Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Simple Solution to an Intractable Problem

A Simple Solution to an Intractable Problem
The Rev. Thomas B. Woodward for The Episcopal Majority

Certain bishops have been meeting in New York since September 11. This morning they issued a press statement, available from the Episcopal News Service. The Rev. Thomas B. Woodward – a founding member of The Episcopal Majority – offers his reflections here.

The talks in New York City with our Presiding Bishop, Presiding Bishop-Elect and two bishops of their choosing, along with the Bishop of Virginia and several bishops of Network sympathy or persuasion, have opened the way for a simple solution to an intractable problem.

The solution is for us all to act like Anglicans, acknowledging deep divisions about matters close to our hearts and our understanding of public morals and committing ourselves to living with these divisions.

We have done so on matters of greater import than what we are facing now. We have spent most of our history in this country wrestling with racial segregation in our church. If it was St. Cyprian's or St. Augustine's, it was a Black congregation; if it was St. Thomas' or St. Paul's, it was a white congregation, perhaps with a sprinkling of second- or third-generation Asians or Hispanics, but very few. The integration of our schools and our churches has taken place within the lifetime of most of us.

We wrestled, as well, with the issues of family planning, abortion and even how the purpose of marriage would be described in our Book of Common Prayer. If anything, the emotions surrounding the issue of abortion in The Episcopal Church were exponentially more heated than what is searing our church communities today.

We are deeply divided in world-wide Anglicanism regarding the place of women in the Church and in marriage and the family. What obtains in parts of our Communion seems nearly barbaric in comparison to what progress we have made in The Episcopal Church towards gender equality in marriage and in our culture.

While the conflict is largely submerged under the blanket of patriotism, we are deeply divided, as well, in how we think about the participation of Christians in armed combat. Shortly after WWI, the churches of our country were increasingly pacifist, reflecting one of the deepest strains of our Gospel religion. Then, in the mid to late 1930's, it was the theological leadership of the Union Theological Seminary that recalled the churches of this country to a theology of the Just War, under which the participation of Christians in armed warfare could be justified.

None of these issues was treated as having to do with "core doctrine" – that which divides us into authentic or faithful Episcopalians and heretical outsiders. When I was in seminary, the terms were Gospel (or "euangellion") and Teaching ("didache"). The Gospel has to do with the Apostle's and Nicene Creeds and the Catechism – with belief in the Incarnation, Resurrection and Ascension as well as the Doctrines of the Trinity and the Chalcedonian understanding of the Person of Jesus Christ. Teaching has to do with matters of morals and custom, which may vary with exposure to different cultures or to increased knowledge about the matters at hand.

Reviewing our Church's history in dealing with such divisive matters as pacifism, abortion, the segregation of the races and the Biblical support for what has turned out to be the "losing side" in each of these should have taught us to be more circumspect in defining the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire as a crisis in Biblical authority. If that is what it is, then we should, in all good conscience, go back to the segregation of our churches, to a thoroughgoing pacifism, to treating women as property, and to treating family planning in any form as sinful.

The alternative is to come clean on this one. Our dealings with the ordination of gay men and lesbians to the diaconate, priesthood and episcopate is a matter of the teaching of the Church – and our decisions must be based on what we have learned about homosexuality, about fidelity and loving within gay and lesbian relationships, as well as on what we know of Jesus' own commitment to a Kingdom more diverse than his religion or his followers could imagine.

Of course the struggles will continue for a while. But they shouldnever be communion-breakers. Think where we would be had we split overthose issues, more rooted in Biblical imperatives than these – abortion, pacifism, racial segregation, temperance, keeping women subservient to men. We would be a myriad of sad little sects, fully deserving of our being relegated to the margins of our country's religious life – the Episcopal equivalent of my favorite offshoot of another denomination, "The Two-Seed in the Pod Double Predestinarian Baptist Church." That represents a very complicated road to integrity. We are blessed with a tradition which allows a simple, though not always comfortable solution to a problem which, for the while, seems intractable.

Also see the comments of Mark Harris at Preludium about the NYC meeting. Mark, too, is a member of The Episcopal Majority.

This is the brief Statement from the New York Bishops' meeting (from Episcopal News Service)

[ENS] The following statement was issued this morning on the Anglican Communion News Service:

A group of bishops met in New York on 11-13 September at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury and in consultation with the Presiding Bishop to review the current landscape of the church in view of conflicts within the Episcopal Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury had received a request from seven dioceses for alternative primatial pastoral care and asked that American bishops address the question. The co-conveners of the meeting were Bishops Peter James Lee of Virginia and John Lipscomb of Southwest Florida. Other participating bishops were Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold, Presiding Bishop-elect Katharine Jefferts Schori and Bishops Jack Iker of Fort Worth, Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, James Stanton of Dallas, Edward Salmon of South Carolina, Mark Sisk of New York, Dorsey Henderson of Upper South Carolina, and Robert O'Neill of Colorado. Also participating was Canon Kenneth Kearon, the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion.

