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LAST SIGNAL TO THE CARPATHIA by Dean Paul Zahl

LAST SIGNAL TO THE CARPATHIA

By Paul Zahl

5 February 2004

Welcome to you all on behalf of this cathedral parish, and also on behalf of the Planning Group of the Episcopal Church Foundation Fellows Forum. We have worked towards this conference for two years now, and did not realize at the start that it would come with dramatic aptness. May I thank, especially, Cynthia Kittredge, chair of the Planning Group; and also my colleagues, Bob Hughes and Eugene Lowe. Eugene I have known for 28 years, and Bob for at least 15. I regard them as more than colleagues, and rather as friends. I also miss Ian Douglas, who has to be at Lambeth Palace this week rather than in Birmingham. Ian, who is on the "other side" of the current presenting issue, listens to me more feelingly than almost any one and has done a lot for my mental health.

Now, the tendency in theological discussions of our current problem is to punt them over to the adjoining field of ecclesiology. In other words, it is an almost governing caveat not to want to discuss the issue of homosexuality itself in theological terms, but to go immediately to intra-church questions such as the limits of communion, the character of discipline and authority within world-wide Anglicanism, and the whole matter of how to live together when you have irreconcilable points of view. It was astonishing to me, when I joined the Inter-Anglican Theology and Doctrine Commission almost three years ago, that we were told right up front that we could not discuss theological issues related to homosexuality itself, at all, ever. Our brief, it was declared, was only to study the limits of diversity of opinion within the church. The opinions themselves, on both sides of the question, were to be excluded from the discussion. I found that approach unbelievable, and also not in line with Dr. Carey’ s stated purpose, from the Kanuga Primates meeting, which was to deal with this issue dividing the church in theological terms. In any event, we have never openly discussed THE issue during the deliberations of the international commission, and it has been implicitly forbidden. The same seems potentially to be true in the noises we are hearing in relation to the Eames Commission.

At any rate, that seems dishonest to me. So I shall begin this brief keynote address summing up the actual reasons why traditional Episcopalians are opposed to the consecration of Gene Robinson and are also opposed to the blessing in the church of same-sex unions. I won’t harp on this, but feel the reasons need to be acknowledged, publicly, and theologically. It is not fair to call people on the traditional side "homophobic". Of course homophobia is possible, but it is also a terrible slur in the contemporary context. It is like the word "anti-semitic". It halts all discourse. Full stop. And it destroys people and careers. Homophobia and anti-semitism are real things. But as words, they are used overmuch today to tar and dismiss voices that may in fact be sincere and liberal.

So what is the big deal? Why do people like me stand against the Gene Robinson consecration and the blessing of same-sex unions? Why do we feel these two things are destructive of life in the Christian church? I note in passing that our struggle against them so far has been unsuccessful, failed, and demoralizing for the zeal and good conscience of our ministries.

Why is the issue so important?

First, we believe the gay position as we hear it undermines the anthropology of the Gospel. It undermines the teaching concerning the inherent sinfulness of the creature before the Creator. It wants to exempt a particular category of persons, gay men and women, from Original Sin on the basis that they are "created" a certain way, therefore how can it be wrong? For reasons beyond our human understanding we are all created sinners: distorted, inverted, libidinal and narcissistic. Our baggage is psycho-genetic, not the sum of our deeds. The gay argument confuses creation with redemption – as in the old 1970’s poster "God don’t make no junk". That was a half truth then, and it is a half truth now. The core, universal, and seemingly impenetrable claim of the gay lobby is this: If I came into the world this way, then how can it be wrong? That claim is in opposition to the classic Christian doctrine, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant, of the human being as being intrinsically and inherently fallen in all cases. The claim is Arminian explicity and Pelagian implicitly.

If the anthropology is flawed, then inevitably the soteriology is flawed. If "God don’ t make no junk", then what need is there for a Savior? Why did Christ have to die on the Cross, if the need of the human race were not rooted in our paralysis and inability to help ourselves? The result of an overly high anthropology is an overly low soteriology.

The result of an overly low soteriology is a weak Christology. If Christ is not a Savior in the full and plain sense of the word, then He did not have to be God. The whole encounter of Jesus with the Pharisees in Mark, Chapter Two, when he made a connection between his divine authority and the forgiveness of sins, ceases to mean anything. High anthropology means low soteriology means inadequate Christology.

Finally, the Trinitarian implications of the weak Christology implicit in the gay lobby’ s argument – become now the Episcopal Church’s argument – are devastating. The Son who is no Saviour becomes automatically subordinate to the Father. We are quickly into Arianism and what we today call unitarianism. Now most theological liberals I know in ECUSA insist that they are Trinitarian Christians. And I believe them. But I wonder whether they have realized the implications for the whole of theology of the overly high anthropology of the arguments we have been hearing from the gay lobby and their friends. Please, think through the implications of a weakened profile of Original Sin.

The second "theological" argument traditionalists want to use is the hermeneutical one. I myself think this is second in importance to the theological "domino effect" I have just tried to spell out. The hermeneutical objection to the Robinson consecration is very important, but it is not decisive in quite the same way the argument from anthropology is. Nevertheless, we believe the plain and unexceptioned meaning of the Bible is against the practice of homosexuality in all cases. We cannot get around this. And I am grateful when folk on the other side acknowledge and do not try to weasel out of the "fact on the ground" of the Biblical voice against their idea. Yes, I realize there are wholly inclusive implications to Jesus’ and Paul’ s Gospel, but they stop at the Rubicon of homosexual practice.

The third "theological" argument – and I put the word "theological" in quotes to make the point that these arguments, unlike my first one, are more ecclesiological than theological in the pure sense – relates to tradition. We believe, and especially the many Anglo-Catholics among us, that such a break with catholic and universal Christian tradition that the Robinson consecration constituted is a mighty and awesome thing. To do any thing so completely in discontinuity with what everyone has said everywhere and in every time is simply so ambitious. It feels Promethean to me.

And finally, related to the argument from tradition, there is the ecumenical argument. It is alarming to have split ourselves off from the Roman Catholic Church and almost all the Orthodox Patriarchates, not to mention the large numerical majority of our Anglican co-religionists overseas, especially in the Global South.

Conceptually, neither the ecumenical argument nor the argument from tradition is binding for most theologians, and certainly not for most Protestant ones. That is why I emphasized the first piece of this – the move from low anthropology to final unitarianism. But the ecumenical argument does involve people’s lives, and respect for (millions of) others’. It surely has got to be weighed in and not just portrayed as a sort of primitive reaction to American unilateralism. I think of Janet Jackson’ s Tuesday apology this week to 99 million Super Bowl viewers: "if I have offended anyone..." Both her action and her apology smack of opportunism, and make me sick. Is our church guilty of Janet-Jackson thinking?

Now I began by saying that we need to look at the arguments concerning the issue, at least the losing ones – the ones from "my" side – so we don’t just skip over them in our rush to ecclesiological or structural arguments. I would like to conclude this part of our debate concerning "Anglican comprehensiveness" with a plea, from the position of weakness, to you, and by extension to the Episcopal Church as a whole, and to its bishops in particular.

My plea has a formal side and it has a material side.

The formal side, and I intentionally use philosophical language here in order to be as clear as possible, is a plea for Alternative Episcopal Oversight. Traditional people in the Episcopal Church, in order to feel able to stand and be secure, require a concrete gesture of generosity on behalf of the bishops. This would be to let us sign up with ECUSA bishops, and some overseas Anglican bishops, with whom we feel safe. Most of us, because of the titanic nature of the issues involved in the Gene Robinson consecration, no longer feel we can serve with zeal and in good conscience within the structures of ECUSA. We need the freedom to sign up with bishops and structures – and I do not mean the AMiA, although many of us feel we are being pushed out in that direction – we need the freedom or space to sign up with ECUSA and other overseas Anglican bishops with whose commitments we feel safe. We no longer feel safe in ECUSA.

I should add that my own bishop, Henry Parsley, voted against Robinson’s consecration and has been respectful of the traditional position.

What the ECUSA bishops need to allow us to do is have Alternative Episcopal Oversight on our terms, not on their terms. They need to cede control, for a season and a space, to us, the losers. The concession has got to come from the victors, the ECUSA bishops who have won this most impressive victory at Minneapolis, and not from the losers: us, in other words. I use the language of power here because our Christian faith teaches us that the stronger has always got to give up power to the weaker. That is Grace. God did it. Philippians, Chapter Two enshrines this principle theologically. "...Though he was in the form of God, (he) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant..." (vss. 6-7).

The stronger, I repeat, the stronger, the victor, has to give up control and power to the weaker, the loser, in order for reconciliation, in the Christian sense of the word, to take place. So the formal side of my plea is for ECUSA to allow Alternative Episcopal Oversight without control or condition. My plea is for the bishops to lay aside their fears and trust us to God. I predict that if the bishops were to see their way to conceding this to us, the defensiveness and anger of people on my side would go down by half if not by three-quarters. In fact, if I understand people right, the day we are allowed to "call our own shots" in the area of AEO will be the day we come back to our original loyalty. I predict that. I predict it because it happens that way in love. Which brings me to the material side of my plea.

We are talking about Grace, or love, here. In relationships with people you love, you often do what they want to do simply because they want to do it. If my wife has an interest that I regard as dumb – let’ s just imagine! – I still need to make it, at least somehow, my interest. Not because of the interest itself – not at all – but because of my love for her. The ECUSA bishops need to give us what we so obviously, urgently, and desperately need, out of love. Not because of anything else. It has been astonishing to me, after almost 30 years ordained service in the Episcopal Church, that almost none of my old friends who are now Episcopal bishops or leaders on the ascendant side have reached out, personally. Ian Douglas is a significant exception.

The material principle behind the formal concept of Alternative Episcopal Oversight is, simply put, love.

There are so many illustrations in life of the principle of love from the stronger to the weaker. Lincoln’ s choice of "Dixie" as the song to be played by the White House band on the night that word arrived of Lee’ s surrender at Appomattox; the amazing overture of the Catholic President of the Republic of Ireland, John Bruton, to the Protestant Orangemen at Drumcree in the historic stand-off at Portadown in 1999; the simple miracles of reconciliation that happen every day in marriages and families and friendships throughout the world of our common life. Do you remember that line in John Ford’s 1939 legendary masterpiece, Stagecoach, when the whisky drummer beseeches the bickering passengers on the coach, just before the Indian attack as it turns out, to "have a little Christian charity"? The point is extremely important.

With the formal side of my plea granted, rooted and rooted only in the material principle of Christian love from the stronger to the weaker, the whole situation we are in would turn around. With its not being granted, I think I might safely predict that almost every traditionalist Episcopal minister and priest in the United States will no longer feel able to serve in ECUSA. There is a dire reality we are looking at. It is also a promising new future out there if the church can heed this plea.

Thank you very much.

The Very Rev. Dr. Paul F. M. Zahl is Dean of the Cathedral Church of the Advent, Birmingham, Alabama. This lecture was given as part of the Episcopal Church Foundation Fellows Forum, titled "Reconstructing Anglican Comprehensiveness".

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