February 22, 2006

Making Sense of Consensus

The Church of England Newspaper(Feb. 24) reports on Archbishop Rowan Williams as responding to the news of the release of the list of nominees for Bishop of California as follows:

Dr Williams stressed his opposition to the move. “If there is ever to be a change on the discipline and teaching of the Anglican Communion [on homosexuality] it should not be the decision of one Church alone. “The Church must have the highest degree of consensus for such a radical change,” he argued, adding he was very uneasy about the way in which change has gone forward in the American Church over this issue.
The newspaper doesn’t indicate the source of these quotations, presented as I show them with that odd floating quotation mark. Were these from a letter, an off-cuff comment, or what? [FLASH: see first comment below; these quotations came from comments made in Porto Alegre on February 17th, three days before the California nominations were released.]

Whatever the format or forum, I continue to be confused by Archbishop Williams’ asssertions concerning consensus and change.

As I have noted before, this is not the way intellectual, social, or religious change actually works in the real world. Things happen locally, and then gain acceptance (or not) more broadly. They don't “become true” when a certain critical mass of agreement is reached. Truth (or rightness, or any other reality) is not established by majority rule, nor rendered false because held by a minority.

It strikes me that Williams’ approach to the process of truth-determination in ecclesiastical polity is similar to Receptionism in sacramental theology (the elements “become” the Body and Blood based on the positive reception by the communicant) or Adoptionism in Christology (that Jesus “became” the Son of God at some point, such as his baptism, crucifixion, or even resurrection). Just as truth (or moral truth) is not contingent upon who receives it, so too the eucharist is the real presence of Christ, and Jesus is the Christ even as an infant at his mother’s breast.

From a practical perspective, this “none can act until all agree” approach would have meant the death of the church before it was born. Had the apostles heeded the Council’s warning, and stopped proclaiming Christ, and had not Gamaliel intervened and argued for restraint and tolerance for this minority opinion, we wouldn’t be here today. Had the Church of England not taken its unilateral step against Roman hegemony, we might be here, but we wouldn’t be Anglicans.

At the present time, it can be said with certainty that there is no longer a consensus on the question of the ordination of persons living in same-sex relationships. There may be a large majority who oppose it, but there is no longer a consensus.

Nor is there a consensus on how best to achieve consensus: I argue for the process of tolerance and reception, which seems to be the way the church accepts changes over time. Williams appears to think it will somehow happen in a vacuum or a flash.

The scandal of God’s truth is that the Word was made flesh in the person of a Jewish carpenter, at a certain place and in a certain time. He came to his own people, but they rejected him. But among them, and elsewhere, were those who accepted him, and they became the children of God — not born of the flesh or by the will of man, but of God. This is how the Truth of God marches — step by step. May the church keep pace....

— Tobias S Haller BSG


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

This just in: the quotations in The Church of England Newspaper were lifted from comments made by Williams in Porto Alegre last week: several days before the release of the names of the candidates for Bishop in California. So the newspaper report is a misrepresentation of events.

Anonymous said...

Dear Tobias,

I see your addition, clearly showing that the article did not accurately reflect the facts, but I want to address your point. I think I understand it, and I am confident you will correct me if I don't.

It may be true that change starts small, and may or may not gain broader acceptance. Truth, in my view is absolute, and so that small movement may or may not deserve broader acceptance.

In the case of ordaining priests in same-sex relationships I would have to say that the minority may not deserve broader acceptance. The ECUSA seems to be sure of this, but Anglicans worldwide are hesitant to accept it, especially in Africa. What makes you so certain that the small movement in America is following truth?

Certainly, the Catholic Church has gone so far as to say a gay man cannot enter seminary -- even if he is celibate.

I may have my facts wrong regarding the broader Anglican community, so please correct me if I have made a mistake in my assumption. I simply wanted to address the point that this little movement is truthful.

I understand I am treading on sensitive ground, but I am curious as to how you are so sure.

Anonymous said...

The Church of England Newspaper "misrepresented events"??? Shock, shock! [<-- that's me being sarcastic, just in case anyone wasn't clear. IMO, CEN is hopelessly *slanted* towards the conservative, anti-gay side. For news of the CofE, I'd stick to the Church Times]

"Truth, in my view is absolute": Belinda, I'd wish you'd unpack that statement some more.

I would say that, to the extent it can be in your (my, or anyone else's) view, is precisely what doesn't make it absolute Capital 'T' Truth: we piddling mortals (not to mention fallen sinners) just aren't given to "view" (in the sense of possess---to know) Truth.

Instead, we can only humbly approach Truth (Way...Life), on our knees. "Epistemic humility," as some call it.

I think I'll let Father T take it from here... (in answering your questions, Belinda).

