The Ethics of the Communion

September 30, 2007

It occurred to me this morning that the broken ethics that surround the whole debacle in the Anglican Communion are just not getting the attention they deserve.

How can the Archbishop of Canterbury– the focal instrument of unity in the third largest Christian sect in the entire world– have a set of Christian ethics that does this:

Proposes a utilitarian scheme that weighs the “good” of continued relationship with other “like-minded” (although we really mean “similar in worship practices and historical tradition” more than “like-minded”) Christians against the “good” to be gained from holding to justice as as we in the Episcopal Church perceive it relative to our GLBT members?

Of course, if we were working strictly within the Episcopal Church I might have more sympathy for him.  Our polity is set up to make utilitarian debate productive.  We have a hard time in our polity doing anything but coming to a single binary outcome after carefully weighing two sets of polar opposite considerations.

But the Archbishop of Canterbury?  Especially one with his credentials?  Isn’t he supposed to know better?  I mean, come on.  I’m only a second year seminarian and the dangers of utilitarian ethics have already been pounded into my head.

Utilitarian ethics focus on the ends which justify the means; it seeks the most good for the most people in a systematic way (screw the rest).  They are typically opposed in ethical debate to “rule-based” or deontological ethics, where the means (the duty) are the most important no matter what the ends (like our friend the Rt. Rev. Peter Akinola, for whom homosexuality is evil because the Bible says so– it is divine rule; who cares whether it ends in a beautiful relationship).

The better Christian alternative is virtue ethics, where, when considering two alternatives, we are able to call all of that “good divine essence” that is given to us from the divine in our creation and hold up the virtue of Christ in our decision making.  Would Christ have forced a trade-off as ++Rowan did?  When did Christ ever say that “Communion” was more important than justice, or changing the dynamic of the power structure for the disenfranchised?  When did Christ ever prioritize the continuity of the religious establishment over justice?

Not that I am suggesting Communion is not a valid, noble and genuine virtue.  It is a necessary and important one.  But to say that it must come at a price of justice is to wield it as a stick.  Community is a support, not a punishment.  It is out of community that the Body of Christ is mobilized; that it is able to work in the world.  To use it solely as a vehicle for judgment within the Body of Christ is to warp its very nature.

It is no different then the father saying to the gay son when he comes out, “you have a choice– you can continue with what you believe to be your ‘gay identity’ or you can continue to be a part of a family.”

That is not virtue ethics.  That is not the role of the family in this case.  We must, if we truly believe everything else we said in the statement, stand up both for communion and for justice.  There is no saying from the father to the son, “well, your sister and mother are having some problems with your identity.  You sleep in the car until they decide to accept you.”

No.  If he did that, he would be making a utilitarian response weighing the needs of the rest of the family’s unity over the son’s identity.

A more appropriate response would be, “Go talk to your sister and your mother.  I love you all.”

The March statement of the House of Bishops came closer to that.

Last week’s statement is a little different from my “family” example, because the son really isn’t gay but has outed his gay… adopted brother or something.  And now the brother can stay in the house, but the adopted brother has to stay in the car while the brother says he’s truly welcome.  The analogy gets all twisted because of our weird Communion relational dynamics and the continuing drama of the power struggles between all of us.

The “separate but equal” compromise has left us with a position (whether temporary or not) that continues to leave GLBT people in a place where theology will be used as a basis for discrimination.  We know from experience that discrimination leads to hate, hate to violence, and violence to death.  There is just no reason for that.  We are still living with the pain of the Church’s slow response to slavery.  Just last year the General Convention finally voted to make reparation payments for its participation in that evil.  One wonders if General Convention 2104 will be discussing something similar for GLBT people because +++Rowan and our bishops chose a utilitarian “good of the communion” over the “good of justice.”

At any rate, it is clear that both ++Rowan and our bishops preferred an easier way out of their ethical process than even my first year ethics textbook would allow them.  There are all sorts of problems that stem from submitting to the quantification of good and prioritization of some goods over others.  That’s just not intentional Christian living, I don’t think.

As this article says, “The Archbishop of Canturbury will have a good night’s sleep.  The church is safe.”



14 Responses to “The Ethics of the Communion”

  1. FrMichael Says:

    I guess “admonish the sinner” isn’t part of the Episcopalian lexicon.

    To use your metaphor, the father shouldn’t point out to the son that his “gay” identity (I’m assuming that it’s “owned” by the son by way of homosexual activity) is wicked and unworthy of a son. The father should just go along accepting silently the wicked behavior.

    Ditto for a son with a drinking/drug problem. Or who is a thief, mugger, etc. Correcting evildoing isn’t “loving” in the TEC schema.

    This is virtue?

  2. Jeff Says:

    Fr Michael –

    You’ve got your facts wrong.

    The Archbishop of Canterbury did not present a choice of homosexuality as sin or not.

    He presented a choice of working for what we perceive as gay inclusion as a justice issue or inclusion in the communion.

