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Reflection on “Wounded in Common Mission”
by Lionel Deimel
6/8/2006

It is a delight to encounter, in “Wounded in Common Mission: The Term of Inter-Christian Divisiveness,” an Anglo-Catholic perspective, and one not simply focused on women’s ordination. Whereas I hardly resonate to all that is said in this essay, the ideas certainly have to be taken into account if we are to claim the comprehension of Hooker that I have commended elsewhere. Of course, the view offered by Christopher Wells is also an ecumenical one, which, although it does not clearly simplify the decisions we are called to make, alerts us to wider issues that we may face “down the road” or might even provide context or considerations that can be of some use now.

“Wounded” does not come from the extreme wings of either the Evangelicals or the Anglo-Catholics, which, in these times, is surely a blessing. It is devoid of the threats, deadlines, and non-negotiable demands that we have become increasingly used to hearing. Its temperate tone encourages engagement, study, and further discussion. It is rational and well informed. Would that all the pronouncements being made in this difficult period manifested the thoughtful calm seen here. If this essay fully represented “the other side,” those who see their job as defending and protecting the Episcopal Church would, I suspect, be more inclined to negotiate, and even compromise, than they currently are. Unfortunately, the angriest elements of the Anglican Communion confronting our church are Evangelicals. They raise different theological problems, and their behavior at last year’s Anglican Consultative Council meeting (inter alia, as Wells would say) suggests that graceful concessions now would be answered by remorseless exploitation and ever increasing demands in the future. “Wounded” does not address directly what we are to make of this, and this is a weakness of the paper, at least if it is to provide useful guidance in our current situation.

Other general characteristics of “Wounded” are to be commended. The essay views neither Scripture nor doctrine nor polity in simplistic terms. In particular, it takes Scripture seriously and does not view it as fixed, immutable, and obvious to anyone who will only consider it honestly. In spite of other assertions and rhetorical strategies that cause me reflexively to raise my defenses and adrenalin level from time to time, “Wounded” is a welcome change from what passes for theological discussion in my home diocese of Pittsburgh or on certain Web sites, where “provisionality” (even if encountered in close proximity to “penitence”) and “evolving discernments” are not often encountered, much less the Hooker trio of “Scripture,” “tradition,” and “reason.”

I appreciate Wells’ wanting to place discussion within a “scriptural and theological frame,” something I have been accused of being guilty of failing to do. (In my defense, I would note that my writings have most often been about the bad behavior of religious partisans—arrogant bullying, misrepresentation, and flagrant violation of established rules—that most readers would recognize as such without reference to a list of biblical footnotes.) Whereas I do not always agree with the inferences drawn, the essay uses Scripture with integrity, which is not a given in much of the argumentation we have seen in recent years.

A similar integrity can be seen in the presentation of facts, which appear here without the distortions and misrepresentations that many have come to expect. For example, it is plainly acknowledged that the Windsor Report represents the Anglican Communion as some wish it to be, rather than as it is or has been. Likewise, Wells frankly acknowledges the liberal wariness of “the putatively Romanizing tilt of The Windsor Report.” He demonstrates a sanguineness I do not always share—I do not view the Roman Catholic Church as being as accommodating as he suggests, for example—but we perhaps interpret the evidence differently.

In Section I, “Banishing Fear: ‘Anglican’ Evocations within Earshot of the Church Catholic,” Wells writes of how our dialogue is normed by past decisions. This is certainly a very Anglican observation, although our past can be both a blessing and a burden. I am cheered, nevertheless, by his speaking of “evolving discernments,” and not of “the faith once delivered to the saints,” which tends to preclude further discernment. His willingness to use such a phrase might encourage Episcopalians to view “until a new consensus emerges” (quoted in the essay from the Windsor Report) as something that might actually be allowed to happen. Alas, the pressures being brought to bear on the church from the Anglican Communion are not coming principally from those sharing Wells’ point of view.