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Belinda,
I too believe that truth is absolute; that does not mean an individual may possess certainty or completeness. As Gödel’s proof demonstrated even in mathematics, there are some true things that cannot be proven; and as Saint Paul said, there are true things that we know only in part.

Also, as J.C. noted, and as I expaned on in my earlier post The Anglican Triad, a degree of epistemic humility is characteristic of the Anglican way of thinking and being the church. We do not require certainty — only faith. I cannot prove, for example, that God exists, but I believe that God exists.

As to your broader question: how do we determine if some new thing is good or right — let’s leave certainty to one side! The church provides us with tools, the primary one being, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.” So when you ask me how I know that it is right or good to ordain a gay or lesbian priest or bishop I look to the fruits of the many such people who already exist. (Gene Robinson was not the first gay bishop in Anglicanism, merely the first to be honest about his life prior to his call to this ministry.) So I speak from personal experience, and also from what I know of the wider church.

Gay and lesbian priests are among the best the Anglican Church has to offer: many of them are devoted, selfless, hard-working, and generous with their time and talents. They lead some of the most vital and Christ-filled congregations in the church, and lead some of our most excellent ministries. They do so bearing insults and threats no strait clergy person has to put up with. That’s not to say there aren’t weak or ineffective clergy who happen to be gay or lesbian. But on the whole, from my experience, I’d chalk up a high score on the “fruits of the Spirit” front for the many gay and lesbian ministers I know.

Then, when I look at the most vocal opponents of these people, and of this emerging new thing, I see anger, mischief, lying, misrepresentation, slander, puffed-up pride, and so on. These are the works of the flesh. They speak for themselves.

For example, you mention Africa: don’t put all Africans in the same boat on this issue. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for example, has been eloquent in his defense of gay and lesbian persons, and is himself a stellar example of a gracious and Spirit-filled man. When I compare him with the “opponents” such as Archbishops Akinola and Orombi, it becomes obvious where the fruits of the Spirit lie — at least to me. Few people I know of in the church fit the image of a puffed-up prelate as well as the Primates of Nigeria and Uganda, and few seem to evince the Christ-like humility and peace of God than the former Primate of Southern Africa.

Don’t get me started on the current Roman Catholic embarrassment. It is estimated that as many as twenty-five percent of all Roman Catholic clergy are gay (obviously no lesbians!) and many of them may be sexually active — which in their case is a double violation of their church’s teaching. The current crack-down is probably more eyewash than anything else. There are also gay clergy in other denominations that have policies against it: even the Southern Baptists are occasionally embarrassed when some minister is caught doing something he has condemned from the pulpit! So it would appear that the prohibition of the ordination of gay clergy in other denominations doesn’t necessarily lead to good fruit, but to hypocrisy, abuse, and instability. Hardly to be commended! There are, it is true, many fine priests and ministers who manage to do wonderful work while keeping their sexuality under wraps —but this is not to my mind spiritually healthy. After all, if we’re talking about truth the first thing to do is be truthful!

So this is why I think the church should continue to explore this new thing — which as I say isn’t really all that new because there have been gay clergy for centuries, and lesbians for decades. It is time to be truthful, and for the church slowly to realize that it has been mistaken all these years — misunderstanding the Scripture’s prohibitions on same-sex sexuality in conjunction with idolatry, rape and prostitution as if they applied equally to same-sex relationships that are as faithful, enduring, and loving as any mixed-sex marriage.

Anonymous said...

I have long since been worn out by those folks who want to convince me that GLBT folks are somehow beyond salvation. I'm not the slightest bit interested in arguing about it any more. So I only refer anyone reading this to two sources that might be of interest to you.
The first is a video called "There is a Wideness in God's Mercy," by Dr. Lewis Smedes talking about Romans 1. The address is here:
The second is "A Letter to Louise: A Biblical Affirmation of Homosexuality." The address for it is here:
Both are by Baptist pastors and theologians and that should make them more palatable to our more fundamental brothers and sisters than if they were by Episcopal priests and theologians. They already know we're crackpots. I'm not mocking anyone; I'm just tired of this whole thing.

Anonymous said...


I hope you aren't suggesting that I see homosexuals as beyond salvation. Of course they can be, and are in many cases, saved.

The question is over whether they ought to be ordained and/or permitted to marry.

Big difference!

Anonymous said...

I think you are addressing something really crucial, Tobias. I wonder if we can get beyond a winners / losers scenario, however [although althusius and alison, respectively, in different ways, offer us good options.] It does seem to come down to agreeing to process [the rubrics, perhaps] and the nature of the episcopacy first, rather than doctrine.

I also find it hard to discuss a phrase like "truth is absolute" in any concrete sense. At first, it seems like a truism. But what of Tarski and Davidson, who have done much more work on thie subject?

