Church in Crisis, Chapter Two: “The Care of the Churches”
In this chapter, O’Donovan sets out to clarify the ecclesiastical politics surrounding the gay controversy. This is especially important to those outside the Anglican Communion, who don’t understand the polity structure of the church, and who are thus at a loss to understand why recent events have proved so chaotic and difficult to resolve. He also lays down some principles for how to understand and pursue church unity. These, I think, are crucial for those of us in the hyper-schismatic Reformed tradition, who have, I think, very little ability to reflect critically on what church unity requires of us. Again, O’Donovan makes his argument so carefully and thoughtfully that it is difficult to disagree, though certainly questions arise at a few points.
First, O’Donovan clarifies the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is not anything like a Pope—his personal authority is more that of influence than command. His responsibility is not to resolve crises on his own, but to help coordinate and guide conciliar resolutions. The Anglican Communion has a very conciliar authority structure, and the current ABC, Rowan Williams, believes very strongly on using that approach, rather than attempting to solve the problem by forceful personal gestures.
This makes good sense, I think. If people are determined not to get along, you can’t force them to just by shouting—at best, you might just keep them quiet until you leave the room…more likely, you’ll just make everyone shout louder.
O’Donovan then attempts to articulate the paradox of church unity. On the one hand, the communion we have together in Christ depends on Christ, and not on ourselves: “To claim evangelical communion is a statement of faith in God’s gift of himself, a gift that cannot be proved empirically, but must be believed in and witnessed to.” (21) On the other hand, this communion must be witnessed to, and properly discerned, by institutional structures, structures “equipped to exercise judgment, to draw a line, where necessary, between true and false communion.” (21) In other words, the function of church structure is not so much to make and break communion, but to attempt, carefully and patiently, to discern and declare where it no longer exists. O’Donovan returns to this point later, so I shall leave it for now.
He makes the additional point that “evangelical communion is never merely synchronic; it is always also diachronic, involving a communion with past Christians in receiving from them the faith they have witnessed to and handing that faith on again to further generations.” (22) This is a point he makes primarily against the liberals—the structures of the Church must ensure that the Church is faithfully in communion not only with itself in the present-day, but also with its past. Of course this does not mean slavish devotion, but it does mean careful attention.
What all this means is, again, that the role of the Communion as a whole, and of the Archbishop in particular, is not primarily to make ringing declarations of excommunication, but to engage in patient discernment of whether and how certain churches are in communion with the Church: “The heart of the Archbishop’s role in the Communion is to give voice and effect to judgments the churches have reached about the work of the Spirit in their midst, to speak and act on behalf of their common mutual recognition.” (23)
This patient process no doubt seems rather glacial and frustrating to most evangelicals, but this is only because we have become so accustomed to the process of schism that it seems a rather straightforward affair, and because we live in denominations so small and homogenous that we cannot imagine the difficulties of trying to manage church crises on a scale like that of the Anglican Communion’s. And it is also important, in this fast-paced age, to get a bit of honest perspective—the crisis in the Anglican communion has only been going on for six years now, the serious debate for eleven years. That is not a lot of time to be making decisions about making or breaking communion on a global scale.
And above all, this kind of patience is necessary if church unity really is as critical and earnestly desirable as I think it is, Biblically. O’Donovan has more to say about the imperative to seek unity with the kind of forbearance and longsuffering that God Himself shows to his people, and we shall return to this soon.
Getting back to an account of how the crisis played out, O’Donovan sketches the conciliar position taken by the Windsor Conference in 2004, in which the North American churches were chastised and put on a kind of probation, while giving them time to discuss the issue more fully among themselves; meanwhile, the Communion as a whole tried to develop a clear policy for addressing the recent actions of the American churches. The result of the conference, he says, was to split a two-sided issue into a four-sided issue. Now there were anti-conciliar revisionists (those who wanted to revise the Church’s policy on homosexuality, no matter what the councils of the denomination said), conciliar revisionists (those who wanted to revise the policy, but working patiently through proper channels), anti-conciliar anti-revisionists (who wanted to maintain traditional Church policy, and traditional Church polity be damned), and conciliar anti-revisionists (who wanted to maintain traditional Church policy through the proper channels).
