Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Big House of Classical Anglicanism -- by William Countryman

Condensed from his keynote address at the Claiming the Blessing Conference in St. Louis, MO, in November 2002 Bill Countryman argues that "this blessing of unions is not finally, for lesbians and gay men, about social convenience, or status, or even justice. It is about our access to God."

We are here to claim the blessing — that is, to celebrate the gospel at work in the lives of people. Particularly gay and lesbian people, but that’s a way of celebrating the gospel at work in the lives of everyone. It’s a way of saying that God plays no favorites, that even you, whoever you are, are really and truly welcome here.

I’ve noticed that people who object to what we are working toward here often speak of it as the work of a 'gay/lesbian lobby,' the functional equivalent of the 'outside agitators' of the not so distant past. They like to say that this is the world’s agenda intruding on the life of the church. It’s such a silly misconception, really. The church ought to be delighted, of course, if it found people outside the church beating down its doors, clamoring for its blessing. But I don’t see that happening. Some people outside the church could hardly care less; others are actively suspicious. No one is beating down the doors.

As we all know, this movement has come from within, welling up from the Spirit, from the hearts and minds and lives of faithful church folk. The issue of blessing our unions has arisen for us as a result of our growth in faith, hope, and love; and it summons us to further growth. The last few decades have seen extraordinary outpourings of grace among us. What strikes me when I visit parishes that have joined in this undertaking is that the tone of life in them is not partisan or polemical. What I encounter again and again is a sense of deep gratitude for God's ability and willingness to surprise us with new gifts of insight, with new faith and new hope, even in the difficult times in which we live. And we celebrate these gifts by sharing them with others.

God's gifts are not just for us, and we haven't kept them just to ourselves. Over and over again, we see lesbians and gay men, people who would have been hiding in the shadows of our
church a generation ago, now coming forward to contribute their gifts, their strength and loyalty and wisdom, freely and openly to the whole community of faith. And heterosexual people who have seen this happening have also been freed to give more generously of themselves.

The move to have a form of blessing for same-sex unions is, in an important sense, an appeal for justice. But it is even more a renewal of grace, an opportunity for the whole church to renew its trust in God for the future. And it is a celebration of one of God's greatest gifts — our human love for one another.

I want to return to this theme toward the end of this address. But first I want to say a little about what it means that we are Anglicans dealing with issues of sexuality here as Anglicans. Our position is rather ironic, in fact. What we're living out here together is classic Anglicanism. What do I mean by 'classic Anglicanism'? I mean the broad mainstream of Anglicanism as it was shaped in the Reformation. It was formed, in the 16th and 17th centuries, in contradistinction to two other types of Christianity, both of which thought they knew the mind of God pretty well: Roman Catholicism and the Geneva tradition, whose chief English representatives were the Puritans. We worked to distinguish ourselves from both — and especially from their assumption that they knew the mind of God so well.

This isn't just a modern way of interpreting those remote times. It was their own way of seeing the issues, too. It was particularly the Puritan challenge that caused Richard Hooker to write Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Hooker put the theological challenge that confronted classic Anglicanism very succinctly in a marginal note he wrote in a religious tract: 'Two things there are which greatly trouble these later times: one that the Church of Rome cannot, another that Geneva will not erre.'

Classic Anglicanism, by contrast, focused not on having a detailed and certain knowledge of the mind of God, but on maintaining life and conversation in the faithful community. We believe that no one will ever know it all, but that the Sprit will work with us in the unity (not uniformity) of the church to bring us toward truth. Hooker was broadly sympathetic to the theology of Calvin and the Puritans. What he objected to was their utter certainty of knowing the mind of God — their unwillingness to err. Classic Anglicanism values the ongoing life and conversation of the faithful community, however awkward and irritating it may become, far above such doctrinal assurance, attractive though it may seem. We are pretty sure the assurance is mistaken. We are also pretty sure that God's help will not fail us if we continue to work and pray together.

