Anglican Sacred, Anglican Profane

by - 31st July 2008

Briane TurleyArchbishop Rowan Williams' recent pleas for ‘engagement’ among deeply divided members of the Anglican Communion, while thoughtful and heartfelt, indicate in fresh ways his inability or unwillingness to grasp the scope of the problem confronting him.  Dr Williams has, I believe, done all that he is personally capable of doing to address the breakup that now seems inevitable. By this, I do not mean that more could not have been done to avert schism. To the contrary, I remain deeply convinced that the dissolution of the Anglican Communion is tragic because it could so easily have been avoided. Yet given his native theological and anthropological convictions, the current Archbishop of Canterbury has done all that we may expect of him.

Dr Williams is unable to accomplish more than he has because, as his public writings indicate, he personally believes that although the ongoing innovative actions of the Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada are provocative and ecclesiologically irresponsible, they are not profane. His convictions in this regard effect two intractable problems. A man of some integrity, Williams cannot bring himself to describe homoeroticism as in any sense perverted or sinful. On the other hand, his stance makes it equally impossible for him to apprehend why the great majority of Christendom, including a clear majority within the Communion, are so deeply scandalized by what is happening in the North American and British churches. In 1989, Williams himself observed, ‘It is impossible, when we're trying to reflect on sexuality, not to ask just where the massive cultural and religious anxiety about same-sex relationships that is so prevalent at the moment comes from. . .’ [1]

Williams seeks some sort of compromise among factions that formed years ago. But his hopes for any sort of meaningful engagement leading to unity—perhaps some sort of Hegelian synthesis—are illusory. And so we Anglicans are witnessing what happens when groups within our own ranks assume diametrically opposing positions on what is and what is not sacred, what may be described as ‘the holy’ and what may be deemed by many as ‘the profane.’

After years of debate, we whom Dr Williams describes as the ‘religiously anxious’ began to recognize that many Western Anglicans seem unable to get their minds around how very serious the overturning of sacred things really is. Only days before Gene Robinson's episcopal election was confirmed in 2003, Virginia Bishop Peter Lee sent a letter to his diocese in which he described human sexuality as a ‘peripheral’ matter for Christians. Whether one agrees with what The Episcopal Church has accomplished in the last five years, any reasonable person must now concede that Lee could not possibly have been more wrong on this point.  The departure of his largest and most prestigious parishes serve as a constant reminder that this otherwise decent man made a terrible and tragic miscalculation. To the best of my knowledge, Lee has never retracted his teaching.

At both theological and sociological levels, Lee failed to recognize the religious centrality of his subject.  Indeed, for the vast majority of Christendom, the institution of marriage between a male and a female is far more than a peripheral, theological nicety but is, to the contrary, a sacramental concern, and as such it lies at the very core of what it means to be Christian.

Why are Christians so determined to believe this way? In both the Old and New Testaments, marriage serves as the central biblical metaphor for God's covenant with humanity. This covenant is consistently portrayed as a union between beings who are fundamentally different: God and humanity, man and woman. Consequently, chaste, heterosexual marriage ascended to the level of ‘the Holy’ a long, long time ago and is deeply etched into the religious consciousness of Christians and (and, in fact, other religious groups) throughout the world. As Gerald R. McDermott has observed, in the minds and hearts of most Christians, homoeroticism, like pagan religion, joins two beings which are fundamentally the same—man with man, and man with a god created in the image of man.

Even at a fundamental, utilitarian level, it strikes me as unfortunate that Lee and others who eschew biblical teachings on this subject miscalculated the backlash of their actions. It is equally unfortunate that at the very least they had not devoted a little attention to reading social scientists, reductionist and otherwise.  For example, sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that the function of religion is to help bind society with a single set of sacred beliefs and values, which reflect a collective and society-strengthening consciousness.  Because they are by nature ‘sacred’, these areas of sacramental interest are in many respects more real to Christians than those things logical positivists discern as ‘real’.

The present Communion crisis results in large measure because Anglican Communion leaders have forgotten, or perhaps have tried to ignore, the havoc a sudden overturning of sacred symbols can wreak on societies and the institutions within those societies.  Few who objectively study religion will deny that the religious tend to respond quickly and decisively to actions deemed as blasphemous (that is to say, declaring holy that which the religious perceive to be unholy). The widespread frustration directed toward Williams and much of the West demonstrates that the religious sociologists are right. I fail to understand how a man with Dr Williams' acumen misses this fundamental principle.