We had honest and frank conversations that confronted the depth of the conflicts that we face. We recognized the need to provide sufficient space, but were unable to come to common agreement on the way forward. We could not come to consensus on a common plan to move forward to meet the needs of the dioceses that issued the appeal for Alternate Primatial Oversight. The level of openness and charity in this conference allow us to pledge to hold one another in prayer and to work together until we have reached the solution God holds out for us.



Anonymous PewView said...

To Fr. Woodward:
I have tried to follow developments in the church since serving on my Diocesan Churchwomen's Board during the fractious period leading to Prayer Book revision, the ordination of women and the commitment to civil rights.
I think the most serious issue facing the Church is its history of public advocacy for abortion rights, or "a woman's right to choose." This was made painfully clear when the former Presiding Bishop signed an Interfaith Letter - drafted by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice - urging the members of Congress to sustain President Clinton's veto of the proposed ban of the partial-birth abortion procedure, as required by a series of General Convention resolutions. You perhaps are aware that earlier this year Executive Council reaffirmed the Church's membership in the Coaltion, and efforts to undo that affiliation failed at General Convention.
I live in a smaller community with a strong religious impulse, and every year the local evangelical and Catholic churches in my neighborhood display small crosses on their grounds in remembrance of the lives lost to abortion. By contrast, the Episcopal Church has been steadfast in its support of a woman's right to choose to the extent that it can no longer claim moral status for the unborn. Were this known by the American public, can we expect the Episcopal Church would not be "relegated to the margins of our country's religious life?"

9/14/2006 3:01 PM  
Blogger Thomas B. Woodward said...

Dear Pewview,
Thank you for your thoughtful response. I am well aware that we have not come to peace yet on the issue of abortion; though I think our official position on it brings us a lot closer to that peace we all desire.

I believe our official position does claim moral status for the unborn -- and does so quite clearly. It also states that there are situations in which our moral values conflict and it comes down to not a choice between good and evil, but a choice between goods or among evils.

There are two moral values that sometimes conflict here -- the absolute sanctity of human life, including the life of the unborn fetus, and the concern for the life of the mother and the family. Our statement is clear that personal convenience is NOT to be taken into account in making one's decision.

My point in the article is that we continue to struggle to find a way to affirm our common concerns perfectly and as we struggle, we continue to pray together and worship together as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Tom Woodward

9/14/2006 6:58 PM  
Anonymous PewView said...

Fr. Woodward, I appreciate your message and thank you.

When I was involved with the Diocesan Churchwomen, we were concentrating on Prayer Book revision, the ordination of women and the responses to the civil rights' movement following the death of Martin Luther King. We were, of course, aware that the Church had opened its doors to the need for legalized abortion, and because this was the period of the thalidomide (sp?) babies and the always-frightening specter of the "back alley," I think we were secretly relieved by the church's resolution.

However, I feel equally certain that we assumed this would be a pastoral teaching, a reaching out to both the woman facing a problem pregnancy and the unborn. In this way, the Church would have resolved the conflict you mentioned between the sancity of human life and concern for the mother.

As for the Church's guidelines, I understand there are some set forth in its resolutions, but by affiliating with the Religious Coalition, they become rather meaningless, for the Coaliton is an independent organization and not necessarily beholden to the views of its members. In any case, I believe that the Church's abortion-rights history is its most serious social problem and one that has undermined the ministry of its women.

There is really little concerned parishioners can do to influence the direction of the Church as it continues its various struggles, but I thought the following excerpt from the Archbishop of Canterbury's Tsunami statement expresses so well my own sentiments and offer it for your consideration:

From The Archbishop of Canterbury's files:
Excerpt from Article on the Asian tsunami for the Sunday Telegraph –
published 2 January 2005

...religious people have learned to look at other human faces with something of the amazement and silence that God himself draws out of them. They see the immeasurable value, the preciousness, of each life. And here is one of the paradoxes. The very thing that lies closest to the heart of a religious way of life in the world, the passion about the value of each and every life, the passion that makes religious people so obstinate and inconvenient when society discusses abortion and euthanasia - this is also just what makes human disaster so appalling, so much of a challenge to the feelings. Sometimes a secular moralist may say in contemporary debates: "Nature is wasteful of life; we can’t hold to absolute views of the value of every human organism." That is not an option for the believer. That is why for the believer the uniqueness of every sufferer in a disaster such as the present one is so especially harrowing. There are no "spare" lives.


