Responding to the American House of Bishops - Archbishop Peter Jensen

Archbishop Peter Jensen, Archbishop of Sydney

We have heard three weighty defences of the Joint Standing Committee’s response to the American House of Bishops’ Statement – from the Primate, from Canon Kearon, from Mr Fordham. These are men we trust as first-hand participants in the making of these documents.

However, as Proverbs 18:17 says: ‘The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.’ My difficulty with the Primate’s summary is that it omitted to account for the many and strong voices on the other side of this debate. Thus, we already have a negative statement on behalf of thirteen African primates. Since we have been invited to join a political process, we need to hear the concerns of those equally weighty witnesses who believe that the House of Bishops has failed to give the assurances for which it was asked. The political forces which are understandably pushing this forward as a decisive reply by the Americans and one which will lead to an outbreak of peace, are bound to be frustrated.

These are complex issues. You can get a sense of what I am saying by reading both the whole of the HOB statement and Bishop Mouneer’s dissenting opinion. If it is true that the Americans have failed to deliver, you can see why this is the case. We are confronted with two great passions for a gospel. It is hardly an answer at all to the Primates: it’s really, passionately all about a gospel of inclusion. Most don’t regret what they have done – not for a moment. This is a missionary faith. Far from retreating, they hope that all will come to agree with them and they are making arrangements for this to happen.

Then read the pain and passion of Mouneer – who lives out the life of a Christian in Egypt and the Middle East, in places of difficulty such as we can only half imagine. Do you see why he is so impatient by his constant experience of what he must see as double-speech and fudging? He does not think that the Americans have given a straight answer at all. To him, the American position is the opposite of the Bible which gives him his faith. At its heart this is a contest over the authority and reading of scripture. It takes a brave person to think that the solemn, black-letter, Joint Committee document, is going to succeed in awarding all a prize and making all well again. The contest is too deep, the stakes are too high, and the events which have already occurred are too decisive. We are living in a new order.

Part of the distrust in the Communion at the moment is caused by the sense that we in the west have not been straight with our Communion partners, that we speak with deceptive lips. As I have listened to such significant Christian leaders as Orombi of Uganda and Mouneer of Egypt and Chew of Singapore, I have to say that they have reason to distrust us. We have said one thing and done another, not least in this whole business of the western sexual revolution. Now we are splitting hairs about words like ‘authorise’ and ‘public’ and ‘rite’. What Mouneer wants to know, I think, is whether American bishops have ceased permitting and encouraging the blessing of same sex unions in their diocese, by whatever method this may have come about. It seems clear to me from what has been said in the statement and afterwards that they have not.

The Primates specifically raise the question because of what they see as lack of clarity in American responses. They say that ‘At the heart of our tensions is the belief that The Episcopal Church has departed from the standard of teaching on human sexuality…by permitting Rites of Blessing for same-sex unions (Dar,17). They know that the General Convention has not made any provision for this practice, but they ‘believe that there is a lack of clarity…an inconsistency between the position of general Convention and local pastoral provision…we understand that local pastoral position is made in some places for such blessings. It is the ambiguous stance of The Episcopal Church which causes concern among us.’ (Dar, 21)

They knew already that there was no authorised provision for this practice, but there was talk of much local permitted liturgical blessings. This was the point also made by a special Committee of the Joint Standing Committee; ‘it is clear that the authorisation by any one bishop, diocese or Province, of any public Rite of blessing, or permission to develop or use such a rite, would go against the standard of teaching…’ (JSC,4). It is not the fact of permission giving as such, which I suppose all wise bishops do about a range of things. It is what is permitted.

You have Mouneer’s response to the House of Bishops. He is clearly exasperated by the American reply. Like our Primate, he attended. Unfortunately, tragically, his dissenting voice was not incorporated into the document. It came out afterwards. Archbishop Orombi declined even to attend: he thought that the whole process was flawed to start with. It was not what the Primates had wanted when they asked their questions.

How has the verdict of the Joint Standing Committee been received around the world? The Church of England Evangelical Council headed by Bishop Benn has dissented from it. Those American Bishops and Dioceses who have been planning to leave The Episcopal Church have not been stopped in their tracks. A large group of African Primates – representative of the people who posed the questions – have said, ‘on first reading we find it to be unsatisfactory. The assurances made are without credibility and its preparation is severely compromised by numerous conflicts of interest. The report itself appears to be a determined effort to find a way for the full inclusion of The Episcopal Church with no attempt at discipline or change from their prior position.’

Why this dissent from the Joint Committee? It would of course be best to have the whole Dar es Salaam communiqué, but, failing that, here are the two questions which were put to the Americans for an answer by September 30th:
‘In particular, the Primates request, through the Presiding Bishop, that the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church
1.make an unequivocal common covenant that the bishops will not authorise any Rite of Blessing for same-sex unions in their diocese or through General Convention (cf TWR, 143, 144); and
2. confirm that the passing of Resolution B033 of the 75th General Convention means that a candidate for episcopal orders living in a same-sex union shall not receive the necessary consent (cf TWR, 134;
Unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the Communion (cf TWR, 134).’

We only have time to look at the response to the first request. The wording of the reply certainly does not give the assurance that is sought. The Americans were asked to restrain General Convention from authorising a Rite of Blessing; they could do this, I am told, by exercising what amounts to a veto; but they undertake only to refrain ‘until General Convention takes further action’, a different proposition altogether. In fact the Primates used, and stressed the word unless, the Bishops replied with ‘until’. The difference tells us a something about the enthusiasm of many Americans to see these developments agreed to. In short the different heart of the Americans and the different heart of their critics is not going to understand these words in the same way even if they were not ambiguous. This is not black-letter dispute over words.

The Primates already knew that no rite has been approved as yet by General Convention; the Americans observe that the majority of bishops ‘do not make allowance for the blessing of same sex unions.’ But that concedes the very point at issue. This is a practice allowed by some Bishops at least; perhaps many. The consequence is, then, if I understand the situation correctly, at least one American Bishop, though a believer in same-sex blessings, has now forbidden them occurring. He understood that even permitting them was not an option. But they will still occur elsewhere. Thus Bishop Chane of Washington is reported in Washington Window, his own newspaper, as saying, that, ’the Diocese of Washington does not have an authorised rite for blessing same-sex relationships. However, he added that the statement passed by the bishops will allow for such blessings to continue in the Diocese.’

And here are the honest reflections of Bishop Gene Robinson on what has occurred. ‘Let me also state strongly that the Joint Standing Committee of the ACC and the Primates misunderstood us when they stated that the HOB in fact “declared a moratorium on all such public Rites.” Neither in our discussions nor in our statement did we agree to or declare such a moratorium on permitting such rites to take place. That may be true in many or most dioceses, but that is certainly not the case in my own diocese and many others. The General Convention has stated that such rites are indeed to be considered within the bounds of the pastoral ministry of this Church to its gay and lesbian members, and that remains the policy of The Episcopal Church.’

I believe that this is what Canon Kearon was referring to when he spoke of the need for some episcopalian bishops to consider their position in the Communion. It already dents the modified rapture of the Joint Committee in saying, ‘The Communion should move towards closure on these matters, at least for the time being,’ It certainly justifies the response of Bishop Mouneer and others. The matter is not resolved.

But none of this is surprising. In the end, the matters at stake are theological, not legal; about the heart, not mere politics. Integral to the discussion is the authority and interpretation of the Bible. Scripture is the way in which God rules his church and we as Anglicans are committed to listening to scripture with unique attentiveness. We have learned from the American experience that the matter of human sexuality is never going to be regarded as a minor one. It goes to the heart of our humanity and God’s authority. I am sure that the American response was well-intentionsed. But it has not yet healed the rift which opened as a result of their actions in 2003, because those actions arose from a way of looking at the world which most in the Communion believe to be unbiblical.

9 Responses. Comments closed for this entry.

  1. Father Ron Smith Says:

    Fortunatel;y for the Church in Australia, and for the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Jensen represents only a small minority of Australian Anglicans when he sides with the Global South on issues of Church polity with the Communion.

    The Australian Primate, Archbishop Philip Aspinal, has accepted, on behalf of the majority of Australian Anglicans - bishops, priest and laity - the decision of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Joint Standing Committee of the Anglican Consultative Council that the House of Bishops of TEC has complied with the legal requirements of the Tanzania Communique from the Primates. To issue statements which undermine that position is to demonstrate Mr Jensen’s profound disregard for Anglican polity.

  2. the Revd Norman V. Beale Says:

    Fortunately for the vast majority of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Jensen speaks for most of us and thereby justly and appropriately represents most global Anglicans when he sides with the Global South on issues of Church polity with the Communion.

    Any regard we have of polity must always first be subordinated to the will of God as revealed in Holy Scripture.  The word of God is never contradicted by the Spirit of God. Time will tell which direction shall be blessed by God and indeed, has the leading of the Holy Spirit.

  3. Rick Arllen Says:

    So, “Father Ron,” (and we both know you really are Father Guido Sarducci, late of Saturday Night Live, the psuedo-priest who offered his late-night audience the same bilge you pump here) polity (peace and blessings be upon it) is the main thing we need to keep in focus. Could be that the Australian Primate is just as theologically compromised as you. This set of false beliefs heralded by Aspinal, et. al. under the banner of polity is a sure path to a bad end.

  4. Father Ron Smith Says:

    Perhaps Mr Arlen (above posting) should get back to his moronic TV schedule and leave serious theology to the theologians. His constant, and tiresome reference to his favourite pop-preacher -someone he calls Fr. Guido Sardonica(?) - shows evidence of some sort of psychpathic dependence syndrome. I could recommend a psycho-therapist - but not one obsessed with religious complexes.

  5. Fr Mark Says:

    Well, I suppose Abp Jensen’s comments are in keeping with the level of his recent “women can’t be bishops because their place is in the home” interview. Is this man really fit to be an archbishop of a diverse modern first-world city? He can’t exactly be connecting well with the wider society in Sydney, can he?

  6. Father Ron Smith Says:

    Isn’t Mr Jensen near retirement age? If not, can he be pensioned off early. His thinking is definitely 19th century. Perhaps a parish in Wagga Wagga might suit him; or perhaps even in Nigeria?

  7. Rick Arllen Says:

    Father Guido, it appears you “real” theologians are much more interested in leading the sheep to slaughter than salvation. So I’ll just continue to regard you for the fraud you are.

  8. Father Ron Smith Says:

    The Archbishop of Sydney has captured the heasdlines again today (Church Times, UK, 7/12/07) by his statement of opposition to the Autralian Provincial acceptance of the fact that women may now be ordained bishops.

    Does this not show his reluctance to go along with the majority of the Primates on this issue?
    What sort of leadership does this represent in the Anglican Church in Australia?