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

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

February 18, 2006

The Misuse of Scripture

Scripture has often been mangled, twisted, and abused to support positions in debates on many issues. The current debate on sexual morality that is raging in the Church offers many sad examples. Here are some of the commonest misuses of Scripture, and suggested ways to counteract them. Many of these errors are honest and unintentional; others are deliberate.


The first errors involve the text itself.

Misquote and misattribute: a constant abuse. You can’t possibly interpret the Scripture if the text is corrupted by faulty memory. And check the origin: was it John the Baptist or Saint Paul? or was it Isaiah? Don’t trust your memory: look it up; and read, mark, and inwardly digest!

Translations: Always using one translation can give you a very narrow view. All translation involves a degree of interpretation. Check different versions and, when possible, study the text in the original language.

Reading: Sadly, clergy often leave regular intensive Scripture reading behind once they graduate from seminary. If your only contact with the Bible is through the lectionary, you will miss two things: 1) You will completely miss any text not in the lectionary. Important portions of the Old Testament will remain unread (The Song of Songs, for example). 2) You will also be reading most texts in half-chapter or smaller chunks. Besides losing the context, this destroys, for example, the sense of urgency in Mark’s Gospel, and renders much of Paul’s writing incomprehensible. His point-counterpoint technique of argument sometimes spreads over several chapters, and if you read in smaller sections, you can easily lose track. Look at the first eight chapters of Romans, for example. So, in addition to any liturgical reading, read through entire books, or at least read several chapters at a sitting.


The next errors involve context.

Prooftexting: using isolated quotations which seem to support a point of view. This is a technique used by both conservatives and liberals. It is this abuse that causes people to believe “you can prove anything from Scripture.” Several correctives need to be applied: examine the textual and situational placement of a statement, and never build a case on an isolated quote.

Anthologizing: This is an editorial process in which everything you don’t like about the Scriptures is excised, or everything that appeals to you is gathered into a neat little packet. It’s another form of prooftexting. This produces the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” half-gospel. Just don’t do it!

Ignoring the Old Testament and the synoptic references: Many New Testament texts are in fact quotations from or allusions to Old Testament sources. For example, using “You always have the poor with you” (Matt. 26:11) as a defense for lack of charitable outreach ignores the fact that it is an allusion to a text in Deuteronomy (15:11) which ends, “you shall open wide your hand...to the poor.” Use a version with good cross references, and make use of concordances and harmonies of the Gospels.

Failing to take the spiritual / emotional context into account: One often hears people discount a passage on the grounds of what they call “social context.” They will say, “Paul was writing in a different sort of world.” While this may be true, the social context is less important than the spiritual and emotional context. For example, the Pauline statements on marriage and celibacy must be seen in the context of Paul’s belief in the impending eschaton (see 1 Cor. 7:25-40). Think of Paul as rather like a father driving home after a day’s outing with his children: they’re about a mile from home, and the kids start complaining that they have to go to the bathroom. What does he say? “Can’t you hold it! We’re almost there!” So, keep the spiritual world view in mind.


The last set of abuses are brought about by tradition.

Tunnel vision: This happens when a tradition is so set in concrete that it is difficult to see a given text in any other light. Tradition is meant to illuminate, not to blind. This narrowing is especially dangerous when it is enshrined in the translations. The text is then, in effect, conditioned by the tradition, rather than the tradition being informed by a fresh look at the texts. Translations are usually done by committees, and committees are usually conservative by virtue of the need to compromise. Be open to alternative interpretations, and again, return to the original texts whenever possible.

Dominicalizing: This happens when a traditional teaching or view is placed into the mouth of our Lord. It may be a teaching which is in itself sound, but the attempt to bolster its authority by attributing it to Jesus should be avoided. Watch out for statements beginning, “Our Lord taught that...” or “Jesus said that...” when they can’t be supported with citations.

Phantom Scripture: This is similar to dominicalizing. A tradition is imputed to be of biblical antiquity and authority when it is in fact completely postscriptural. Much of what we think of as “traditional” is in fact rather late; much of it doesn’t predate the Reformation, and some of it is pure nineteenth century! Be wary of “The biblical tradition of...” when it isn’t supported by biblical references.


As Anglicans, we accept the Scriptures as a source of authority. But, if we are truly to embrace the Word of God as it comes to us through fallible human minds and hearts, we should make every effort to have as clear and accurate a vision of it as possible. The final question must be, Will we be able to accept the authority of Scripture if it turns out that it doesn’t say what we always thought it did?

Tobias S Haller BSG

This article was originally published in The Servant #111 (June 1987) and in Spanish translation in Anglicanos 17 (Enero-Marzo de 1988).

February 13, 2006

Costly Freedom and the Clash of Symbols

Over the last few weeks, violent reaction to the publication of political cartoons featuring the Prophet Mohammed has led to considerable property damage and the loss of several lives. Before we Americans and Christians become too comfortable upon our high horses, clucking our tongues at what we are tempted to see as the over-reactions of religious fundamentalists, it might be well to recall some of our own behavior when cherished symbols are abused or defamed. Recall, if you will, the reactions to the burning of the American flag, and the legal efforts to defend this symbol as if it were more than fabric — as if it were the fabric of our country itself. Or recall not so many years ago how the figure of a crucified woman, exhibited in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine as part of the UN Decade of the Woman, was denounced as blasphemous and monstrous — to some it seemed almost as bad as the willfully offensive crucifix in urine or the Madonna with elephant dung that hung in a New York gallery and museum.

Symbols no doubt are powerful. But when we give them this power, and react in this way, do we not violate the purpose for which the law against such symbols was given? The voice from Sinai spoke against the making of images — to the end that they not become the objects of worship. When the Muslim rages at the insult to an image of the Prophet, when the patriot protests the burning of the flag, when the Christian seethes at the sight of the sacred symbol defaced or defamed, have these things not become, to some extent, idols? Is this the reversal of dulia — the honor given to an icon — turned upside down, so that the insult to the thing of paper, wood or cloth is somehow transferred to the sacred reality which cannot be portrayed? Or is it a dangerous overstepping into a twisted form of latria — have these physical representations themselves become so sacred that we dare not offer them an insult?

In his novel, Silence (Chinmoku), Shusaku Endo describes a Portuguese priest in feudal Japan forced to make a terrible decision. In order to prevent further torture and execution of the converts in his flock, the magistrate demands that the priest, the leader, publicly defame an image of Christ — a bronze plaque expressly created for that purpose — by trampling upon it. This will show that he has forsaken his faith, and sap his authority in the community. As he gazes on this image of Christ lying at his feet, he weighs the matter in his heart and mind. It is not a beautiful image as conventional beauty goes: it is the ugly face of the crucified one. He regards it in all of its vulnerability, until finally, he chooses to save the flock at the cost of his own position as a leader, perhaps even as a Christian. As Endo puts it:

The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”
Who is our God? What is our nation? Who are our prophets? If they cannot bear an insult — or if we cannot bear the insult given to their shadows — are they what they seem to be, and are we? Have they become idols and we idolators indeed?

God in Christ bears the shame heaped upon him by those who know not what they do; God in Christ bears the pain inflicted upon all of his images — not the ones of wood and copper, of pigment and plaster and paint, but of flesh and blood: the brothers and sisters demeaned and defamed day by day in this fallen world of idols. As we do it to the least of them, we do it to the one whose image they bear. May God help us to turn from wrong and insult, towards mutual respect, forbearance and righteousness.

—Tobias S Haller BSG

February 3, 2006

A Case Not Proven

Over on the House of Bishops/Deputies Listserv a contributor posted a note that I think well summarized the traditional position on sexuality. In it, he asserted that the Bible accords great and consistent significance to the fact that human beings are created male and female, and that this consistent scriptural testimony, as a “practical implication,” rules out the blessing of any other sexual relationship than that between a man and a woman in the context of lifelong, monogamous marriage.

I am grateful for this succinct summation of the core of the difficult disagreement in which we find ourselves. However, I do not see the disagreement in quite the polar form that some might assume. For instance, I concur that human beings are created and exist (the rare exceptions duly noted) in a basic gender polarity of male and female. This takes physical form as a biological dimorphism (less extreme in human beings than in some species, but nonetheless abundantly demonstrable). Finally, and most importantly, I agree that this is indeed significant. That is, it is capable of signifying to us something beyond a mere biological reality. This aspect of human life was seized upon quite naturally by Israel and the Church as a symbolic “map” for the relationship between themselves and God, and the Holy Scripture testifies to this symbolic significance. So far I dare say we are in complete agreement.

Where we begin sharply to diverge is in the next step, the “practical implication.” Here he asserts that this particular human relationship, attested to in Scripture, is somehow thereby possessed of a unique status that also renders any other relationship (however like it in depth of commitment, fidelity, and charity — but lacking the single element of sex-difference) utterly and completely inconceivable, and gravely defective morally.

My question is, How do we go from A to B? Because X is normative and allowed, must Y therefore be utterly condemned? How precisely does the use of heterosexual marriage as a “map” for the relationship between God and humanity (or a portion thereof) acquire a legal significance, as well as a poetic one?

My objections include the following:

  • This sort of imagery is not unique to the Jewish and Christian traditions. The Greeks mapped heterosexuality onto Father Sky and Mother Earth (Uranus and Gaia) in their version of the Creation story, but we know what the Greeks also got up to when it came to human relationships! So wherein lies the practical implication? Must this poetry be read as if it were prose, and a law code at that? When, and how, does the implicit become explicit?
  • Male and female exist in most animals and many plants — why, when speaking of human relationships, elevate and focus solely on the aspect shared with the plants and animals, at the expense and diminishment of the truly human capacity to love which we share with God?
  • Other images for the relationship between God and humanity are attested in Scripture. For example, the image of king and subject, or master and servant, is consistent from Genesis to Revelation (and far more frequent than the imagery based on marriage). On this basis, the Stuarts advanced the notion that Monarchy alone was the divinely willed form of government. Surely this is a similar example of taking a symbol to literal extremes.
  • So, all in all, I have to conclude that this syllogism from the tradition must be marked “not proven.”

    Tobias S Haller BSG