Is the Anglican Church about to spilt?
“The Conversation” recently published an article co-authored by Dorothy Ann Lee, Stewart Research Professor of New Testament, Trinity College Melbourne, and Muriel Porter, Honorary Research Fellow, Trinity College Theological School, University of Divinity, under the heading “Is the Anglican Church about to split? It is facing the gravest threat to its unity in more than 200 years”. Both writers are highly respected and credentialed, so what they have written deserves serious attention.
The context of their article is a decision by the Anglican Church’s Appellate Tribunal on November 11 to uphold the right of Dioceses to bless same sex marriages that have already been formalised in a civil ceremony. The Appellate Tribunal is the highest court of the Anglican Church with national weight, capable of deciding ecclesiastical matters. The decision was a 5-1 majority.
If our two scholarly authors are correct, the consequence would be far more serious than the inevitable feeding of lawyers with questions of identity, property ownership etc for years to come. Much more serious would be the utter irrelevance of the Church itself. The world has already moved on. Same sex unions have acceptance amongst most Australians as shown by the plebiscite. The seeming narrowness, indeed pettiness of debate in the Church is not simply a matter of yawning irrelevance to most Australians, worse, it is offensive. Who wants to be part of Church which priorities divisive judgement on sexuality and gender whilst remaining silent on far more serious matters such as growing global financial inequity, world poverty, racism, intolerance, violence, and climate change?
This tribunal judgement will not so much cause division but serve to illustrate a chasm that already exists, a chasm both within the Church and between the Church and civil society. This chasm is epitomised and characterised in the public mind, as a cause of exclusion, division, even violence. The chasm does not exist exclusively or even primarily in the Anglican Church. It exists in one form or another across all word religions and within all Christian denominations.
On one side of the chasm are those who, through their sacred texts and traditions, are wedded to favoured and piously held certainties, however illogical, unreasonable, and exclusive. The certainties of radicalised Islam are all too painfully and violently obvious, experienced by many through terrorism. The certainties of Zionism have led to the stealing of Palestinian land and the painful denial of their human rights. The certainties of Hinduism and Buddhism have led to conflict in Sri Lanka, India, and Myanmar. The certainties of Roman Catholicism are all too apparent in the struggles of Pope Francis to rise above the historically expanded and elitist accretions of canon law and Vatican bureaucracy. The certainties of America’s evangelical right blind them to all the moral failings of the Trump era. Etc.
Certainty is the diet of populism. It is nourished by fear and the need for identity which makes the adherent different, if not superior to others. There will never be a shortage of those who long for certainty, particularly in times of adversity. Some of the most egregious forms of religious manipulation of the human longing for certainty are found in assertions that seek to describe eternal destiny in terms of those included, and those excluded. The utterances of Israel Folau, supported by the Australian Christian Lobby and the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, are amongst the most recently notorious.
Certainty is also about power. Political parties trade in promises of certainty. Religious groups, through the carrot of certainty, attract membership, promising some the prospect of wealth in this world as well as an eternal destiny.
On the other side of the chasm are those adherents of faith whose lives and attitudes can best be seen through the prism of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil and Martin Luther King. Bonhoeffer was deeply conscious of the paradoxes of life. He coined the phrase “Religion-less Christianity”, meaning that Christianity is not primarily about religious doctrine, liturgical formation and ministerial or priestly office, but commitment to the path that love demands. If the only certainty worthy of the name is that God is love, and that love is the only transformative power that matters, then most other certainties simply get in the way.
Those who flirt with certainty flirt also with dualism, which Christianity denies. At the heart of the Christian faith is belief that God in Jesus embraces the world in its entirety. Those whose company I yearn to keep on my side of the chasm know that this finite world is a messy place, but because it is loved by God it must be loved by us too. Engaging with it for its transformation and redemption is a messy business, but it is the road less travelled and the only worthy route. It was the prophet Micah who posed the rhetorical question “What does the Lord require of you?” and then answered it with “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God”.
We live in a world in which it has become acceptable to equate opinion with fact, to disallow appropriate authority if it is in some way inconvenient. Those on the other side of the chasm to the path I walk accuse me of fudging, of not taking the bible seriously. I would argue the reverse. By giving single verses authority, scripture is diminished. In the matter of sexual identity and practice, overwhelming scriptural condemnation falls on those who abuse, who use sexuality as an instrument of power, who seek gratification at the expense of others, who separate sexual expression from relational commitment. This condemnation falls equally across sexual and gender identification.
The real crisis facing the Church is not potential division over gender and sexuality but over the reality that the scandal of child sexual abuse has so tarnished the name of the Church that whatever it may wish to say on almost any subject is devalued. Similarly, religious leadership has become so buffeted by the storm that its voice on issues that really matter have become inaudible. The real crisis facing the Church is not its internal squabbles, but that it is irrelevant, not engaged as Jesus was with the world in all its complexity, but has retreated to the comfort of its ecclesiastical internalities.
Covid 19 has been a challenge to the Church as it has been to the rest of society. But it has also been a blessing. It has become transparently obvious that some aspects of life we thought to have been indispensable are not, whereas values such as intimacy, connectedness, care of others, neighbourliness, nourishment of the inner spirit are basic. Only time will tell whether the Church, will possess the vision and grace to transform itself away from meaningless and divisive internal wrangling, based on dubious exegesis, to a more attractive life-giving network of Jesus followers.