    You brought sin in the issue, not him. The Episcopal Church already made its position known on homosexuality in To Set Our Hope on Christ. We clearly have a different position than you and that isn’t the problem here.


  3. FrMichael Says:

    “We clearly have a different position than you and that isn’t the problem here.”

    But it is the problem here, because the Anglican Communion has a similar position to the Catholic Church. And the Archbishop of Canterbury represents the unity of the Anglican Communion, not TEC.

    So his choice is between the large number of Anglicans worldwide who are faithful to the Gospel as Anglicans (as a whole) understand it, to a miniscule (albeit rich) TEC that has turned its back on the Communion-wide teaching.

  4. Jeff Says:

    Fr Michael –

    That just isn’t the way he stated his case at the House of Bishops meeting.

    He isn’t a pope. He doesn’t get to make a choice like you are asserting. His choice was how to present options in a way the US Bishops could hear. And he presented options in a utilitarian way. That is my point.

    The U.S. bishops had already made up their mind on the “sin” question and were not going backwards. +++Rowan made no proposal that they should.

    Again, check your facts and your Anglican polity.


  5. JOHN 2007 Says:

    “The Episcopal Church already made its position known on homosexuality in To Set Our Hope on Christ,” you write.

    Surely you jest. This in no way is endorsed by ECUSA but was, rather, an apologia–and not a very commendable one according to many, including the ABC–offered by one segment of our leadership.

    It surely wasn’t approved, say, by GC! (smurk)

    But we know facts and logic do not prevail on this webpage.

  6. Jeff Says:


    Please provide a quote and link to substantiate your claim that the ABC has ever said that “To Set Our Hope On Christ” is “not commendable.” Our theology is not confessional. Our theology is liturgical. We do, however, have resolutions which the communion asked us to explain theologically. Now you want to split hairs, so let’s do it. Since our polity allows members to come to a decision without agreeing on a theological perspective, To Set Our Hope on Christ is not confessional in the sense you seem to imply it should be. But I don’t think anybody but die-hard conservatives want that. Perhaps you want some sort of confessional theological statement ratified by GC, even if one that as a different theology than the document we are discussing. I don’t want to be confessional. I’m Anglican. Lex Orandi Lex Credendi.

    The Episcopal Church has made known, time and time again, that GLBT equality is its belief. I’m not interested in providing every single example, but here is one of many:

    Resolution A095 at GC06.

    For a fuller list (just of GC 2006), see here.

    We just don’t believe in the sinfulness of GLBT persons, which is the point I was getting at with Fr. Michael. In the grand scheme of this discussion, whether or not you think To Set Our Hope On Christ is official theology or not is just not relevant. In either case, the ABC just did not make an appeal to the House of Bishops about the “sinful-ness of homosexuality.” He knows that wasn’t the topic for the HOB to discuss. It wasn’t where they were– even if it is where you and Fr. Michael are.

    Now you and Fr. Michael may want to talk about sin from now until the cows come home, but this post is about ethics and choosing between two goods– the good of justice and the good of communion. There are plenty of other threads on here where sin and the goodness of GLBT people are the main topic of conversation. This is just not one of them. Now who is logical– the one who tries repeatedly to change the subject, or the moderator who repeatedly calls the audience back to task? John and Fr Michael, you are off task. This isn’t a “sin thread.” That’s my point. Find another thread (where it is relevant) if you want to talk about sin and I’m happy to do it. But the basic arguments of the post are about choosing between two goods, not between good and evil.

    Got it yet? Whew.

    I’ll leave your personal insults about logic and facts aside.

    Thanks very much for stopping by.


  7. JOHN 2007 Says:

    “Our theology is not confessional. Our theology is liturgical” Rubbish. Read, as a primer, The Integrity of Anglicanism. Or, just think about how silly it is to think that our BCP is not confessional. We say the Creed, we affirm truths about the atonement, incarnation, and so on (the kind of thing our last two PB’s should have paid more attention to). Anyhow, my point was that the document you refer to was not authorized by TEC as a whole and, as a matter of fact, AFTER the presentation of to Set Our Hope On Christ (which, you recall, uses ACTS 15 (!) which recounts the new unity of the church of Jew and Gentile with the condition that sexual behavior conform to biblical teaching, as the basis for allowing SSU and SSB’s) Rowan Williams said a sufficient rationale was not given and lamented in at least one published statement that we were very wrong to have acted without first setting out the basis for SSU and SSB and getting a consensus.

    I did not make a personal insult but an observation: you presented To Set Our Hope as a document endorsed by us or as representative of our Church. Sorry, it was not, and is not. It was a plea from some members of our church. Nothing less, but nothing more. So, I say, be truthful.

    Futher, the appeal to Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi is–like appeals to catholicity on some blogs as the basis for the sexual ethic affirmed here–a bit much. ‘That which has been prayed,’ sure hasn’t involved blessing SSU’s before or after Prosper of Acquitaine until very, very recently.