This Anglican focus on maintaining the unity of the church has created a big house, one with room for all sorts of people. What's held us together is that classic Anglican concern for the life and conversation of the faithful community. I have yet to hear any advocate of blessing gay and lesbian unions threaten to leave over the issue. The threats of schism come from elsewhere.

If there are those within the Episcopal Church who already know the mind of God too well to go on participating in this conversation, to go on maintaining the unity of the church — well, we have to say to them, 'We do not want you to go. We want to have you in the faithful community. But we are maintaining the classic Anglican tradition here. And we will not give that up to keep you here.'

To move toward the blessing of lesbian and gay unions is important because all members of the church ought to be treated equally and with equal respect. But there is even more to it. It is important because it touches on the love that is at the very heart of our faith, of our relationship with God. It's a truism that Christianity is focused on love — and equally a truism that we fail to live up to that. Our attitudes toward those with whom we disagree lapse easily into quite savage hostility. I hope that we who have experienced this kind of hostility from others will learn not to let it infect and consume us, will keep discovering ways to speak with love and respect even when we are not met with the like.

We recognize afresh what Christians have recognized, in their various ways, from the beginning: that human desire, the same desire that informs our human loves, is an integral part of what draws us to God. The Song of Songs enshrines this principle in the heart of our Scriptures. The love of the human beloved is our closest, most decisive analogy to the love of God. Both loves are difficult to express adequately.

What I am saying is that without human love, we would have almost no analogy for our relationship with God. Flawed as all human love is, it is still the best thing in our makeup, the brightest treasure that God placed there. And it is by this that God calls us home. Well-meaning people sometimes say to me, 'Why can't the gay and lesbian community just hold back on this point so that the church can get on to more important things in its mission?'

To that, my answer is, 'Spiritually, there may not be anything more important.' I do not say that to slight the other very real sufferings of the world — the disaster, say, of AIDS in Africa or the unfinished struggle against racism here and throughout the world. I say it rather because our reluctant, body-avoidant Christian psyche needs to understand that this blessing of unions is not finally, for lesbians and gay men, about social convenience, or status, or even justice. It is about our access to God.

We, of course, know that our loves give us access to God. But the church at large needs to understand that, too. And as the church comes to understand it, I believe all Christians will be freed to rediscover the passion of their relatedness to God in new ways. This is not just for lesbians and gay men. It is for everyone. What is our task now? Our task, first and foremost, is to live as people of faith, to live in celebration of God’s generosity, to live as people shaped radically, from the ground up, by our experience of the gospel, to live as people converted to trust in God, to hope in God’s continuing presence with us, to love the way God loves us.

And in our particular place and time, one way we have to do this is to hold up the loves of gay and lesbian people as opportunities for blessing. Through them, God’s blessing can come to us and does come to us. Through them, God’s blessing can and does come to the people around us. For the church to extend its blessing does not make our unions better; it simply acknowledges and gives thanks for the blessings of God already present.

The church’s blessing is important not because God cannot bless without it! God is not constrained by our fears and anxieties, by our hugging of blessings to ourselves and denial of them to our neighbors. God blesses where God wills. But we, the church, need to be a part of that blessing — for our sake, not for God’s. That’s why we continue to move toward this goal — so that grace and blessing will continue to abound ever more and more, in this world as in the age to come.

L. William Countryman is Sherman E. Johnson Professor in Biblical Studies at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California, and the author of many popular books including Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and their Implications for Today (Fortress Press, 1988), Good News of Jesus: Reintroducing the Gospel (Trinity Press International and Cowley Publications, 1993), The Mystical Way According to John: Crossing Over into God, rev. ed. (Trinity Press International, 1995), Forgiven and Forgiving (Morehouse Publishing, 1998), Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All (Morehouse Publishing, 1999), The Poetic Imagination: An Anglican Spiritual Tradition (Orbis, 2000), and (with M. R. Ritley) Gifted by Otherness: Gay and Lesbian Christians in the Church (Morehouse, 2001).

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