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Insitution over inspiration?
(From a communication to the Clergy of the Diocese of Bethlehem, PA)

...While I am glad this [Windsor2004] report recommends no draconian actions against anyone,
I am deeply sad. I perceive water meeting oil: an essentially institutional
response to what claims to be prophetic movement. Contrary to its stated
desire, the report seems to impose a curial solution, elevating institution
over inspiration in the absolute sense. I hope that those who take this
document to the next step can be clearer in speaking to us about the
relationship of the prophetic to the priestly aspects of church life.
In that vein, I have thus far found no respectful provision in the report
for conscientious action. Nor do I see recognition that many religious
movements, including Christianity and its founder, begin with radical
disturbance of the status quo. The character and actions of Jesus -- as
troubler of Israel and certainly no institutional insider -- are not once
mentioned, and I hope that this can be addressed.
The report seems not to recognize, regarding us whom it criticizes, that if
one comes to a conclusion that something is morally mandated, one cannot
deny what has come to be seen as justice because there is resistance to the
idea in other places. I commend reflective reading of Why We Can’t Wait by
the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The report seems not to recognize that
justice issues might even tangentially apply to the current situation for
those who have reached certain theological conclusions. In short, only one
set of consciences is honored.

Furthermore, I can detect no expression of
regret, or even concern, expressed for the suffering of Christians whose
sexual orientation puts them outside the ranks of those eligible for certain
offices in the Church. We are only told not to hate or kill them.

Furthermore, although the report attempts to excuse itself from discussion
of the issues at hand, its gratuitous and offhand denigration of modern
biblical study prejudices the outcome of thoughtful study and discussion of
the issue itself.
The report can lead a reasonable reader to the presumption that our visible
communion has become the highest good. Is there an idolatry here? At the
risk of appearing cynical, one might wonder how many ways there are to say
“don’t rock the boat.” I do not read the story of Jesus, in its most literal
terms, in such a peace-mongering way. I do recall, however, that in C.S.
Lewis’s The Great Divorce, there is situated in the pit of Hell a
theological discussion group, and we meet a bishop about to deliver to it a
paper on how Jesus might have been more effective and long-lived if he had
learned to get along with authorities! Institution over inspiration.
I am deeply saddened at them emphasis placed on canon law, and that the
proposed settlement of the issues that concern us is to be a legal one,
through a contract (“covenant”). Of even more concern, the proposed contract
puts the ultimate power of decision in a person appointed by the British
Crown without the consent of those governed throughout 38 provinces
worldwide. If the proposed covenant should be accepted, the titular head of
the Anglican Communion must be a person elected by the entire communion and
thus may well not be the primate of all England: there is no wisdom in
entrusting such a critical theological position to a political appointee. (I
am a thorough-going fan of the current appointee, I hasten to add, and also
hasten to note that he is not responsible for the manner of his

The Pope at Rome, with all the “pretensions” that our liturgy
once called his “detestable enormities” is much more easily shown to be
internationally and quasi-democratically chosen than is that head of our
Communion who now is to be the “final arbiter” regarding the terms of the
proposed contract. We cannot place the future of the communion in the hands
of the government of the U.K., the U.S., or any other essentially secular
organization. Perhaps the leadership of the Communion should rotate among
the primates, from south to north. I realize that such at suggestion,
although hardly new, does ask of our English cousins a certain disciplined
dispossession, but that is always good for the soul.
I am troubled that the report begins by asserting that the Bishop of New
Hampshire was “appointed,” suggesting a steadfast refusal to comprehend of
church life in the New World, where neither the state nor the episcopal
college nor another small group chooses the bishops. Only much later in the
document is there a nod to the concept of election. Despite occasional and
late reference to the laity, the report does not recognize the voice of the
people as being worthy of note. The clergy and people of New Hampshire, who
had rather a large hand in the proceedings there, are not taken into account
in any significant way. The commission did not feel able to ask whether the
Holy Spirit might speak through so many of the faithful assembled for a
solemn election. The concerns are those of the institution.
The commission’s characterization of the 2003 General Convention as
authorizing the creation of same-sex rites seems, unavoidably, to be a
willful misinterpretation. As the sole author of General Convention’s
offending paragraph, which was discussed in public committee meeting before
coming publicly to the floor, I know that the text was designed to say that
while this Church cannot now authorize such rites, it can tolerate their
existence, giving the Spirit room to work and teach us one way or the other.
To tolerate is different than to authorize; a document generally careful
about definitions disappoints by nodding here.
In total disregard of 30 years of public discourse and more than 50 years of
academic writing, the report states that insufficient formal theological
work has occurred on the issue of human sexuality. It fails even to
acknowledge the existence of the multi-part formal theological presentation
made to the General Convention of 2000 in its formal reports (The Blue Book)
or the other studies issued previously. There is nowhere expressed concern
for the possibility, however faint, that insufficient reading and thinking
has occurred on the part of those not now open to change in this area. I
recognize that the burden of proof lies with us who wish to see change;
there is nonetheless a responsibility on the part of the rest to at least
read the newspapers.
I have told you before, even with tears, how it was the bench of Bishops in
Parliament that resisted the abolition of slavery for so many years,
unanimously and on the basis of the clear words of both testaments. Nowhere
in this report is any cognizance taken of the fact that institutions are by
nature resistant to prophecy, that bishops in particular have an abysmal
track record in this regard: there is not a hint of humility about our club
and its historic patterns of intransigence.
Most sadly of all, as occurred even at our own diocesan convention last
weekend, gay and lesbian persons are spoken of as though they are not in the
room. A statement that gays and lesbians should not be hated or murdered
does not atone for a lack of any recognition that gay and lesbian persons’
experience in Christ is generative of any theology that must be taken into
account by the majority or that their experience in any way legitimately
serves to criticize the status quo.
Those who are keeping “score” for either side will find something to please
and disappoint them in the report. Those looking for sanctions might note
that both ECUSA/Canada on the one hand and the invading foreign primates on
the other are equally rebuked, but no sanctions are imposed.
However, the report requests the self-imposition of sanctions on the bishops
who consecrated Bishop Robinson (but not those who invade other provinces),
essentially asking them to have the good grace not to show up where they are
not wanted, that is, at any international functions. This particularly
British form of shaming adds sting to merely dis-inviting them (in the days
of the Empire, rogue army officers were given a revolver on the assumption
that they would know what to do).

While I am not one of those bishops,
having had commitments that day, I hereby associate myself with them as I
would with any group made untouchable by ruling class fiat, and consider any
and all penalties they suffer as applying to myself. If they are not welcome
at Lambeth, for instance, I hope no bishop of our Church or of those other
churches represented at the Robinson consecration feels welcome.

Let us remember that not of all Bishop Robinson’s consecrators were American. Thus
these sanctions that are to be self-imposed will affect several national
churches. Perhaps an alternate meeting in South Africa will occur for those
who are now to regard themselves as untouchable. It is a matter of profound
regret to me that that the American and Canadian representatives on the
commission voted for this provision: how they will be able to face their
colleagues at our meetings will be interesting to see.

The report has just begun its journey through nine months of discussion and
reception. My hope and prayer will be that as the bishops, primates, and
other groups ponder it, their vision will be less constricted and
institutionally bound and more open to the possibilities that it is not out
of arrogance or whim, but out of a desire to serve at considerable risk,
that this church has chosen to follow the voice it has been hearing for half
a century.
We will have much more time to discuss this lengthy document, but I hope
that this initial and tentative reflection, along with those that will
inevitably come forth in the next few days, will assist you in thinking
creatively about the report.

-Paul Marshall
Bishop of Bethlehem, Pa