Even when I do not share the conclusions in “Wounded,” I sometimes smile in recognition when reading Wells’ analysis. I do indeed fear “the prospect of over-centralization” in the Communion and appreciate that others may fear “the prospect of doctrinal incoherence.” As a logician used to dealing with a more formal notions of “coherence” in logistic systems, however, I am hard-pressed to name a religion that could ever claim “coherence” in the more scientific sense. Christianity would do well to continue to emphasize faith over coherence.

In one context or another, “accountability” occurs several times in this essay. I was struck by the phrase “accountability to all our sisters and brothers,” for example. “Wounded” caused me to think more about accountability and the notion of “accountability to other Christian churches.” As a church, I believe we do have to explore this notion further. To begin with, if “accountability” is not simply to be a proxy for “subjugation,” the accountability must, at least, be mutual. If we are, in some sense, accountable to the Church of Nigeria, then surely the relationship must be symmetric—the Church of Nigeria should be accountable to the Episcopal Church. “Accountable” suggests a requirement that behavior be explained (as our church did at the 2005 Anglican Consultative Council meeting, for example), not necessarily that the explaining party be answerable to a higher authority. Is the “Anglican Communion” becoming a higher authority? To what is it answerable? There is more than meets the eye here.

I admit to being somewhat perplexed by Section II of the paper, “Terms of Engagement.” Although I think I gained little insight into the “grammar of recognisability” here, the story told by Wells would be viewed in a positive light by nearly all Episcopalians, I think. I am unconvinced that the story necessary leads the reader to find an “urgency” in “not separating Christian unity from Christian mission.” I can imagine myself on the mission trip described, yet I can envisage a different trip with different people and different understandings that would seem to me no better and no worse at ministering to our neighbors on this planet.

Whereas this essay is intended to be about what I find useful (in a broad sense), I cannot resist objecting to Wells’ call for us “to return to a common reading of Scripture,” as he does in Section IV, “Wounds in Communion.” (When I read this sentence, I wrote in the margin of my copy of “Wounded”: “No! No! No!”) I cannot completely understand this assertion in the light of what I see elsewhere as a less doctrinaire attitude toward Scripture. I do think that more discussion about how we read Scripture is indicated, but the traditionalists are probably correct when they identify this as the greatest divide between them and other Episcopalians. I can imagine our living with this divide, but not our bridging it. In any case, we need to foster biblical literacy—through education, not indoctrination—among both laypeople and clergy.

There is much in “Wounds in Communion” and in the next section, “Finding Ourselves in Scripture,” that is thought-provoking, but there is insufficient space to discuss it fully here. The “wounded” metaphor is helpful, I think, though it invites further discussion. As one whose journey has taken him from the belly of Protestantism to the Episcopal via media, I would have hoped for more talk of joy and less of sacrifice here, which can become tedious after a while. I personally believe that our wounded unity is more about how we behave toward one another than about differences in our beliefs. If we had a reliable way to discern Truth, mandating doctrinal unity would be appropriate. Alas, Truth (capital T) is not so easy to discern, and Wells seems to admit this in the first paragraph of Section VI, “A Holy and Acceptable Sacrifice,” where he speaks of the fond desire for mechanisms “that enable us to extract the truth-as-we-now-accept-it from its extraneous husk.”

It is in Section VI that we, at last, get to the issues with which General Convention must deal, to what Wells calls “the most difficult decision before American Episcopalians.” Can we not commit to respecting 1998 Lambeth I.10 as the Christian standard regarding human sexuality even if we believe its assertions to be untrue? And can we implement moratoria “until a new consensus emerges”? If the only context for these questions were internal to this paper, the answer could perhaps be yes. As I said earlier, however, the Episcopal Church is not responding to a communion of Christopher Wellses. Those who are demanding affirmative answers to those questions, both within the Episcopal Church and in the wider Anglican Communion, have not always acted in good faith. Acceding to their demands may simply be encouraging their continued sinful behavior. Alas, the answer to Rodney King’s question, “Can we all get along?” is not easily found.

 

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