There is a well-known twist on an equally well-known saying: “Don’t just do something; stand there!” While this can be good advice for a stage actor in her first TV role, or a person perched on a narrow ledge, it takes on a very different quality in the church, particularly when it comes in the form, “Please don't do anything that might upset other members of the Anglican Communion.” This was the philosophy that lay at the heart of the still-not-fully-adopted Anglican Communion Covenant, and it has reemerged in the past few days in the form of a charge from the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith, and Order to the Anglican Church of Canada not to amend its canon law to allow for same-sex marriage within the church, in order to give more time for delicate relationships to heal.
There are a number of problems with this request, itself a response to a request from Canada, and I suppose if you ask you will receive; though one is reminded of the saying, “Who among you, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone.” The most glaring problem for matters of "Faith" (a part of the Commission’s work) lies in the distance between the core doctrines of the Christian faith and issues surrounding marriage, especially civil marriage, as far as Anglicans are concerned. I won't repeat the obvious here, but note the absence of much reference to marriage in the core doctrinal statements of the early church (the Creeds), the silence of the classical Anglican Catechism on the subject, and the short references in the Articles of Religion that acknowledge marriage as “allowed” and that it is “lawful” even for clergy to marry “as for all other Christian men... at their own discretion...” (Note to Scotland!)
The second “faith” problem lies in the implication in the IASCUFO statement that this is a temporary urging, and that as soon as relationships are healed in the uneasy marriage of inconvenience the Anglican Communion, it will be belly up to the wedding prie-dieu. So this is not pitched as the faith for all times, but a temporary moratorium. The implication is that same-sex marriage will be acceptable as soon as those offended by it reach a better mind, and it is only to avoid offense that the delay is counseled. Saint Paul commended giving in to “the weak” in matters indifferent such as food; but he held the line when it came to matters he regarded as important, such as circumcision. In this case marriage is clearly important to some — those who are marrying; no one need take offense as someone else’s marriage is for them to work through, and for others to respect. If you don’t want same-sex marriage in your own province, then don’t approve it.
This sums up for me the deepest problem with this static charge: the confusing ethic that underlies the request: “Do not do for yourself what someone else doesn't want to do for themselves.” This barely recognizable “tweak” of the Golden Rule has long been the ethical standard in the dead center of Anglican circles. Rather than walking together, it amounts to standing still together, and is utterly foreign to the way history shows the church at its actual work in promoting transformation. Had this principle been employed in the 16th century, there wouldn’t be an Anglican anything today. The whole history of the church is based on some one or ones doing something that some others thought was a Bad Idea at the time.
I wrote a short blog post entitled “What Should Have Happened” about this ethical stance back in 2006, and I think it worth repeating here:
- The General Convention should have listened to the clear directions of the Primates and repented and repudiated all that had been done to offend
- The Episcopal Church should have ignored the tradition of national church polity and remained as a missionary arm of the Church of England even after the Revolution.
- The Church of England should have listened to the pope and never separated from Rome.
- The Eastern Orthodox should have done the same and submitted to Rome so as not to sever communion.
- The martyrs should have followed Saint Paul’s advice to obey those in civil authority.
- Saint Paul, in the interest of not tearing the fabric of the early church, should have acceded to the circumcision party instead of trusting to his own private interpretation of Scripture.
- The Jerusalem Council should have ignored the anecdotal evidence of Paul and Barnabas — which could only serve to make Law-abiding Jewish converts uneasy.
- Saul should have ignored his personal “experience” on the road to Damascus and followed his orders from the Sanhedrin.
- The other apostles should have ignored Peter’s “dream” and stuck to the letter of the Law.
- Jesus should have heeded Peter’s advice and turned back from Jerusalem.
- He might also have considered more seriously the various options presented to him in the Wilderness Report.
- Joseph should have ignored the “personal revelation” he received — again in a dream, no less — and acted in accordance with the Law, and when he found Mary to be with child by someone other than himself, had her stoned to death, and her unborn child with her.
- Then we wouldn’t be having all these problems with the Anglican Communion.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG