February 28, 2006

Consensus and the Spirit

My big fat dictionary lists “unanimity” as the first definition for consensus (Websters 20th Century Unabridged 2d edition). This reflects a spiritual connection between the words --- “one in soul” and “together in feeling.” It is in that “feeling” part where I think we might talk about a kind of consensus in which people feel as though they can get along with each other.

The hallmark of formal consensus — which is the Latin word for consent — then, is the lack of polarization, the lack of significant opposition to or dissent from a decision. And that, I think, is why it is fair to say that the former consensus on sexual morality no longer exists.

The emergent consensus of feeling, however, (such as it is) is represented by a moderating position in which people should be able to get along with each other. This kind of consensus is not about the hot topics themselves, but about how to deal with the hot topics. The Bishop of South Carolina spoke eloquently at GC2000 about the process of collegiality on the committee that framed GC2000.D039 even though in the end he voted against it.

After all the debate, the resolution was adopted by an overwhelming majority in the House of Bishops (119 to 19 with 4 abstentions) and by the House of Deputies (noting that the controversial final resolve on beginning to authorize liturgical same-sex blessing was narrowly defeated in the lay order, the remaining resolves were overwhelmingly adopted without resort to vote by order). Not unanimous, by any means, but clearly a common mind for all but the ten percent who simply could not go that far.

How far were they asked to go? The “emergent consensus” should be that we can agree to disagree; but at the very least, as the resolution put it, to “acknowledge that while the issues of human sexuality are not yet resolved, there are currently couples in the Body of Christ and in this Church who are living in marriage and couples in the Body of Christ and in this Church who are living in other life-long committed relationships; and that we expect such relationships will be characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God...” The resolution also acknowledged that this is a departure from “the traditional teaching of the Church on human sexuality” and that some people will “in good conscience...act in contradiction with that position” but that all of us “on various sides of controversial issues have a place in the Church.” (D039) No one is going to be cast out for agreeing or disagreeing: we will get along.

So: this is the non-unanimous consensus of the Episcopal Church at this point. It offers a partial answer to the question so often posed as to the “standards of holiness” required for ordination — that the overwhelming majority of our church’s leadership believe that same-sex relationships can embody “holy love” even if they are not yet officially “blessed” by a liturgical rite. This recognition (which did not enact a reality, but expressed a feeling — a “sensus” or perception) is in part what makes possible the affirmation of the place of persons living within same-sex relationships in all orders of the church’s ministry. At this point, there is no consensus that such relationships are equivalent to marriage — but there is an “emergent consensus” that at least some of the truly moral values inherent in a good marriage may also be present in these relationships.

It is true that about ten percent of the Episcopal Church (to judge by the bishops vote, anyway) does not accept this “emergent consensus.” We do not have unanimity on thissubject within the Episcopal Church, far less outside it. The question is, can we get along with this lack of unanimity, or must there be division?

And what of the Spirit?

A significant vocal minority does indicate a lack of consensus; but I don’t believe it tells us anything one way or the other about the Holy Spirit. Some people will not recognize the Spirit no matter how manifest it is: even on Pentecost some in the crowd dismissed the Apostles as drunkards. And there can be perfectly amicable and trusting gatherings of folks sharing a common mind — and deeply, horribly wrong! So consensus tells me nothing about rightness or wrongness, spiritual or secular.

This is one of the reasons I am not a complete fan of Gamaliel, even though following his advice is often an advisable best course. As I once remarked to Archbishop Runcie from the floor of the Trinity Institute, after he had just observed on the matter of the ordination of women, “If it is of God it will survive” — “Given that a great many things we know to be of God have not survived, and many things demonstrably not of God have flourished, is Gamaliel’s approach truly an effective way to determine the rightness or wrongness of an action?” His response, “Not always.”

And I agree. It is still a way to preserve peace, but it is no guarantee of “correctness.” However, we are called to peace, not to be correct.

At the present time it appears to me that the greatest harm to the church is not coming from NH or CA, but from the reactions thereto. People need to take a chill pill, and a bit of responsibility for their own actions and reactions. Dean Zahl has just published yet another screed seeking to put all responsibility — even for his travel expenses! — on those “unscrupulous” liberals; and stamps his feet that it “isn’t fair!” But it is specious to state that GC2003 or California “forces” this reaction — it is a matter of free choice. (Of course, as a good Calvinist, Dr Zahl might pick a bone with me about that, too!)

No one needs to be “touched” by these matters unless they choose to be bothered by them. Generous provision has been made for the minority view — some quite out of keeping with our historic polity, and most of them not ample enough to please. All the Episcopal Church is asking for is the kind of independent right to elect its own bishops that the conservatives within the Episcopal Church want for themselves — maybe the whole Episcopal Church can be seen, in the communion, as being under a sort of DEPO, if need be, and let those Episcopalians who want to have a direct line elsewhere have it! How’s that for a proposal?

