Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | July 6, 2015

Thinking With the Church

Cloud-of-WitnessesThe 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church has completed its work in Salt Lake City. Among its decisions is an example of what might genuinely be understood as doctrinal bipolar disorder. Over at The Living Church (whose staff I have come to trust and admire), Jordan Hylden has characterized it as a form of “mixed economy.” However you may describe it, the fact is that the bishops and deputies have approved the use of “trial-run liturgies” to be known as same-sex marriages. Yet no changes have been made to the Book of Common Prayer, where Christian marriage is still described as “a solemn and public covenant between a man and a woman” (BCP, 422).

Let’s dispense with the preliminaries so that we don’t have to argue over side issues. As stated in my previous blog post, I have supported and will continue to support the solemn blessing of relationships between committed same-sex couples. I have also long been a supporter of equal civil rights for such couples. My hope was that the General Convention would standardize the blessing of same-sex relationships rather than redefine marriage, which the provisional rites have done.

And let’s also be honest about the eventual outcome. The trial rites that have been approved for gay “marriage” would more accurately be described as “transitional rites.” The intention is that these forms of “marriage” will be used for a few years and will then be formally introduced into the Book of Common Prayer at a later gathering of the General Convention.

When I was received into the Episcopal Church two years ago, I knelt before Bishop Duncan Gray III and heard him say these words in response to the renewal of my original baptismal vows: “We recognize you as a member of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, and we receive you into the fellowship of this Communion” (BCP, 310). In light of the redefinition of marriage that has just taken place, I now have to ask how seriously the Episcopal Church takes its participation in the church catholic.

While most of us think of the word “catholic” as meaning “universal” (which it does), it means so much more than that. You can revisit the etymological background of the word in my original post to this blog. Catholicity functions as the complete opposite of egocentrism, even when that egocentrism is a corporate one (in other words, even when it’s shared by a particular group within the larger church).

It was out of respect for the church’s catholicity that the Archbishop of Canterbury immediately expressed concern over the decision of General Convention to redefine marriage.

An appreciation of catholicity charges us not to think by ourselves, but to think with the church, to consider the wider church and all those who profess faith in the church. The General Convention has not chosen to think with the wider church at all, but to think for the church. Evidently they believe themselves to have some insight into the divine will that the larger church has yet to discern. This will have negative consequences for the unity of the church, and for the Anglican Communion.

A group of bishops (along with other clergy and laity) have joined together to express their concern. They have gathered themselves into an organization within the church known as Communion Partners. Their dissent with regard to the redefinition of marriage is being referred to as The Salt Lake City Statement. While rejecting the “significant change in the Church’s understanding of Christian marriage,” these faithful Episcopalians have expressed a desire to remain in communion with the Episcopal Church. Realistically, they have noted that the church has “entered a season in which the tensions over these difficult matters may grow.”

I can assure you that their realism about future tensions is an accurate prediction. If the delegates and bishops at General Convention acted to redefine marriage because of a genuine concern for the pain of our gay brothers and sisters, a very small minority of the general population, one can only imagine how they might react to know the pain and soul-searching that is currently going on among many of their fellow Episcopalians over the new definition of marriage. They say that Justice is blind–and I supposed this is true even when she is misdirected.

Here, for me, is the oddest piece of irony in all of this. It is the overwhelming majority of bishops and deputies at General Convention that have broken with many thousands of years of human wisdom and who have also broken with the “reasonable understanding” of marriage upheld by Christian scripture and tradition. It is these who have departed from the requirement of thinking with the wider church and who have thus damaged the principle of enduring communion. And it is the minority who are clinging faithfully to the hope of communion.

How sad it is, and how odd, that the minority must now form a new communion partnership to express what should already be implicit in how the church’s members are interconnected, and how their fellowship is connected to the wider church catholic. I applaud these Communion Partners and I am proud to have requested to be counted among them. They have resisted the temptation to strike out on their own and they have remained faithful to the goal of thinking with the wider church as it discerns a difficult question.

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Responses

  1. Thank you.


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