by Andrew Linzey in the Times Online
"SHALL the fundamentalists win?" That was the title of Harry Emerson Fosdick's sermon in 1922, which argued for an open-minded, intellectual, and tolerant Church. The sermon cost him his job at the First Presbyterian Church, New York, but it drew a line in the sand, and fundamentalism began to wane.
A similar sermon needs to be preached to the Anglican Communion. The labels today are different: "conservatives" or "progressives', "reasserters" or "revisionists", and the issues are not the same. In Fosdick's day, the wedges were biblical inerrancy, the Virgin Birth, the literal Second Coming and a theory of the atonement called "penal substitution".
Although the labels and the issues are different, the same fundamentalist drive to create a "pure" Church remains. During the previous century Anglicanism was largely untouched by these debates, because its "broad tent" tradition discouraged any one party in the Church from gaining ascendancy. But with the growth of conservative evangelicalism, that consensus is now threatened. The victims this time are not those who disagree about doctrine, but Christian gays.
In previous decades disagreements about sexuality bothered Anglicans, but the idea that they merited schism would have been regarded as preposterous. That we are now at this point indicates the neartriumph of the exclusivist tendency.
The response of the hierarchy has been typically Anglican: set up a committee and produce a report. But the Windsor report failed Anglicanism. Instead of embracing comprehensiveness and diversity, it pursued fictions like "unity" (interpreted as uniformity), "interdependence" (meaning "not giving offence"), and championed "instruments of unity" (fostering centralised control), and proposed a future "covenant" (to implement canon law worldwide). The Episcopal Church of the United States and the Anglican Church in Canada were called upon to obey the "standard" of Christian teaching on sexuality (a Lambeth resolution that has only advisory authority).
All the manoeuvring that followed has been nothing less than a farrago based on voids. The hierarchy has set about implementing the inherently schismatic logic of the Windsor report — dubbed inaccurately "the only game in town" — with the result that the Communion stands precariously close to splitting. What was set up to be a loose association of autonomous churches "bound together by ties of loyalty and affection" is being rent asunder by an un-Anglican attempt at centralised control — ironically in the name of achieving the "highest degree of communion".
Contrary theological voices have been cast aside. No fewer than 22 UK and US theologians produced detailed critiques of Windsor, explaining how it devalues diversity, inflicts curial-style centralism and departs from classical Anglicanism. Never heard of them? I’m not surprised. The essays are part of a book I co-edited called Gays and the Future of Anglicanism, which was mischaracterised immediately after publication, and then buried.
That is a pity, because theology actually holds the key to resolving competing claims. "Conservatives" are seen as preserving "historic truth" and "progressives" as wilfully discarding it. So long as the debate is cast in those terms, no resolution is possible. The way forward is to grasp the dynamic of God: as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the teaching God, which, we are promised, will guide believers into all truth (John xvi, 13).
Not all truth is given in the past; the Spirit has something to teach us in the present. It is untrinitarian consistently to oppose God’s work in the past to what we may learn here and now. All innovations should be tested, but it is a mistake to assume that all development is infidelity.
As Fosdick and his generation had to wrestle with new knowledge about the origins of creation, so Anglicans have to grapple with new knowledge about the sheer diversity of human sexuality. Contrary to what is supposed by Windsor, developments in the US and Canada have been heralded by 40 years of scholarship, which has revealed the inadequacy of traditional theology. “Sex inside marriage is holy, sex outside marriage is unholy” now strains credulity.
Fosdick quotes the remark of General Armstrong that "Cantankerousness is worse than heterodoxy" — to which we should add "and homophobic persecution". There is something unsavoury about a situation in which the Archbishop of Canterbury calls on Americans to repent of ordaining an openly gay bishop, yet says nothing about the imposition of another anti-gay law in Nigeria (actively supported by Anglican Archbishop Akinola) which makes any public support of gays an offence punishable by five years in prison. Supposedly "authoritative" Lambeth Conference resolutions about respecting the human rights of homosexuals are being ignored.
There is one sure way of testing the Spirit: do our beliefs lead to an increase in injustice, bigotry and suffering? If they do, they simply cannot be reconciled with the workings of the creative, compassionate Spirit promised to us.
So far, a policy of appeasement has prevailed. Even a Special Commission of the Episcopal Church has wrong-headedly recommended "repentance", "extreme caution" in selecting bishops, and following the Windsor "process", but even that has been rejected by the leading conservative grouping, the American Anglican Council. That is because the agenda of conservatives is a rolling one: today it is gays, but biblical inerrancy, interfaith worship, women bishops, remarriage after divorce will surely follow. The logic of all purity movements is to exclude.
The only test of whether a church is Anglican is whether it is invited to the Lambeth Conference. With the next Conference in 2008, the Archbishop of Canterbury faces a Rubicon. If he fails to invite all Anglican bishops, or invites them on unequal terms, he will make schism concrete, with incalculable consequences worldwide for every Anglican church, diocese, even every parish. By this one act, his office will become an enduring source of disunity.
The assumption that progressives will swallow the situation should be questioned. When realignment becomes a fact, UK progressives will have to do what the conservatives have done: become effectively a church within a church, and insist on alternative episcopal oversight. Above all, we will not be excommunicated from US and Canada. We shall fight and fight and fight again to save the Church we love.
The Rev Professor Andrew Linzey is Senior Research Fellow, Blackfriars Hall, Oxford University, and co-editor of Gays and the Future of Anglicanism.