— Tobias S Haller BSG


Anonymous said...


A blessed Ash Wednesday to you.

I would have to say I agree with you, as regards "agreeing to disagree is a kind of consensus." I consent to your place in this fellowship, as you consent to mine, though we know we will not always interpret the Scriptures the same, or, seek to enact changes in our church order along the same lines. Sounds very democratic. But, is it catholic? Is it truly catholic to act in such a way as to alienate a large majority of our Anglican Communion? As graduates of the same "progressive catholic" seminary -- you and I both value catholicity. How does the kind of localism so vaunted by the Anglican "Left" jibe with claims to catholicity?

Greg Jones+

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Greg,

I suppose my response has to hinge on the meaning of the word catholic, or rather which of the meanings of this multivalent word we might be talking about. This word can be used to refer to everything from the company of all the baptized on down to the various subdivisions each of which claims the title for their very own. I don’t know if you saw my earlier posting about The Myth of the Catholic Church, but in that I referred to this paradoxical difference of opinion.

Some Anglicans use the word, as they do so much else, in a middle-of-the-road kind of way: not quite inclusive of the whole body of all the baptized, nor quite as narrow as requiring submission to the papacy or membership in one of the ancient conciliar churches of the East, but as dining on a number of items from the menu of Tradition, some of them in tension with the stated positions of the Anglican Reformation: seven sacraments, elaborate ceremonial, Eucharistic adoration —combined with a tip of the biretta in the general direction of Rome without actually submitting to its authority.

As I noted in that earlier posting, I tend to apply the word catholic its most universal and inclusive sense: there is only one church, one body of Christ, and all the baptized are part of it. It lacks, at present as for most of its history, an external political unity — that is a sad fact and I do not think it is going to change anytime soon. As I have also made clear, I believe that cooperation in mission on the part of Christians of what ever denomination is ultimately more important than recovering some form of external political governance.

Yet I do not wish to see further division in an entity (if we can call it that) which up till now appeared to have been able to get along under a form of loose fellowship: the Anglican Communion, which has managed to exist without any form of superior government until the recent clamor — relying instead upon conference, consultation, and collaboration.

So where is the clamor for a political solution coming from: not from the Episcopal Church, nor from the Anglican Church of Canada, nor from Southern Africa or the Sudan, nor the churches of the Antipodes, nor from Brazil, nor Mexico and the Caribbean, nor from England, Scotland, Ireland, or Wales. The clamor is coming from a fairly narrow though sizable theological perspective diffused in these places and focused elsewhere, which is accurately described as Neo-Puritan. The irony is that the Neo-Puritans, like their forebears, actually consider themselves to be the real “catholics” in the sense of preserving ancient truths revealed in Scripture and sound teaching. By asserting the narrow meaning of the word, they are, as they always have, pushing towards division and separation, a political boundary to reflect a theological difference of opinion. They do not want a church big enough to embrace more than one point of view on a matter which they see as black and white. They see, as the recent Paul Zahl essay put it, compromise in the form of concession — by those with whom they disagree. The way forward, they explain with sweet reasonableness, is for the other side to capitulate to their demands, “and if you stop we won’t kick you out.”

And what does my side ask? The novel concept that those on the other side respect, even if they disagree with, the actions of the General Convention, and within this Episcopal Church obey the canons to which, in the case of clergy, they have made a solemn promise of conformity. That they make use of the procedures adopted to deal with their dissent and discomfort, even if they do not thereby gain the complete independence they seem to crave. That they continue to support the institutions from whose existence they benefit. That they respect those who disagree with them, even while disagreeing; to put it as you do, to consent to my being in the fellowship as much as I do to theirs. This, it seems to me, would be a far more “catholic” approach to the situation, a far more "fair" one (to use Dean Zahl's expression), and might actually keep the church together.

Anonymous said...

Sounds very democratic. But, is it catholic? Is it truly catholic to act in such a way as to alienate a large majority of our Anglican Communion?

If "alienating a large majority" is the be-all and end-all, Greg, then the argument could be made that TEC is acting in an undemocratic fashion.

However, there is an exception in American national polity, wherein democratic majorities do NOT hold sway: the Bill of Rights.

. . . which is exactly where TEC places itself: it is choosing to "respect the dignity of every human being" <*> (including those God made LGBT) above the (democratic majority?) will of the rest of the AC.

If standing for the Imago Dei isn't "catholic", I don't know what is...

[<*>1979 BCP Baptismal Vow]