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The Choice Before ECUSA - by Dr. N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham

The Choice Before ECUSA

By the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright

June 2006


1. There is already a burgeoning literature on the subject of the 61-page Report of the Special Commission on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. As might be expected, comments, criticisms, suggestions and pleas have been flying around from and in all directions. Having tried to keep up with this over the last few weeks, I have reached the conclusion that the crucial issues are comparatively simple, and that attention must not be diverted from them by the plethora of sub-questions which will no doubt run this way and that in General Convention. What follows is in the spirit of what I said at the English House of Bishops nine days ago: that there are more or less equal and opposite dangers in (a) some people being eager for ECUSA to show its true liberal colours and go its own way, and therefore hinting that Windsor raised the bar higher than it in fact did, and (b) others being eager to paper over the cracks and to accept any expression of regret as Windsor-compliant even if it obviously isn't. Faced with this situation, the only way forward which will command assent from the Communion and enable us to proceed together is to be careful and exact about what precisely Windsor said and meant. That is the aim of the present paper.

2. What follows now emerges both from my own prayers for ECUSA over the last years and months and, particularly, from my participation in the Lambeth Commission which produced the Windsor Report. I cannot stress too highly that this was a unanimous report produced by a Commission of widely differing views. The Windsor recommendations were not general, arm-waving aspirations; they were precisely focused, thoroughly thought through and carefully worded. Many on the Commission wanted to say more, many would have preferred to say less, but all were agreed that these recommendations were the essential requirements if ECUSA were to continue in full communion and fellowship with the rest of the Anglican Communion. I write not only as one of the authors of the Windsor Report but as one of those who discussed, prayed over and debated, phrase by phrase and line by line, the whole document, not least the specific recommendations. I then had the task of presenting the Report to the Church of England General Synod in February 2005, where it was endorsed by an overwhelming majority. I speak therefore, not as an Englishman telling my American cousins what to do (I am well aware of the dangers of that position!) but as a member of an international and multicultural team which produced a unanimous report for the benefit (we hope) of the whole Anglican Communion.

3. We cannot and must not forget (a) that the reason the Lambeth Commission was called into being was that the Primates (including the Presiding Bishop of ECUSA) had become convinced that if the consecration of Gene Robinson went ahead this 'would tear the fabric of the Communion at the deepest level'; (b) that the Commission was thus the chosen way of discovering how to mend a tear that had already happened, an emergency measure for a specific purpose rather than a general 'doctrine commission' charged with musing on possible futures, and that the Commission's recommendations were drafted with this specifically in mind; (c) that the Primates at Dromantine last spring, and ACC at Nottingham last summer (and, of course, the C of E General Synod in February 2005), specifically endorsed the Windsor Report and its recommendations, so that these very specific and particular recommendations now come before ECUSA with such weight as the whole Anglican Communion can muster. It is not, in other words, as though ECUSA has been asked to stand on stage and make a speech of its own choosing about some issues of general concern; it is, rather, that the rest of the Communion, having discovered in sorrow that one of its members has chosen to act specifically and knowingly against both the letter and the spirit of the instruments of communion which are the characteristically Anglican bonds that hold us together, has asked ECUSA to make certain statements which are the least that can be done that will restore the unity that has already been lost.

The Report of the Special Commission: Introduction

4. The Commission has produced a document which, in its opening, is solid and impressive. There are all kinds of signs of careful, prayerful and thoughtful work and drafting. In particular (references are to paragraphs of the Report), there is a strong note of sorrow for the way in which ECUSA has 'contributed to division in the Body of Christ' (7) and followed the pattern of America's imperial actions in the world (10). But a careful reading of the opening section raises questions. It is surprising to see that in its account of the history of the current issue there is no mention of what the Primates said in October 2003 (15) and hence of the fact that the consecration of Gene Robinson had gone ahead in full knowledge of the consequences. (One response to this, of course, will be that since General Convention had already endorsed the New Hampshire election this was unstoppable. This raises, for the rest of the Communion, two further matters: (a) that the Presiding Bishop led the consecration having just signed the Primates' report, and (b) that General Convention 2003 had already been told (e.g. by Archbishop Josiah of Kaduna), before endorsing the New Hampshire election, precisely what consequences would follow.) It is also surprising that, in its summary of Windsor sections A and B (24-32), it makes no mention of the key interlocking themes of autonomy and subsidiarity, 'adiaphora' and - flowing from these - the all-important question of how the church can discern the difference, so to say, between those matters which make a difference and those matters which don't make a difference. Since this is the point upon which the current problems turn, it is worrying that they are not mentioned, still less discussed.

5. The Commission then rightly turns its attention to the key questions, 'expressing regret and repentance' (33-44). This section is crucial as an introduction to the key recommendations. It focuses (34) on Windsor para 134, quoting its introductory sentence ('Mindful of the hurt and offence that have resulted from recent events, and yet also of the imperatives of communion - the repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation enjoined on us by Christ - we have debated long and hard how all sides may be brought together'). It does not, however, quote the next part of Windsor 134, but contents itself - vitally, as will emerge in a moment - with a summary in terms of 'a statement of regret for breaching the bonds of affection' and 'moratoria on particular actions' (34, end). It notes that 'statements of regret have been made by the House of Bishops and the Executive Council' (35), though without noting that these have not been the 'statements of regret' asked for by Windsor, but rather statements of regret that some people were hurt by ECUSA's actions, and a statement (from the House of Bishops in March 2005, anticipating the phraseology now used in the Commission's proposals) of regret for breaching the bonds of affection 'by any failure to consult adequately with our Anglican partners before taking those actions', which as we shall presently see is clearly and specifically not what Windsor asked for.

6. The section continues to speak in general terms of 'statements of regret' without quoting, or addressing, the specific statements asked for in Windsor 134. Instead, para 38 says (at the end), 'We also believe that the General Convention's consideration of such expressions of regret and repentance will provide clear evidence of our desire to reaffirm the bonds of affection that unite us in the fellowship of the Anglican Communion.' This is a puzzling statement, whose implications become clear in the resolutions that follow. Certainly the fact that General Convention will consider expressions of regret and repentance will demonstrate that most in ECUSA want to remain within the Anglican Communion. But the important question is whether that desire will lead to the specific and particular expressions of regret and repentance asked for by Windsor 134, or whether ECUSA will try to attain the goal of staying within the Communion without travelling by the only route that will get there, namely that of the road mapped by Windsor and endorsed by the Primates and ACC.

7. Once more, in para 43, the key question seems to be avoided. The paragraph asks, 'How, then, is the General Convention to express regret and repentance? What counts as an adequate response to the requests of WR?' But, instead of quoting Windsor 134, which would seem to be the obvious answer to this double question, the paragraph refers to 'a number of statements of regret' that have already been made, for instance that 'regret has been expressed that the consecration of the Bishop of New Hampshire was "out of sequence", given the unresolved question of the blessing of same-sex unions'. Likewise, 'moratoria have been effected, and these have been understood as expressions of repentance for decisions made without time for consultation'. It has to be said that, from a Windsor perspective, both of these sentences are bound to appear as ways of avoiding the issue. At no point in the Commission's report is it even mentioned that the real problem is not that actions are 'out of sequence' or taken 'without time for consultation', but that the actions in question went exactly, explicitly and knowingly against the expressed mind of Lambeth, ACC, the Primates and the Archbishop of Canterbury. There had, in fact, been plenty of consultation at several levels, and ECUSA chose to ignore the results of that consultation.

8. The report then says (44) that it will be for General Convention to determine 'if and how to effect moratoria as a continued expression of the desire to live into the vision of the communion we share, described in WR'. It notes (45) that ECUSA 'has been asked to respond to several requests in ways that would express our regret for having breached the bonds of affection', but once more without saying what WR actually asked it to do. It mentions (46) 'five specific requests' that have come from WR, Dromantine, and ACC-13, of which the first two are for moratoria on elections to the episcopate of those living in same-gender unions and on public rites of blessing for such unions, but again doesn't quote the specific request of WR 134. Instead, the report discusses these moratoria in para 48 in terms of the usefulness of such times of waiting in giving time for a new consensus to emerge, and instances gratefully the indications from various parts of the Communion of a 'commitment to diversity and inclusivity with respect to current conversations about human sexuality'. I fear it is not cynical to decode para 48 to mean 'moratoria can be helpful if they give time for the rest of the Communion to catch up with what ECUSA has already decided to do'. In fact, it would be naïve not to read it in that way. That does not give great hope for what is to come.

9. The report then says (51) 'We acknowledge and regret that by action and inaction, we contributed to strains on communion and "caused deep offense to many faithful Anglican Christians" as we consented to the consecration of a bishop living openly in a same-gender union.' This quotes directly from Windsor 127, though it is not yet a statement of what Windsor 134 asked for in response. The paragraph then goes on, 'Accordingly, we urge nominating committees, electing conventions, Standing Committees, and bishops with jurisdiction to exercise very considerable caution in the nomination, election, consent to, and consecration of bishops whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strain on communion, until a broader consensus in the Anglican Communion emerges'. A footnote to the report states that some members of the Commission had wanted to say 'refrain from' rather than 'exercise very considerable caution in'. Knowing how Commissions work (there is constant give and take about wording, but this doesn't normally show up in footnotes), the fact that this discussion resulted in an explicit statement of dissent indicates that some Commission members insisted on their minority view being expressed. It also shows that the Commission knew very well that its main statement, resulting in the Resolution A161, was not complying with the specific thing that Windsor had asked for (see below). (The Bishop of Exeter had also pointed this out when he spoke to the American House of Bishops just before their Commission reported.)

10. When it comes to public rites of blessing of same-sex unions, the Commission suggests (53) that its previous resolution (2003-C051) has been misunderstood. That resolution recognized that 'local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions'; but the Commission denies that this means that such rites were 'authorized', since the only 'authorized rites' are those in the various prayer books. This then clears the hermeneutical space for paragraph 54 to recommend that no 'authorization' (in this rather narrow sense) of such liturgies should happen, which is then reflected in Resolution A162. From a Windsor perspective, this sounds like a straightforward attempt to have one's cake and eat it, using a narrow definition of 'authorized' (= 'printed in an official prayer book') to deny that local liturgies come into that category, while explicitly encouraging their development and use. See (17) below for the outworking of this, where it becomes clear, as noted in Windsor 144, that General Convention is seen as 'making provision' for, and individual diocesan bishops can then 'authorize', such blessings.

11. There are several other matters dealt with in the Report. Some of these raise interesting and important issues in their own right, not least the questions of the care of dissenting minorities and the problem of episcopal border-crossing. But for the sake of brevity we must turn at once to the proposed Resolutions, and specifically to those which appear to address the central concerns of the Windsor Report.

The Key Resolutions

12. The benchmark against which the key resolutions must be measured is of course Windsor 134 (for Resolutions A160 and A161) and Windsor 144 (for A162). The report quotes the preamble to Windsor 134 (see (5) above), but never quotes the recommendations themselves. The reason for this, sadly, becomes all too clear: the Commission clearly had the Windsor Report before it throughout, and decided to decline Windsor's request and to do something else instead, using some words and phrases which echo those of Windsor while not affirming the substance that was asked for. This, with real sadness, is my basic conclusion: that unless the relevant Resolutions are amended so that they clearly state what Windsor clearly requested, the rest of the Communion is bound to conclude that ECUSA has specifically chosen not to comply with Windsor.

13. Windsor 134 makes three recommendations. The second concerns the voluntary withdrawal of the consecrators of Gene Robinson from representative functions within the Anglican Communion; that has happened at ACC-13. It is the first and third recommendations which now concern us.

14. The first recommendation reads as follows: The Episcopal Church (USA) be invited to express its regret that the proper constraints of the bonds of affection were breached in the events surrounding the election and consecration of a bishop for the See of New Hampshire, and for the consequences which followed, and that such an expression of regret would represent the desire of the Episcopal Church (USA) to remain within the Communion. The Commission, in their 'explanation' of Resolution A160, says that this Resolution 'addresses the invitation of the Windsor Report that "the Episcopal Church be invited to express regret" for breaching the proper constraints of the bonds of affection. It does not point out (and at this point, reading and re-reading what they wrote, I have to say with sadness that the word 'duplicity' comes unbidden to my mind) that while this Resolution does indeed address the invitation of the Windsor Report, what it basically says to this invitation is 'No, thank you.'

15. Instead of expressing regret for breaching the bonds of affection in the events surrounding the election and consecration of Gene Robinson, the Resolution, following the alternative route already set out by the House of Bishops in March 2005, expresses regret 'for the pain that others have experienced with respect to our actions at the General Convention of 2003', and says that 'we offer our sincerest apology and repentance for having breached the bonds of affection in the Anglican Communion by any failure to consult adequately with our Anglican partners before taking these actions.' A comparison with the Windsor request shows what has happened. The Commission has specifically declined to recommend to General Convention a Resolution in which ECUSA would comply with Windsor by expressing regret that the bonds of affection were breached by what was done. Instead, (a) it has simply expressed regret that the bonds of affection were breached by non-consultation, which was not mentioned at this point in Windsor, and indeed is irrelevant since there was in fact widespread and public consultation throughout most of 2003, before, during and after General Convention that year, which resulted in the Primates' clear statement that to go ahead with the consecration of Gene Robinson would tear the fabric of the Communion; and (b) it has not even affirmed that there was fault in that respect, since the wording 'by any failure to consult' seems to mean 'we're not sure that there was anything wrong, but if there was, we apologise'. Thus the appearance of Windsor-compliance, and the powerful impact of 'apology and repentance', are, alas, only skin deep. To put it bluntly: Resolution A160 is not, as it stands, Windsor-compliant, and the Commission must have known that only too well. Granted that, the statement in the 'Explanation' that this Resolution is 'thus signalling our synodical intentions to remain within the Communion' must, sadly, be seen as essentially cynical. Windsor said that 'such an expression of regret' - i.e. the one that Windsor requested, not the one that the Resolution offers - 'would represent the desire of ECUSA to remain within the Communion.' The fact that the 'explanation' quotes this latter phrase demonstrates a desire, not apparently to comply with Windsor, but to give the appearance of doing so to those who glance at the text but do not look carefully at what is actually said.

16. The same is true, sadly, of the third recommendation of Windsor 134 in relation to Resolution A161. Windsor recommended (and the Primates and ACC endorsed the recommendation) that 'the Episcopal Church (USA) be invited to effect a moratorium on the election and consent to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate who is living in a same gender union until some new consensus in the Anglican Communion emerges.' As we saw at (9) above, in line with the Commission's Introduction para 51 and its tell-tale footnote, and as appears also in the 'explanation' to this Resolution, there were some on the Commission who clearly wanted to comply with this Windsor recommendation, but, equally clearly, a majority who did not. Instead of adopting the Windsor recommendation, Resolution A161 says 'we urge nominating committees, electing conventions, Standing Committees, and bishops with jurisdiction to exercise very considerable caution in the nomination, election, consent to, and consecration of bishops whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.' At the risk of stating the obvious, this Resolution has done two things, both of which point away from Windsor: (a) it has only recommended 'very considerable caution', rather than a moratorium; (b) it has broadened the reference to persons in same-gender unions into a general statement about persons whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church - which, as various commentators have pointed out, and as the 'explanation' offered by the Commission itself indicates, could mean all sorts of things. Again, therefore, if Resolution A161 is passed without amendment, and still more if it is not even passed, it will be impossible to draw any other conclusion but that ECUSA has chosen not to comply with the Windsor recommendations.

17. Resolution A162, on Public Rites of Blessing for Same-Sex Unions, looks at first sight as though it is more Windsor-compliant than A160 and A161. (The relevant section of the Windsor Report is paras 136-146.) It comes in three parts: first, a resolution affirming 'the need to maintain a breadth of private responses to situations of individual pastoral care for gay and lesbian Christians', which presumably means that local churches can celebrate private and home-grown services of various kinds. Second, it concurs with Windsor's call not to authorize public rites of blessing for same-sex unions (though it oddly says that this was an exhortation to 'bishops of the Anglican Communion', whereas Windsor 144 specifically referred to ECUSA; this presumably is in line with the double meaning noted above in (10), namely that ECUSA has chosen to interpret its own decision in General Convention 2003 not in terms of 'authorization' of such blessings but of 'permission'). Third, it proposes to 'advise those bishops who have authorized public diocesan rites that, "because of the serious repercussions in the Communion," they heed the invitation "to express regret that the proper constraints of the bonds of affection were breached by such authorization". This is indeed much closer to the relevant Windsor paragraph than in the cases of A160 and A161. However, there is still some slippage, here as well, between what Windsor asked for and what the Resolution proposes. Windsor asked for a moratorium on all such public Rites, and did not mention at all the possibility of a new consensus emerging which would curtail this moratorium; the Resolution exhorts bishops to honor the Primate's injunction, referred to in Windsor 143, 'by not proceeding to authorize public Rites of Blessing for same-sex unions, until some broader consensus in the Anglican Communion emerges'. Windsor further recommended, though the Resolution does not mention this, that 'pending such expression of regret, . . . such bishops be invited to consider whether . . . they should withdraw from representative functions in the Anglican Communion, and that provinces take responsibility for endeavouring to ensure commitment on the part of their bishops to the common life of the Communion on this matter.' As I say, there is not so much distance here between Windsor and the relevant Resolution, but still some sense that ECUSA is choosing to look at the matter from a different perspective. This in turn sends us back to the prior question which Windsor addresses throughout, namely the question of which matters can, and which can not, be decided locally; and that question ('is this or is this not a matter which can be decided locally) is itself one which, logically, can not itself be decided locally, but only by the whole church.

Further Matters and Resolutions

18. The meaning, intention and spirit of the Commission's report and the proposed Resolutions already discussed have to be seen in the light of other matters and resolutions. In particular, we note Resolution A167, whose second and third parts have been widely, and in my view rightly, seen as reaffirming previous ECUSA commitments to work in the opposite direction to the main thrust of Lambeth 1.10 (there is no controversy, I think, about the commitment of that resolution to the 'listening process'). These resolutions, sadly, provide the context within which the puzzles of the earlier resolutions (why don't they say what Windsor asked?) can be understood; in other words, they indicate that the reason why the Commission has not recommended actual compliance with Windsor's recommendations is because some Commission members at least believe that to comply would prevent ECUSA developing further the policies of which the consecration of Gene Robinson and the authorizing of same-sex blessings were symptoms. In other words, it is bound to look to the rest of the Communion as though these agendas, which were not of course the explicit subject of the Windsor Report, are driving ECUSA's attitude to questions of global ecclesiology.


19. It is very important not to let the plethora of material, in the official document and in all the various commentaries on it, detract attention from from the central and quite simple question: Will ECUSA comply with the specific and detailed recommendations of Windsor, or will it not? As the Resolutions stand, only one answer is possible: if these are passed without amendment, ECUSA will have specifically, deliberately and knowingly decided not to comply with Windsor. Only if the crucial Resolutions, especially A160 and A161, are amended in line with Windsor paragraph 134, can there be any claim of compliance. Of course, even then, there are questions already raised about whether a decision of General Convention would be able to bind those parts of ECUSA that have already stated their determination to press ahead in the direction already taken. But the Anglican principle of taking people to be in reality what they profess to be, until there is clear evidence to the contrary, must be observed. If these resolutions are amended in line with Windsor, and passed, then the rest of the Communion will be in a position to express its gratitude and relief that ECUSA has complied with what was asked of it. Should that happen, I will be the first to stand up and cheer at such a result, and to speak out against those who are hoping fervently for ECUSA to resist Windsor so that they can justify their anti-ECUSA stance. But if the resolutions are not amended, then, with great sadness and with complete uncertainty about what way ahead might then be found, the rest of the Communion will have to conclude that, despite every opportunity, ECUSA has declined to comply with Windsor; has decided, in other words, to 'walk apart' (Windsor 157).

My hope and earnest prayer over the coming week will continue to be that that conclusion may be avoided. May God bless the Bishops and Delegates of ECUSA in their praying, thinking and deciding.

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