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Anglican Report is 'Fireproofing the House' - by N. T. Wright

Anglican Report is 'Fireproofing the House' - by N. T. Wright

Top theologian on Lambeth Commission talks about what happened behind the scenes, whether the report should have been tougher, and why it's critical of some conservative bishops.

Interview by Douglas LeBlanc
10/21/2004

N.T. Wright is the rare sort of theologian who attracts respect from both conservatives and liberals. He became Bishop of Durham in 2003, and for the past year has served on the Archbishop of Canterbury's Lambeth Commission on Communion. In this interview with contributing editor Douglas LeBlanc, he discusses how the commission's Windsor Report can help the Anglican Communion resolve its conflicts about homosexuality, ordination, and pastoral blessings for gay couples.

Archbishop Robin Eames has said more than once that leading this commission was the hardest work he's ever done. How difficult was it for you as a member of the commission?

Well, the fact that Robin was leading it made it a lot easier for the rest of us because he is a remarkable man in every way. And it was a privilege to work under him. And I'm not just saying that. I've sat under many chairmen in my time, and he's one of the best. And he's a very wise statesman who can see around the issues and see where the dynamics are and so on. So the fact that he was doing it made it a lot easier for the rest of us.

In some funny ways, I enormously enjoyed it, rather like one would enjoy an extremely hard-played sports match. There was a sense of excitement and exhilaration about trying to wrestle with the big issues and work out what we all meant and particularly how to listen to each other and be sure we heard what each other was saying.

Of the commission's three meetings, was there one in which that give and take was most evident?

I think each meeting had its own internal dynamic. We had presentations from a variety of points of view at the first meeting and then we discussed those and really got to know each other and worked at what the issues were. At the second meeting we had presentations from a team led by the presiding bishop of the United States and another team led by Bishop [Robert] Duncan of Pittsburgh [moderator of the Anglican Communion Network], with some colleagues of his. And then at the last meeting we were working frantically on drafting the statement, of course. The same working out of different paradigms occurred in each but in a different guise.

The early part of the report cites Scripture frequently. Did you have a hand in writing it?

Well, I think anyone who knows my work in detail, and anyone who reads the report carefully, will spot that there are some paragraphs which I drafted. I worked quite a bit on the first half. But I would stress that the drafts came back to us again and again, and we all wrestled through them and argued our way through them.

Some of the conservative leaders I spoke to Monday have expressed dismay that the report seems to treat border crossings by bishops as equally disruptive to Anglican unity as gay blessings would be. Do you think that just as much is at stake with border crossings?

The word equally, I think, doesn't really reflect the balance of the report as it has come out. The trouble is that, as with any sort of tit-for-tat scenario, trying to say you did this first and then we retaliated, but it was you who started it, really doesn't get us anywhere. It then becomes like the Middle East, you know, who started it, who fired the first shot, who dropped the first bomb? And there is no way you can go back and write all that history.

And the important thing to say is that border crossings are disruptive. Not only are they against the spirit and the letter of Anglican formularies, they are against one of the decrees of the Council of Nicea, as we point out. And I think not a lot of people know this, but it's important to say this was a question that the early fathers faced at the same time as they were hammering out the doctrine of the person of Jesus Christ, and that they gave it their time to say people should not do this because that's not how episcopacy works.

Now, of course it's open to people to come back and say episcopacy has broken down because of this and this. But then the critical thing, and this is where it is very similar, is that we have mechanisms—they demand paatience, of course, which many of us don't have in great supply. But we have mechanisms for bringing things to the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates' Meeting, and ultimately to the Archbishop of Canterbury himself. And the real charge against New Hampshire and New Westminster, according to the mandate we were given, is not so much that they are hallowing, consecrating people who are practicing homosexual relations, though of course that is the underlying issue. The real charge that we were making is that they were going ahead with innovations without giving the proper theological rational, without paying attention to the rest of the communion, without doing all the things which as Anglicans we all thought we were signed up to doing before people make innovations.

