Friday, September 14, 2007

When Unity Trumps Truth

In the following excerpts from his “public letter” to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Rowan Williams (pictured above), retired bishop of Newark, John Selby Spong (pictured below) identifies what he believes to be the underlying issue of the current crisis within the Anglican/Episcopal Church: unity has been deemed more important than truth.

Reading Spong’s critique of Williams’ various decisions and failures of leadership, I was reminded of Catholic theologian Mary Hunt’s perspective on unity. In a February 2006 talk in Minneapolis, sponsored by CPCSM, Hunt observed that: “Unity is sometimes overrated . . . When it comes at the cost of conformity, violation of one’s conscience, offense to one’s spirit, I think it is not worth it.”

Elaborating, Hunt provided the following example: “I do not go to Mass regularly, certainly do not support a parish financially, knowing that I will be offended by the exclusive language, repulsed by some of the imagery, and reminded of the exclusion of women from sacramental leadership, all this before the sermon. But I think there are many ways to be Catholic, including the women’s base community (SAS, Sisters Against Sexism) in which I have worshiped and found support for more than twenty years. So ‘oneness’ need not look alike in how we are Catholic. Our oneness is in our intention and practice to be in communion with one another.”

“Moreover,” continued Hunt, “at a time when religious pluralism in this country is at an all-time high, when there are more Muslims than Presbyterians, it is rather fanciful to think that I am somehow something other than Catholic. Relatively speaking, the issues that divide us as Catholics are insignificant given our cultural and spiritual sameness in contrast to the very real challenges of understanding how a Muslim prays, what a Hindu believes, and the like that are the stuff of the exciting interreligious work we all have ahead of us. At the same time, I find more in common with progressive Jews and Muslims than I do with fundamentalist Christians, including fundamentalist Catholics. What were straight lines of tradition and denomination are now lines that crisscross in everyday life. I see this as Sophia Wisdom’s gift—pushing us to a oneness of spirit we can barely imagine but that a fragile planet requires for our common good.”

Fascinating insights, don’t you think?

Mary Hunt pictured with myself (left) and CPCSM co-founder,
David McCaffrey - Minneapolis, February 2006.

And Spong’s letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury provides further worthwhile insights, not to mention an intriguing (if not disturbing) peek into the machinations of the Anglican hierarchy with regards to the issue of homosexuality. Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. After all, the letter also provides a heartening reaffirmation of the moral leadership and courage of folks like John Selby Spong.


Excerpts from John Selby Spong’s “public letter”
the Archbishop of Canterbury,
the Most Reverend Rowan Williams

[In 1998] the Church desperately needed new leadership and so many of us greeted your appointment with hope. Your detractors in the evangelical camp both in England and in the third world actively lobbied against your appointment. The hopes of those of us who welcomed your appointment were, however, short lived because in one decision after another you seemed incapable of functioning as the leader the Church wanted and needed.

It began at the moment of your appointment when you wrote a public letter to the other primates assuring them that you would not continue in your enlightened and open engagement with the moral issue of defining and welcoming those Christians who are gay and lesbian. We all knew where you stood. Your ministry had not been secret. We knew you had been one of the voices that sought to temper the homophobia of your predecessor’s rhetoric. We knew of your personal friendship with gay clergy and that you had even knowingly ordained a gay man to the priesthood. You, however, seemed to leap immediately to the conclusion that unity was more important than truth. Perhaps you did not realize that your appointment as the archbishop was because you had different values from those of your predecessor and that your values were exactly what the Church wanted and needed in its new archbishop.

In that letter, in a way that was to me a breathtaking display of ineptitude and moral weakness, you effectively abdicated your leadership role. The message you communicated was that in the service of unity you would surrender to whoever had the loudest public voice. A leader gets only one chance to make a good first impression and you totally failed that chance. Unity is surely a virtue, but it must be weighed against truth, the Church’s primary virtue.

[ . . . ] When Gene Robinson [pictured above] in the United States was elected the Bishop of New Hampshire and, more particularly, when his election was confirmed by a concurrent majority of the bishops, priests and lay deputies at the General Convention (read General Synod), you appeared to panic. You called an urgent meeting of the primates of the entire Anglican Communion and allowed them to express enormous hostility. No one seemed to challenge either their use of scripture, which revealed an amazing ignorance of the last 250 years of biblical scholarship, or their understanding of homosexuality. By acting as if homosexuality is a choice made by evil people they violated everything that medical science has discovered about sexual orientation in the last century. Just as the Church was historically wrong in its treatment of women, so now as a result of your leadership, we are espousing a position about homosexuality that is dated, uninformed, inhumane and frankly embarrassing. No learned person stands there today.

