by Christopher L. Webber
Editor's Note: Chris Webber sent us this essay on November 27 – well before some of the more dramatic, recent events occurred in the Anglican Communion. Be mindful that his essay was written before the Bishop of San Joaquin left the Episcopal Church, before the dioceses of Fort Worth and Pittsburg made their first steps to leave the Episcopal Church, before the Archbishop of Canterbury issued his Advent message, and so on. For one reason and another, we are just now publishing his essay.
Christopher Webber's essay was written in response to the Anglican Communion's report of "the Listening Process."
With the distribution of the Archbishop of Canterbury's "Advent message," Chris Webber's essay seems even more relevant … and perhaps more elegiac.
They say that there’s no sound if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it. Likewise if the tree falls in a thunderstorm, perhaps there’s no noise because the air waves are already full.
In 1998 the bishops of the Anglican Communion said we “commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons.” In recent weeks the committee planning for the next gathering of Anglican bishops (scheduled for 2008) has been gathering reports in how the listening process has been going. Amid the chaos and confusion, what can be heard? As one interested listener, what I hear first of all is the incredible diversity of the voices and the improbability that Anglicans will arrive at a common mind anytime soon.
Connecticut Episcopalians are often baffled by the attitudes of Episcopalians in Fort Worth, but at least we are all Americans and follow teams in the NBA. When we add England and Australia to the mix, we no longer have sports in common, but do still speak English - albeit sometimes with accents stranger than a Texas twang. But what do we have in common with Anglicans in Myanmar and the Congo?
Consider, for example, that Myanmar has been involved in a struggle with a brutal dictatorship and that the Congo has been enduring devastating civil conflict. The Anglican Church of the Congo says, quite honestly, “circumstances prevent any response at this time.” Likewise, the Church in the Sudan reports that “social healing” is its priority.
Then, too, there are societies in which conversations about sexuality seem impossible because such conversations are so contrary to their traditions. The Japanese Anglican Church reports that “the culture does not allow for talking about sexuality and so there is little awareness in the congregations of the presence or otherwise of lesbian or gay people and no need, or way of talking about that. In this context it is hard for listening to happen.” In Hong Kong, we are told, “sexuality is not talked about even in private conversations.” In Melanesia “it is not generally thought seemly to discuss sex publicly.”
On the other hand, there are churches unable to hear because their minds are already made up. The Church in Nigeria has reported that “homosexuality is sin” but “the church will respond pastorally to repentance.” There is legislation in Nigeria, which the church supports, to ban “same sex unions, all homosexual acts and the formation of any gay groups.” That makes listening more than a little difficult! The Church of the Southern Cone (Argentina and Chile) objects even to being asked. They have no time, they tell us, for “manufactured agendas . . . foisted on them.”
Listening ought also to go in both directions. It is well worth listening to the Church in Uganda when they report on the ways in which they have already “challenged culture with wonderful results. It has ended the traditions of revenge and enslavement to evil spirits. It has widened the circle of love beyond the immediate family and thus broken strife and mutual exploitation this caused. Inter-ethnic marriage has produced a united society. It has freed women from the bonds of male oppression and challenged polygamy and divorce at will and valued the biblical institution of marriage. It has satisfied the quest for a living God and transformed society especially in the political sphere. It is this obedience to the Holy Scriptures which has enabled the church to counter HIV/AIDS.” They note that they have been ordaining women for some twenty years but when they set up a commission to deal with the listening process it reported that “Concerning homosexual behaviour and relationships in particular, from a plain reading of Scripture, from a careful reading of Scripture and from a critical reading of Scripture, it has no place in God’s design of creation, the continuation of the human race through procreation, or His plan of redemption.” They have also been dealing with dictatorship and civil conflict, but they make no excuses. When they have done so much, can they be faulted for not doing more?
Consider, then, societies that might seem more like that of the United States. Australia might seem not that different, but they report that they have had “difficulty in creating a listening process because homosexuals fear consequences of public identification.” They add that there has been “more shouting than listening in some areas.” Canada began a process of listening in 1976 but reports that there is “no common mind” and they are “continuing to listen.” The Church in Ireland reports cryptically that: “The bishops believed that it was more important to find a temporary accommodation of a disagreement between parties pending a permanent settlement than to assert abstract decrees.”
The Episcopal Church report notes that its listening process began in the 1960s and that there is still widespread disagreement on the subject. So what can we expect when we learn that the Korean Church began its listening process in 1998, Brazil in 1999, and New Zealand in 2006, while in Wales the formal listening process has not yet begun?
Yet these all are Christian Churches, formed by the same Prayer Book tradition, and amidst the diversity there are reminders that the Holy Spirit is at work and that the churches do want to provide a pastoral ministry to all people and develop a deeper understanding of an issue that often sparks more heat than light. The Church in Burundi says that “the debate challenges our understanding of marriage and family” but that it “remains willing to listen to the concerns and challenges of all the Provinces of the Anglican Communion and its ecumenical partners so that we walk together in a way that honours the name of Christ and witnesses to his reconciling love in a hurting and fragmented world. . . All through the current debate on human sexuality the church has prayerfully encouraged unity, understanding and dialogue within the household of God.” Similarly, the Church in the West Indies acknowledges that although homosexuality is “viewed unfavorably in most areas” and “extremes of gay rights and fundamentalism (are) unhelpful . . . change is happening.” They have asked the Bishop of New York to come and help them plan a listening process.
One can hope that the Lambeth bishops did not expect in 1998 that a consensus would have emerged by now. Nor, it seems, will ten more years be likely to bring us all to the same page. But if we listen carefully, we may come to a better understanding of each other and a greater ability to work together in our global village. We may even hear the Holy Spirit at work to do more than we could humanly have expected in ways beyond our imagining.
To learn more, visit the Anglican Communion's "Listening" page.