9/14/2006 11:43 PM  
Blogger contratimes said...

Dear Father Woodward,

I appreciate what you are trying to say here, but, sadly, I cannot accept it. I can accept that there are compelling, reasonable arguments for extending freedoms to racial minorities; I can agree that scriptural gymnastics were once evident in those advocates who found Biblical passages supporting slavery. I can accept that there are reasonable grounds for supporting some women as they seek abortion services (I am strongly anti-abortion for anything other than strict medical reasons); I can accept arguments for the ordination of women.

But, as I have written to you before (elsewhere), I have yet to see, read or hear a compelling case for supporting the ordination of gay persons, nor have I found a single compelling argument justifying gay marriage (in the church). You act as if the theological and philosophical aspects of these two correlated controversies are a done deal; they are hardly a done deal. They are at least not a done deal on nearly all levels save the level of pop-opinion. I have invited you to discuss the reasonableness of gay marriage, asking you (elsewhere) how such marriages can be sacramental. Not once have you -- or any pro-gay marriage advocate -- answered that query.

The gist of this essay of yours is almost one of wistfulness: you seem, ultimately, to be simply longing for these problems to go away. There is no argument here posited by you; I see nothing in here that would convince any decent sceptic that your position on these matters is at all correct. You are merely asking for everyone to just get along; to hold, perhaps, differences in a polite and godly tension. This might be something I misunderstand; you might not be saying this. But it feels like it.

The more important point is that your "simple" solution is only helpful if one does what you have done: you've committed something like a fallacy of reductionism. Your dismissive "We have done so [i.e., like good Anglicans, accepting deep divisions with grace - my addition] on matters of greater import than what we are facing now" strikes me both as unloving and easy. It is unloving because it dismisses what others believe is vitally important; and it is easy because it makes things easier for you. This perhaps explains why you would offer a "simple" solution: you don't want to be bothered with this problem's many difficulties. You think that the issue of gay ordination and marriage is of less import than birth control? Really? You think this is less important in the Church than is a Christian's military service to the State? Really? If gays and lesbians are equal to straight women, how is it that you believe gay issues are less important than the ordination of women? Do you believe gay activists accept your claim that their issue is less important than racial equality? Are you thus admitting that being gay is less than being black? Or did you not mean what you said when you dismissed the import of this particular issue?

You might think that slavery and gay rights are essentially the same struggle; though I cannot ever recall a time when the church taught that it was sinful to be black. It may have been true, once, that the church orthodox taught that women were to submit to men; but I don't recall an orthodoxy that denounced womanhood as sinful or even aberrant. It may be that birth control is denounced as sin; but there are many folks who would never suggest that birth control users are forgiven because they are born to control birth. You get the picture. What you deem intractable and simple, others deem intractable and flat out irrational. You see the church extending grace and love to a disenfranchised group; others see this as raising sin to a position of adoration. They may be wrong. But I've yet to see anyone SHOW them they are wrong.

Anyway, just a few thoughts from a member of The Episcopal Minority.

Peace to you,

Bill Gnade

9/15/2006 8:35 AM  
Blogger Thomas B. Woodward said...

Dear Bill,
I certainly did not intend to be unloving or uncharitable towards those who differ from me. What I intended to say is that when we move this discussion away from core doctrine to where it belongs as "teaching" or adiaphora, we will still be arguing (or "in the process of discerning"), but that argument will be within the family, not threatening to bust it apart.

I do not have respect for folks on either side who are simply in the business of throwing bombshells. I have argued publicly in my diocese, which is one of the most conservative in TEC, that we should send our best conservative voices to General Convention rather than wimp out. We need our best on both sides of important issues.

I agree with you that the Biblical case for full inclusion has not often been well presented. I will try to do that, myself, soon and will make sure I get it to you. Others have done the work, as well. On the whole, as I have mentioned before, while St. Paul sometimes focuses on various aspects of homosexual acts, later in Galatians, he changes the focus from body part interactions to the quality of relationships. I believe that is the primary focus of any judgments we make about any sexual or intimate relationships. When we focus on body parts, we have capitulated to Hugh Hefner's Playboy Philosophy, where intimacy and fidelity, love and commitment are beside the point in judging morality, When we take the incarnation seriously and do our work with sacramental theology, I believe we will all eventually learn to see God's blessing in those homosexual relationships. If you want to see more of that, check out "The Mystery of Sex" on

Another path here is that so much of the church has observed God's blessing in gay and lesbian relationships and in the ordained as well as the lay ministry of gay and lesbian Christians. That blessing cannot be manufactured. As Frederick Buechner observes, "it is something which happens through us for the other." If God, indeed, is blessing, who are we to denigrate?

