TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Anglican Crisis: An Interview with Mary-Jane Rubenstein

Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s article “Anglicans in the Postcolony: On Sex and the Limits of Communion” appeared in Telos 143. In this interview, Telos Press intern Elke Van der Steen asks her some questions.

As you surely well know, over 200 Anglican bishops have chosen to boycott this year’s Lambeth Conference in response to the admittance of homosexuals into the ministry, despite the fact that Gene Robinson, the controversially gay Archbishop of New Hampshire, was not invited. What is your response to the boycott?

It is true that Bishop Robinson was not invited, although he has been allowed to attend as a guest. The reason that this disciplinary gesture has been seen as insufficient is that Canterbury also declined to invite, among a few others, Martin Minns, a white American priest whom the Archbishop of Nigeria consecrated as a bishop of the Nigerian-based Convocation of Anglicans in North America. As usual, Archbishop Rowan is trying to hold the center by chastising both extremes, excluding the people whose appointments have been most controversial across the Anglican spectrum. From the perspective of the Archbishop of Nigeria and his colleagues in CANA, however, it is insulting even to suggest a parity between the two: as they see it, Bishop Robinson’s episcopacy is an offense to Christian orthodoxy while Bishop Minns’s is a defense of it. And the comparison is equally offensive to the progressive wings of the church: from their perspective, Bishop Robinson was consecrated in full accordance with canonical procedure, while Bishop Minns was not.

It is worth noting that Bishop Robinson has responded to this profound slight by showing up anyway and trying to find common ground with the people who oppose him. (See his Lambeth blog.) The slighted bishops of the Global South and American right, by contrast, have refused to engage in further conversation, not only boycotting Lambeth, but also setting up an alternative meeting called the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) in an effort to consolidate the conservative position and, some have argued, to circumvent Canterbury in the process.

In your article, you propose that the Anglican Communion adjust the relation of its members and move toward a community in Nancean terms, which engages in dialogue whose necessary condition is difference. With this in mind, how do you react to Archbishop Rowan William’s decision not to invite Robinson to the conference? What is his role in the lasting reconciliation of the two factions, and establishing harmony within the church?

Archbishop Rowan’s decision was in keeping with the recently commissioned Windsor Report, which argues that a priest ought only to be consecrated as bishop if the priest is someone whom the majority of the communion deems acceptable. I find this suggestion to be gravely misguided because by default, it excludes all sorts of marginalized people from the upper ranks of the ecclesiastical ladder (including women, whom large swathes of the Communion still do not ordain to the priesthood, let alone consecrate as bishops). “It’s fine for the laity to include minority voices,” this position seems to say, “but let’s make sure that priests and especially bishops are all on the same team.”

So it seems to me that Bishop Robinson’s exclusion was a symptom of the Communion’s desire to be a communion in the Nancean sense, that is, homogeneous, undivided, etc. We see this gesture recapitulated in the widespread boycott of Lambeth and the creation of GAFCON; both are efforts to purify Anglicanism—to rid it of the contaminants that interrupt its unanimity. I would argue that Bishop Robinson’s decision to attend Lambeth, by contrast, represents a willingness to be exposed—even to the point of humiliation—to the messiness of being in communion. (See here.) So we’ve got a will toward purity, self-identity, and power, on the one hand, and a willingness to abide disagreement, difference, and vulnerability, on the other. It seems to me that the latter is truer to Anglican practice, chiefly because it lives out the promise of the Eucharist. The Eucharist, it is said, draws into harmony even the most flawed and fragmented of people as it breaks and re-members the body of Christ. But to put it crudely, none of this can work if folks don’t show up.

I would say, then, that Archbishop Rowan missed an enormous opportunity to hold the Communion together when he condoned certain Primates’ refusal to share the Eucharist with the Episcopal Church’s former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and its current Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. “Okay,” the Archbishop responded (in more or less so many words). “It seems that we can’t all be sisters and brothers in Christ. But can we at least be friends?” If I could have changed any of his statements over the past six years, this would have been it. I wish he had said something more like this: “It seems that at the moment, we cannot be friends. But by virtue of the incarnation, we are sisters and brothers. So we simply must keep coming to the Eucharistic table, no matter how much we dislike one another.”

While your appeal to community is a more progressive request, the Anglican Communion defines itself as an association of autonomous churches in full communion with the Church of England. Certainly the balance of autonomy and communion is a delicate one. That being said isn’t the fear of watering down the scripture reasonable? How much flexibility can it sustain before its authority is lost entirely?

A couple of clarifications: first, the status of the Church of England with respect to the rest of the Communion is being called into question. Some provinces—and most recently, the GAFCON meeting—have dropped any reference to Canterbury in their mission statements, claiming instead to be in full communion with those Anglican churches that adhere to orthodox teaching and practice. As I mention in the article, Archbishop Akinola of Nigeria has recently questioned the Church of England’s membership in the Anglican Communion. So part of the difficulty is that the center is not holding: there’s very little agreement at the moment on what it means to be Anglican in the first place.

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A similar problem is opening up around the role of Scripture. Unlike continentally derived Protestantism, Anglicans have never appealed to Scripture alone as a source of authority. Rather, scripture has always been read through the equally important lenses of reason and tradition. So the people who argue for the full inclusion of LGBT folks in the communion are not contesting the validity of scripture; to the contrary, they are interpreting scripture by means of contemporary biblical scholarship and the witness of LGBT people themselves. The case for biblical literalism falls apart the moment one considers the things that are prohibited, condoned, and required by various books of the Bible (let he who refuses to wear mixed fiber clothing cast the first stone).

Really, the problem isn’t “the authority of Scripture” at all. The problem is the authority of people. The Anglican Communion is caught in a struggle over who gets to tell whom what to do and how. The Roman Catholics don’t have this problem because it’s perfectly clear who gets to tell whom what to do and how. Uniformity is enforced by means of a single source of authority. But the Anglican Communion has never had a single source of authority, either in the form of a person or a text. So Anglican being-in-common, if such a thing is possible, would not be a matter of homogeneity, but rather of a kind of unity in and through difference. This is what I’m trying to argue.

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