The bishops and archbishops who have intervened in other people's provinces and dioceses are, in effect, at that level making the same error. The question underlying it, of how liberal American Christianity may have got, is the presenting issue, but we were very concerned that this report should not simply be addressing the currently presenting issues, but should be working out what it means to be the Anglican Communion for the 21st century. We're looking way ahead of current crises and we're saying we'd like to set up and see a framework which will enable us to be faithful, wise Anglicans in communion with one another in 20 years' time, in a way which will mean we don't have to have this kind of crisis again. It's hugely expensive getting all the people together and having all the extra meetings. What happened in New Westminster and New Hampshire has cost the Anglican Communion tens of thousands of pounds, which we could ill afford, when we're all actually more interested in spending money on taking our mission forward, not in trying to sort out our own backyard.

Theologian Kendall Harmon mentions that when there was a false teacher in the early church, orthodox bishops considered that see vacant and would go into that diocese.

This, of course, relates to several other questions, and it's not simply as easy as that, because who says that so and so is a false teacher? There's an article in this morning's London Times by our old friend Jack Spong. And actually I would recommend reading that article to anyone who thinks the report is not orthodox enough, because Spong is absolutely terrified that the report is far too orthodox and far too conservative. I read that and thought we must have done something right.

But the critical thing is that Spong, you see, would say that George Carey was a false teacher and that what George Carey did in influencing the Lambeth Conference in 1998 was so damaging that that now justifies other people acting against that. So you have to have some way of getting a handle on this and not simply one bishop saying that his next-door neighbor is out of line and therefore he's going to invade. That has never been the Anglican way.

Conservatives who have watched Episcopal bishops many years expect no self-imposed moratoria on gay blessings or electing new gay bishops. I know it's always perilous to anticipate how people will respond to what you've called for, but if those changes don't happen, does that leave the Anglican Communion with this crisis exactly where it is now?

No, because right at the end, the very last paragraph of the report proper, we do address the what-if. And we were very clear. We would rather not have addressed that, but it would have been irresponsible not to say something about this. We say we would rather not speculate on actions that needed to be taken if our recommendations are not implemented. And then we note that in any human dispute, whether it's in a family or in a business, there are various courses that can be followed: mediation, arbitration, people not getting invited to represent bodies [churches] in meetings, and, as an absolute last resort, withdrawal from membership. And we say we earnestly hope that none of these will prove necessary.

In other words, we were not concentrating on a last stage what-if. We're saying this is a call to the whole Anglican community to maturity, to grow up, to learn better ways of being in communion with one another. And we really hope that people will respond positively to that. I can well see that many may not want to do that, or want to forge ahead with what they were doing anyway. But I have to say, I've had some good responses from friends in America who I would describe as certainly not conservative or orthodox and would be kind of the middle liberal center, not the extremes like Spong or whoever. They've said, yes, actually this looks as though it's really got some mileage in it and let's hope this will be a way forward. And I really, really hope that by taking the line we have, we may enable the great broad center of the Anglican Communion to hold together.

Was there any discussion on the commission of a tougher call on the Episcopal Church—not just to express remorse for not respecting the processs of the Anglican Communion, but also for establishing new doctrine on sexuality?

Well, that is implicit in the passage in paragraph 32, we say that there is a basic duty that if you're going to propose an innovation—and eveerybody agrees that it was an innovation, is an innovation—then it iis incumbent on you to provide a full explanation as to why you're doing it. And they simply haven't done that. So that is a matter of process. But it is also a matter of content. We must stress, and I think the report says this two or three times in italics, that we were not set up to talk about sex. Had we been, we would have had very different membership, for a start. We were set up to talk about the issues of communion, because in a sense, an obvious example, the issue of sexuality may be the fire that somebody has lit in one room that is actually setting bits of the house on fire. But what we're doing is actually fireproofing the house, and then saying now we've got to deal with this particular fire, which happens to have broken out in this room. But we're really more interested in long-term fireproofing the house. And of course that demands patience, because there's plenty of people who want to say what you should simply do is go in with all water canons as fast as you can. And the difficulty about that is that the Anglican Communion, unlike some other churches, simply does not have an international canon law or polity that would enable that to happen.