I should mention, of course, that almost everyone I’ve had contact with before has been in the third party, and this is the party with whom O’Donovan is most mystified: “The emergence of an antirevisionist strand of opinion that was cool, to say the least, about the conciliar process was, perhaps, most perplexing. With the North Americans on the back foot, it might have seemed that antirevisionist sentiment only had to cling tight to the conciliar project.” The main reason, O’Donovan suggests, “was a confidence in the immediacy of moral judgments, such as underlay, also, the development of liberal Christianity. Where there seems to be nothing to discuss, there can be no discussion.” (25) In other words, the evangelicals said, “It’s obvious homosexuality is wrong, so we’re not going to waste time sitting around discussing the issue.” But O’Donovan objects, predictably, “A process of moral reasoning is needed if we are to reach well-founded concrete moral judgments.” The evangelical response of self-assured moralizing, he suggests, is little better than the liberals’ self-assured moralizing which precipitated the crisis.
Now, this is where things get sticky, because, as O’Donovan himself admits here: “antirevisionist ‘discernment’ could claim, with much greater prima facie plausibility, to be in line with the unwavering testimony of Scripture.” (26) Well, yeah, that’s an understatement! What O’Donovan goes on to say will likely be frustrating to the evangelicals who are of the opinion that “We know what the Bible says, so just get on with it!” O’Donovan says, “It is enough to remark in passing that, on this side as on that, the immediacy of the insight tends to make the interpretation of Scripture seem superfluous. The contrast with the rather careful hermeneutic of scriptural teaching on divorce and remarriage is striking.” (26) Evangelicals at this point will protest that there’s an obvious difference—Scripture has complex and conflicted testimony on the issue of divorce and remarriage, while it does not on the homosexuality issue. And I would have to agree that O’Donovan should’ve chosen a better example.
However, I think O’Donovan’s main point here warrants attention—first of all, it’s always a good idea, however clear the conclusion seems to be, to take the time to interpret Scripture slowly. Second, if the evangelicals are so confident of what Scripture says, then why fear taking a little time?—the end result will vindicate their claims. Third, though, and most persuasive, I think, is the practical point. Even if we are 100% sure about Scripture’s teaching, do we violently force that judgment on everyone else and lose 75% of the Communion, or do we take a few years to talk through things and keep 75% of the Communion? On this basis, O’Donovan is quite right to rebuke the antirevisionist anticonciliarists. Again, we’re only six years into this mess…hardly enough time for people to throw in the towel and say “To hell with the Anglican Communion—I’ll just hang out with the Ugandans!”
Anyway, O’Donovan continues, “When the Windsor Report posed as the alternative to its own approach, that ‘we shall have to begin to learn to walk apart,’ it clearly did not mean this as a choiceworthy alternative, one that the church of Jesus Christ could opt for with integrity. It was to be viewed as a horizon of total failure. Unhappily, it seems to have underestimated the capacity of Anglicans to think the unthinkable.” (28-29) Yes, unhappily indeed. Such wholesale schism as was now being contemplated by both liberals and conservatives was a suicidal alternative, for “the Anglican identity is constituted by its particular communities, and cannot survive a decisive breach in them. Even if we were to accept this as the price to be paid for a purer church, however, there is a more profound obstacle.” (30) This latter obstacle, he says, is that the schism, due to the fourfold division of opinion, could not occur on straightforward homosexual/anti-homosexual lines. Many evangelicals would stay in TEC, not desiring schism; conservative Anglo-Catholics would go to Rome or the East, preferring that to joining with the schismatic evangelicals, etc. “The idea of a united antirevisionist Anglican church is as fantastic as the idea of an amicable parting of the ways.” (30)
Now O’Donovan addresses the difficult question, to which everyone desires an answer: “what grounds justify a deliberate breach in communion within the church?” This question leads us into a paradox: “On the one hand, we are never justified in breaking communion within the church of Jesus Christ, for schism is sin; on the other hand, communion implies and requires fundamental agreement in the gospel….So unity in the truth turns out to be a commitment that may pull us in opposite directions to opposite conclusions: there is no communion-breaking moral disagreement, on the one hand; on the other, any disagreement is potentially communion-breaking.” (30) What is at least clear, though, is that you cannot draw an arbitrary line in the sand and say, “OK, now that this line is crossed, we must split”—as O’Donovan says, “The one answer we cannot find is the answer we set out to find: this, rather than that, is the specific cause that will justify a breach.” (31)
I think I am with O’Donovan on all this. Certainly, the experience of denominations that I have known is that, once the habit has been established of drawing a line in the sand, it becomes easy to do it over and over again, for increasingly arbitrary reasons. The only breach that justifies schism is the one that proves completely irreparable.
