Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Larger Implications of the Redding Controversy

It's easy in the midst of the controversy concerning the Rev. Ann Holmes Redding (the Diocese of Olympia clergyperson who considers herself to be both Muslim and Christian) to get so engrossed in the trees that you lose the bird's-eye view of the forest. Yes, her bishop's apparent (according to the Seattle Times) acceptance of her dual faiths is dismaying. But both Redding and the inclusive “local option” for dual faiths among clergy have a deeper significance: they are perhaps the most telling illustrations of where the Episcopal Church at a whole is now with relation to its place in the larger Anglican Communion.

Just as Redding views her conversion to Islam as a “calling … very much … about my identity and who I am supposed to be,” the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church recently told the Anglican Communion, “in truth the only thing we really have to offer [to the communion] is who we are.”

This statement came from the council’s June14 letter, “The Episcopal Church’s Commitment to Common Life in the Anglican Communion,” issued near the end of a June 11–14 meeting in Parsippany, NJ. In the letter, the Executive Council—as the House of Bishops did in a resolution last March—communicates its desire to maintain relationships with other Anglicans. The primates of Anglican Communion provinces have given the House of Bishops in the Episcopal Church until September 30 to assure the rest of the communion that in the future (a) the House of Bishops will not consent to the consecration of any bishop living in a same-sex relationship, and (b) bishops will not authorize same-sex blessings.

The council goes on to describe the denomination as a “community” of sincere Christians seeking God’s will who “cannot tell our brothers and sisters with certainty … where the Holy Spirit will guide this Church.” But without a radical reversal of direction, and with more and more orthodox Anglicans leaving the denomination (thus giving progressives even less opposition than they’ve encountered in the past few decades), the Episcopal Church’s direction toward increasingly heterodox theology and social witness seems abundantly clear.

That direction is clearly marked out by the Episcopal Church’s actions over the last four years:

* "Who we are”—the church that consented to the consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop and approved same-sex blessings as a local option partially as a reaction against the 1998 Lambeth conference, which upheld normative Anglican teaching concerning sexuality and marriage

* “Who we are”—the church that not only consented to Robinson’s consecration but proceeded with it even when many primates warned the denomination ahead of time that doing so would cause “tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level”

* "Who we are”—the church that insisted at its 75th General Convention in 2006 that it had only “strained” relationships in the Anglican Communion (the primates chose a very different word in their February communiqué, substituting “damaged” for “strained”)

* “Who we are”—the church whose House of Bishops in March of this year identified gay and lesbian rights as an essential part of its “gospel”

* “Who we are”—the church that continues to ignore the requests of the primates as same-sex blessings continue at the local level

And the council concludes its letter with these words: “We believe [t]he Episcopal Church can only offer who we are, with openness, honesty, integrity, and faithfulness, and our commitment never to choose to walk apart.”

Aye, there’s the rub. Implicitly, the council is arguing for the Episcopal Church as a local option in the Anglican Communion—a local option that is free to pursue its own path and continue to go against the mind of the larger communion. It is not asking for other Anglican Communion provinces to take the same path at this time, but it wants to be accepted for “who we are.”

Of course, the council does not want the Episcopal Church to “walk apart” from the Anglican Communion in the sense of consciously choosing to disassociate from the communion. (Orthodox Anglicans hold that the Episcopal Church already has “walked apart” by departing from Scripture and traditional Anglican teaching, and by failing to respond sufficiently to the rest of the Anglican Communion.) Doing so would mean a loss of both worldwide influence and mission. Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has argued in recent months that the church can better influence the larger Christian body by staying within the Anglican Communion.

But neither does the council want the Episcopal Church to curb its sense of progressive justice. There is no mention in the council’s letter of any change for the good of the larger Anglican Communion or the larger body of Christ. The best that the council offers is assurances that the primates have been heard and taken seriously, and that “[t]he advice of the larger community will continue to find reflection in the actions we take.” But when has the Episcopal Church in the last four years truly heeded the primates’ “advice,” much less their “requests”?

The end result of this identity crisis seems to be a church where almost anything can go at the local level, a church that pursues (from a progressive point of view) ever-new revelation from God without the boundaries historically maintained by orthodox faith and practice. It’s a church where, as seems true for Rev. Ann Holmes Redding, a conviction of a local call from God trumps the understanding and faith of the wider body of Christ. Under such circumstances, both Redding and the idea of dual faiths as a local option for Episcopal clergy provide a picture-perfect illustration of the Episcopal Church’s own identity quest as a local option in the Anglican Communion, one consumed with"who we are."

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