[The full report is accessible here. The section under discussion in this post is accessible here. In these posts I am aiming to work my way forward through A Way Forward report, posting on a new section each Monday. Pagination refers to the PDF version of the report.]
What am I trying to achieve with a critical review of A Way Forward report?
My goal here at ADU through these and other posts is that our church might hold together despite severe disagreement. That also is the goal of the report. My questions about the report therefore ask whether the report takes us to that goal or not. If the report does not get us there then I hope that my critical reviews yield some alternative pathway or pathways for consideration. This also is where my friend, colleague and fellow blogger Bosco Peters is heading with his own series of posts on the report (here, here), and notably with a specific suggestion for improvement on what has been proposed, here).
One of the key questions clarifying in my own mind, and for which I thank correspondents "off blog" as well as commenters here, is whether A Way Forward can be found which does not make dissenters in our church, especially does not make dissenters of those who otherwise believe on marriage and human sexuality what the vast majority of Christians (indeed, Anglicans) around the world believe. That is a most odd possibility for a church otherwise acclaiming itself to be orthodox in its understanding of the doctrine of Christ! But the difficulty of resolving these matters is not to be underestimated. Bowman Walton, commenting here a few days ago makes a vital point which motivates us to keep going forward towards resolution:
"And in a few years, ACANZP might stand rather tall for having taken on a tough problem and soldiered on through a murky report and contentious synods, general and diocesan, to a centrist solution that some may criticise but none can improve upon"
Let's see where Section Four of the report takes us this week ...
Section Four is titled "The Theology of ordination and of marriage." It consists of:
- Introduction (9)
- Ordination (9)
- The theology of marriage (9-10)
- The doctrine of marriage (10-11)
- Pastoral Sensitivity (11-12)
The Introduction distinguishes between "the Church's theology of ordination and of marriage, and the statements in Te Pouhere [Constitution], the Formularies [authorised services], and the Canons [rules] which collectively express the Church's doctrine." [italics as given in report]. It then goes on to point out the obvious re theology: it has been changing, it is varied and "no single theological position emerging from these influences could be held to be that of the whole Church, and certainly not belonging to the whole Anglican Communion." It then makes an observation which is currently irrelevant to life in ACANZP (re litigation, none is happening) and an observation which is absolutely relevant to this season in our life: "it is doctrine to which licensed Anglicans register their assent."
The implication seems to be that we need to find a way for assent to doctrine to be able to be given by those who cannot assent to possible change in doctrine. But what does not seem to be addressed is how diverse theologies with none "emerging" to transcend other viewpoints would lead to a change in doctrine! Doctrine on this account is what the church as a whole agrees to (prior to requiring assent to it): so why is there not a reflection on how theology becomes doctrine?
Paragraph on Ordination: rightly this paragraph notes that the general standard re relationships of prospective clergy should not be changed, the standard of "rightly ordered" relationships. Also rightly, in my view, the report proposes that the church should not agree to formally bless a relationship between two people and not count that relationship as "rightly ordered." But that is about all that is right with this paragraph!
Here are my critical questions about the remainder of the paragraph, noting that it jumps to what is proposed without offering explanation of why the proposals are being made.
Q1: In the end, is the report making a change to "the Church's doctrine of marriage" or not?
The consistent wording of the report is that no change is being made (e.g. the next paragraph, at the bottom of p. 9), but, in fact, it does make a change because it offers a new understanding of the incompleteness of a civil marriage between a man and a woman, and it offers an implicit view on the church's evaluation on the status of a civil marriage between two people of the same gender. I sense anecdotally that people are responding to the claim of the report to make no change re doctrine of marriage in that time-honoured and theologically profound declaration of St. Tui the Billboard, "Yeah, right!" There is more to say about this as it comes up again in the report.
Q2: Is allowing Dioceses/Hui Amorangi the choice as to who is "rightly ordered" concomitantly with a choice not to "adopt a rite" "consistent with Anglican ecclesiology and our current doctrine of ordination which vests considerable discretion in Bishops"?
Now, this question of Diocesan choice comes up repeatedly through the report, so this next comment is not my last word on the matter.
Comment: it is actually a "big deal" in Anglican ecclesiology that Dioceses or hui amorangi in ACANZP might decide to adopt a rite or not, otherwise approved by General Synod. For instance, such power to choose diocese-by-diocese is one of the critical distinctions between the ecclesiology of the Australian Anglican church and the ecclesiology of our church (as I understand these things). But we are not the Australian church! That Diocese-by-Diocese choice is a novelty. There is no existing rite of our church which dioceses and hui amorangi are permitted to choose whether they authorise it or not.
Perhaps this is the way forward, but if it is, then could the report please speak more accurately: such Diocese-by-Diocese choice is not consistent with the ecclesiology of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, it is a new step.