So here is how O’Donovan assays to resolve the dilemma—“one can address the disagreement. Communion should not be broken, but that does not mean disagreements can be ignored. There are ways of addressing serious disagreements that affirm and renew communion by proven willingness and determination to resolve them. And the very attempt to reach a resolution transforms our experience of the disagreement. Disagreements are no more unnegotiable natural forces than deliverances of the mistaken conscience are. They are openings for those who share a common faith to explore and resolve important tensions within the context of communion.” (32)
This “solution” can seem maddeningly naïve, or else compromised from the outset. “Address the disagreement”?! But that’s precisely what is impossible in this case! “Explore and resolve important tensions”?! How can we, when we can no longer even appeal to the fundamentals of the gospel for unity? When we disagree over everything, how can we attempt to address the disagreement? These questions will immediately arise from evangelicals, who will also feel like they are being asked to relinquish the force of their convictions from the outset—“You’re saying that I need to adopt a ‘Who knows?’ standpoint, instead of sticking by my convictions.” O’Donovan anticipates this objection, and his response is masterful, and must be quoted in full:
“This kind of proposal, is, of course, easy to mishear. It can be taken to mean that parties to disagreements must be less than wholly convinced of their position, ready to make room for possible accommodation. When really serious issues are at stake and talk of a status stantis aut cadentis ecclesiae begins to rumble like thunder, urging the search for resolution can seem like an invitation to capitulate, to concede essential points before beginning. It can seem as though Scripture is deemed to be inconclusive and ambiguous, so that either side is free to concede the possible right of the other’s interpretation. It can seem as though what is needed is an indefinite irresolution about everything important, in which there is no need for, and no possibility of, a decisive closure. But that is all a trick of the light. None of this is implied in the search for agreement. The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape—a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views I now hold, but which may also be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how. I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced. The only thing I have to think—and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject!—is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.” (32-33)
This is a convincing account of what the search for agreement amidst seemingly intractable disagreement, and why it is a challenge that no man of honour should decline. O’Donovan recognizes that this search may in the end fail, and “God may in his judgment scatter a church…and there may come a point at which this situation has to be given some kind of institutional expression.” However, such institutional expression “must be a declaration, a formal statement of what has obviously come to pass. It cannot be an act to produce a result.” This declaration must be made after much patience and forbearance, however, because it must be willing to “wait for God to purify his own church in his own time.” (33) O’Donovan concludes, “The only justified breach is the one we have taken every possible step to avert, the one that lies on the far side of every conciliar process that can be devised.” (34)
This is a hard counsel to accept, and yet, it is hard to contest. Schism is not simply a straightforward matter of church discipline. Even in local church discipline, while it may prove necessary to cut off a member for the health of the body, to hand over to Satan those who have repudiated God, this should be done after great patience and deliberation. How much graver a matter it is to contemplate the cutting off of thousands, or millions of members! And again, in the current crisis, many evangelicals are taking that fateful step after six years or less. Some may object that the current crisis has been a long time coming, and the liberal churches have been driving off the cliff for a long time. But God can purify and revive liberal and apostate churches! He has done so before, and can do so again. We must not lack faith and hastily take matters into our own hands.