When it comes to the controversy about blessing non-celibate same sex unions among Anglicans, the issue needs to be carefully defined–both in terms of what it is and in terms of what it is not.
A long time ago, at General Convention in 2003, I spoke on this matter and began this way:
….[I] am very concerned that our categories are clear at the outset. This isn’t a debate about who is included; Christ invites and includes all people. This isn’t a debate about pastoral care, which is the church’s living out her theology in practice that varies greatly depending on the circumstances. There is a distinction between orientation and practice that has to be kept in mind, people have urges and inclinations and desires but we need to distinguish between having them and acting on them. Finally, this is about the call of God to his church and its leadership to be holy as God is holy.
It is VITAL that the traditional position is correctly defined since it is so often mischaracterized and recently even caricatured in this discussion. Professor Gerard S. Sloyan puts it this way, “The physical attraction of adults of both sexes to..the opposite sex is natural and to those of the same sex is not necessarily perverse. Only when such attraction is acted upon is it ethically wrong: for Christian, Jew and Muslim it is sin.” He also writes: “Marriage both is and is meant to be the normal outlet for sexual activity, while for unmarried Christians of whichever orientation no other is envisioned” (Theology Today, July 2003 edition, pp. 159-160; and 156).
Notice carefully what Professor Sloyan is saying: there are only two states of human existence, singleness, and marriage. Therefore there are NO relationships outside of marriage which the church can officially sanction as places where sexual activity may be celebrated
Not long after the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in 2006, Archbishop Rowan Williams wrote the Anglican Communion as a whole in a letter entitled “The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today” in which he made a similar attempt to distinguishing what the issue is and what it is not:
Unless you think that social and legal considerations should be allowed to resolve religious disputes ”“ which is a highly risky assumption if you also believe in real freedom of opinion in a diverse society ”“ there has to be a recognition that religious bodies have to deal with the question in their own terms. Arguments have to be drawn up on the common basis of Bible and historic teaching. And, to make clear something that can get very much obscured in the rhetoric about ”˜inclusion’, this is not and should never be a question about the contribution of gay and lesbian people as such to the Church of God and its ministry, about the dignity and value of gay and lesbian people. Instead it is a question, agonisingly difficult for many, as to what kinds of behaviour a Church that seeks to be loyal to the Bible can bless, and what kinds of behaviour it must warn against ”“ and so it is a question about how we make decisions corporately with other Christians, looking together for the mind of Christ as we share the study of the Scriptures
The church’s standard for human behavior has been clear: faithfulness for those who are married, and abstinence for those who are single. This means that anyone who is single, a sinner like the rest of us, who pledges that they are upholding the church’s teaching in their life and ministry is eligible in theory for a position in church leadership.
If you keep this in mind, and you keep in mind what was already known about Rowan Williams before he became the Archbishop of Canterbury, then you will see that notwithstanding some poor headlines and other comments about it, the Times interview today breaks little new ground.
In a crucial section of the Times interview today, Ginny Dougary does us no favors by using this language: “Much of this discord hinges on the interpretation of whether or not the Bible permits openly homosexual clergy.” This is good on the Bible permits part, but not good on the “open” part because she fails to make the crucial distinction between orientation and practice. When she says “open” what she means is someone in a non-celibate same sex partnership and clear about that in numerous public settings.
She then cites a now famous chapter Rowan Williams wrote in a book entitled “the Body’s Grace”: “If we are looking for a sexual ethic that can be seriously informed by our Bible, there is a good deal to steer us away from assuming that reproductive sex is a norm.” Notice, however, that the quote that she gives is incomplete. The full quote is this (and it is all the same sentence): “In other words, if we are looking for a sexual ethic that can be seriously informed by our Bible, there is a good deal to steer us away from assuming that reproductive sex is a norm, however important and theologically significant it may be“.
The article goes on this way: “‘When I read this out, he replies: “That’s what I wrote as a theologian, you know, putting forward a suggestion. That’s not the job I have now.””
Dr. Williams here reflects a distinction he understands between the role of an academic theologian and the role of an Archbishop, where his being a catholic Christian and seeking to guard the church’s unity takes primacy over other matters. He has made this point in numerous settings over the years.
The article continues a bit later as follows:
One can also see that the spectre of the Communion being sundered on his watch must weigh heavily on him. “Yes, I believe that the Church suffers appallingly when it begins to fall apart ”“ and its mission suffers in other ways, too. But on your specifics ”“ the fact is that since the 1998 Lambeth Conference, every single public pronouncement on the question of sexuality has underlined the distinction between civic liberties and human dignity for gay people, which have always been affirmed, and whether or not the church has the right to bless same-sex unions or ordain people in same-sex unions. Now I know that those two are blurred but the point has always been made.”
Once again we see Rowan Williams the theologian making the necessary distinctions, exactly the distinctions so often missing not only in media accounts but in the church debates themselves.
Ginny Dougary is not satisfied:
But why shouldn’t gay couples be blessed if we are all equal? “The Church isn’t answerable to an abstract idea of equality, or rather it can certainly say everyone is equal in the sight of God. But what forms of life does the Church have the freedom to bless? The Church is obedient to Revelation. Now if you believe it’s very clear in Revelation that the only relation that can be blessed is between a man and a woman, then you’ve got a problem.”
This sounds like the man who wrote the whole Anglican communion in 2006 and said “it is a question, agonisingly difficult for many, as to what kinds of behaviour a Church that seeks to be loyal to the Bible can bless, and what kinds of behaviour it must warn against….”
And later in the interview we get the same distinction:
To put it very simply, there’s no problem about a gay person who’s a bishop.” Really? “It’s about the fact that there are traditionally, historically, standards that the clergy are expected to observe. So there’s always a question about the personal life of the clergy.”
This latter part of this article is the one eliciting the most headlines, but if it is seen in the context of the many statements Rowan Williams has made while Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as in the context of the full Times article, it is not anything genuinely new. It is, however, the most he has said about it publicly in a good while–KSH