Has Justin Welby washed his hands of gay marriage?

The only test of success set Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s private conclave of bishops last week was to avoid public failure  –  and with it, years more division between factions in the Anglican Communion.

It achieved it more or less, “by punishing its American franchise for the temerity of marrying gay people,” as Giles Fraser put it, and earning Welby backhanded credit for his clever politics, perhaps, as the Guardian thought, too clever by half.

Outside the meeting some wondered why, in a world of war, famine, pestilence and deadly threats to Christian minorities, sexuality was of such urgent concern to the Communion. Archbishop Welby seemed to wonder why as well, as he kicked the can, not down the road to the next Lambeth Conference in 2020, but over the Atlantic, from whence it came.

There the issue of sexuality and the church will be fought over in public, in the most fervent US election campaign since the Civil War, where the politically forged divide between a prescriptive faith and proscriptive religion is at its sharpest.

Welby is well travelled in Africa and has a clear love for the continent’s energised faithful, despite its horrible tendency to mix homophobia with good deeds. Maybe he thought it was more productive to teach tolerance to bigoted bishops there, than patience to gay ones in America.

As the Anglican writer Ian Paul notes, citing a comment on his blog, “sexuality is just the presenting issue; the real question is about authority, and revelation and the nature of God’s grace.” Authority, such as it is, underpinning a collective agreement to walk towards resolution at the same pace, and Revelation as the interpretation of Jesus’ message as the path to be followed.

To Anglicans, he says, God’s grace is unconditioned  –  in the sense that you do not need to be worthy to receive it — but not unconditional, in the sense that your acts should reasonably be expected to follow the path of Jesus’ Revelation. So it’s back to that Revelation and the theological question:do same-sex sexual unions constitute faithful Christian living, i.e. is this a pattern of life, “created and hallowed by God that all should honour? (As the Anglican marriage vows put it.)

The US Episcopal Church says yes, it’s a right, and won’t have it disputed. The rival Anglican Church in North America (ACNA)  –  founded as an alternative, “orthodox” Episcopal church in the US and Canada  –  say no, it’s not a right and won’t have it discussed.

The ensuing division left the Church “spending vast amounts of time trying to keep people in the boat and never actually rowing it anywhere,” as an Anglican Communion spokesman briskly admitted.

Could Welby affirm that a loving, supportive same-sex relationship can be theologically consistent with its description as a pattern of life, created and hallowed by God that all should honour? Maybe that in a face-to-face theological smack-down, this interpretation could win the day in the kind of church he wishes to serve? Either way, why limit that discussion?

Personally, I’m a follower of the Revelation of Tom Paine, so I’m not impressed by actions that appear to exclude the US Episcopal church from an open theological debate  –  if that’s its intent.

Including ACNA in the Communion sessions last week created a de facto ‘observer’ status within its nominal hierarchy. And by most accounts ACNA rewarded Welby’s trust by treating the space with respect. Yet it would be wrong to read ACNA’s inclusion as credit for its homophobia or its political and legal challenges to the Episcopalians’ historic position at home.

But it would also be wrong to suggest the Episcopal Church’s exclusion was not meant as censure, for pre-emptively stepping out of a collective pact to move as one on the issue of LGBT rights in the church. From my secular perspective, giving the Episcopal Church the same nominal ‘observer’ status as ACNA would have been a fairer response to their handling of the collective rights and responsibilities attached to Communion membership.

The Communion’s informal structure devolves to local Anglican churches, in their own local cultures, politics and religious environments. Says Archbishop Welby: “We have no Anglican Pope. Our authority as a church is dispersed, and is ultimately found in Scripture, properly interpreted.”

If that interpretation is to have credibility, the theological case has to be properly diverse in argument, for and against. So if there is space for the proscriptively divisive figure of ACNA’s conservative Archbishop Foley Beach, there should also be space for the prescriptively divisive figure of US Episcopal liberal  –  and gay  –  Archbishop Gene Robinson.

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Same sex marriage vote supporter at the Minnesota Senate: Fibonacci Blue / Flickr

Choosing between prescription and proscription when trying to inspire moral self-regulation. It’s not rocket science, but it is science. Research by University of Massachusetts Amhurst researchers Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, Sana Sheikh and Sebastian Hepp, based on seven separate studies, found firmly in favour of prescription.

They described proscriptive morality as “condemnatory and enforced,” and prescriptive morality as “commendatory and advised”. The latter provoked guilt and blame, the former resulted in greater moral credit. “Prescriptive morality is sensitive to positive outcomes, activation-based, and focused on what we should do. Proscriptive morality is sensitive to negative outcomes, inhibition-based, and focused on what we should not do.”

The Anglican God is not an enforcer. Should the Church be in God’s stead? Welcome to Canterbury. Or alternatively, welcome to Washington DC.

Whatever the civility of Canterbury’s Delphi method mediated exchange, even supporters of LGBT rights in the US are daunted by the vast can of legislative worms that the right to gay marriage has opened there. The Episcopal Church’s prescriptive tolerance will not fare well in a Coliseum overseen by Emperor Ted Cruz, before an audience driven to frenzy by Donald Trump’s Caligula. And the Episcopal Church may face a revival of ACNA’s 2011’s legal challenges to ownership of church real estate, funds and schools.

Barack Obama admits he failed in his ambition to bring civility to US political debates by appealing to Republicans through the shared language of Judeo-Christian values. Before Christmas he talked with Pulitzer prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson about how Christianity converged with his vision of democracy. “There’s all this goodness and decency and common sense on the ground,” he conceded, “and somehow it gets translated into rigid, dogmatic, often mean-spirited politics.”

If Archbishop Welby is not throwing his fellow Christians to the lions, not to mention a Fox, he needs to better communicate the reality of the letter of gentle censure he put into the Episcopalians’ luggage. It is already being presented otherwise by hardliners on ACNA’s side. Welby should get on a plane and personally reiterate that the US Episcopal church has not been punished, and the difference between sanctions and facing “consequences”.

An Obama official told the New York Times that the president would spend his final days in power trying “to figure out how to get a lot of these big things he cares about out of the box of political opportunism and into a more humanistic space.”

The Episcopal Church doesn’t deserve to locked in that box by the radical US right. There is every chance the wrong people will read the Communion’s “consequences” as endorsement for the kind of rougher punishment gentler souls cannot impose.

If so, what else is Archbishop Welby doing but washing his hands of them?

First published by Little Atoms on 18 January 2016

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