I am so appreciative of your whole response. It is very thoughtful and I hope this beginning is helpful in moving our dialogue along.

9/15/2006 9:45 AM  
Blogger contratimes said...

Father Tom,

Thank you for the very pastoral, and loving, response to my post. I would very much like to be involved in dialogue on this matter. But I fear that the outcome is somewhat foregone: we both know that there is no turning back on the consecration of a gay bishop. You, unlike me, see God's hand and blessing in this; I see no such thing. I am a decent, gracious man; I strive to see Christ in everyone. And I do see Christ in everyone; but I do not see Christ blessing homosexuality in the same way that I do not see Him blessing gossip. I have known many outstanding men who cannot keep a secret or abstain from whispering rumors; but they are indeed a blessing in many lives. No doubt you do not see homosexuality as I see it. I see it as the abomination of desolation, or something close to it; I do not see it as I am told to see it by those who are gay, I see it as my very being tells me to see it. But Christianity is, after all, a faith about transformation. Perhaps I am the person who needs to be transformed; perhaps it is not gays and lesbians who need to be transformed, it is those of us lost in the sin of ignorance and obstinacy.

And here is a question I've never asked before now: if homosexuality is a blessing of God, is it sinful for me to believe it is not a blessing from God? If homosexuality is not a sin, am I unholy if I think it is? That's a bit of puzzler, I would guess.

Anyhow, I hope you will not shut me off in this dialogue. Lord knows those of us who are of a more conservative mind in New Hampshire have been waiting for our bishop to begin a REAL dialogue, where serious questions can be asked, serious doubts explored, and serious scholarship can prevail.

May the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you always,

Bill Gnade

9/15/2006 8:34 PM  
Blogger Thomas B. Woodward said...

The church needs thousands of you. I am so moved by your honesty, your willingness to explore your doubts and questions.
First, that you and I do not experience holiness or God's blessing in people or experiences others do is not a judgment on us or them. What is important that we bring our best to that kind of discernment and that we find a place or people where we can engage in that process of discernment together. I know I have been on both sides of that quandry, myself, not seeing what others see so clearly or feeling alone that I am the only one seeing blessing where others only see trouble.
I hope you can ask your bishop for the kind of dialogue and mutual exploration you described in your last paragraph. I believe that is what he wants to encourage -- but, again, from my own life, there is often a gap between what I intend and what I create. As St. Paul writes in Romans, "The good that I would (do) is what I do not. And the evil which I would not (do) is what I do."
If it would help, use my name in your request (Tom Woodward, Pete's brother) and ask for time in his office or when he is near where you live. Ask for time for dialogue or time just for you to tell him about your own concerns -- or ask his help in creating a means for what you see is important to happen. I hope I do not seem patronizing in this -- I do know +Gene and I think I know his heart and I also am aware of some of what keeps him from being all he needs to be for you and others (no secret, its part of all of us). Go for it.
If you want to explore any of this off-blog, my email address is

9/16/2006 11:32 AM  
Blogger Phil S. said...

I've been wanting to post a reply to this post over the last two days, but I haven't been able to do so because of general busyness. That happens every once in a while and, usually, I discover God's hand in preventing me from posting too hastily. This has been one of these times, I think.

I'm going to leave off my comments about the post itself because I think Bill covered them adequitely.

I stumbled on this blog a few weeks back and have replied to a few posts. I have tried to be temperate and respectful, but I have had issues with many of the posts here. I still do, if truth be known. Yet, I also recognize that some of my comments have been fuelled by some frustration over a hope that this blog might serve as a bridge between moderate liberals and moderate conservatives.

I bring that up, partly to put that out there for future interactions, but also because the exchange in this set of comments between Thomas and Bill has been close to what I've been hoping to see and close to what I've been hoping to achieve with my comments.

There are enough differences between us as moderate liberals and consrevatives to make it difficult to talk, but I do think it important that we try, if we are to avert the schism which threatens right now. I hope we can do that.


9/16/2006 8:38 PM  
Blogger Thomas B. Woodward said...

I hope you will find Episcopal Majority a place where your thoughts are respected and taken with the utmost seriousness. The dialogue you seek is what our church needs more than anything. Some of the articles on this site are certainly provocative -- all are posted with the hope that we will find ways of respecting and supporting one another through just what you express. Thank you!!!

9/18/2006 3:27 PM  

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