Anonymous said...

The question is over whether [gay people] ought to be ordained and/or permitted to marry.

Big difference!

No, it isn't!

The bond that is formed with Christ in baptism transcends any distinctions that human societies may intuit from nature or impose on themselves, including those of ethnicity, class, gender, and, yes, sexuality. This has implications for all the Sacraments and rites of the Church. When the Episcopal Church was debating women's ordination, part of the argument of those who favored it was that in baptism, a woman puts on Christ as much as a man and is thus as fit as a man to represent Christ at the altar. As regards ordination and "this little movement", as you so condescendingly described it earlier, Tobias says it above better (and less heatedly) than I could. I'll simply add that the argument for judging something by the fruit it bears could also be applied to the blessing of same-sex marriages.

Anonymous said...


I referred to it as a "little movement" because that is how Tobias talked about the origins of bigger movements, and how they are accepted. I was not being condescending...At least, not intentionally.

I see it differently from you. I don't buy the argument for women in the clergy, so I certainly wouldn't subscribe to the same logic to legitimize homosexual sex. There is a big difference between recognizing that a homosexual is saved, and permitting them to marry and be ordained in any capacity. We are all sinners, yet most of us are still saved. It is no different for the sin of homosexual sex. I don't see a celibate homosexual as sinning, by the way.

So, are you trying to say that the bond with Christ that occurs at baptism transcends the Bible? I would strongly disagree with that statement. As for the sacraments, etc. I don't recognize sacraments, as I am a Southern Baptist. We call them ordinances.

Far from ordaining homosexuals in any capacity, a practicing homosexual in my church -- if the leadership were aware of it -- would be warned to be celibate, and given counseling to aid them in that regard. But if the individual persisted in homosexual sex they would be asked to leave our church. The same is true of a single person who is not celibate.

Anonymous said...

Back to the point of your posting:

I think that Rowan Williams is correct to seek more consensus, Dear Tobias. Frankly, I think "the mind of the church catholic" is something which ought to be sought out. I realize that this has not always been the case in prior instances of new teachings -- but I suggest it probably ought to be. That is -- unless we really don't care too much about catholicity or "causing our brothers to stumble by judging us for eating meat sacrificed to idols." It may be that your theory is a better one -- I just happen to think your approach is one which will invariably lead to more schism not less. And, as such, the witness of the Church for issues of social justice will not be greater but poorer.

Greg Jones

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Greg,

Thanks for your comment, and also for steering the discussion back to the primary topic: how do we "process" change in the church?

I take the arguments about the "weaker brethren" very seriously -- although Paul was referring to dietary restrictions, and didn't seem to follow through on more important matters such as circumcision. So I'm not entirely sure this model is applicable in this instance. This is "not about food and drink..." It is about people's lives -- literally.

I would also be much more inclined to follow a more conciliar approach (that is, reaching a consensus through discussion prior to action) if there were any indication from the opposing side that they were at all open to the possibility of change. This does not appear to be the case, at least not among the most ardent spokespersons. It will not have escaped your notice that Archbishop Akinola has spoken in favor of civil legislation that not only outlaws same-sex marriage but establishes a criminal penalty (up to five years in prison) on anyone who as much as supports such a policy, publicly or privately, or who expresses or supports, by public meeting or in private speech, any form of "same-sex amorous activity." This effectively renders any dialogue impossible, in Nigeria at least.

So I would have to stand by my initial suggestion that this is something we need actually to do (or rather, since we already have dozens of gay Anglican bishops, continue to do, but more openly and honestly), rather than simply try to talk to the wall about, and take Gamaliel's advice and see what happens. I think if we have that courage to act we will be surprised by grace where others promise doom.

Anonymous said...

There is a big difference between recognizing that a homosexual is saved, and permitting them to marry and be ordained in any capacity.

And we (several of us) are saying you're WRONG, belinda. This difference exists only in your imagination: you imagine that you, belinda, are qualified to play God, judging the children God made gay unworthy of the "ordinances" (if you prefer) of marriage and ordination (in the same way you imagine that God simply can't be calling the children God made female to ordained ministry).

You're entitled to your opinions (fed by your imagination). I do rather resent that you call these opinions "Biblical", when they are NOT.

The Baptist tradition has some things to commend it, to be sure: strength of commitment to (what you perceive to be) The Faith; zeal for (what you perceive to be) The Faith, in difficult circumstances (I have no doubt quite a few of those "missionaries in native cooking-pots" were Baptists!)

[Baptist saints like Martin Luther King, Jr. are the best testimony of all! :-)]

On the whole, though, the Baptist tradition is thoroughly pervaded by Modernism. Modern inventions like "the plain meaning of Scripture" have corrupted much of the older Catholic&Reformed teachings, breeding an environment of reaction: "The Bible means whatever we say 'No' to."

I have no doubt that, in the Heavenly Jerusalem, Baptist choirs will form many melodious notes therein. At the same time, conscientious Baptists (NOT an oxymoron! ;-p) bring a "Semper Reformanda" principal to their faith---may that be true of EVERY tradition (including God's Chosen, Anglicans *LOL*), as well...

Anonymous said...

[Ack: I hate when this happens. I respond to what is, when I began, the last post on a thread. And then by the time I actually finish and post, I appear to be OT---if not flogging a dead horse! >:-/

Don't mind me, and carry on!]

Anonymous said...


You demonstrate a great deal of anger, and not much tolerance for opinions different from your own. I don't think Jesus calls us to treat one another in such a way.

Yelling at me that I am "WRONG!" and that the condemnation is not Biblical is in my "imagination" are not points that will change my mind in any fashion. Tobias makes me rethink my positions, and he does so in a kind and, dare I say, meek manner. You, however, might want to calm down and make a legitimate argument as to how I am wrong. That would be more productive, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Dear Tobias,

You gave me a very thoughtful answer, and I appreciate it. I have been thinking about it a lot. I think you are certainly correct that one can tell a lot about any Christian based on the presence of the fruit of the Spirit.

I will have to think more on it, but you have certainly prompted me to contemplate the issue. Given how hot headed I can be that is an accomplishment :)

Anonymous said...

Tobias, It is always imperative to remember as you have so kindly mentioned -- this is an issue not lifestyles but of LIVES. And I wouldn't and don't dispute that. This is about human beings, not "others". It ought to be the case that we focus more on human beings and God's will for them -- not on "issues" or "controversies," which are abstractions from flesh and blood. However, though beyond the shouting of epithets and criminalization of people, there are sensitive human beings who love Jesus on both "sides" of this -- and they ought to be engaged in seeking each other's mind, and God's, and not acting in such a way as would cause the other to stumble. This is the way the Church ought to work, no?

Greg Jones+

Anonymous said...

Heh: maybe I'm "Bad Cop" to Father Tobias' "Good Cop", Belinda. I don't know.

By all means, continue listening to Father Tobias (and other thoughtful Christians, who are far, far, more Christ-like than I am).

However, I have no problem WHATSOEVER admitting that I am angry, Belinda (a fine, Biblical trait: check it out!)

We all have our gifts, Belinda: mine's to bring "zeal for the Lord"---a little fire&brimstone Holy Wrath! (which, as a Southern Baptist, you ought to be able to appreciate? ;-p)

[And I completely REFUSE to play "beast of burden(-of-evidence)" to my would-be massas. It's the Southern Baptists of the world who must PROVE why they have the right to oppress me, and not the other way

In telling us you are Southern Baptist, you are admitting to being a member of a denomination which has done GREAT EVIL to people like me. You are participating in that Evil.

That's the TRUTH, Belinda.

You might not like it.

But there it is . . . repent!

God bless you, belinda---and God CHANGE you, too! :-) (May God change ALL of us, into the likeness of Christ!)

Anonymous said...


Back to the point again -- forgive me.

Tobias -- Might not the root of the word "Consensus" have something to do with the word "Consent"? If so, when a body achieves consensus, it may be said to be "consenting."

When you have a significant minority of a body most extremely not consenting to an action -- I wonder if it might be said to be a Spirit led decision. Frankly, I think a Spirit led decision is one where people find they are all trusting each other. They consent, because they trust the other to be acting in accordance with the spirit, even if they disagree with the other. This is consensus, I think.

Greg Jones+

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Greg,

Certainly consensus and consent are intimately related. I'll be posting some further thoughts along these lines in a main blog item shortly.

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 to me tells me nothing about rightness or wrongness, spiritual or secular.

This is one of the reasons I am not a complete fan of the Gamaliel process, even though it 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. (Paul Zahl has just published yet another screed seeking to put all responsibility -- even for his travel expenses! -- on those "unscrupulous" liberals. It is specious to state that GC2003 is "forcing" 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!)

I acknowledge this all may be a real problem for people who actually live in NH and who oppose their bishop. I believe efforts have been made to accommodate them, some of which have been well-received, others not. But outside of NH no one needs to be "touched" by the matter unless they choose to be bothered by it. Even there provisions are possible -- some of them quite out of keeping with our historic polity, and most of them not pure enough to please. But when it comes to a gay bishop, they do not need to "consent" nor "dissent"; they could simply let it be.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

PS --- I've "graduated" and expanded my final note here to the end of a new principle post on Consensus, as it seems to relate well to what I was going to post there anyway.