Then you appointed the group, under Robin Eames’ chairmanship, that produced the Windsor Report. That report confirmed every mistake you had already made. It asked the American Church to apologize to other parts of the Anglican Communion for its “insensitivity.” Can one apologize for trying to end prejudice and oppression? If the issue were slavery, would you ask for an apology to the slave holders? That report got the response it deserved. Our leaders were indeed sorry that others felt hurt, but they were not prepared to apologize for taking a giant step in removing one more killing prejudice from both the Church and the world. Those angry elements of the church were not satisfied by the Windsor report, inept as it was. They never will be until they have bent you and this communion into a pre-modern, hate filled, Bible quoting group of people incapable of embracing the world in which we live.

Next came threats issued by the primates of the excommunication of the American Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion, as if they actually had that power. Ultimatums and deadlines for us to conform to their homophobia were treated by you as if that were appropriate behavior.

When the American Church elected
Katharine Jefferts-Schori [pictured above] to be its Presiding Bishop and thus the Primate of our Province, your response to that major achievement was pathetic. You did not rejoice that equality had finally been achieved in our struggle against sexism; your concern was about how much more difficult her election would make the life of the Anglican Communion. Once again, institutional peace was made primary to the rising consciousness that challenges what the Church has done to women for so long. When Katharine took her place among the other primates, she underwent with dignity, the refusal of some of those bishops to receive communion with her. Is that the mentality required to build unity?

Later you issued a statement saying that if homosexuals want to be received in the life of the Church, they will have to change their behavior. I found that statement incredible. If you mean they have to change from being homosexual then you are obviously not informed about homosexuality. It is not a choice or a sin, anymore than being left handed, or male or female, or black or even transgender is a choice or a sin. All of us simply awaken to these aspects of our identity. That truth is so elementary and so well documented that only prejudiced eyes can fail to recognize it. No one in intellectual circles today still gives that point of view credibility.

Next you declined to invite Gene Robinson to the Lambeth Conference of 2008. All of the closeted homosexual bishops are invited, the honest one is not invited. I can name the gay bishops who have, during my active career, served in both the Episcopal Church and in the Church of England. I bet you can too. Are you suggesting that dishonesty is a virtue?

You continue to act as if quoting the Bible to undergird a dying prejudice is a legitimate tactic. It is in fact the last resort that religious people always use to validate “tradition” over change. The Bible was quoted to support the Divine Right of Kings in 1215, to oppose Galileo in the 17th century, to oppose Darwin in the 19th century, to support slavery and apartheid in the 19th and 20th centuries, to keep women from being educated, voting and being ordained in the 20th and 21st century. Today it is quoted to continue the oppression and rejection of homosexual people. The Bible has lost each of those battles. It will lose the present battle and you, my friend, will end up on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of morality and the wrong side of truth. It is a genuine tragedy that you, the most intellectually-gifted Archbishop of Canterbury in almost a century, have become so miserable a failure in so short a period of time.

You were appointed to lead, Rowan, not to capitulate to the hysterical anger of those who are locked in the past. For the sake of God and this Church, the time has come for you to do so. I hope you still have that capability.

John Shelby Spong, 8th Bishop of Newark, Retired

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Truth Telling: The Greatest of Sins in a Dysfunctional Church
Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”
To Whom the Future of the Catholic Church Belongs


crystal said...

That's a great letter. I've read Rowan William's paper, The Body's Grace, and know he's friends with and respects guys like James Alison ... it just amazes me that he has so reversed his position all for the sake of unity.

Michael Dodd said...

It would seem that the Christian communions that follow Trinitarian orthodoxy in their understanding of God have not learned from the contemplation of that divine mystery that unity does not exclude distinction. If our God is absolutely one as God though also three distinct persons in unique relationships, why cannot the church find its way to a manner of being that is a reflection of that mystery? Our attempts at unity always seem to focus on exclusion instead of inclusion, and thus it collapses into an impoverished view of reality instead of expanding into a divinely enriched perspective.

Anonymous said...

Leonardo Boff's Trinity and Society banned. If one cannot cite the Trinity as the CENTRAL doctrine of Christianity, one gets fundamentalism, few of which accept the Epiphany!

However mystical and "absurd" (Tertullian's, not my, words), if the father and son's love begetting the spirit, inter alia, what the hell is Christianity good for?

Only God LOVING makes any sense if God is love. Not if HATE finds a forum.