A Letter to the Editor of The New York Times
Bishop John Spong’s ringing indictment (Anglicans Get Literal, Op-Ed, Thursday, August 13, 1998) of what he calls the Anglican Church, which is in fact not a church but a communion of largely self-governing national churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, sounds similar to voices heard some years ago when the ordination of women was approved in the Episcopal Church. That moment too was regarded by some as the death of Anglicanism.
The truth is that Anglicanism is far more resilient than any one action would suggest, and Lambeth Conferences, which are advisory not legislative, have with the passage of time changed their mind on a number of sensitive and controversial subjects. I rather doubt, therefore, that we have heard the last word on the subject of homosexuality, inasmuch as the pertinent resolution states that “while rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture,” at the same time “we commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons.” That process of listening, which is well under way in some places of the Anglican Communion, has yet to begin in others, particularly those in which homosexuality is viewed as a Western phenomenon.
Just as Canterbury Cathedral, the symbolic center of the Anglican Communion, is a unity made up of a broad diversity of architectural styles representing different historical moments, and the whole building is held together by a dynamic of stress and counterstress, so too is the Anglican Communion: its various distinctive parts press against one another and thereby sustain each other in a creative tension which is integral to its unity.
The context in which one church or province of the Anglican Communion seeks to interpret and live the gospel may be very different from the context and application of that same gospel in another province. What appears to be good news in one culture may be perceived to be bad news elsewhere. This is not to suggest that a particular culture determines the truth of the Christian message, but rather to make the point that our life experience is the lens through which we read the Scripture and assess the tradition that has sustained the Church throughout its two thousand years of history. We see this in Scripture itself: Time and again historical circumstances provoked a fresh reading and new and usually more hospitable interpretations of the very texts and traditions by which the community of faith has previously understood itself. And so it is even unto our own day; and so it will be in the future, as God’s boundless imagination continues to draw us into an ever-unfolding future.
Because the Episcopal Church in the United States is part of the larger Anglican Communion, it does not exist of and to itself. Its own struggles to discern God’s authentic desire in the midst of all the stresses and strains which are part of our national life must always be placed in a larger context which includes the more drastic struggles which are confronting our Anglican brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. The burden of international debt which is crushing so many developing nations was a major consideration at the Lambeth Conference, sadly overshadowed in the press by sex.
As a national church it is important that we both bear witness to what we perceive God is up to in our own country and faith community, while at the same time being open to receive what God is working out in other parts of the communion as well.
Such a stance requires patience, humility – the willingness to receive from the truth of the other – mutual affection and an authentic desire to meet Christ in one another. God’s truth is multifaceted and larger than any one person’s or local church’s experience. In order to move toward the fullness of truth, which for Christians is found in humanity in Christ, we need one another. Seeking truth is a corporate enterprise and therefore as a church and as a communion, we must discern truth together guided by the Spirit of truth who, according to the Gospel of John, draws from what is Christ’s and makes it known in fresh ways and new contexts.
What is so sure and seemingly decided today may, as the future unfolds, become a new question which can only be answered by being lived over time in fidelity to the motions of the Spirit and the concrete circumstances in which it presents itself. Sexuality may be one of those questions, one which the Church has always found difficult because sexuality is not an abstraction, an “it”; sexuality is a fundamental aspect of who we are and how we understand ourselves as persons.
With regard to Bishop Spong’s declaration that this year’s Lambeth Conference marks the sunset of the Anglican Church, I can only respond with some words of an Anglican poet, T.S. Eliot. They come from his play Murder in the Cathedral which was performed several times in Canterbury Cathedral during the conference: “This is but one moment/But know that another/Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy/When the figure of God’s purpose is made complete.”
What the Anglican Communion under God has yet to become I do not know, but if part of its vocation is, as I believe, to live and struggle openly with the questions which confront the age in which we live in the light of Scripture, reason and tradition in a context of worship and common prayer, then I am confident that God’s purpose will ultimately be made complete not in a sunset, but in a moment of joy.
The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA