate. Families (and married couples [in their venerable male-female form]) may not be subject to legislative redefinitions, as I indicated above; but families are not ideas. They are also not defined in terms of “gay” and “straight”, but rather in terms of male, female, and usually the procreated offspring that are dependent on that relationship. The definition is practical, furthermore, rather than analytic. It is not clear to me that churches who affirm the practical form of family in this way are attacking or excluding persons, even persons who define themselves as “gay”. That is a big discussion. But in any case, within the pluralistic society – and pluralistic Christian ecclesial context – in which we live, claims to such attack and exclusion in a fundamental sense are not deeply convincing: people who “disagree” simply go somewhere else and hang out with people they agree with. I am no expert in United Methodist polity or ecclesial self-understanding; I did find the philosopher and theologian William Abraham’s take on the challenge – “In Defense of Mexit: Disagreement and Disunity in United Methodism” – a compelling read of the current struggles in that denomination. It’s all very sad, of course: “exit” marks a failure in any social system, even while its successful pursuit evidences a real freedom, seized with typical liberal energies. Figuring out what the “failure” involves, however, is something liberal societies – and churches – have never been able to manage. Failure and freedom are hard to see as siblings in our culture. Ecclesiology then ends up being about picking up the pieces left behind.
      Again, Rob, I appreciate the comments and pushback. The problem facing the Anglican Communion is, in part, that our discussions seem irrelevant to the councils – small and large – of the church. They go their merry way.

      • Ephraim, thanks very much for this irenic response, and for these additional clarifications and explanations of your position. Very helpful, and much to ponder here. Although I don’t think I will agree with him on “Mexit,” I have a lot of time for Billy Abraham, and so I will look for the essay you mention. Pax Christi, Rob

    • ” “Just as the early church had to come to terms with the reality that gentiles, who probably should not have been followers of Jesus, were in the church, so we discover that gays are also in the church” The bible even in the Old Testament did not speak against the gentiles as not being able to enter the “church” there were proselytes and “God-fearing people” those that accepted Judaism but not circumcision. But the bible clearly states the homosexuality in forbidden and detestable. to accept homosexual marriage is to go outside of what God has ordained from creation and since God is not a being in process but is the same today yesterday and forever ,then His statutes on marriage and homosexuality do not and will not change. SSA is not a sin and there are Christians the struggle with this and the church should be there to offer support and friendship, but acting upon SSA is wrong from a biblical viewpoint. We are called to conform to the standards of God word ,not the standards of this world.

      • “Gentile inclusion” in Acts took the form of agreement with the prophets. The final statement, “for in every city Moses is preached in their synagogues” makes no sense apart from this ground fact. The four injunctions rhyme perfectly with the laws laid down for the sojourner, found in Lev. 17-18. Stan Hauerwas is many things, and popular is this appeal to Acts, but it does not hold up to careful scrutiny.

        He is also not in favor of same-sex marriage. So he is out of step with TEC’s position, now being punitively enforced in places like Albany.


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