The report is on safer ground when it talks about the existing discretion of Bishops when it comes to ordination, but is it accurate when it uses the word "considerable"? After all, the report is trying to overcome an aspect of the bishops' discretion which is not "considerable" because their discretion does not extend to idiosyncratically determining what "chaste" means!
Q3: Why is there no explanation of the focus on civil marriage in the proposed expanded definition of rightly-ordered relationships?
I can understand that the church should address the question of status of civil married same sex couples because that is a change to our society which, whether we agree with it or not, is a change and raises a question or three about our response. Thus, at the least, expanding the definition of rightly-ordered relationships does mean saying whether or not those who are civilly married can be included in that expanded definition. It is also appropriate, potentially, for any report proposing an expanded definition to also propose associated conditions (such as here, that the civil marriage be blessed by the church).
But what is not made clear is why "civil marriage" should be focused on in the way the report proposes. If (as we find later in the report) the civil marriage of two people in a same sex relationship is not deemed to be a "church marriage" (even after blessing in church), we can ask the question whether there could be other ways of coming to church in a covenanted relationship for a blessing, for example, in a civil union or in a legally contracted partnership for life. But at this stage at least, no explanation is given for exclusively focusing on civil marriage in an expanded definition of "rightly ordered" relationships. Without that explanation is difficulty going to arise, for example, if an ordained person, considered to be in a "rightly ordered" relationship in another Anglican jurisdiction (but not otherwise "civilly married"), applies for a position in our church? Is this clergyperson and partner going to need to go through a civil marriage for the sake of an appointment in our church?
The theology of marriage section, pp. 9-10:
The first part of this section, at the bottom of page 9, partly tells us that the working group had a commission not to change the "traditional doctrine of marriage" and thus "there is no change to the existing formularies."
But it also in part tells us that "The group's proposal (in line with its commission) to propose a service for the blessing of same-sex relationships does not (in the view of the majority of the members) impact the current doctrine of marriage."
At this point the report and our church is in a certain kind of difficulty: it has not come to a common mind on a proposal that our church, ideally, would like to come to a common mind on. Can we yet get there? How will we get there is a working group of eminent minds of our church cannot get there?
However it is possible that the last two sentences do express a common mind of the working group:
"It is accepted that the blessing of a relationship has some similarities ... in many ways they are not the same. Neither would a doctrine of same-sex relationships be the same as the doctrine of marriage."
It would be helpful, even in a brief outline of theology within a report which is obviously not devoted to providing a comprehensive theology, to have a sentence or two which clarified what the differences are. The similarities are described in the remainder of this section, at the top of page 10.
The two paragraphs at the top of page 10 are a mix of the agreeable (e.g. "it is reasonable to expect consonance between the virtues ..." and the question begging. When the report concludes with the following sentence, several questions are begged, answers at best hanging in the air, if nowhere to be seen:
"As the Spirit guides the Church into truth, the Christian tradition has discerned godliness in modes of friendship and community, but the discourse of marriage is leaned on (to some considerable extent) to inform a Christian understanding of the relatively new phenomenon of same-sex relationships."
I suggest that sentence begs these questions be explored and discussed:
- what is the nature of "truth" that the Spirit guides the Church into? (A specific related question is whether the Spirit guides the (Anglican) Church into truth which is contrary to Scripture (see Article XX, cited at the foot of this piece).
- Why single out the Christian tradition as discerning godliness in modes of friendship and community? There is a theology of friendship and community in the Old Testament!
- On what basis is the claim made that same-sex relationships are "the relatively new phenomenon"? (See here for some links to same-sex marriage as a "relatively" ancient phenomenon!).
The doctrine of marriage pp. 10-11:
It is agreeable, and faithful to the Anglican tradition, to note as the report does at the beginning of this section that marriage is not a sacrament and certainly not a Sacrament of Christ but is described in our catechism as a "sacramental action."
The next few paragraphs strike me as odd (bottom of p. 10 and top of p. 11). They make an argument that the current ACANZP doctrine is "not of one voice with regard to marriage", expressed as it is in services old and new, that is, in services which assume (for instance) a wife to be will promise obedience to her husband and which assume the "mutuality and equality expected and celebrated in marriage today. But why do these paragraphs not talk about the multiple ways in which our doctrine does speak with one voice (e.g. marriage is instituted by God, between one man and one woman, intended for life)? By not doing so the thrust of the observations is towards impressing on readers that our doctrine is flexible. Indeed the report goes on to say,
"It is suggested that General Synod / Te Hinota Whanui consider whether the principle most important for the Church's conversations today is the spirit of accommodation already contained in church doctrine, as these examples demonstrate."
This is very one-sided towards the accommodation in the doctrine and simply leaves out the possibility that the doctrine also contains non-accommodating aspects. The report cannot envisage the possibility that the non-accommodating aspects might overrule the accommodating aspects when it comes to its next sentence,
"The addition of a further rite of blessing of a same-sex relationship might therefore be seen as congruent with the Church's established practice of accommodating previous understandings of holiness in intimate relationships, and retaining them alongside newer understandings as they emerge, despite the diversity of voices they represent."
That is, we can acknowledge the variance between BCP and NZPB without feeling any necessity to add a rite which concerns a couple who are not differentiated in gender because none of the variance implies any variance on the matter of gender make up of a couple in a blessed intimate relationship. The report at this point actually offers no specific ground on which the church might contemplate "adding" such a rite.
Pastoral Sensitivity (pp. 11-12):
It is quite right and proper that the report acknowledges the various ways and means our church has developed in order to express our pastoral sensitivity in changing times (e.g. people requesting marriage who are not baptised) and to changing circumstances for people (e.g. remarriage after divorce). Effectively this section raises the question, might the church also be pastorally sensitive to the requests of same-sex couples to have their relationships blessed by the church?
But does this section of the report take the church with it as it presents its thoughts? After all, the point of a report such as this is not to convince those already committed to blessing such relationships but to convince those uncertain about whether it is right to do so and to open up minds currently convinced that it is not right to do so to at least consider the possibility that this church might permit such blessings as a choice on the part of its ministers.
The following sentence is a mix of the possibly persuasive and the not yet persuasive!
"This pastoral provision is particularly apposite to the Church's current conversations about same-sex attracted persons, not least because the scriptural strictures against the possibility of divorce and remarriage (coming as they do from words attributed to Jesus) are arguably much stronger than those against same-sex relationships."
The possibly persuasive is that a church which thinks remarriage after divorce is permissible as a "pastorally sensitive" response to the complexities of marriage and differing causes of broken marriages might also think that supporting (sic) same-sex partnerships is also pastorally sensitive.
The not yet persuasive are the implications in the sentence that the differences in the strength of the respective strictures (i.e. against remarriage after divorce, against same-sex relationships) are resolved by "argument", that the exegetical challenges of both kinds of strictures are precisely the same, and that on same-sex relationships the "scriptural strictures" constitute no barrier to deducing that the church acclaim God's blessing on what otherwise appears prohibited. There is a significant minority if not a small majority (in my estimation) in our church who would need persuading on each of these matters.
The final paragraph on p. 11 is also not persuasive when it talks about "the doctrine of marriage implicit in both canons and formularies place the love and holiness of a couple's relationship as prior to absolute or literalistic traditional understandings of marriage."
All kinds of relationships exhibit "love and holiness" (noting this is undefined in this paragraph), from those within the forbidden laws of consanguinity to the polyamorous. No such relationships are now or in the future likely to be considered by our church as "prior to absolute or literalistic traditional understandings of marriage." Further, for many Anglican pastors, the influence of traditional understandings of marriage would lead them to look for more than "love and holiness" in a couple's relationship when they request marriage after one or both have been divorced: penitence, repentance, forgiveness and forgivingness might also be sought! The "feel" of this paragraph, in other words, is of a subtle redefining of what "counts" in a relationship, away from the constitutive aspects of a traditional understanding of marriage (between a man and a woman, intended for life, open to procreation, vowing fidelity) towards something much vaguer. "Love and holiness" is a phrase used with neither term defined, and certainly not the tough term "holiness" which raises significant questions about how the Scriptural strictures against same-sex relationships relate to understanding the holiness of such relationships.
P. 12 provides us with one last paragraph in this section of the report. It continues the failure of this section of the report to signal that it understands the need to reach out persuasively to those in our church who need persuading of what this section of the report assumes without argument.
In the first sentence of the paragraph we find a move made from "manifests a number of virtues" to "thus, can be called a 'Holy Union'." Where does this phrase "Holy Union" come from? What grounds have been advanced in the report to this point to now offer this as a descriptor of same-sex relationships? None that I can see. (That is not to say that this is an inappropriate descriptor, but it is to say that in a church where many people think that same-sex partnerships are not "holy" and, indeed, may not be "unions" (if by that term we are talking about relationships in marital language), then a lot more work has to be done to ensure a favourable reception of such a descriptive phrase than popping it into a final paragraph.
The final sentences in the paragraph beg a question or two in another direction: why cannot same-sex couples who are required by the report/recommendations to be civilly married in order to receive the church's blessing not be married 'in church'? We look to the next section, Section 5, hopefully next Monday morning, for further light on what the report considers marriage to be and not to be. Till then ...
My conclusion to Section 4
As a church we need better than what we have been given in this Section. Particularly, if we are to move from "theology" to "doctrine" (at least in the sense of the former describing our many and varied discussions and the latter describing the theology we "fix" by putting it into words of rites and canons), we need greater substance, more complete discussions than we get here.
In particular, given that one outcome of the report/recommendations is that it could make many ordinary, orthodox Anglican office-holders into formal dissenters (if not catalyse formal schism), we need a lot, lot more said about what the doctrine of marriage and any new additional doctrine placed alongside it means.
THE Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.