I ended the first section of this reflection on the Archbishop of Canterbury with reference to Truth; and I would like to focus on that theme in his second section. I will do that by sharing with you some of what I said to the Archbishop at the meeting in Anaheim.
Being True to Oneself
I deferred a call to ordained ministry for a number of years in large part due to the “don’t ask/don’t tell” policy that was in place in the Diocese of New York. I felt I could not in good conscience function in such a regime — in part because of the value I place on openness, authenticity, and honesty in pastoral ministry — and I could not imagine ministering effectively under such circumstances. With a change in that policy by the newly elected bishop, and a change in attitude reflected in the House of Bishops itself at the 1991 General Convention, I knew that it was time to answer that call. Little did I know that I would end up serving in a congregation 90 percent of whose members are from parts of the Anglican Communion in which I would not be able to serve with such honesty. In part because I preach the gospel and treat my personal life as a fact on the ground, as I think any pastor should, allows most of the members of the congregation to do the same. They support me, and my partner of 29 years, in our ministry with them; and they treat him with respect they would any clergy spouse. The women of the parish make cakes for his birthday, and people always ask after him when he is away on business.
However, as with all ministry, this is not ultimately about me: it helps the gay and lesbian members of my parish to be themselves as well. They come from parts of the world where they could only do that literally at the risk of their lives and safety, and more importantly, might never cross the threshold of a church.
This is an important witness to the Gospel, in the ultimate rule and moral standard that Jesus gave us: to treat others as we would be treated, to love our neighbors as ourselves. And to do that, we must be ourselves, reveal ourselves. Being forced to live in the closet — or even choosing it as the easier way — is a fundamental violation of human dignity as well as an almost gnostic violation of the embodied truth of persons in their integrity and identity.
I am reminded that the motto of the Anglican Communion, in the words surrounding the Compass Rose: “The Truth Shall Make You Free.” One of the principles of Ubuntu, a concept which has occupied so much of our thinking and working at this session of General Convention, is that we cannot authentically be ourselves unless we are in relationship. My question is, How can we be in authentic relationships if we are not open and honest about ourselves from the outset? If we are all wearing masks, it is not a meeting of true self with true self, but a masquerade, a game of mask facing mask, reflected “in a glass darkly.” What would happen; what wave of opportunities for new ministry might break forth across the Anglican Communion if we were to take off our masks — all of us? What would happen if we were to be set free by truth for Truth? I am reminded of an eponymous line from CS Lewis’s great novel, “How can we truly know and love each other face-to-face, until we have faces?”
What is Truth?
That is what I said, more or less, to the Archbishop. And of course, any discussion of truth, either with or without a capital T, is bound to be dicey. Let me say, first of all, I reject relativism: that is, I think truth has to do with reality; though perceptions can and will differ, I think there is something that is perceived. I also accept that certain things I believe to be true cannot be proven but must be taken on faith — such as that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Savior and Redeemer of the world. I believe other truths can be demonstrated: such as that committed, life-long, monogamous same-sex relationships are not only not sinful, but capable of showing forth the grace and love of God.
While expounding the truth, or what one believes to be true, can certainly lead to division, I also believe — and this is where I differ most sharply with the Archbishop — that it is expounding the truth that leads to unity rather than being in unity leading to truth. Let me be more precise (which may also serve to lessen the gap between me and the Archbishop somewhat) — it is first of all a question of knowledge, of what we believe to be true; in short, an epistemological question. How do I know anything at all, let alone whether it is true or not? Relationship is clearly an important aspect of knowledge — I learn from others, both human others and “the other” in the form of the sensible world, as well as the ultimate Other, God, through God’s self-communication in revelation and most particularly in the person of Christ. And I refine my knowledge (that is, I learn) in communication with those others, in listening to those others, and come to know what I believe to be true in that forum and interchange and relationship. And out of this there grows a form of dynamic community. This is how truth both leads to and fosters community, truth-speaking in dialogue and listening leading to understanding, and community (as opposed to division) fostering that conversation. As Paul said to the Ephesians, “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” One’s truth can only be heard if there are those willing to listen. Uncertain trumpets and ears not geared to hear are equally obstacles to the task of evangelism: a task which reveals the need to speak as well as to listen, and which itself testifies to the fact that, “All have not heard,” and that the Truth must be communicated and spread. The church as a whole and in its members is, after all, “called” — it is assembled by the proclamation, and then gives rise to yet more proclamation, in the sending forth to spread the Evangelical Truth.
It seems to me that the Archbishop may be calling “unity” what I am calling relationship or community. But he appears to me to have a more limited notion of the institutional forms in which such unity might be incarnated. He wants a tighter and more regulated union as opposed to what he dismisses as a federation — and yet it seems to me that federations work very well, or at least as well as more tightly unitary entities. Benedictines and Franciscans both have a lively sense of identity and community, incarnated in very different structures. And I cannot help but note that given the Anglican Benedictine heritage, it might be good to remember the essentially autonomous nature of each abbey — living a common rule but individually governed, with only a superficial ecclesiastical structure at a higher level of management, an arch-abbot whose primary task is to check in once and a while at each abbey to see how well they are following the Rule they hold in common, but exercise as individual foundations. Sounds like the Anglican Communion to me!
My concern about “unity giving rise to truth” lies in awareness of how central control can quash the very sensibility, adaptation to local circumstance, and experimentation through which truth is often perceived, expressed, and more widely received. Monolithic entities — especially when they think they already have the truth or even are infallible — tend not to be open to correction, reform or development; they often do not listen to the corrective warnings of the child who sees the naked emperor. It is very easy for unity and unanimity to lead to self-deception; even to conspiracy and repression of the truth. Sanhedrins often are not good at accepting input, even from some of their own number.
The Elephant in the Room
Let me take up for a moment the old parable of the blind men and the elephant. In their touching and feeling they think they are engaged with different things rather than one elephantine entity: a rope, a tree, a pipe, a wall, a fan. If they remain out of communication with each other they will of course continue in this misunderstanding. But they do not need to form a “union” or “unity” in order to come to a better mind — they need communion or community: in short, to communicate with each other, and the precise form of that communication — federal, synodical, or monarchial, is irrelevant. In the world of modern networking, a distributed and open communication system may be preferred over a central administration.
Of course, they must also have some prior concept of “elephanticity,” even if it is a vague or second-hand report of heffalumps or oliphants. Thus they build not only on their individual experiences but on their own past knowledge, gained from community, of an idea of an elephant. Had they no knowledge of an elephant, who knows what strange joint vision they might construct, without any relation to the reality of which they each had only partial experience.
But, and here I may be treading over into paradox and an Anglican koan — what if it is the elephant who is blind? What if it is the elephant who has no ability to form a concept of itself? How do you tell an elephant it is an elephant? How can the elephant know the truth of its own elephant-self without the help of those blind but sensitive witnesses whose limited knowledge can only be perfected in communion, yet without which communion cannot come to be. Mustn’t the elephant construct a self-identity as a unitary entity from the evidence of the individuals reporting on its aspects? It seems to me that the Anglican Communion — indeed the whole church — is best approached as an entity that has no understanding of itself apart from the understanding of its individual members, who jointly seek understanding: truth communicated leading to unity.
To use another analogy: Consciousness itself emerges from the bicameral nature of the brain: our brain is not a unitary entity, but a consortium of independent clusters of activity, cooperating with each other to give rise to self-awareness. The church is a body with many members, contributing different faculties to the whole in organs of sense and motion.
E Pluribus Unum
It is obvious that the church does not simply spring into existence fully formed. The One is formed by the community of the Many. It grows by the addition of new members. It is, as we ourselves are, woven in secret, knit together from various components with which it is equipped, to come together and grow together in Love. Perhaps the Anglican Communion needs a refresher course in Ephesians, to understand how telling the truth can lead to unity and communion, while duplicity (the dual-minded opposite of community) can produce only an appearance of unity, the masquerade of which I spoke, a false-front facade of an edifice that is empty at its heart, a Temple forsaken by the Spirit who does not simply bestow all truth, but who leads us into it.
This is why the so-called Listening Process is so important: and it reveals, to some extent, Rowan Williams’ own trust in an emergent unity — that is, if unity were necessary for dialogue, why treat dialogue and listening as a means to encouraging unity? This gives me hope that in the actual working out of things it may be that the Archbishop is an idealist and the Vicar is a realist, but we are both dealing with the same entity under it all. That is, we are looking at the same church from two different angles; and both of us are committed to the Listening Process as a means to a better end.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG