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WILLIAMS: "If truth is put before unity; unity truly and acutely suffers."

WILLIAMS: "If truth is put before unity; unity truly and acutely suffers."

Remarks made by the Archbishop of Canterbury to the ACC Conference in Nottingham

NOTTINGHAM (6/20/2005)--"So for some we have a problem of the Church accepting a set of false premises, a wrong and unbiblical picture of human nature; for others a problem of communicating with human beings where they actually are; in terms they can grasp ... the question is how far the concern for reaching an understanding with the world about sexual ethics is based on uncritical acceptance of the values of a [modern] culture ... [Some] may have to recognise that there is a difference between campaigning for civil equality and declaring discipline or defining holiness for the Church of Christ, a difference between including all who come to Christ and being indifferent to how human lives are actually challenged and altered by him.

Very tentatively, I believe that this is how we should see our situation. Christian teaching about sex is not a set of isolated prohibitions; it is an integral part of what the Bible has to say about living in such a way that our lives communicate the character of God. Marriage has a unique place because it speaks of an absolute faithfulness, a covenant between radically different persons, male and female; and so it echoes the absolute covenant of God with his chosen, a covenant between radically different partners. Those who have criticised the blessing of same-sex partnerships have been trying, I think, to say that we cannot change what we say about marriage without seriously upsetting what you might call the ecology of our teaching, the balance of how we show and speak of God.

They would say that blessing same-sex unions has this effect, and that without such blessing people living in such unions are at least in tension with the common language of the church. And living in this tension is not a good basis for taking on the responsibilities of leadership, especially episcopal leadership, what ever latitude wee allow to conscience and pastoral discretion ion particular instances among our people. This, incidentally, is broadly the view of the authors of the "St Andrew's Day Statement" of 1997, which remains a helpful reference point, managing to avoid a bitter politicising of the dispute. It's method deserves more imitation than it has received.

So there are two issues coming out of this that need patient study. What is the nature of a holy and Christ like life for someone who has consistent homosexual desires? And what is the appropriate discipline to be applied to the personal life of the pastor in the church? The last Lambeth Conference concluded that the reasons just outlined made it impossible to justify a change in existing practice and discipline; and the majority voice of the Communion holds firmly to this decision.

It is possible to uphold this decision and still say that there are many unanswered questions in the theological picture just outlined, and that a full discussion of these needs a far more careful attention to how homosexual people see themselves and their relations. The Lambeth Resolution called for just this. It also condemned in clear terms, as did earlier Lambeth Conference, the Windsor Report and the Primates' Dromantine Statement, violent and bigoted language about homosexual people - and this cannot be repeated too often. It is possible to uphold Lambeth '98 and to oppose the shocking persecution of homosexuals in some countries, to defend measures that guarantee their civil liberties. The question is not about that level of acceptance, but about what the Church requires in it's ordained leaders and what patterns of relationship it will explicitly recognise as unquestionably revealing of God. On these matters, the Church is not persuaded that change is right. And where there is a strong scriptural presumption against change, a long consensus of teaching in Christian history, and a widespread ecumenical agreement, it may well be thought that change would need an exceptionally strong critical mass to justify it.

That, I think, is where the Communion as a whole stands. That is why actions by some provinces have caused outrage and hurt. To invite, as does the Windsor document, those provinces to reconsider is not to say that there are no issues to be resolved, no prejudice to be repented of (because there unquestionably is much of this); it is not to reject the idea of an "inclusive" Church or to canonise an unintelligent reading of the Bible. It is to say that actions taken in sensitive matters against the mind of the Church cannot go unchallenged while the Church's overall discernment is as it is without injuring the delicate fabric of relations within the Church and so compromising its character.

It is said that there are times when Christians must act prophetically, ahead of the consensus and that this is such a time for some of our number. We should listen with respect to what motivates this conviction. But we also have to say that it is in the very nature of a would-be prophetic act that we do not yet know whether it is an act of true prophecy or an expression of human feeling only. To claim to act prophetically is to take a risk. It would be strange if we claimed the right to act in a risky way and then protested because that risky act was not universally endorsed by the Church straight away. If truth is put before unity - to use the language that is now common in discussing this - you must not be surprised if unity truly and acutely suffers.

What, I wonder, so we imagine God saying to us at the end of things? Not, I think, "Did you successfully negotiate the structural and ethical problems of the Anglican Communion?" but perhaps, "Did you so live in the experience of the Church, the Body of my Son, that a tormented world saw the possibility of hope and of joy?" "Did you focus afresh on the one task the Church has to perform - living Christ in such a way that his news, his call, is compelling? The Orthodox Church at the Liturgy prays for "A good answer before the terrible judgement seat of Christ"; we might well pray the same, as we pray for the wisdom to know how to speak to each other in this meeting so that we speak at the same time to the world Christ loves and longs for."


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