Monday, 16 March 2009

Words not what they used to be in the post-Windsor Anglican Communion

Friday, Mar 13, 2009 – Church of England newspaper

Playing with words

Words are no longer what they used to be in the post-Windsor Anglican Communion.

Am I just being nostalgic or can I really remember a time when we more or less knew the meaning of words across the Church?

Now it seems we are locked into a war over words as much as a battle of theological ideas. The Windsor Report pretty much started this by delivering an imprecise, committee-driven document by which words like ‘regret’ as opposed to more traditional ones like ‘repent’ were carefully inserted in order to secure agreement around a process, rather than a conclusion.

In the American House of Bishops meeting in New Orleans when The Episcopal Church faced its deadline to deal with terms like moratoria, ‘words’ were fiercely debated. How far could the House of Bishops go to deliver words which might placate the Anglican Communion without giving anything away? This was a studied course of dishonesty.

Now we have the most egregious example of all in the declaration by the Canadian diocese of Ottawa that it will allow a parish to perform same-sex blessings in order to ‘discern’ the way forward. Needless to say, it’s an odd kind of ‘discernment’ to do something you are not agreed upon in order to reach agreement. It seems like a recipe for division and conflict.

Furthermore, the diocese claims that it is not violating the moratorium on samesex blessings. “There is nothing in the moratorium that says we cannot continue to discern,” said Archdeacon Ross Moulton of Ottawa. It seems unnecessary to point out that the very meaning of the word ‘moratorium’ rules out this kind of discernment. But Archdeacon Moulton has a different dictionary it seems.

The press release from the diocese explaining its actions is even more ludicrous:

“Just as the Church was not able to come to a clear mind regarding the benefits of the ordination of women to the priesthood until it experienced the priestly ministry of women, Bishop Chapman has taken the process of discernment with regards to same-sex blessings to a place beyond discussion.”

This is, of course, simply not true in either the Anglican Church of Canada or the Church of England. Only in America did irregular and illegal ordinations of women occur leading later to the church being bounced into making a decision.

And here was I thinking that theological discussion was how the church reached conclusions. Instead it seems that ‘actions’ take the church to a ‘place beyond discussion’.

So here is the beginning of a glossary of words which have taken on a new slippery meaning in the post-Windsor Communion.

Authorise - This is a code word in modern Anglican documents. The call by Windsor for a moratorium on same-blessings might seem pretty plain and simple. If you insert the word ‘authorise’ the moratorium takes on a completely new meaning. In other words same-sex blessings can continue as long as new liturgies for same-sex blessings are not ‘authorised’. It’s a ‘get out of jail’ free card for the American Church.

Baptism - the most basic sacrament of the worldwide church and one on which previously there was almost universal, ecumenical agreement. ‘Baptism’ now has become mixed up with a ‘rights-based’ philosophy. If you are ‘baptised’, there is no further need for transformation, you have arrived. To deny any of the ministries, sacraments of the Church to anyone who is baptized is to question their baptism as well as their basic human rights. This is despite a very strong authoritative tradition in Anglicanism of excluding, both from sacraments and ministry, those whose lifestyle does not conform to gospel standards.

Listening - another word which has taken on a new meaning in the context of ‘listening’ to the ‘experience of homosexual persons’. ‘Listening’ isn’t just about ‘hearing’ what other people say and being allowed to disagree with them. After all, you haven’t ‘listened’ properly, you haven’t ‘heard’ about the authenticity and integrity of their experience, if you continue to disagree. The only way to ‘listen’ properly is to agree with those you are ‘hearing’ from. Needless to say ‘listening’ goes on and on until there is universal agreement.

Process - perhaps the slipperiest word of all cf. the listening process, the Windsor process. You might think there was something open-ended about a process, but not in Anglicanism. Process is clearly designed to avoid conflict, in fact to avoid divisive discussion altogether. Consequently, the Episcopal Church can say with confidence that in the election and consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson the process was followed as though this legitimized the decision. Process is therefore a means both of avoiding conflict and of delegitimizing opposition. So ‘process’ means to avoid conflict, and to trump theological decisionmaking. The final aspect of ‘process’ is a tactic of delay. The unending process (eg the Windsor process) delays any principled decision-making until hopefully we’ve all forgotten what decisions needed to be taken.

I intend to continue this glossary of Anglicanism in future weeks. Readers with further ‘slippery words’ can email me:

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