We could have shouted all we liked and there will have been one or two on the commission who would have wanted us to say much more strong and strident things. But it wouldn't actually have had any effect, because the Anglican primates and the archbishop do not have the kind of executive authority in detail over the lives of other provinces to be able to do that. And that brings us to the whole question of what autonomy means and doesn't mean, which is right at the heart of the report.

Projecting out a number of years, what would be the best case scenario for how this report is received?

The best-case scenario is that the central call of the report—whichh is for quite fresh and episcopally led readings and teachings of Scripture—would come right back to the heart of our life.

One of the things I find depressing about some of the upper echelons of Anglicanism on both sides of the Atlantic is that it's sort of taken for granted that we all basically know what's in the Bible, and so we just glance at a few verses for devotional purposes and then get on to the real business. I look forward to the day, and I think the report is pressing for this very strongly, when not in some kind of fundamentalistic way but with real serious creative engagement and interpretative activity with Scripture, we can actually really learn from one another and one another's readings of Scripture. Not that all readings are equally good. I would never dream of saying that, of course, as a biblical scholar. But that we do need to listen to one another in our readings of Scripture and we need to grow up in those readings. And frankly, some of the readings of Scripture which come out of the liberal tradition, and some of the readings which come out of the so-called conservative tradition are really immature readings of Scripture and need to be challenged. I and others spend our lives trying to do that.

Very closely allied to that, I would love to see the bishops of the Anglican Communion regarding it as their primary role—not as a little thinng on the side, but their primary role—to be wise, godly teachers off Scripture. That ought to be the center of episcopal authority rather than the business of phoning your lawyer every time something goes wrong. That ought to have no place in the church. The episcopal authority is the Word of God in prayer according to the apostolic model in Acts 6. And that has to be absolutely re-emphasized.

Having said that, then my best-case scenario would be for a healthy, flourishing communion with the instruments of unity, the Lambeth Conference and the others, working well. We have gone through an enormous transition in the Anglican Communion, corresponding to the great cultural transitions which the world is going through. The North-South shift, the rich-poor question, all sorts of issues are swirling around us globally. The Anglican Communion, like any church, is caught in the middle of that and it doesn't surprise me that we're in pain as a result. Our task is to hold on to that pain prayerfully in the presence of God and the power of the Spirit, believing that by doing so we will actually further the mission of God in the world.

Another thing that's central to the report is the question of what is known in the trade as adiaphora, things indifferent. It has been a principle of Anglicanism, from the very beginnings in the 16th century, that there are some things which Anglican Christians can agree to differ about. The real question at the heart of much of this is, which of the things we can agree to differ about and which of the things we can't agree to differ about.

Again and again I hear people on both sides of the argument simply begging that question and assuming that they know without argument that this is something that we can agree to differ about, or assuming that they know without argument this is one of the things we can't agree to differ about. What we all have to do is to say about any issue—whether it's lay celebraation [of Communion], whether it's episcopal intervention, whether it's homosexual practice—How do we know, and who says which differences makee a difference and which differences don't make a difference? [Presiding Bishop] Frank Griswold and his colleagues make a great song and dance about difference and about accepting difference and respecting difference. That's almost the only moral category that is left within postmodernity, welcoming the other, which is actually a very difficult moral standard to implement right across the board.

The critical thing is there are some differences which would divide the church. For instance, if somebody decided to propose that instead of reading the Bible in church, we should read the Bhagavad-Gita or the Qur'an, most Christians would say this is no longer a church and that's a difference that we simply cannot live with. But if somebody says I really think we should never put flowers on the altar and somebody else says I think we should always have a bowl of flowers on the altar, most people would say that's an issue which we must not divide the church about. It's a local issue, which each church will have to decide for itself. And there's no point in getting in a lather about it.

Now the question is, all these different issues that we face, which of those two categories do they come into? How do you know? And who says? Until we have prepared to address the question in those terms, the thing will just remain as a shouting match.

END

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