Sometime in the late 2000’s, while I attended the Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville, we were preparing for a visit from Bishop Gene Robinson. Given our proximity to Kanuga, Bishop Robinson may have been in town for a House of Bishops meeting and agreed to drop by. Whatever the circumstances, I was called to a meeting in the weeks leading up to his visit for a discussion of logistics.
At least, that is what I thought we were talking about. Perhaps I should have read the whole email. As we talked, it became apparent that we were discussing issues of security in connection to the Bishop’s visit. He had, apparently, worn a bullet-proof vest at his ordination and consecration. I didn’t think he would need to wear one when visiting Biltmore Village. I also did not think it augured well for The Episcopal Church that I was who came to mind when people thought “we need some muscle to work the door.” But, being relatively young and full of daring-do, I was willing to step up to the challenge.
I met Bishop Robinson briefly, as we crossed paths in a vestibule. I was likely preoccupied with my child’s behavior during his sermon. I do remember his presence seeming appropriately episcopal, but not extraordinarily so. (cf. Katherine Jefferts Schori, who is present AF.) Nevertheless, I was and am glad to have been there, just as I was another time when the Westboro Baptist folks showed up. Some of us stood outside the church to make sure everyone got where they needed to go safely, and neither those Westborians nor we did anything off script. Those moments passed like most other moments
But those moments also, obviously stuck around because they were also opportunities. They were opportunities to bear witness to the truth as we had been led to understand the truth. It may be that the protesters from Westboro or the opponents of Gene Robinson saw a mirror image of this same opportunity, with everything in reverse orientation. The fact is that these opportunities don’t come around very frequently. We are not often given the chance to state clearly and directly how we have come to see the truth about a controversial question. We less often take that chance, especially when our stated goal is something like “unity.”
What I find most hopeful in the immediate aftermath of the Lambeth Conference is that Archbishop Justin Welby seems to have insisted that the unity of the Anglican Communion is not undermined by clear and direct statements on controversial topics by those attending, but rather that this unity is undermined when we do not speak honestly with each other. In his address to the gathering prior to their discussion of a Call on Human Dignity, including human sexuality, The Archbishop stated that bishops should “not treat each other lightly or carelessly. We are deeply divided. That will not end soon. We are called by Christ himself both to truth and unity.”
As he invoked this call to truth and unity, Welby advocated for a discussion about Human Dignity which acknowledged the very dignity of those taking part. He encouraged those who hold a traditional view of sexuality and marriage as well as those who hold a differing view that the issue is existential for both. He also went to great pains to portray both perspectives as having deep integrity, rooted in scripture, study, and prayer. While it may be the case that Anglicans holding traditional views on sexuality have seen people like me, who have come to a different understanding, as lacking integrity, it is certainly the case that some of my fellows have approached this discussion without acknowledging the dignity of traditional views and traditional societies.
I have not been able to substantiate the rumor that a “progressive” American bishop once hurled a racial epithet at an African colleague, but I have seen more than my share of Episcopalians refer to our fellow communicants as “backward,” indicating that we stand “ahead” of them in a more enlightened place. In may seem that there are some cases in which the evidence is incontrovertible that American society is more “evolved” or humane that others with which it has had contact. Citing the Aztec practice of ritualized human sacrifice is an easily invoked example of this, which works only until you realize that we do the same thing, only we call it football.
So I think Justin Welby’s call to slow our modernistic roll is well founded, as is his insistence on reminding all of us about what Lambeth can, and more importantly cannot, do. The move from “resolutions” to “calls” was the first step in this process, of course. The second step was to do away with voting on the calls altogether, which I suspect was a happy byproduct of an attempt to spare the dignity of some bishops. We don’t need to know how a vote on the calls would have come out. We don’t need to know how a vote to reaffirm Lambeth I:10 would have come out. But perhaps neither do the supporters of such a reaffirmation, because they may find that their numbers have significantly decreased in the time since it first passed.
Some of the shift may be due to changed minds, and some of it may be due to changed hearts. Much of it may also be due to changes in our collective will to sustain this particular conversation. Whether resolution is achieved by wisdom or fatigue may not matter in the end. What does matter is knowing that we can disagree, we can, as the Lord commands in Isaiah, “argue it out.” It is not in hiding our closely held, hard won understanding of the truth that we find unity. Rather, it is in becoming vulnerable in the way Archbishop Justin called the bishops to be vulnerable, taking the risk to disclose who and what we truly are to those with whom we gather at the table, trusting not in the tip of my tongue but in the depth of your heart to love me as God loves me, fully and without reservation.