  8. FrMichael Says:

    j, I’m not in the Anglican conversation, just an interested observer.

    Nonetheless, while you and TEC see this situation as an unfortunate, indeed an unethical, choice between communion and justice, your opponents in the Anglican world don’t see it like that at all. They see your actions as a threat against both justice (by blessing unholy homosexual unions) and communion (by TEC’s unilateral disavowal of resolution 1.10).

    So the “dehumanizing” choice that Bishop Robinson decries isn’t even seen as such by your opponents. On the contrary, in their view they are promoting both justice and communion by disciplining a member church that has gone off the rails.

    Methinks the AC is in a world of hurt.

  9. Jeff Says:

    Fr Michael –

    I understand your point. But my point is different. Regardless of what our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the Communion think, they do not have any ecclesial authority to discipline a sister province.

    Again, it comes back to Anglican polity. They are either in relationship with us or they are not.

    And to use that as a threat– to use Communion as a stick for tearing down the body of Christ instead of as a support for building it up to do the work we are called to do– well that is just not relationship. That is coercion. That is codependent relationship. That isn’t healthy.

    And it’s not the topic of this post. The ABC knew full well that our bishops were not tolerant of such views, and also that they, at the same time, are mindful of what you describe as the world of hurt that is present in the Communion.

    What he is also aware of, that John and his camp ignore, is the world of hurt that the bishops see themselves as healing when they stand on the side of equality for GLBT people when there are so few else that will.

    The ABC’s role is not to take a position. The ABC’s role is to facilitate discussion and move the whole church forward. That is what he attempted to do– whether he believes we (GLBT people) are living in sin or not is irrelevant. His presentation to the HOB presented a choice of justice for GLBT people as seen by the HOB or Communion with our Anglican partners. That is what he said.

    That is why this presentation to the HOB was misguided. It was poor ethics– utilitarian ethics weighing the good of the few against the good of the many. Jesus never practiced such ethics. Those are the ethics of the high priest Caiphus: “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50).


  10. Jeff Says:

    John –

    You are using different language to say the same thing that I am about the Prayer Book. It is our confession, if you like that language. But we don’t go around amending it every time we pass a resolution to justify our theological position for the resolution we just passed, as some other denominations do to their confessions. That was my point. It seems that some would only be happy if ever decision made was grounded in a common theology. That just isn’t the way of the via media. It would be impossible for us to do so.

    Yes, Windsor and others were not happy that we did not start with a rite for SSUs first, and begin by gaining concensus for it around the Communion. We responded to that section of Windsor with To Set Our Hope on Christ. That is much different than saying the ABC is not happy with To Set Our Hope on Christ. My own opinion is that if it had not been this particular issue nobody would have cared about the Lambeth pronouncements– I bet we could find many that are not upheld in any given province. The Anglican Communion simply is not intended to be an authority with central jurisdiction. If they were arguing for the inclusion of GLBT equality you would, no doubt, be saying the same thing. We already see the schismatics begining to say that it has lost its focus and beginning to sever ties with it. Those folks are only interested in perpetuating homophobia and breaking with the church to gain their own power. They are not interested in dialogue and relationship, which is the foundation of the Anglican Communion.

    Your quote: “But we know facts and logic do not prevail on this webpage.” That was my referant when I was discussing personal insults. I hate this “quote”, “counterquote” business. It is so non-conversational. Maybe that’s why you feel like facts and logic are not my style. I’m very post-modern that way. But if by that you mean that I value relationship more than scientific fact and certitude, then you are correct. And that is the whole point of this thread.


  11. Jeff Says:

    A much more concise way to make several of my points, taken from the Joint Standing Committee of the Anglican Consultative Council’s report released yesterday:

    “We note that the 1998 Lambeth Conference articulated in Resolution 1.10 the widely accepted teaching for the Communion. Lambeth Conference Resolutions do not have “magisterial” force in the Anglican Communion; that is, they are not per se binding on the faithful of the Churches of the Anglican Communion.”


  12. FrMichael Says:

    Jeff, I agree with you that Anglican polity seems to have little ability to correct wayward provinces (“wayward” here signifying provinces that go off on a theological or ecclesial direction against the common teaching of the Communion. Thus the ineffectual DES statement against TEC’s innovations as well as the foreign encroachments in the US by certain African provinces.

    Like much else that is of English origin, the AC idea works (much like the British Commonwealth) if there is a basic concensus and a desire to be in relationship among the parties. Once that good will disappears, however, these ties quickly unravel.

    As I said, the AC is in a world of hurt.

  13. Jeff Says:

    Ah —

    Much different perspective.

    The will to be in relationship is the basis of the gospel.

    If we lose the will to be in relationship, we have lost the gospel.

    That is the premise of the AC. If that is used by any as a means for manipulation (Dar Es Salaam communique under the duress of the Archbishop of Nigeria), they are themselves abusing the relationship.


  14. […] I wrote here, nobody wins when we go fo the so-called “realist” view of looking to the ends and […]

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