The last few days haven’t been great for those whose vocation forces them to speak to the public at large whilst simultaneously seeking to appease various factions within their own constituency.
Mrs. May and Archbishop Justin have both had an extraordinarily difficult and, I daresay, personally uncomfortable week. They both carry a similar burden; the burden of seeking to reconcile the irreconcilable. They are presumably both aware that the very different factions who cohabit under the banners Conservative and Anglican have widely different hopes and expectations from their leader. And, I suspect, if they were to speak candidly they would both have to acknowledge the limitations of leadership and the notion that all manner of things can be institutionally planned, managed and controlled.
There is a real sense that the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury are being pushed and controlled from behind. Don’t say it too loud because to do so is to undermine the very ideology and cult of leadership but, that’s often what happens to ‘leaders.’ If it happens over an extended time ‘leaders’ become mere figureheads or even puppets.
I don’t know what Mrs. May can do from this point to make things better for the country, her party and her own sense of well-being but I have an inkling that there is something that Archbishop Justin can do. In fact, I think that if the Anglican Communion, perhaps even the Church of England, is to hold together and press onwards in proclamation of the gospel then the Archbishop has to do, or say, something that provides the possibility of better conversations and a new way ahead, for there will come a time when one side or the other will force the Archbishop of Canterbury to declare his, or possibly in the future her, hand. Archbishop Justin might be able to hold the line that he really can’t speak his mind on matters of ‘human sexuality,’ (which is code for homosexuality) but I very much doubt that this is a luxury, or is it really a burden, that his successors will be afforded.
So what can Justin, or a future Archbishop of Canterbury, do since it has been acknowledged that various views on homosexuality are irreconcilable?
I think that the first thing that the Archbishop should do is to state that homosexuality is not a first order, that is to say salvation, issue and that this is the Church of England’s unequivocal position. The Archbishop should do so in the full and certain knowledge that some in the Anglican communion, and in the Church of England, will disagree. In fact they will leave. But, is the concern of leadership the retention of a false and insecure unity? I don’t believe it to be.
The Archbishop should however take the leading role in the church’s teaching on salvation issues. The Archbishop as an heir to the reformation should state that we are saved through grace and faith and not works. Equating same sex relationships and same sex marriage to salvation is a retrograde step back towards a theology of salvation by works.
The Archbishop could then suggest, and many Primates and Bishops won’t like this, that the theological positions held by Archbishops and Bishops, are also of second order ecclesial significance. Archbishops aren’t monarchs, bishops aren’t princes or princesses, and we don’t have a magisterium.
It should also be abundantly clear by now that all attempts, both within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, to manage the sexuality journey have failed. Sanctions and consequences issued by the Primates have proved to be toothless, hence pointless, and the Bishop’s Report to General Synod was kicked into the long grass. In fact the sanctions, or are they consequences, have only succeeded in promoting the theology and ecclesial polity they sought to dampen.
The responses of the Presiding Bishop of the T.E.C. and the Primus of the S.E.C. to their ‘exclusion’ have been graceful, eloquent, resolute, measured, and humane. They have stood in stark contrast to other voices. I daresay that should the Anglican Church of Canada introduce legislation to facilitate same-sex marriage the stock of their leaders will also rise. Sanctions clearly have the effect of leading to unintended consequences.
The Archbishop inhabits a dangerous place because he, or she, cannot make any promises whatsoever on the direction of travel in the Church of England. It is simply not in the gift of the office holder and that is why it was unfortunate that the Archbishop of Canterbury sought to placate the Primates before the now infamous report was discussed, and rejected, at synod. This was a significant strategic error.
The direction of travel in the church, or should I say directions of travel, are being set not from above but from below (and the very fact that Archbishops and Bishops don’t feel able to express their own view is evidence of the collapse in top down approaches to management and leadership in either the development or non development of doctrine, depending on the different directions of travel being taken). If the issue is of second order doctrinal significance it surely should follow that an archbishop or bishops own view is also of second order (ecclesial) importance? Doctrine and ecclesiology should be held together in a relationship characterized by equivalence?
If it is accepted that human sexuality is a second order doctrinal issue, and hence also a second order ecclesial issue, then the possibility exists to promote the principle of subsidiarity as the guiding virtue.
Subsidiarity’s concern is that second order decisions are taken at the local level. Under this scheme the Archbishops and bishops leadership role is to foster and promote subsidiarity; their own personal position being of secondary importance. Subsidiarity is also a close bed fellow (excuse the pun) of flourishing. Subsidiarity allows communities which co-habit under the same banner (Anglican, Church of England) to come to different conclusions and adopt different forms of practice.
Subsidiarty’s genius is its ability to reconcile the irreconcilable. It is able to do this because it doesn’t make the category error of translating uniformity as unity. Subsidiarity doesn’t celebrate relativism but endorses a non binary acceptance of divergent integrities. Subsidiarity is a virtue that Church of England bishops commended in their pre 2015 General Election state of the nation letter.
Subsidiarity is the virtue that the S.E.C. has prized above all in its polity. As the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church explained to the Primates the ‘‘nature of the decision reached by the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church is such as to allow those of different views to walk together.’’ Shouldn’t creating the conditions where those of different views can walk together be the very essence of episcopal leadership? Have the S.E.C. paradoxically, despite being placed on Anglicanism’s naughty boy step, shown the Communion (and the Church of England) a new and better way ahead? Isn’t subsidiarity in any case supposed to be one of Anglicanisms animating virtues? Isn’t it the case that provinces aren’t supposed to meddle in the affairs of other provinces? The notion of subsidiarity is therefore enshrined in the communion’s mode of praxis. Are the notion of consequences and sanctions therefore a repudiation of Anglican polity and evidence of mandate drift?
Subsidiarity is also one of those virtues that is sometimes simply claimed from below as provinces and communities stake their right to do that which they believe to be right. The actions of the T.E.C. and S.E.C. validate this point as do the actions of the C of E congregations who already offer services of recognition and affirmation for same-sex couples. This trend is likely to grow, irrespective of any sanctions threatened. That is the real theo-politic of the situation. Surely its is far better to go with the grain?
I would want to strongly argue that from this point in history a Church of England bishop who doesn’t actively promote the notion of subsidiarity stands little or no chance of either leading from the front or of being a focus for unity. Of course not everyone will want to accept the living out of ecclesial subsidiarity in relation to second order issues. Some will always prefer top down approaches, some theo-political types will seek to continue leading their archbishops and bishops from behind, however, if the archbishops and bishops were to promote subsidiarity in relation to this most contentious of second order issues the integrity of bishops as leaders might just be preserved and even enhanced. This is important because their stock is at present pretty low. Both within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion there is a crisis of episcopacy.
Yes, whatever the Archbishop of Canterbury says will provoke dissent and derision, that goes with the turf, and yes some will choose to leave the Anglican Communion and the Church of England, but that too goes with the turf. But, there will also be a large and diverse group that rallies behind the Archbishop and who commit to helping create a new, smaller, and better thing.
This group of committed Anglicans will hold different views but will happily co-exist based on the surety that issues of human sexuality are of second order sotoriological and ecclesial importance and that twin integrities can be held together through a prior commitment to the notion of subsidiarity.
Surely the time has come to stop worrying about the size and supposed uniformity of the thing because, as stated, whatever Justin and his successors say or don’t say, believe or don’t believe, splits are inevitable, more ‘missionary bishops’ will be consecrated, some churches will insist on alternative oversight, some provinces will leave to create a new denomination? Rather than worrying about the size and uniformity of the thing is it instead time to focus on the quality of the thing?
Is subsidiarity the route to Anglicanism’s salvation?