It is critical that those of us who believe what has happened reflects sin continue to convey biblical truth in love. Moreover, we should be honest with theological innovators about how their actions affect us and why this is so. Our understanding of what is holy in God's sight is under attack. I am fully convinced that the actions of the last two General Conventions in the US sent orthodox Anglicans a message not unlike the one conveyed to the Israelis by early second-century Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes when he slaughtered a pig upon their temple altar, or the message Andres Serrano’s infamous photograph ‘Piss Christ’ expressed so graphically to orthodox Christians and even sympathetic Jews and Muslims when it first received US Federal support several years ago.  In some respects, the activities of the Anglican innovators are being perceived as something much worse because the blasphemous actions have come from within the believers’ own camp.

This explains why our current situation is far more vehement than would be the worldwide reaction to what Williams describes as ‘pressure for a new baptismal formula or the abandonment of formal reference to the Nicene Creed in a local church’s formulations.’ While these matters are contentious in their own right, Williams' attempts to juxtapose them with primary orthodox concerns (ecumenical and internal) reveals the stratospheric height of his ivory tower. For example, the 1979 US Prayerbook clearly mistranslates the Nicene Creed. And while many of us are aware of the problems this creates, our protests have hardly caused a ripple on the pond.

Most people hold some thing or things sacred. Certainly Dr Williams does. I sometimes wonder how he might approach an Anglican province that suddenly declared pederasty holy, an institution that is to be celebrated within that region's ‘context,’ and then installed as bishop a pederast who cohabitates with a 15-year-old. This may not be a helpful analog as pederasty, now linked to age of consent laws, is growing increasingly acceptable in the West and already may not rise to the level of the profane in the minds of many Anglican leaders in the US, UK, and Canada. Perhaps polygamy, or committed-bisexual-complex marriage arrangements, or any number of other possible sexual configurations might. At any rate, I am relatively certain that there are practices that Dr Williams and many of the current ‘moderates’ would find so reprehensible within their church that they would muster a disciplinary response that in our current crisis they tell us is simply impossible.

For the orthodox, whose epistemes (how we know what we know) can be found only in scripture and the Apostolic heritage, the sexual innovations of the Western churches present much more than a difficult challenge; they rise to the level of blasphemy. Yes, many of us openly confess our conviction that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is sin. Consequently, a church that conflates sin with righteousness, purveys not blessings but damnation and has ceased being a church at all.  Its bishops, we believe, no longer feed their flocks but--in violation of their vows--’devour them’. Western leadership's inability to grasp why their actions appall so many Christians suggests a total lack of connection with their flocks and the entire Christian world.

Dr Williams depicts these differences in terms of a ‘painful current debate,’ while the majority of Christians have concluded that the differences constitute untenable deviations from God's truth.  This explains why Williams' religiously anxious Global South neighbors have now implemented their own instrument of unity and are already moving forward with, or without, Western Anglicans.

Jesus has sent us out ‘in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.’ Remain aware that Western church officials will now step up efforts to parody and demonize those determined to honor absolute standards of Christian holiness. Williams' speech points to his own cultural myth, a simplified narrative that  divides 80 million Anglicans into two camps: the relativist West and those willing to tolerate its ‘differences’ on the one hand, and an uncompromising Global South on the other, a camp that ignorantly ‘cling[s] to one dimension of the truth revealed.’

Subtly couched in this speech, the Archbishop fires an early volley into those who did not attend Lambeth when he depicts the handful of Global Southern bishops who attended the conference as saying, ‘we are here. We’ve taken a risk in coming, because many who think like us feel we’ve betrayed them just by meeting you. But we value our Communion, we want to understand you and we want you to understand us.’ At best, this straw-man characterization suggests that those who did not attend do not value the Communion. At worse it indicates that from Williams' postmodernist perspective, their unyielding perceptions of the holy are no longer quaint; they are junk.


[1] From ‘The Body’s Grace’ -  The 10th Michael Harding Memorial Address given by Rowan Williams to the Lesbian and Gay Christians, 1989.

Briane K Turley is Rector of Church of the Holy Spirit Anglican in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He received his Ph.D. in Modern European and American Religious History from the University of Virginia and was the recipient of two Fulbright Lectureship Awards during his career as a Professor at West Virginia University.