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