Monday, 7 January 2013

GAFCON, the CofE and civil partnerships

The statement issued by GAFCON chair ++Eliud Wabukala on the recent decision by the CofE House of Bishops regarding the episcopate and civil partnerships raises a number of significant questions about how GAFCON envisages discipleship for Christians with same-sex orientation and how it understands the Church's mission in post-Christian societies of the West.

The statement contends that the decision was driven by a desire to "compromise with the secular preoccupations of the West".  Perhaps the Independent's editorial provides the best response to this suggestion:

It is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry at the latest Houdini-like attempt by the Church of England to extricate itself from the mess it has created over gay sexuality.

An Observer columnist was somewhat more sarcastic:

The Church of England has decreed that gay clergy in civil partnerships can become bishops but only if they are celibate. Is this a long-lost Monty Python sketch?

So, no - the very idea that CofE bishops came to this decision in order to placate secular opinion is ridiculous.  If the GAFCON leadership believes that recognition of abstinent, same-sex relationships reflects "secular preoccupations", it would seem to be radically out-of-touch with the social and cultural context facing the mission of the Church in the West.

What then of GAFCON's understanding of patterns of discipleship for Christians with same-sex orientation?  In a painful, condescending phrase, the statement refers to the exercise of abstinence in civil partnerships - and, we may assume, any same-sex partnership - as "a flimsy proviso".  It seems that even abstinent same-sex partnerships are now unacceptable to GAFCON.  It seems that Christians with same-sex orientation are to be regarded as intrinsically called to the solitary life.

This appears to be made all the more apparent with the statement's declaration that "for the health and well being of both church and society we must promote this great God given gift of marriage without compromise and ambiguity".  The sacramentality of marriage, however, has existed within the Church's life alongside other vocations - for example, the vocations to celibacy and to monastic community.  In the entire GAFCON statement, however, there is no attempt to address the question of what the Church's moral teaching and understanding of vocation might mean for the discipleship of Christians with same-sex orientation.

This brings us to Lambeth 1.10.  According to the statement:

It cannot be right that they are able to enter into legally recognised relationships which institutionalise and condone behaviour that is completely contrary to the clear and historic teaching of Scripture, as reaffirmed for Anglicans by the 1998 Lambeth Conference in its Resolution 1.10.

To begin with, GAFCON's invocation of 1.10 is not without irony.  1.10 (d) requires Anglicans "to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals".  This has not stopped ++Stanley Ntagali pledging "to work towards reviving believers' commitment to God as a way of helping the country fight the rampant evils such as defilement, homosexuality, child sacrifice and domestic violence".

There is a tension within 1.10.  On the one hand, it "cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions" (1.10 (e)).  On the other, it recognises that Christians with same-sex orientation seek the "moral direction of the Church ... [for] the ordering of relationships" (1.10 (c)).  Furthermore, the Subsection on Human Sexuality "commended" by 1.10 states:

Churches need to find effective ways of encouraging Christ-like living, as well as providing opportunities for the flourishing of friendship, and the building of supportive community life.

So is an understanding of abstinent civil partnerships as providing a context "for the flourishing of friendship, and the building of supportive community life" consistent with 1.10?  Considering that the reference in 1.10 (e) to not "legitimising ... same-sex unions" follows the declaration in (d) that "homosexual practice [is] incompatible with Scripture", a case can be made that abstinent, same-sex unions are not addressed in (e). From this perspective, the decision by the CofE House of Bishops is compatible with 1.10.

Thus, even within the confines of 1.10, and without consideration of further development in Anglican moral teaching, there is space for a positive assessment of abstinent civil partnerships which accords with the demands of the episcopal vocation.

Perhaps more significantly than this is what remains lacking in the GAFCON response: any attempt to meaningfully, positively, "pastorally and sensitively" address what patterns of discipleship the Church should encourage amongst Christians with same-sex orientation.  As Oliver O'Donovan states in A Conversation Waiting to Begin, a failure to do so hurts both gay Christians and the entire Church:

Gifts are given differentially to members of the body of Christ; vocations are distributed variously to serve the common mission.  Some are given in the form of special skills and abilities, some in the form of special opportunities, especially opportunities of special experience and suffering.  From the place of special responsibility in which the homosexual Christian may find him- or herself, we may hear a testimony to the way the world confronts our mission in our time, to its fragmented identities, its disjunctions of feeling, its cruelties, its dislocations and the peculiar possibilities of redemption that God has put at this heart.  The rest of us cannot do without this torchlight shone through the fog of the late modern world in which we, too, must grope our way.

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